Letting It Go
How much of our lives do we waste stewing about things we can't change? Or fuming, worrying, regretting, ruminating or sometimes avoiding? How much happier would we be if we could just learn to let go? Does Buddhist practice help us learn to let go?
Here's an example of letting go: There's a famous story about two traveling Buddhist monks who needed to cross a swift but shallow river. A pretty young woman stood on the bank nearby and also needed to cross, but she was afraid, and she asked for help. The two monks had taken vows to never touch a woman -- they must have been Theravada monks -- and one monk hesitated. But the other picked her up and carried her across the river, letting her down gently on the other side.
The two monks continued their journey in silence for some time. Then one blurted out, "You took vows to never touch a woman! How could you have picked her up like that?"
And the other said, "Brother, I set her down at least an hour ago. Why are you still carrying her?"
Letting Go Isn't Easy
I wish I could tell you there's a simple three-step formula for resetting your stewing mechanism, but there isn't. I can tell you that consistent practice of the Buddhist path will make letting go much easier, but this takes most of us a bit of time and effort.
Let's begin with some analysis. What we're talking about here is attachment. "Attachment" in the Buddhist sense is not about forming bonds of love and friendship. (And please be clear there's nothing wrong with forming bonds of love and friendship.) Buddhists often use "attachment" more in the sense of "clinging."
The root of attachment is the false believe in a separate self. This is a difficult teaching of Buddhism, I realize, but it's central to Buddhism. The Buddhist path is a process of recognizing the essential unreality of the self.
To say that the self is "unreal" is not the same thing as saying you don't exist. You exist, but not in the way you think you do. The Buddha taught that the ultimate cause of our unhappiness, of our dissatisfaction with life, is that we don't know who we are. We think "I" am something inside our skin, and what's out there is "everything else." But this, the Buddha said, is the terrible illusion that keeps us trapped in samsara. And then we cling to this and that because of our insecurities and unhappiness.
Fully appreciating the unreality of the separate, limited self is one description of enlightenment. And realizing enlightenment usually is more than a weekend project for most of us. But the good news is that even if you still lack perfect understanding -- which is true of nearly all of us -- Buddhist practice can still help you a lot with letting go.
Mindfulness Is Coming Home to Yourself
In Buddhism, mindfulness is more than just meditation. It's a whole body-and-mind awareness of the present moment.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I define mindfulness as the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment.”
Why is this important? It's important because mindfulness is the opposite of stewing, fuming, worrying, regretting, ruminating and avoiding. When you are lost in worry or stress, you are lost. Mindfulness is coming home to yourself.
Learning to maintain mindfulness for more than a few seconds at a time is an essential skill for a Buddhist. In most schools of Buddhism, learning this skill begins with a meditative breath focus. Become so focused on the experience of breathing that everything else falls away. Do this for a little while every day.
The Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, “In zazen [Zen meditation] practice we say your mind should be concentrated on your breathing, but the way to keep your mind on your breathing is to forget all about yourself and just to sit and feel your breathing.”
A big part of mindfulness is learning to not judge, either others or yourself. At first, you're going to be focused for a few seconds and then realize, a bit later, that you're actually worried about the Visa bill. This is normal. Just practice this a little every day, and eventually it gets easier.
Serenity, Courage, Wisdom
You might be familiar with the Serenity Prayer, authored by the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It goes,
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Buddhism has no teachings about the God of monotheism, but God aside, the basic philosophy expressed here is very much about letting go.
Mindfulness will, among other things, help you appreciate that whatever it is you are stewing, fuming, worrying, etc., is not real. Or, at least, it is not real right this minute. It is a ghost in your mind.
It may be that there was something bothering you that was real in the past. And it may very well be that something could happen in the future that you will find painful. But if those things are not happening right here and right now, then they are not real right here and right now. You are creating them. And when you are able to fully appreciate that, you can let them go.
Certainly if there is something you could be doing to make a situation better, you should do that. But if there is nothing you can do, then don't dwell in that situation. Breathe, and come home to yourself.
The Fruits of Practice
As your ability to maintain mindfulness becomes stronger, you will find that you can recognize that you are beginning to stew without getting lost in it. And then you can say "Okay, I'm stewing again." Just being fully aware of what you are feeling makes the "stewing" less intense.
I find that returning to a breath focus for a few moments causes the stress to break up and (usually) fall away. I have to stress, though, that for most of us this ability doesn't happen overnight. You may not notice a big difference right away, but if you stick with it, it really does help.
There's no such thing as a stress-free life, but mindfulness and learning to let things go keeps the stress from eating your life.
By Barbara O'Brien