The Art of Letting Go
by Ruth King
The Fear of Letting Go
“If I let go, what can I be certain of? Where will I land? What will I gain?”
Oftentimes we’re afraid to let go because we want to avoid the feelings of disorientation and groundlessness that can arise in the process of it. And it makes sense. It’s our instinct to try to make sense out of things, to know where we’re landing and have that landing be safe. Deep letting go can bring us to a place where we may feel the groundlessness of our being. This can be very terrifying, so we hold on. But if we can move beyond the fear, we may see that these feelings are really the precursor to freedom.
The good news is that from this practice there are ways we can know what it feels like to “let go.” We can know for ourselves these moment to moment experiences of release that begin to build enough faith inside of you so that you can begin to trust yourself a little bit more.
The focus is not on what’s actually happening in our life, but on how we’re relating to what’s happening and our attachment to it– our attachment to not liking it or our attachment to wanting it to be different. That’s our form. That’s our suffering. So, the delusion is thinking we can hold on, when in fact, life and circumstances are changing all the time. When we cling, we solidify a self. When we solidify a self, we separate. When we separate, we suffer.
One of the things we want to look at is our view and how we’re holding that view in relation to life? There’s usually assumptions and expectations behind how we relate to anything. View is very powerful. It shapes and influences just about everything we do. When we begin to examine our view, we can do so through the lens of what the Buddha offers as the Four Noble Truths. And what Stephen Batchelor is calling, “The Four Ennobling Truths,” because they ennoble our lives.
The Four Noble Truths
The First Noble Truth states that in life, suffering exists. In this body, this sensing, this being, there is suffering. There is aging. Death. Birth. And the big one— not getting what you want. Life is always offering something, moment to moment. It just makes the offer. It’s so impersonal. So a simple inquiry could be, “Am I suffering right now? Is what’s happening now the experience of suffering?” When you are asking these questions, you are just seeing what’s happening in your experience with a gentle curiosity.
The Second Noble Truth is the truth of the cause of suffering. In the Buddha’s teachings, the cause of this suffering is clinging or holding tightly to what life offers, including our own ego or identity. We hold for a number of reasons, but fundamentally, I think, we hold onto things because we’re afraid of death in a profound and deep way. The inquiry here could be, “What am I clinging to? What is this clinging rooted in?” Meaning, is it rooted in greed, aversion or possibly delusion?
The Third Noble Truth is that we can be free from suffering. And freedom from suffering –releasing from suffering, is the release of clinging. It’s the letting go. So, the inquiry here could be, “What needs to be known and honored in this moment? What knowing and seeing can I bow to?” This sense of knowing and seeing supports letting go, supports release. In other words, this is not the actual releasing, but it’s more like you are creating the conditions for the winds to blow. So, again, suffering is not the issue. It’s how are we relating to these constellations, these aggregates, these kind of identifications, or concepts. How are we relating to what appears to be solid when it’s truly not?
The Fourth Noble Truth states that there’s a path to the cessation of suffering. This is called the Noble Eightfold Path and it includes: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This path is a set of ethical guidelines and mindfulness practices that teach us how to open our heart/mind, relax into the uncertainty and ambiguity of the moment, and hold the appearances of opposition in our hearts.
The Five Hindrances
Within the Fourth Noble Truths, the Buddha offered another useful means of dealing with release and the sense of letting go which are called the Five Hindrances. They are states that can hinder our clear seeing, our experience of freedom and include: Desire, Ill will, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness/remorse and Doubt. When you’re sitting, these offers are mostly concentration practices–places where you can focus, anchor your attention and get stable enough to rest into clear seeing and knowing.
The first hindrance that the Buddha talks about is sensual desire and it includes the sense of wanting and the greedy mind. It’s when we lock into one of the five or six senses and we’re off and flying in a tornado of mind states happening as you sit. It’s a lot of excitability and sometimes a sense of urgency and leaning forward.
One of the things we can do in response to “desire” is to focus on the exhale of the breath and contemplate that all things are impermanent. That could be like a mantra for you, “Nothing can be clung to as I, me, or mine.” On the other hand, you may also want to contemplate the impermanence of pleasant feelings. We can consider that this good stuff, the stuff we want, is also, impermanent. Keeping this in mind, we focus again on the exhale.
