“Do everything with a mind that lets go…If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.” – Ajahn Chah
In the last post, The Secret Behind Our Unhappiness we saw that the reason we are fundamentally unhappy (aka “suffering”) is attachment to desires. This comes from the teachings known as the Four Noble Truths. We also saw that suffering is alleviated by detachment from desires, (aka “letting go”) .
We further saw that desires come in the form of grasping (wanting something), and aversion (not wanting something, which by definition means wanting something else), and that it’s not the desire that causes suffering, it’s the attachment to the desire that is the root of suffering.
What I’d like to do now is expound on the ideas we briefly touched on in the last post about how to practically detach from desires.
The most important thing to remember about letting go
I believe that the single most important thing to remember about attachments is that they cause us to suffer. Once we become aware that we are attached in whatever form, whether it’s grasping or aversion, it basically comes down to these two choices:
- Cling to the attachment and suffer; or
- Let go and be at peace
Remember too that it’s very easy to figure out when you’re attached: if anything is taking you away from peace in the present moment, trace that feeling of unease back to the thought that’s driving it and you will find an attachment to a desire. Then, when you become aware of the desire you’re attached to, simply remind yourself of your choices, “I can either stay attached and suffer, or let go and be at peace”.
Okay, not a bad tip, you say, but is there anything else I can practically do to help in letting go? Well, it just so happens there is.
“Let go, let go, let go”
One practice that I’ve discovered that’s working well for me is to gently repeat the phrase, “Let go, let go, let go” whenever I find myself attached (which is a lot!). The idea is to do this so often that it becomes second nature and an instant reminder of the best course of action for the alleviation of suffering – and there’s no better place to start than in meditation. What I’m doing now in every meditation session is that whenever I catch myself drifting away from the object of attention (the breath), I note what I’ve drifted off to and gently say, “Let go, let go, let go” and return to the breath.
Anyone who has done even the briefest meditation will know just how often the mind wanders, so doing this while meditating will get you a lot of practice! And that’s the point – by honing it in meditation, we can then carry it into our everyday lives.
And that’s exactly what I’m doing now as well. When I go through my day and I catch myself drifting away from what I’m doing or experiencing, I’ll note what I drifted off to and gently say to myself, “Let go, let go, let go”, then return to what I was doing. If it’s a bit sticky, I’ll take several long, slow deep breaths and repeat the phrase on the in-breath and again on the out-breath.
Given the hundreds of times that we drift off of where we are in the present moment, whether in meditation or in our everyday lives, we will have ample opportunity to create neural connections in the brain and make this phrase second nature so that when a tangential thought comes up, we will soon find it automatically followed by “Let go, let go, let go”.
Just that, “Let go, let go, let go”.
I’ve so taken to this practice, that I’m now going one step further and and writing “Let go” with a pen on the inside of my left wrist, just to add a visual reminder of the words so that the phrase is further burned into my brain (I’m even considering a tattoo of it on the left wrist but it would be my first tat ever so that one is still a bit daunting!).
Okay, so we’ve reminded ourselves that staying attached causes us to suffer, and we’re burning “Let go, let go, let go” into our brains (and maybe into our wrists!). But what if that isn’t enough for a particularly sticky attachment? Are there any other tricks up our sleeves? You bet.
Visualize letting go
There’s no question that visualizing an image can affect us emotionally one way or the other. On a Sunday night when we picture going back to work the next day what happens? Conversely, when we picture our next holiday destination what happens? So using visualizations to help us let go can be a very powerful technique.
I’ll mention some of the visualizations I use (noting that all the while I’m saying, “Let go, let go, let go” in conjunction with the visualization):
- Releasing a balloon: I picture the thought as a helium-filled balloon and see my right arm extended above me as I release the balloon and see the thought drift away.
- Releasing a miniature hot air balloon: This is similar to the first one, but like the full size version of a hot air balloon, the miniature one has a little basket I can put the thought into (or a small version of a person that’s annoying me!) before releasing it and watching it drift away.
- Blowing bubbles: In this high-tech age it feels like the simple pleasure of blowing bubbles with a dipstick as I did as a kid is a lost art, but I often use that image of the floating bubbles as thoughts that can just drift away or spontaneously pop.
- Candles floating on a river: I’ve always liked the image of candles on small floating objects at night on a river. You can picture the thought as a candle and watch it just float by and drift further and further away. The river visual is a good one and you can use any object floating by, day or night.
- Burning paper: The idea is to visualize the attachment written down on a sheet of paper and setting the paper on fire. You can then just blow the ashes into the wind. This one can also be done in real life, though I’d have a fire extinguisher nearby just in case!
These are just a few suggestions, but the key is to find visualizations that work for you. Play with them. Have fun with them. What you’re doing is creating a distance between you and the thought causing the attachment and that by itself is helpful for letting go of the attachment that’s seized our hearts and taken away our peace.
And if you find one that works, but after a while starts to get old, use another one! Mix them up and keep them fresh.
But, here again, what if after reminding ourselves that we have a choice of whether to suffer or not, ingraining the phrase, “Let go, let go, let go”, and using visualizations, that we still find ourselves attached? Then what?
Sitting with the attachment
If all else fails, and we can’t let it go, then let it be.
The idea here is to sit with it, compassionately observe it, and just be with the attachment. Sometimes if all else fails I’ll hold my hand out and look at the inside of my palm as if that’s the attachment and say, “Ah, so that’s what annoyance feels like” or “Ah, so that’s what frustration feels like” or “Ah, so that’s what disappointment feels like”.
If we can’t let it go, let it be. Often just sitting with the attachment and observing it will be the thing that makes you realize that it’s getting a bit much now and thereby reduce its power.
And when all comes to all, if it’s still there, hold it in spacious awareness like the raging bull in the open field. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, in an enclosed barn a raging bull will hurt itself and destroy the barn, but in an open field it will just get tired and wear itself out.
Hold the attachment in a tenderly compassionate spacious awareness like the bull in the open field, and do your best to function with whatever else you need to do. Unless it’s the deep pain of grief or some life-changing detrimental event, chances are the attachment will wear itself out like the raging bull.
I know I’ve gone a bit long on this one, but letting go of attachments is one of the key components of Zen, and of alleviating our self-created suffering. Letting go is essentially the path to peace, though it’s not always easy, and hence all the practical tips and techniques. So if you’re still reading this, well done, and hopefully it was well worth it!
So we’ve now seen that the three ways of practically letting go of attachments are:
- Remind yourself you have the choice of either remaining attached and suffering, or letting go and being at peace;
- Every time you find yourself attached gently say to yourself, “Let go, let go, let go” (a nice deep breath or two will help with sticky ones as well). The idea is to practice this until it becomes second nature and “let go” follows every tangential thought and becomes an instant reminder of the best course of action for alleviating suffering;
- Visualize letting go in whatever way works best for you.
And if all else fails, and you’re still attached, sit with the attachment. If you can’t let it go, let it be. Sit with it and compassionately observe it, “Ah, so this is what X feels like.”
And if it simply won’t go away no matter what, hold the attachment in a tenderhearted spacious awareness and go about your day until it wears itself out just like the raging bull in the open field. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.
In the next post we’ll take a look at what we are left with when we have detached from desire, and that is, the beauty of our true nature.
That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.