We all know that nothing will last forever. Everything changes.
Even a flower relinquishes one kind of beauty to manifest another. The petals catching morning light change from pink to a golden blush before transforming into deep orange with the setting sun.
What we mean by ‘letting go’
Preoccupation chokes the movement of life. Committed to a fixed standpoint, I’m blind. I can’t see—much less accept or adapt to—the consequences of my thought, speech, and action. Without the ability to shed biases, I’m unable to know facts as they are.
Holding on to what we do is habitual and habitual feels normal, but it’s not necessarily natural. Nature never stops itself. If she did, living would stagnate. But nature moves. She leaps quickly into death. And death rapidly gives birth to new life. To live is to move easily between birth and death. And such movement requires letting go.
In Buddhism letting go is called non-attachment—especially to self.
Recent studies reveal how a fixation on oneself leads to a range of negative psychological symptoms. Whereas, having a flexible relationship to self is shown to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.
How we perceive and interact with our self-images affects our behavior, and learning to do so with modesty, measure, irony, and humility improves our experience of life.
The kinds of things people hold on to
As humans, we cherish the moments and memories that build up over our lives.
We assemble these experiences around identities. And because our thoughts, emotions, impressions, and imaginings are part of who we take ourselves to be, we don’t want to let them go, because to do so feels like a kind of death.
But years of holding on to something creates strong habits of grasping.
Therefore, we tend to hold onto that which we associate with our ego: our status and our place in society.
Attaching to our mental and material possessions means we must defend and fight for them, to protect and keep them in our purview.
Why is letting go important?
Without the ability to let go you will (1) inevitably end up rigid, and fighting, which leads to war. And (2) you won’t grow.
Letting go in Buddhism
If we don’t graduate from making the rounds through heaven and hell, we’ll eternally progress through both. This is called Samsara.
Buddhist training teaches the nature of the Bodhisattva: The Middle Way that allows you to be free from the eternal circle of change, even while participating in it.
Buddhism says that all phenomena come and go, and that to attach to any phenomenon—to try to make it last forever—is to violate the natural order of things. When we fixate, we ignore the basic truth of Buddha Nature: that everything is contained in one unity, and that, therefore, nothing can ever be gained or lost.
To realize yourself as this unchanging essence is the best course to freedom because you won’t attach or fret over having and not having.
Instead, you’ll live with what is, letting come and go what may, and using all your experiences—including your fleeting subjecthood—to alleviate the suffering of others.
But this state of true non-attachment is difficult to achieve and requires the genuine realization of enlightenment.
Letting go can help you make major life transitions
Transitions like graduating school, starting a new job, retiring, divorce etc. force folks into uncomfortable situations.
But shedding outdated ideas, relationships, or lifestyles, we relinquish views and versions of ourselves that block life’s flow.
The ability to let go of what’s old also helps us see the moments of closure in our lives—a necessary recognition in the process of human growth that allows us to rest and reflect.
Nobody likes a person who leaves his job for a different one but who goes on to talk about how great his former employment was.
There are many ways to grow, which is an essential human activity if we want to mature.
Developing judgement and a mature consciousness allows individuals to create uplifting thoughts, experiences, and insights that elevate culture, nourish the environment, and help the future.
Also, to be present where you are, you must let go of where you were. But such letting go isn’t always easy. It’s a particularly poignant issue for immigrants who’ve had to leave their country to re-start their lives in a new, foreign land.
Letting go can benefit your well-being
Being balanced leads to greater health and wellness. And our ability to let go is an important way to restore balance to our lives because it allows us to participate in the circle of life—the movement of life to death, to transition, and to rebirth.
Losing our ability to let go of attachments damages our spiritual being and weakens our health because it causes us to lose our connection to nature’s guidance and support.
And disconnection alienates us from ourselves, from others, and from the wisdom that exists in the natural order of things.
By not letting go, we diminish our ability to perceive the rich opportunities inherent in change.
How to tell if you’re holding on to something
You’ll know if you’re stuck if (1) you ruminate and (2) if you harbor resentment.
There are other ways to know, but these are the most common and straightforward.
Why is letting go hard?
To let go of something is painful because it’s a loss of ourselves. It’s a kind of death. And death hurts—it’s what we spend our lives avoiding. So of course, to let go is difficult.
We don’t want to be in a place of unknowing—the Neutral Zone.
The Neutral Territory is a concept created by William Bridges. It’s a phase of transition that feels as though the ground has disappeared —when the old has receded into the past and a new foundation has not yet formed.
Moving into unfamiliar territory is also hard because it confronts people with change. We must grasp novel ways of being, doing, thinking, and behaving as we adapt to different situations and environments.
In short, growth and transformation are difficult because we cling to familiar things to avoid loss, we feel uncomfortable in the unknown, and we dislike having to change.
Therefore, we tend to covet familiar experiences.
We clasp onto what we know because it’s easy, comfortable, and reassuring even though we know (1) there is always more to understand than we realize, and (2) we always hold within us the opportunity for growth, change, and the possibility of better lives.
How to let go and move on
There are many ways to find closure. Here is a list of tips to help you move past issues that may be holding you back:
#1 Practice the Loving Kindness Meditation
What you should do: For 15 minutes, once every day, send loving-kindness to yourself, to a loved one, to a neutral person, and to someone that you have difficulty with. Then send love to all these people at the same time.
