By Leo Babauta
One of the keys to living a life of calm and purpose is the art of letting go.
If youâ€™d like a more peaceful life, itâ€™s powerful to look at what disturbs that peace, and practice letting go of whatever youâ€™re holding onto thatâ€™s causing you anxiety and frustration.
If youâ€™d like a life of purposeful focus, itâ€™s powerful to examine what is standing in the way of that â€¦ and let go of whatever is blocking you.
Letting go can seem quite simple, but it isnâ€™t necessarily easy. We have attachments that we cling to quite tightly, and letting go of them is often something we donâ€™t want to do.
In this article, Iâ€™ll share the deeper part of the practice of letting go. Then Iâ€™ll talk about how you might practice.
The Heart of Letting Go
When we are clinging to something thatâ€™s causing us to resist purposeful action, or to have our calm disrupted â€¦ whatâ€™s causing that?
The cause is some kind of idea, concept, or narrative we have in our minds. Letâ€™s look at some examples:
- We often think itâ€™s something outside of us â€” that person over there did something that upsets me, frustrates me, annoys me. But the other person isnâ€™t the real cause â€” theyâ€™re just doing something. The real cause is that we have idea that they shouldnâ€™t be the way they are.
- Sometimes we think weâ€™re the problem â€” we shouldnâ€™t be so lazy, or undisciplined, or something like that. We blame ourselves, feel bad about ourselves, then try not to think about it. But what if the cause of our feeling bad is that we think we shouldnâ€™t be the way we are?
- If weâ€™re resisting doing something, we might think that the problem is with the task/activity weâ€™re resisting â€¦ or with ourselves for not being strong enough. But what if the cause of resistance is that we think the activity should feel some other way than it does?
You can see in these examples that Iâ€™m pointing to an idea that things should be different than they are. People will resist this â€¦ because they want things to be different than they are. They want change. And thatâ€™s understandable, we want to change what we donâ€™t like. But what if we accepted what things are like, and then created change from a different place â€” from wanting to create, to play, to love, to explore?
How to Let Go of Conceptions
All of this stems from having an idea of how things should be thatâ€™s different than how they are. To be clear, thereâ€™s nothing wrong with this idea â€” but it is just an idea. And to the extent that itâ€™s causing difficulties, we can see how it would be helpful to let it go.
Imagine that youâ€™re frustrated with or feeling bad about yourself, someone else, or a situation youâ€™re facing. Imagine that this frustration or feeling bad stems from an idea that things should be different than they are.
Now imagine letting go of that idea. Youâ€™re just left with the experience of this moment, just as it is.
Notice how freeing that can be. Itâ€™s not about letting someone â€œoff the hook,â€ or letting go of accountability or commitment to change. Itâ€™s about freeing ourselves from the attachment to an idea thatâ€™s causing some kind of suffering (frustration, resistance, feeling bad).
Weâ€™re freeing ourselves, by letting go of the idea weâ€™re holding onto.
The key realization is that the idea is just an idea. Itâ€™s not that itâ€™s wrong or bad, but itâ€™s a mental conception, rather than reality. We can use mental conceptions when theyâ€™re helpful, but let go of them if theyâ€™re not.
Our idea of other people, of ourselves, of any situation â€¦ is simply a mental conception. What if we could free ourselves in any moment by realizing that thereâ€™s a mental conception that weâ€™ve created that we donâ€™t need right now?
It can simply evaporate, if we let it. Our conception of how things should be can become cloudlike, looser, more open.
Try it right now: whatever you think you should be, whatever you think someone else is, is just a conception youâ€™ve created. Can you let it go in this moment, and see what youâ€™re left with?
How to Practice
OK, so how do we practice with all of this?
First, notice when thereâ€™s a difficulty: frustration, resistance, feeling bad about yourself, annoyance, anxiety. If you notice this, it gives you access to being able to practice with it.
Second, without needing to judge how youâ€™re feeling, could you simply be with it? For example, if youâ€™re feeling frustration, could you just let yourself feel the frustration as a physical experience in your body (as opposed to getting caught up in the narrative of frustration)? Give yourself compassion if you can. But there is nothing wrong with feeling what youâ€™re feeling. Often itâ€™s useful to simply let ourselves feel the emotion, rather than trying to fix it.
Third, if youâ€™d like to free yourself, you can let go of the mental conception thatâ€™s causing the difficulty. Itâ€™s usually an idea of how you think things should be. What if you could just let it evaporate, and let yourself be free? Play around with it.
Fourth, you might just experience the moment free of conception. Just pure experience. Is there something in this moment you can be curious about? Be grateful for? Can you feel the wonder of this moment?
Fifth, once youâ€™re free, you can take action if any is needed. For example, you can take on the task that youâ€™re resisting, once youâ€™re free of the idea that the task should feel different. Or you can have a conversation with someone, once youâ€™ve let go of your frustration with them. Being free doesnâ€™t mean we donâ€™t take action â€” we just do so from a different place.
Would you like to take on this freeing practice?