Cultivating the attitude of letting be and letting go or non-attachment is fundamental to the practice of mindfulness.
The Thai forest Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah invited his students: “If you let go a little, you ‘ll have a little peace, if you let go a lot, you’ll find a lot of peace, if you let go completely you’ll find absolute peace and tranquillity”
But our conditioning is to hold on to things: we hold on to our experiences, the way things are supposed to be, beliefs, material goods, our ideas of what we think life is about, who we think is right (usually us!)…. Sharon Salzberg writes in Real Love: “Letting go is the opposite of clinging to our hopes and ideas about how things should be and allowing them to be just as they are.”
While we would like things to be a certain way, the reality is that change is happening all the time, and we tend to struggle with it.
The meditation teacher James Baraz puts it this way: “Circumstances change, we change, things change and letting go of what we’re holding on to can be a great relief. It is also the road to happiness”
But letting go is not easy, and sometimes we are asked to let go of more than we think we can bear – our homes, our jobs, our loved ones… Losing what we love is painful however, holding on to what is already gone only adds to our pain.
Each one of us will go through significant changes several times during our lifetime, this is the way life is. And our meditation practice can help us to find composure and resilience in the midst of all the changes in our life. It helps us see that everything passes and that we can rest in the midst of change. Our meditation practice helps us to realise that we don’t have to control our experience, resist it or try and change it, we can just open and relax and let it be.
The poet Mary Oliver describes letting go as the task of living: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes, to let it go.”
In a deep way, what are we holding on to? Most fundamentally it is the illusion that we have control in a world of change. This is reinforced by the messages of our society, we spend a lot of money on creating security, making our homes safe, locking things up, making our technologies safe, in airports etc…But security is an illusion.
In Zen Buddhism, students are encouraged to develop the “don’t know mind”. “What is love? Don’t know. What is consciousness? Don’t know. What is going to happen tomorrow? Don’t know. Who are you? Don’t know.” It is a deep invitation to open to the mystery of this life, to accept that things are uncertain, and to learn to rest in this fundamental uncertainty and insecurity.
When the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron was a young woman, she turned to Buddhism because her life was in turmoil and she was going through a messy divorce. And she asked her teacher “I don’t know what to do, there are all these big changes happening in my life. What shall I do?” And he looked at her and said “They always happen, just relax.”
It’s like when we learn to swim, at the beginning we are so tense and scared of letting go in the water, we don’t know if we can float, and then we finally let go, we learn to relax and we float.
The process of letting go
In meditation circles we like to tell this story about how hunters are catching monkeys in India: they cut a hole in a coconut that is just big enough for a monkey to put its hand through. Then they will secure the coconut to the base of a tree. They slip a banana inside the coconut through the hole and hide. The monkey comes, puts his hand in, and takes hold of the banana. The hole is too small for the fist holding the banana to get out. All the monkey has to do to be free is to let go of the banana. Even as the monkey hears the humans coming and starts to panic, it holds on tightly to its prize. It seems most monkeys won’t let go.
We are like the monkeys, we find it hard to let go when we are grasping to something, and letting go is a process, sometimes all we can do is “let be”: not trying to get rid of the experience, but softening into a state of allowing. It is what we practice with the second wing of mindfulness, allowing our experience to be whatever it is, without trying to hold on to it, push it away or change it.
This allowing is made possible when the heart is open, we bring a loving presence to our experiences, without any added judgment. When we can allow and accept what is present to us in our life, it brings a felt sense of release in the body and the mind. We make space for our experience to be here, and we actually can feel more spacious, less contracted.
It is like opening a fist, letting go of the tension of grasping.
This process takes time and many rounds, and we need to cultivate patience within ourselves. As James Baraz writes in Awakening Joy : ”Like any other skill, the ability to let go develops over time. When you first begin, you may find that instead of feeling freer, you are battling previous habits that don’t want to give up”. For example, it can feel almost impossible to let go of fear, resentment, negativity or compulsive behaviour, especially if we have had these habits for a long time.
Slowly we learn to trust and relax and rest in loving awareness, trusting the process of life. As James Baraz puts it, “with this practice we are learning to swim with rather than against the current of life.”
Letting go during our practice
Mindfulness of body and mind teaches us to rest and relax in the midst of change– when we sit still and quieten our mind, we can watch our sensations in the body come and go, our feelings come and go, and our thoughts too, like bubbles, appearing and disappearing, without any substance.
We learn to be present with change.
Then we realise that there are certain inner experiences (sensations, emotions, thoughts) our mind wants to hold on to, and others that our mind wants to get rid of.
Our practice is to open and accept each experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant, without trying to grasp onto it or push it away. We are learning to let our experience be whatever it is. In this sense, letting go starts with letting things be, accepting the reality as it is.
As we practice, we might notice our mind grasping and pushing away, and we remind ourselves to let go of these impulses, and to see what happens.
When we notice that we are lost in a thought, maybe a judgment, or a thought about the past or the future, we practice letting go of the thought gently, pausing, and reconnecting with the reality of the present moment, resting in awareness itself.
And if we find ourselves holding on so strongly that we can’t let go, we can direct our attention to the holding on, clinging or grasping experience, noticing how it feels like in the body: contraction, tension, tightness. We notice how our attachments feel in our body, and the consequences of these attachments in our life. And when we eventually manage to let go, we can experience how letting go feels in our body and in our mind.
Jack Kornfield – The Wise Heart
Tara Brah – Radical Acceptance
James Baraz – Awakening Joy
Sharon Salzberg – Real Love