Why The Loving Kindness Meditation will help you: This strategy has been clinically researched. The proven benefits of this practice will allow you to accept your discomfort and dissolve the fear and pain that can cause you to ruminate or fixate on an issue.
Four science-based reasons to try this practice for letting go include:
- It generates positive sentiments and decreases negative ones
- It improves vagal tone which generates positivity & fosters social connection
- It activates empathy & emotional processing in the brain
- It curbs your self-criticism
#2 Write an “Unsent Letter”
What you should do: Write a letter. Keep writing until you find the words that make your pain subside and you feel equanimity. You can also write a dialogue between you and the person, thought, or feeling with which you want to be at peace.
Don’t send, email, tweet, post, or text the missive. Just keep the letter until you feel complete with the issue and you’re ready to move on into a new relationship.
Why writing an Unsent Letter will serve you: This practice helps you achieve closure with unresolved issues by strengthening your intuition and evoking liberating insight. Cultivating such awareness increases your ability to empathize with and understand both yourself and others.
Read Kafka’s Letter to His Father.
#3 Name your difficulties in letting go
Naming is a popular mindfulness practice developed by Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart.
What you should do: First, start by naming your breath in a short meditation session. As you breathe, silently say to yourself the words “in-breath”, and “out-breath,” —labeling each respectively in the back of your mind.
This will help you stay focused.
Once you’re settled, name the energies and sensations that arise in your body: hot, cold, tingling, etc. Also name emotions: “fear,” “delight”—as well as thought-activities like, “planning,” or “remembering.”
When strong sensations, thoughts or emotions arise, repeat the naming—”sad, sad, sad”— until the sensation passes. Then return to identifying the breath.
Quickly, you’ll be able to bring Naming into your life. You’ll be able to name difficulties and hindrances, like “grasping,” that keep you from moving through projects and experiences.
Why naming will help you: Naming helps you acknowledge what’s present so that you can stop ruminating. Maintaining your composure, you’ll skillfully dwell on, contemplate, and reflect on powerful questions such as “Who am I?” “Where am I?”, and “Where do I want to be?” And in answering such questions you’ll be able to take creative, constructive, empowering, and effective action.
#4 Wait patiently to heal
What you should do: Learn how to accept or tolerate problems without becoming annoyed or anxious. Recognize that you are a part of nature, and that grief is, too. Be natural. Accept and celebrate the vulnerable, human, creaturely aspect of yourself.
Acknowledge and allow for kindness—including kindness toward yourself. Be tender toward yourself.
How waiting patiently for time to heal will help you: In yourself, you will evoke empathy, self-compassion, and awareness. Resting while you heal from a big change or shock, and giving yourself permission to feel sadness, sorrow, anger, and other emotions after a traumatic experience is the beginning of letting them dissolve as you slowly re-gather your strength.
However, if you fixate negative emotions, they’ll remain stuck in your body and mind. Therefore, it’s important to develop the ability to feel without fixating on an identity or position around your feelings.
Contemplation is a passive activity that keeps you soft, tender, vulnerable, and human even as you feel and grow. Being patient and attentive to grief in ourselves allows us to be with the grief of others and makes us more human.
#5 Journal; write to understand where you are stuck
What you should do: Journal daily for 15 minutes about the most difficult matters entangling you. Write with the intention of letting go and making a successful life transition.
Why journaling will help you: To write is a powerful way to help your mind heal, work, and reassemble the world that has fallen apart around it.
The nagging pain and sadness that keeps us simmering and ruminating is like a soft burn. It’s better to face such feelings head-on—with creative means: words that bring insight, clarity, and understanding.
To practice letting go by creating is a triumph of the human spirit. And to guide our feelings and growth in such a manner not only helps us renew ourselves as individuals but makes for a culture that gives strength to others and inspires them to do the same.
How long does it take to move on?
How to move on depends on many factors: the people involved, your skills and ability, your means, and what kind of personality you have.
A recent poll on getting over relationships suggests it takes an average of 3.5 months to heal from a break-up and 1.5 years or longer to heal from a divorce.
Big life changes and transitioning to a “new normal” is said to take 18 months. And in my experience, it takes roughly three years to adjust to moving to a new city.
Mastering transitions will be more helpful than counting the days until your change is projected to be over. And certain kinds of people will make transitions faster.
It’s up to you to assess if you need to take your time or move through things quickly.
Those with flexible, adaptable personalities are better at letting go and moving on.
If you want to move faster through a transition you can emulate the traits that these people naturally possess.
Some of these traits include being flexible and curious. Being a team player. Focusing on the opportunity, not the obstacle. Being proactive, not reactionary.
The journey of letting go is the journey of life
It’s important to know—and feel inspired by knowing—that to heal and transform through change is a powerful example to others and therefore helps society.
By letting go of our fixations, we can regenerate not only ourselves but a greater Good than our egoic self—not stoically ignoring our feelings—but by moving through them.
To grow is to contemplate life, and sharing the fruit of contemplation in a beautiful, precise, concise, and humorous, optimistic way benefits humanity and cultivates hope.
Therefore, so much beauty, art, and religion come from suffering. Because suffering teaches humans how to grow into something greater than ourselves.