Relinquishing the Uncontrollable, Unhelpful, and Unowned

Is it hard for you to let go? If you’re not sure, considering the following questions may help you decide:

  • Do you find yourself rehashing difficult thoughts and feelings well after the experience that triggered them is over?
  • Are you a compulsive second-guesser, helper or fixer?
  • Do you worry and ruminate about things that aren’t within your control or take responsibility for things that aren’t yours to own?
  • Is it a challenge for you to roll with changes?
  • Though you’d like to be a forgiving person, do you struggle with forgiving yourself and others or do you hold grudges?
  • Is it hard for you to say goodbye when something has come to a natural end or is now just taking up space/energy in your life?

Like most human beings, you probably responded yes to at least one of these questions. Releasing what is best relinquished rubs against our survival instincts and cultural conditioning. The typical challenges of daily life provide us plenty of opportunities for practice – and these days are anything but typical. Holding onto things in the form of rumination and worry are correlated with depression and anxiety and all the health and well-being impacts that come along with our reactions to them. Over time, chronic stress or anger can rob us of our vitality and enjoyment of this one precious life. Fortunately mindfulness has been shown to help decrease these thieves of our time, energy and wellbeing, while strengthening beneficial attitudes that open us to opportunities for joy and greater resilience.

Its important to recognize what we are really letting go of when we practice mindfulness. Its not something outside of us, such as another person, a place, situation or thing. We’re actually letting go of our own unhelpful habits and patterns, such as our reactivity to our inner experiences (body sensations, emotions, thoughts, actions/urges) and our conditioned rigidity in responding. But first, we have to recognize these habits and patterns for what they are – that’s where mindfulness comes in. We have to awaken to some of the obstacles and challenges that keep us hanging on when it would be better to let go, which include things like:

  • Unexamined Wanting and Not-Wanting – Its okay to want things and to have preferences, but if we react impulsively and unthinkingly to these feeling tones, this is where the trouble happens. For example, we can become frustrated when insist on things being the way we want them to be in situations when its not entirely up to us. This wanting/not-wanting often shows up in the body as a feeling of subtle pressure, tightening, tensing, a sense of closing down or withdrawing. There can be a desire to be elsewhere, to be doing something else or to be someone other than who we are. Like gamblers or addicts, our vulnerable human brains can trick us into minimizing the longer term costs and over-valuing immediate, yet momentary relief. This can cause us to risk later regret in exchange for a brief high. Due to our powerful imaginations, we’re also subject to wishful thinking. When we get caught up in the imagined rewards of acting on our wanting/not-wanting, we tend to immediately indulge these feelings if possible. Because of this, we rarely get to experience the passing nature of our urges or the benefits of non-indulgence.
  • Hardwiring and Biological Conditioning – We want things to be certain, to be guaranteed, because our instinctive threat detection and response system is trying to help us be safe and survive. Yet nothing in life is certain or guaranteed beyond the inevitability of death, so we expend a lot of energy on the fruitless pursuit of certainty.
  • Mainstream US Acculturation – We are rewarded by society for doing over well-being. All our lives we’ve been schooled by sayings like “idle hands make the devil’s work”, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, “victory is its own reward”, “never give up” and “never surrender”, and norms such as: rugged individualism, competition, exceptionalism and The American Dream. This becomes our lens and our default mode for perceiving, relating and responding in the world. It takes much time, effort and patience to go against the stream, if it should ever even occur to us to do so. And when do begin to make a shift, there is little support for elevating flexibility, creativity, adaptability, balance, and wise discernment, the truth of interconnection, and the collective benefits of cooperation and selfless service in our society’s current worldview.

Given our human vulnerabilities and the challenges we face in daily life, it probably comes as no surprise to you that learning to let go takes practice. Some of the following mindful strategies can help:

Connect with Values

Beneath our grasping and clinging is deep caring – something that really matters to us. Can we recognize the dignity and common humanity in our wish for our own wellbeing? Can we see the inherent beauty and worth in the loving intentions and higher values driving our urges? Can we come to know, on an experiential level, that our embodied practice matters, even if we can’t immediately see the fruits of it?

