The beauty of letting go

There’s a quote that does the rounds of social media in Autumn. It has a few variations, and is ascribed to several people, but the gist is this:

“The leaves are about to show us how beautiful it is to let go”.

As a society, we invest a lot of energy into teaching people how to strive, grasp and attain. We pay less attention to understanding how to let go.

Learning when to hold on and when to let go is a practice that can free us from a great deal of suffering. If we look at what causes us pain (the situations, people or thoughts), we can usually identify clinging in every instance. We have an idea of how life ‘should’ be, and we grip that idea tightly. We grip our idea of happiness, and blind ourselves to the conditions for happiness that are already here. We grip our idea of how someone else should be, and spend years dissatisfied with them. We grip notions about what we’re owed, how the past should have played out. We feel cheated when an imagined future goes up in a puff of smoke – and we can grip that forever. Kierkegaard recognised this when he said, "The most painful state of being is remembering the future".

When it suits us, we’re comfortable with life’s constant momentum and change. Adults delight as children grow and develop. As teenagers, we love the idea that we’re going to get older and more independent. But then we reach a point where we no longer welcome change. We want things to stay the same: our bodies, relationships, jobs, even the season of the year. We tighten against the ever-moving life in and around us. We flinch against change, perceiving it as constant loss. The fluidity that we once celebrated is now our enemy.

So how can we relax in this ever-changing world? Is it possible to enjoy this moment, even though we know it will not last?

Not only is it possible, the awareness that the moment is transitory can make it even more precious.

When we look deeply into the impermanence of this creation, we understand that everything is always arising and falling, and that nothing is lost. A wave is born and crests and dies, and all the time that wave is searching to know what water is. By looking deeply into impermanence, we can rest in knowing that there is nowhere to go; nothing to hold tightly. We are already water. When we know this – not in an intellectual way, but feel-know it in our bones, it sets us free.

Expanding our awareness wider than our own suffering can also help. Widening our perspective to take in the desires and concerns of people around us; the suffering and joys of animals; the tenacity with which dandelions push up through pavements – all life is striving to thrive. We are part of something so much more expansive than simply us. All we need to do is be with it.

It takes energy, to grasp or to resist. In letting go, we release effort. We succumb to this moment, to stillness. We succumb to the peace and calm that is always here, waiting for us. We open to our innate kindness.

And, as John O’Donohue says, “the air will be kind / And blushed with beginning."

I have three suggested practices below for you.

Three ways to let go

  1. breathing out With this practice, we focus our attention on the out-breath, rather than on our whole breath. We allow our in-breath to arise, and then we choose to be fully awake in our out-breath. As the air releases, we may also sense a release of muscle, tension and effort.

  2. releasing This simple practice helps our body notice when we let go. There are many time when we are releasing a weight: putting down a cup of tea; pushing a door handle and then letting go of the pressure; setting down a bag; sitting our physical body down. Let yourself sense the lightening of the load, however small a change it is. Our minds and bodies inter-are: we practice with a mug so that in time, we can practice as effectively with a destructive thought.

  3. soak in a poem A few lines of a poem can help to short-circuit our habitual thinking. I often begin my sit with these lines, and when I am walking and notice that I’m a little distracted, I repeat this until I soak into a wider, more awake presence.

May we learn to let go with ease and gratitude.

If you're interested in more practices on letting go, you can try out my online course winterlight:

You are the gardener

I remember one Spring morning, I woke in a low-energy, ‘yeah, whatever’ kind of mood. The day didn’t feel bright; I didn’t feel particularly zingy; my cat wasn’t particularly cute (and believe me, even on an average day, Dylan is cute as a button).

Not a great start.

I shlumped downstairs, put on coffee – no savouring the rich aroma of the grounds; no anticipatory joy as the machine started gurgling.

And then I pulled up the kitchen blind, and life changed. On the windowsill, my sweet pea seeds had sprouted during the night. So teeny, so tenacious, so nearly-fluorescent green. It was impossible not to smile wide at their little miraculous selves. My whole morning changed.

We contain multitudes

In my practice, we talk about every human being born with the same seeds: the seed of joy, fear, kindness, murderous rage. Each of us tends to be born with some seeds that are naturally strong: for some of us, generosity or joy is easily accessible; others may be quick to anger, or to feel the pull of despair - even as a young child.

But the thing to remember is that we have charge of the garden.

What all the research into neuroplasticity tells us is that where we repeatedly rest our attention becomes a habit and then a trait, which feels like our essential ‘nature’. So the sense of being an anxious person - that feeling of ‘this is just who I am’ - is actually not entirely true. It’s more accurate to say ‘anxiety is a well watered seed in me’.

And you can start to cut off its nutrition.

High-quality nutrition

Everything needs to be fed to survive. Every seed needs sufficient conditions to germinate: sun, water, nutritious soil – and time.

As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says:

The quality of your life depends on the seeds you water. If you plant tomato seeds in your gardens, tomatoes will grow. Just so, if you water a seed of peace in your mind, peace will grow. When the seeds of happiness in you are watered, you will become happy. When the seed of anger in you is watered, you will become angry. The seeds that are watered frequently are those that will grow strong.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

Over time, we come to understand how we are nourishing our seeds. With every thing we take in, we are eating constantly: every text message, document, programme, conversation, song, landscape, game, radio show. Everything in our environment is a source of nutrition: some are superfoods that nourish us, and some are highly toxic. Some leave us suspicious or isolated; others leave us warm and grateful.

Cultivating with care

With mindfulness, we learn to cultivate with care. A few years back, I started checking in on how I felt before I turned on the radio, and how I felt a few minutes later (spoiler: I was never happier for having listened to the radio).

With this awareness, we can have more care when we’re at risk. Whether it’s a conversation, a person, a thought or an environment, we know when we’re in a more toxic space and we can protect our sense of solidity and peace.

At the same time, we intentionally connect with our wholesome seeds, so that they can gain energy and strength. Those sweet pea seedlings shifted my mood because I'd nourished a sense of wonder for a long time, and so the seed popped up easily. We learn to savour the good stuff, so that when something like anxiety looms, we know that we are more than one emotion. And we can invoke other seeds to take care of us: mindfulness, patience, calm, acceptance, humour. We can conjure an entire garden around that seed of anxiety. It'll revert to its seed-state in time, and meanwhile, we are not alone.

You are the gardener. What are you growing?

Wishing you patience, wisdom and much joy in cultivating with care.