Letting Go

Some of the most important intentions that I've set for myself have been intentions for letting go. Letting go can be an incredibly difficult intention to manifest and like any good intention, it will often need to be reset over and over again.

As human beings, we are wired to cling to that which we find pleasurable and to push away that which we find unpleasant. Being creatures of habit, we also become conditioned over the course of our lives to automatically react to certain stimulus with clinging or pushing away patterns. This allows us to efficiently maximize the likelihood of pleasure, (the feeling tone associated with acquiring valued resources and satisfying needs) and minimize the likelihood of displeasure (the feeling tone associated with unmet needs and with encountering obstacles to valued resources). These feeling tones of pleasure and displeasure are an evolutionary function intended to motivate us in directions (approach or avoid) that increase our chances of survival and of passing along our genes...so it's good news that we have these automatic reactions. But because they happen automatically, they often remain outside of our awareness and drive us on auto-pilot into reactions that we may not otherwise consciously choose.

Our inclinations to hold onto or push away aspects of our experience (referred to in Buddhist Psychology as our attachments and aversions) may not always serve us. For instance, sometimes it is not within our control to hold onto something/someone that we really want to keep. Likewise, it is not always within our power to get rid of an unwanted experience, such as physical pain or illness. Our attachments to holding onto or getting rid of experiences that are outside of our control may actually only add to our suffering. If we can mindfully notice that we are participating in our own suffering, we can choose to let go of our attachments and instead discern the wisest response...the response that will lead in the direction of less suffering.

Another type of letting go that may benefit us, is the kind that unfolds from a recognition that we are repeating mental, emotional, or behavioral patterns, that at one time in our life may have truly been the most skillful, self-protective responses but which may no longer serve us best, given our current developmental capacities and present-day environments.  For instance, patterns of self-doubt and "people pleasing" behaviors may once have served to keep us emotionally and physically safe within a highly critical or reactive family environment...or patterns of explosive anger may have allowed us to assert boundaries that were otherwise regularly violated. We may have many alternative options available to us at this time that can more skillfully serve our well-being but we just keep defaulting to the conditioned response. This automatic, over-reliance on a particular pattern is an implicit memory...a felt sense that tells us that this is how to stay physically or emotionally safe.

Whether we are letting go of patterns which no longer serve us or letting go of efforts to control that which is outside of our control, we start by bringing a mindful awareness to our suffering. We become a witness to the inner process that is playing out and we non-judgmentally observe it as it unfolds.  We notice which responses fuel our suffering and which ones bring ease. As we do this, we will naturally begin to notice the presence of attachment (clinging to particular outcomes or conditions) or aversion (pushing away/inclinations to get rid of certain causes or conditions), and we can include what we notice there in our awareness of the nature of our suffering. Once we observe what contributes to our suffering, we can begin to consider what we wish to let go of or cultivate, and we can set the intention to do so.

I love to begin my intentions with the words "May I", as is done in Metta and loving kindness practices. I prefer this phrase to words like "I will" or "I vow" because for me, it evokes the sentiment of a sweet heartfelt wish for myself rather than an expectation. So, for instance, after noticing a wave of self-doubt and anxiety about a future outcome, observing how this manifests in my emotions, mind, and body, and recognizing how it contributes to my suffering, I might say to myself, "May I let go of self-doubt. May I let go of needing to know how it all turns out. May I trust in myself and in life's unfolding".

When we let go, we accept that reality is as it is. This does not mean that we become passive bystanders to our suffering or to the suffering of other beings, nor does it mean that we not try to impact change with wise action. Rather, by accepting reality as it is, we can more clearly see where it would be most beneficial to place our efforts.  We develop greater capacity to see what is within our control and what is not within our control.  In many cases, it may be that as we let go, we discover other difficult emotions, such as the grief of losses that we had been turning away from, or the fears of uncertainty. These are among the inevitable pains, inherent to being alive. We cannot opt out of loss or uncertainty. We can only choose how we wish to respond when these experiences arise.  Sometimes the wisest action we can take is to let go and to put our efforts toward tenderly holding our pain with a compassionate presence.


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