This article is a practical exploration of holding on and letting go. Before reading any further, please find something to grip in your hand while you read. A pen, a spoon, a stone. Whatever you can find. Or, make a fist. Hold it tight enough to create sensation. You’ll receive further instructions later on.
Anything I say here is only a suggestion. I encourage you to challenge and to question what I share. Take what works and in keeping with the theme, let go of anything that doesn’t. Our practice is best used when applied to life so I encourage you to practice letting go as you read this.
Years ago I found myself going through a rough period. I had this conflicting and inconvenient intention of both wanting to get away from this thing and wanting to figure it out right away. These two things don’t work well together. My answer was to get on a plane and go as far away from the home as I could to a place where I could hopefully find some insight. So, I find myself in the middle of nowhere in a jungle in Burma for a while, sitting and hoping to find some teachings. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “wherever you go there you are”. All the things I wanted to get away from came with me to Burma. But I was somewhere else and I could find a way to hopefully look into them. If you ever heard of the experience of an intense Vippasana retreat you might know the first few days can be tough. That was true for me. The first few days were very, very uncomfortable. What I noticed in those first few days was all the ways in which I've been avoiding what I've been trying to face. So a lot of resistance. I didn’t want to do this thing and I felt shame. I was confused. I thought “I meditate, I should be able to figure this out”. It was hard having to sit with all my resistance and the absence of things I normally use to distract myself. Of which, I have a long list and I'm sure you have too. It took four or five days for me to eventually surrender to what I came to do. In Burma, I had to spend a lot of time seeing my avoidance. Seeing all the ways, and I had many, to not look at the intention of letting go. To not take the actions that that intention required. It wasn’t until I got really close to my resistance that I was able to understand what it was trying to tell me.
The challenge in letting go and the doorway that opens is to get really close to the parts of me that don’t want to let go. And to really get to know them. To really listen. The question I thought I was trying to answer was: Do I want to start a family with a person I was in love with? But actually the real question, the one I was avoiding was: Why am I not telling her, why am I not telling myself that I don’t want kids? You can replace that question with whatever you’re finding a challenge right now. The point is, letting go is about getting close to the ideas, the stories, family expectations, the fear, the resistance, the judgment. Only by getting close to all these things was I able to listen to what they were trying to telling me and to understand their message, and the needs they we’re trying to communicate. I used to think of letting go as an aggressive act: throw it away, reject, change, fix. It turned out to be more about listening to the parts of me that really need attention and to understand what they’re trying to tell me. And, through doing that falling in love with that process, which is challenging, but also very rewarding. In doing that, I was required to cultivate the compassion, the awareness, the discipline, the humor, the joy, the patience, that I needed to take action to open my hand. Which, in the end, was very simple.
Notice your hand. While you’re still holding your object, notice the tension in your fingers, palm, the back of your hand, or your forearm from gripping whatever you’re holding onto. You might notice warmth in your hand, moisture, maybe tension in your shoulders. Maybe an intention or an attitude around holding onto this object for so long. Noticing your body sensations the same way you notice your breath. Notice when they start, how they feel. Before I ask you to open your hand, notice your intention, or your anticipation that you’ll soon be opening your hand. It’s a choice you get to make. It’s a choice you get to engage with. Now as slowly as possible, gently open your hand. Very slowly. Noticing how your fingers change. Noticing how the tension may shift or release but also has some inertia. What happens as you open your hand? Did you put down the object? Is there a change in temperature in your open hand? What do you sense? Relief? Something else? An insight from doing this exercise that I came to: There’s one aspect of letting go that’s really simple - just like opening your hand. In my experience, choosing the intention to do so and then taking the actions that followed was simple. But, what happens when you don’t know what you’re holding on to? Or why you’re doing so? Or you’re afraid to let go. I find that letting go itself is as simple as opening my hand but what is challenging is meeting the parts of me that didn’t want to do that. And meeting my stories around doing so. The hard part is getting really close to the parts of me that don’t want to let go. To really get to know them. To really listen to them. Letting go itself is a very simple act when I choose my intention. And the challenge, the practice, for which I need support, and tools, and a community like ours, is to get close to the parts of me that are resisting the letting go.
This article is an excerpt from meditation teacher, Luis Gil’s community talk on Letting Go.
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