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: