People are always saying they wish they could “let go.” “I have to let go of this anger.” “I have to let go of what’s happened in the past.” It makes sense. Hanging on can be toxic. But in practice letting go isn’t that easy.
Our minds are constantly churning out thoughts about what’s happening now or what will happen in the future. We feel uplifted or down based on our projections of the future or what kind of person we think we are. When things start getting unpleasant we might confide in a friend, have a drink, or turn on the T.V. and zone out for a while. There’s a place for distraction as a way of coping, but it does leave us at a disadvantage when it comes to letting go because letting go starts with getting in touch with what’s actually happening.
When you pick up a hot pan off of the stove you feel the heat and you automatically drop it. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t need to make a pros and cons list before you act. You just do it. In the moment right before you release the pan you know what you need to do because something important happens, you get in touch with what’s happening, you feel the pain.
Just as we have a nervous system that helps us avoid a severe burn, we also possess an intelligence of the mind that tells us when to let go of what could burn us mentally or emotionally. The more we pay attention mindfully, the more obvious what we need to do becomes. But what often happens instead is that we want to run away. We want to feel better NOW. Because the act of turning toward what’s actually happening begins the process of liberation from it, the following simple practice can help you give yourself an opportunity to let go.
- Sit somewhere quiet and focus on your breath for a few minutes.
- Acknowledge how you feel. Try to greet your feeling with openness. Tell yourself it’s not wrong to feel this way.
- Explore your feelings for a few minutes. What are they really like? How do they reveal themselves in your body? What are their characteristics? Whenever your mind wanders, just come back to learning more about how you are feeling.
- Come back to focusing on your breath. Has anything changed for you?
My students routinely tell me that to their surprise, their negative feelings soften or dissipate when they do this kind of mindfulness exercise. It’s best to try this with mild or moderate feelings in the beginning, rather than with something overwhelming. You are simply allowing how you feel to be brought into the light and experienced. With this practice you will get better at recognizing what is happening in your mind and come to better understand what letting go feels like. When you learned to jump rope or hit a baseball as child you needed time to acquire those new skills, but eventually they became more automatic. The same is true of mental skills like letting go. Over time letting go becomes more natural and sometimes even easy.