The attitude of Letting go is about freedom. We learn to continually free ourselves from anything that no longer serve us.
… and this a lot more than what we often realise. As an example, how often do we reinforce feelings of anger or frustration over something that happened in the past? What effects does this have on our lives?
Mindfulness is not about avoidance. It is about increasing awareness and integrating all aspects of our lives. Sometimes we need to listen and learn from the voice of regret. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves time to grieve. But we also need to know when something no longer serves us and recognise when it is time to move on. That is what the attitude of letting go is about. Without this ability, the past becomes a burden that we carry around, causing us to relive the same suffering over and over.
We hold on because we are afraid to let go. Perhaps we feel a certain righteousness, and we fear that if we let go of resentment, we will not have justice. Over time, we come to identify with these feelings, and we eventually forget that we are clenching the fist of our mind. It is as if we are holding on to a piece of burning coal with the intention of throwing it at someone – we are the ones getting burnt. We need to recognise that we have the freedom to release and let go.
Different flavors of holding on
How often do we cling to old ideas and beliefs even when they get in the way of growth and learning? It’s the same thing; they become part of our identity. We cling to them as if they somehow need to be defended, and we feel that letting go would mean a defeat. We fear losing a part of who we are. Unless we can allow ourselves to drop outdated paradigms and get out of our own ways, we cannot make room for growth.
“People would rather deny obvious truths than let go of a cherished belief”
– Ian McGilchrist
How often do we try to hold on to pleasure? We get attached to pleasant things and situations and we begin to grasp and hold on to them as if we could make them stay forever. But ask yourself; does this attachment make them more enjoyable? Does it make them stay longer? Letting go invites us to approach pleasure with openness. We can fully enjoy them while they last without being attached or depressed when they leave.
How often do we fixate on certain outcomes, stubbornly insisting that things happen according to our preferences? Does this make us flexible and joyful or rigid and resentful? How often do we live with the expectation that something in the future (status, money, another person, whatever it is) will make us happy? By doing this, we set conditions for our happiness, postponing it to the future. Again, I’m not saying we should avoid life goals or relationships – these things can bring deep meaning and joy. Letting go is about the recognition that fixating and clinging creates resistance that actually gets in the way of what we long for.
WHAT WE IGNORE
This is the key misunderstanding; we feel that if we let go, we cannot have what we want. Unless we hold on and strive, we will never get anywhere. In fact, the opposite is often the case. People who live with openness and the habit to let go are often highly effective.
So when we are talking about letting go, we are not talking about letting go of progress or letting go of our dreams. We are talking about letting go of our attachments. This goes all the way back to the core insight of the Buddha. In what is called the 4 noble truths, he identifies attachment as the root cause of suffering. We crave pleasure and escape discomfort, believing that happiness comes from the fulfilment of our desires. But this is not where we find true happiness. We all know this at some level, but we ignore it (ignorance, avidya). This ignorance is like clenching the fist of the mind, forgetting that we are holding a piece of burning coal.
LETTING GO = NON ADDICTION
Over time, the grasping turns into a habit. We keep up the behavior even when it no longer serves us. In this way, our attachments become a form of addiction (addiction can be defined as “continued use despite adverse consequences”). We hold on to destructive emotions, cling to beliefs, grasp after pleasure, fixate on outcomes despite negative consequences.
The attitude of letting go can serve as an antidote. It can be seen as a practice of non-addiction, of continually “unhooking” from attachment. And how do we do this? First, we need to understand the function of addiction. Let’s have a look “under the hood”:
The basic mechanics of addiction consists of three parts; “triggers”, “behaviors” and “rewards”. Something in our environment alerts us and causes us to act, and the action leads to a reward. This “brain program” is activated whether we encounter a predator (trigger –> fight/flight –> survival) or the experience hunger (trigger –> seek food –> satisfaction). It is a basic survival mechanism, which has worked well from an evolutionary perspective. But it can also work against us.
Let’s take the example of anxiety. When something in our environment triggers a feeling of anxiety, we look for ways of avoiding or easing the negative emotion, which leads to a feeling of relief. When we feel anxiety coming up (trigger), we may divert our attention and distract ourselves by pulling up our smartphone or eating something sweet (behavior), which cause us to temporarily forget about the anxiety and reduces the negative emotion (reward).
⏰ Trigger: the feeling of anxiety
👉 Behavior: repressing, suppressing, expressing or escaping the feeling
🏆 Reward: relief/ignorance
Over time, this creates a vicious cycle. We can no longer tolerate the trigger and we come to rely on the reward. We reinforce the behavior to the point where it becomes destructive. This is the beginning of an addiction.
The work of Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, suggests that we can hack our brains’ ancient reward system through mindfulness. His research findings show that curiosity and mindfulness beats willpower in overcoming destructive and addictive behavior.
Hacking the system
Often times, we try to fight our addictions using willpower. In a moment of inspiration, we set out to overcome destructive behavior using discipline and renunciation. The problem is that this rarely works for long. Willpower is a capacity that requires a lot of energy and easily gets exhausted. Most of us are also familiar with the feeling of shame and guilt that follows when we don’t live up to our ideal. So how does the process of letting go work?
Letting to can be used to hack this same, primal cognitive mechanism. It provides an effective alternative to using willpower in combating our desires. Going back to our example, something has triggered a feeling of anxiety. Rather than repressing, suppressing, expressing or escaping the feeling, we respond with curiosity. This is the key difference. The brilliance of this approach is that curiosity is naturally rewarding! (What does it feel like when you become curious?). Curiosity also affords the possibility to disengage from the original trigger of anxiety. We can investigate what is happening without reinforcing the cycle.
⏰ Trigger: the feeling of anxiety
👉 Behavior: curiosity, investigation and letting go
🏆 Reward: a sense of joy, strength and freedom from addiction
In other words, we can use the same circumstances to create a virtuous cycle that reinforces a behavior of letting go.
LETTING GO IS SIMPLE, NOT EASY
The practice of letting go is simple, but not easy. We don’t have to beat ourselves up because we are unable to let go of our attachments all at once. Letting go is not a decision. It comes as a result of seeing clearly. It is not something we do once, but something we practice over and over again.
We get a new chance every time we recognise that we are caught in the grip of our attachments. In fact, we get a new chance with every breath. Through meditation, we are reminded that we have to let the breath go in order for the next breath to take place. Each outbreath becomes a deep letting it go and a reminder of the freedom that follows. In fact, the sanskrit word Nirvana literally means to “blow out”.
“To hold your breath is to lose your breath.”
–Alan W. Watts
Each time we recognise that we are caught is a big achievement. Once we can turn this recognition into a trigger for curiosity, we can turn letting go into our default behavior and start creating a virtuous and rewarding cycle toward freedom.
The attitude of letting go is not unique to mindfulness or Buddhism (I recommend checking out “The Surrender experiment” and “Letting go“). In my estimation, these approaches all share the principle of curiosity – of turing toward, and fully allowing our feelings.
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