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What Does it Mean to Let Go?

One Mind Dharma Mindfulness 2 Comments

It’s a common piece of advice we hear from others or tell ourselves: “Let it go.” Whether it is a resentment, regret, person, possession, or experience, we find ourselves holding on to things long gone. We often know that letting go of something may be in our best interest, but we don’t exactly know how to actually do it. We push things away or avert often instead of truly letting things go.

Aversion and Ill-Will

It often happens that when we try to let something go, we end up pushing it away or resting in aversion. It is a bit counterintuitive,  but letting go doesn’t mean pushing away, ignoring, or even wishing for something to be gone. When we do these things we end up in aversion, one of the Three Unwholesome Roots, or the three major causes of suffering. Aversion is a mental state in which we are trying to rid ourselves of an unpleasant experience and unskillfully pushing something away. It may manifest in the form of denial, hatred, anger, or simply not liking the way we feel.

When working with letting go of things, it can be helpful to notice when aversion arises. When an unpleasant thought arises, the mind averts from it and we judge, try to focus our attention elsewhere, or we dwell in thoughts about how bad we want to let something go. When the mind falls into this aversive state, we don’t end up letting go. We often fall into cyclical thinking, ruminating or obsessing. Paradoxically, the tightness we create around something keeps us attached to it.

We can use our awareness to notice when aversion is present. When the thought, person, or feeling arises that you wish to let go of, what is your reaction? Do you gently notice it, or is the tendency to tighten around it? Try tuning in to the aversive response. Notice how it feels in the body, what the thought patterns look like, and how it feels. As you familiarize yourself with aversion, you will be able to notice it more easily as it arises in the future. What you do in this situation will dictate what happens the next time it arises. By noticing the aversion and allowing the experience to be, you can allow the unpleasantness to be there without pushing it away. As strange as it may seem, pushing something away actually hurts our efforts in letting things go, and allowing it space can allow it to have its movement through us.

Impermanence

In addition to noticing the aversive mind, we can notice the impermanence of whatever experience we are trying to let go of. Although it may feel like something isn’t changing or that it is staying with us, everything is impermanent. The thought or feeling comes and goes. It changes in quality. Even when it feels persistent, we can see the impermanence if we look closely.

You can make it a practice of yours to tune into impermanence. When whatever you are working on letting go of arises, bring your attention to it. If aversion arises, you can bring our attention to this as well. You may use the breath with this practice. Breathing in, bring awareness to the sensations of the body breathing. As you exhale, notice what is present in relation to whatever you wish to let go of. It could be a thought of something, a physical tightness, or an emotion. As you exhale, tune into what is present and give it a one word label. Labels may be something like: regret, anxiety, planning, tension, etc. Be honest with yourself. Whatever is present is okay! The practice here is to simply notice how it actually feels, not to judge. As you inhale and exhale again, notice what is present now. From moment to moment, we often find that experience is changing.

This practice of noticing the impermanence can help us to deconstruct our experience and see it more clearly. When we pay attention to the impermanent nature of our experience, we are able to let go and not identify with it. Letting go doesn’t mean pushing away in aversion. In order to let go of something, we must do so gently. We kindly and non-judgementally look at experience in order to see it as it actually is. When the aversion arises, we simply notice it. When we lose sight of the impermanent nature of experience, we return to this practice and notice how it is changing.

Letting go isn’t an immediate phenomenon. It is a process. Craving to let go and attaching to the idea that we will be happy once we let go of this one thing is harmful. We have to let it happen. Bring your awareness to the experience of aversion and impermanence. Bring your awareness to the craving to be rid of it. Letting go is a practice in allowing space for our experience.