In traditional meditative practices, "letting go" (also called non-attachment) means coming to terms with the fact that both good things and bad things are a constant in our lives. Life is an accumulation of experiences, causes and conditions which are always shifting and changing forms. After all, one of the only things you can count on in life is change.
(More background on this yogic philosophy of constant change in The Message of the Gurus.)
When you’re suffering, you have two options for dealing with the difficult situation and emotions it brings up. You can either resist it and wish it to be another way, or you can accept your situation and change the way you feel about it. Letting go means letting life be by allowing tough feelings to arise, letting them deliver their message and then watching them be replaced by new feelings.
Here I'll explore more about the concept and practice of letting go, and how you can experience your personal freedom in learning to do so.
Letting Go and Accepting
In life, the more we try to control people and situations around us — to push, pull and force things to be as we’d like them to — the worse the situation usually gets. Through introspection, we come to realize that clinging to things we don’t want to give up usually only causes unnecessary suffering and unhappiness. What are we trying to let go of? Criticism, blaming, fear, competing, people-pleasing, anger, resentment, jealousy and shame are some of the most compelling items on the list.
(For more insight into these feelings, try The Tendencies of Feelings and How to Take Back Control of Your Emotional Responses.)
When we trust enough to let things come into our lives at the right time and let them go as they need to, we’re able to find more freedom, peace and comfort. As the saying goes, "When one door closes, another opens." Letting go and acceptance go hand-in-hand. With practice, it’s possible to accept ourselves and our lives for what they are, accept other people for who they are and maintain this attitude in each moment.
What Letting Go Is Not
To know why letting go is so important, it helps to understand what letting go isn't and what it won’t do for you. Letting go means practicing acceptance, forgiveness, open-mindedness, patience and remaining realistic throughout the process. But it doesn’t mean giving up or not trying at all. It doesn't mean feeling defeated or hopeless, or allowing others to mistreat you. Letting go is surrendering and being willing to consciously give up control because you realize that you never really had it in the first place.
(More on The Practice of Surrender.)
Why Letting Go Is So Hard
Ironically, it’s as hard to let go in life when we’re struggling as it is when we’re doing well. Sometimes we can’t let go of what’s familiar, even if it’s destructive or keeping us stuck. This is because change can be scary. We don’t like to throw ourselves into unknown territory because we think things might actually get worse. Bad habits persist because their outcomes are predictable. However, fear of change isn’t a good enough reason. It only keeps us feeling stuck, small, fearful and hopeless. Other times we have a hard time letting go when things are going really well. Clinging is common when we fear letting go of a percieved source of happiness.
The thing is, change and loss are both unavoidable. Seasons change, relationships end, people age and pass away, companies close, the money runs out and, over time, pleasures lose their ability to keep us happy and engaged. Pretending that we can hold on to material possessions, other people’s attention, power, prestige and youth is an illusion. (Learn more in Finding Happiness.)
Getting Over Clinging, Grasping or Pushing
Meditation is one of the best tools we can practice to learn surrender. It helps remind us to live our lives fully by savoring every moment. It builds our ability to accept the fact that moment-by-moment everything is changing and in flux. Nothing is permanent.
Bring to mind a difficult situation you’re experiencing and think about what you might be having a hard time letting go of. This might be easy and the situation obvious (you can’t forgive someone or get over the feeling of being let down), or it might take you by surprise. Investigate where in your body you’re tensing, grasping or remaining closed off.
(To help, you can learn to Discover Yourself Through a Body Scan Meditation.)
Can you identify which aspects of the situation are causing you the most suffering? Are you blaming yourself for past mistakes and can’t forgive yourself? Feeling anxious about what’s to come in the future? Are you blaming someone else for wrong-doings while failing to consider the conditions they were under? Disappointed because things haven’t unfolded like you expected?
Several helpful ideas you can introduce to your meditation practice include: contemplating the end of life and your own mortality, reflecting on causes and conditions, practicing unconditional acceptance and loving-kindness and reciting mantras which build your trust in the universe.
While it won’t happen overnight, you can learn to be accepting and compassionate with both yourself and others. With time, you can forgive yourself for whatever part you played in the past, as well as forgive anyone else involved. You can let go of fears and expectations about the future, overcoming people-pleasing and being brave enough to face uncertainty.
Make a Commitment to Letting Go
Letting go is a commitment to stay present in the face of whatever arises. Change and showing vulnerability can be frightening, but both are easier when you consistently take good care of yourself. It’s not easy to let go of expectations, forgive, embrace your own imperfections and experience disappointment.
Show yourself some love during the process of letting go: give yourself massages, take soothing baths, walk outside, spend time at the ocean, write in a journal, dance, run or do yoga. Practice mindfulness by staying open-minded; allow each moment to bring with it new feelings of hope. Take stock of what’s around you with fresh eyes. Remember that happiness comes from going with the natural flow of things, respecting the impermanence of all that life has to offer and embracing whatever unfolds.