Another practice in working with desire is gratitude practice, being appreciative of the goodness that you have in your life already. Feeling in to all of the ways that you’ve been blessed in your life. Perhaps this is not an easy practice for some of you, but it’s a useful practice. The Buddha says that the experience of the release from sensual desire can feel like you’re free from debt. Free from mental hunger. Free from the consuming mind. That’s what the release feels like.
The second one is aversion and ill will, where we just get pissed off when we sit down or we may feel a surge or contraction, like something needs to pop or come out. There’s an edginess to it and we can get mentally fixed on what our agitation is. We find ourselves rewinding and rewinding the story because there’s a righteousness in trying to get it in the way we want to see it. In this form of clinging, a useful practice is slowing down and focusing your concentration on the subtleties of the exhale, you can notice where it begins, where the middle is and where the end is. In doing this you can contemplate the impermanence of unpleasant feelings, because when we’re hooked by aversion, we don’t think it’s ever going to be over, but we can remind ourselves that this too is impermanent. The practice here is a practice of compassion, sending yourself some compassion. You can say to yourself, “Dear, dear, we’re going to be okay. It’s all right. We’ve got this. It’s all right.” Whatever that compassionate voice is for that little one that is hurting.
The third hindrance is sloth— a lack of physical vitality, and torpor—a lack of mental vitality. This hindrance presents itself as a kind of inner withdrawal or collapse in our minds. It can feel like a heavy mental-ness or a heavy physical-ness, a dullness of mind. There’s not enough energy to really practice and it can be hard to have any concentration at all. A helpful focus is on the inhalation which will bring more energy and stillness into the practice. You can also contemplate this, “This could be my last breath. How do I want to be with it?” as you are focusing on the breath. If boredom is present, you can become curious about that and investigate what sensations or experiences are you having that tells you this is boredom?
Restlessness and worry is another of the Five Hindrances where our minds or bodies feel like storms of busy-ness, overwhelm and unrest. It can feel like you’re possessed by what’s happening or there’s a monkey on your back. For this hindrance, one of the things you can do is focus on the inhale. You can have a mantra of inhaling and saying to yourself, “Relax.” Exhaling and saying, “Let go.” Simple things to bring a little bit of kindness towards the hindrance. We can also contemplate the impermanence of feeling down. We can be curious, “Okay, so I’m restless and I’m worried. But what’s the feeling here?” The Buddha talks about the release of restlessness and worry as being freed from slavery or oppression. That’s strong language, but that’s the experience of the release of the clinging that he thought was a good example to share.
Last of the hindrances is doubt or the sense of confusion. This practice can be a focus on the inhale which brings energy for investigation of the experience of doubt. Doubt can be a little tricky, so one can simply try another position or another posture so that it shakes things up. I find in my life off the cushion, that working with doubt suggests to me that I need to just try anything just to break up, you know, just to upset that, interrupt that notion. Just try anything and try something different to spin it around, to prove to yourself that this experience or moment is not permanent.
This is a human condition. The offer is impersonal. The offer is impermanent. It’s not about perfecting and it’s not about you. And everybody’s dealing with the offer in one way or another in their lives. You can turn these Four Noble Truths into an inquiry if you find yourself caught, holding tight or contracted. Ask yourself, “How am I suffering? What am I holding onto? What can I let go of? And can I be kind and wise in this process?”
Nelson Mandela said, “When we can sit in the face of insanity and dislike and be free from the need to make it different, then we are free.” Sometimes knowing and identifying the things we cannot change or make better—clear seeing and knowing of that, is the release. Those are the conditions of release.
As we work with these questions, try to hold the investigation with kindness and know that love can be big enough to greet the quaking heart that is inevitable in life. When the boundless, radiant heart is a part of the atmosphere, it sets the conditions that are useful in releasing and letting go. We are not making release happen, but rather we are creating the conditions for release to happen. The kiss of the radiant heart brings a certain warmth to the equation. Contained within kindness is the truth that it melts separation, the sense of separation, and it supports a gentle surrender, a letting go.
Ruth King has practiced Vipassana since 1992. Mentored by Jack Kornfield and influenced by the non-dual teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, Ruth teaches at insight communities nationwide and the UK. She is on the teachers council at Spirit Rock Meditation Meditation Center, CA, and is the founder of Mindful Members Meditation Community in Charlotte, NC. Ruth designed the Mindful of Race Training: A Stimulus for Social Healing & Leadership, and is the author of Healing Rage: Women making inner peace possible, and her recent publication, Mindful of Race: Transforming racism from the inside out.