Cultivate Self-Awareness and Humility

Self-awareness and humility includes recognizing our limits, including our skills, knowledge, control, energy, and time. We can remember this in the moment through sayings, mantras, slogans or affirmations that resonate and remind us of deeper truths. Here are some examples:

  • Chris Germer’s Compassion with Equanimity phrases: Everyone is on their own life journey. I am not the cause of this person’s suffering nor is it entirely within my power to make it go away, even though I wish I could. Moments like this are difficult to bear, yet I may still try and help if I can.
  • Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference
  • Adrienne Maree Brown’s affirmation: “I am living a life I don’t regret. A life that will resonate with my ancestors, and with as many generations forward as I can imagine. I am attending to the crises of my time with my best self, I am of communities that are doing our collective best to honor our ancestors and all humans to come.”

Recognize the Truth of Impermanence

Like surveying the landscape from a mountain top, taking the long view can help us see things in context. The long view reminds us that everything ends, changes or transforms eventually – nothing lasts forever – even ourselves. With this in mind, we can ask ourselves what is most important and where would we like to place our energy and other finite resources during our short time on this Earth.

Recognize the Truth of our Interconnection and Interdependence

The long view also shows us that everything arises out of a complicated web of causes and conditions and nothing is as simple or as personal as we think it is. The more that we make things about ourselves alone, the more painful they are and the harder they are to let go of. Understanding our fundamental interconnection and interdependence reminds us that responsibility is shared, as are the consequences of our individual actions. As Gandhi once taught, some of the means are always in the ends, so its wise to be choiceful about the methods we use to accomplish our goals. Our wellbeing is inseparable – when others suffer, when our planet home is damaged, we all suffer in one way or another eventually.

Cultivate Compassion

Being human is hard and so is letting go. When we acknowledge this we may be more likely to include ourselves in the circle of care we more easily reserve for others. We learn its painful to make ourselves exceptional in this way. We can also work on equalizing ourselves with others so that we don’t fall into the trap of discriminating against others or dehumanizing those we fear or don’t understand.

Find a Balanced Perspective

Keep one eye on the past, the body firmly rooted in the present, and one eye toward the future:

  1. Remember the human and non-human ancestors who came before us. They possessed the wisdom and resilience to survive despite uncertainty and challenges. We can also see their mistakes as messages from history through which we might learn to do and be better.
  2. Connect with what is really true in this moment.
  3. Then think of the future ones and endeavor to be a good ancestor to them.

Practice Wise Discernment

How can we discern when we’re wisely letting go from avoidance or bypassing things that need to be faced? We can investigate by asking ourselves some questions:

  • How is this behavior functioning? How is it playing out?
  • What are the short term and longer term benefits and costs of letting go versus hanging on? Am I trading short term relief or satisfaction for longer term complications?
  • Does the thing I’m letting go of keep returning to me, again and again, in one form or another?

Trust Emergence

According to Adrienne Maree Brown, “Emergence is the story of how transformation happens in nature”. When diverse individual components interact, they often spontaneously self-organize, resulting in something much more than the separate elements. But, emergence only happens through connection. Connecting with kindred spirits, helps create the possibility of synergy, developing new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that can lead to beneficial change. Find your community and devote time and care to it. In this way, your good intentions and beneficial efforts might blossom into something much more powerful than would have been possible on your own.

…i thought someone else
had all the instructions
and i, stumbling and following,
praying to become worthy,
must admit i have been grieving and grieving
all i don’t know and don’t trust
and grieving so deeply
a world that is still breathing
anticipating failure
in spite of my visions

but when i listen
the universe is reminding me
i cannot be taken from her
i am never untethered from her roots
never beyond the whole
and nothing is lost, it is lived
and we are not here to win
but to experience love
and those who do not know love
are missing life in spite of all other accumulation

and when i listen
the universe is teaching me
that control is impossible
and the season will change
and enough is a feeling that cannot be measured
and the small circle is the deepest
and i cannot teach anyone what i have not practiced
and i cannot change anyone but myself
and i will never feel free in a position of demand
and i am already free
and we all are, and when we realize it
we cannot be contained

and we are never i
even when we are lonely
even when we distinctly suffer
even when we distinctly succeed
we are of lineage
of collective

– Adrienne Maree Brown, exceprt from This is the Only Moment

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