Letting Go

Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away. — Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Meditation is practice in letting go.  In meditation the ten thousand things arise, and we let them be.  A kaleidoscopic cacophony of sensations, thoughts, and reveries arise and vanish — fleeting specters in the Cartesian Theater of the mind.  We have hopes and expectations for what each moment of meditation will be like:  “I will stay alert, focused, calm, and peaceful.”  “My meditation space will be quiet and comfortable.”  “I will learn something… make progress… taste Enlightenment.”  Our practice is to continually let go of these hopes and expectations and let the ten thousand things be as they are.  We effortlessly open to each moment, accepting each moment as it is, embracing it, experiencing it fully.

Why practice letting go?  Polly Young-Eisendrath recently made the following point about practicing mindfulness, but it applies to letting go as well:

“The reason for learning… is not so that you can sit around and meditate. It’s like when you learn to drive a car in a parking lot. It’s not so you can drive that car in parking lots. You learn in the parking lot because it’s a restricted, safe area. When you [meditate] it’s like learning to drive in the parking lot. Then, in time, you take the car out onto the highway…. Practice is cultivated in order to get around in life….”

We meditate in order to learn how to let go in our daily lives.  We need to learn how to let go because trying to hold onto anything is like trying to nail jello to a wall:  Nothing sticks, nothing stays.  When David Chadwick [1] asked Suzuki Roshi to express the heart of Buddhism in just a few words, Roshi replied “Everything changes.” (If David had asked him another time, would he have gotten a different answer?)  We can’t hold onto a world that’s constantly changing and transforming — we can’t make the world stop being the world.

“Clinging” is another word for “holding on.”  The Buddha taught that clinging was the ninth link in the chain of Dependent Origination.  In that chain, craving led to clinging, and clinging to “becoming” (bhava), i.e., to continued stuckness in cyclical existence.  There are two places where the chain of dependent origination can be broken: at the point where a pleasant feeling turns to craving, and at the point where craving leads to clinging.  We can break the link of craving through awareness of its dangers and insight into where it will lead us.  We can break the link of clinging by simply letting go.

Sometimes the Buddhist message about craving, clinging, and attachment is misunderstood.  People misinterpret it to mean that we should be free from desire and interpersonal relationships.  In Buddhism there are good desires — the desire to help others, to be happy, and to become enlightened are prominent examples.  The desire to be a good parent or a good spouse are others.

Another way of saying this is that aspiration is all right, but craving is not.  Cravings are intense desires that are fixated on a particular object or experience.  There is a tightness, rigidity, stereotypy, or “must-ness” about them — like the addict craving a fix; the overeater, a binge; the miser, more wealth.  Satisfying a craving leads to transitory pleasure, but as the pleasure fades, more craving ensues.    Cravings have a way of taking over our lives and enslaving us.

Similarly, in Buddhism attachment is not the same thing as relationship. The Buddha never intended to discourage relationships.  Affection, love, care, and concern are the very essence of enlightened life.  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche explained the difference between love and attachment this way in a recent tweet:

Love is when you are thinking ... "how can I make you happy?" Attachment is when you are thinking ... "why aren't you making me happy?"
@ponlop
Dzogchen Ponlop R.

In Buddhism attachment refers to a rigid, tight clinging and holding on to something, as if it were an existential life-raft.  Think, for example, of a person clinging to a relationship that’s already dead and unable to move on.  He keeps returning to a dry well, hoping for water, stuck in recurrent despair.  He may even resort to stalking and violence, hoping against hope to control the other person who wants nothing more of or from him.

Similarly, nothing kills relationship as quickly and thoroughly as clinging — clinging stifles and suffocates the loved one, dragging the loved one down into the swamp of the clinger’s neediness and efforts to exert control.

We can cling to other things besides relationships.  We can become stuck in an unrewarding job, or stuck on a goal that’s beyond our talents (or a poor match for what could really make us happy).  We can become attached to money, possessions, popularity, and status.  We can believe we’re promised or owed these things by life, and become resentful when they’re not delivered, thinking life has given us a raw deal.

We can become attached to all kinds of beliefs about how life is supposed to be.  “Life is supposed to be easy!”  “Life is supposed to be fair!”  “Bad things are not supposed to happen to me!”  “I should be further ahead in life!” “I’m not supposed to be ill, sick, handicapped, or dependent!”  “Raising children (or working for a living, or marriage) shouldn’t be this hard!”  “Other people should appreciate me more!” “I should be better, smarter, braver, more loving, more perfect!”  Psychologist Albert Ellis used to jest that whenever we placed demands on how life “must” be, we were engaging in “must-erbation.”  We are happier when we let go of our demands on life, and accept life as it is, and ourselves as we are.  That doesn’t mean we cease making efforts to improve ourselves and our circumstances – it’s just that we don’t demand that our efforts always succeed.  We understand that when we want to make God laugh (as Anne Lamott[2] so aptly wrote) we tell Her our plans.  We understand that there is no such thing as perfection.  There is just life as it is.

So we sit in meditation, practicing letting go.  Breath by breath.  Moment by moment.  Again and again.  We observe the places where we get caught, where we get stuck, the places where we get tight, the places where we separate ourselves from the moment with thoughts about how the moment ought to be.  And we breathe.  And we let go, loosen, and unfold.

Special thanks to L. J. Kopf ([email protected]) for permission to use Metaphysical Phunnies in this post.
  1. [1] D. Chadwick (1999).  Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. New York: Broadway.
  2. [2] A. LaMott (1995).  Bird by Bird.  New York: Anchor.

15 Replies to “Letting Go”

  1. Tho I am a novice at meditation (and metta meditation which I began doing a few months ago), I have been interested in Buddhism for the past 20 yrs or so. I have read much and feel as if I ‘connect’ with the Buddhist philosophy of living and coping with life – but reading and practicing and meditating regularly are 3 different things.
    I have been thru much adversity in the past 2 years. I moved away from my family (to be near my cousin in Florida – who turned out to have many problems and stopped talking to me shortly after I moved here). I missed my grandchildren and 2 daughter (daughters I raised alone and love dearly) and the holidays alone were sad for me. I didn’t have the money to fly out to Jersey or to pay for the family to fly down here. I live alone and am on a limited income. This past January 2012, my 37 yr. old daughter passed suddenly from a heart attack – no symptoms. To say the least, this devasted me and the famiy. I flew back to Jersey for 3 weeks in January. My daughter (Dawn) was cremated (her wishes) and, at times, I still find it hard to believe she is actually gone. I never got to say goodbye to her. I had seen her 5 months prior to her passing and she seemed fine. I always thought I’d see her again. Now I won’t – not ever — except in my dreams. In my dreams she comes and she’s smiling and happy and I don’t want to get out of bed or ‘let go’ of the dream or the memory of it. Never got to hug her again (medical examiner advised against it due to the autopsy that had to be performed). Her heart valves were very badly clogged – and yet – no symptoms except some fatigue.
    I am lonely and sad and depressed here. I can’t stay here because I feel I will eventually become worse. I can’t shake the anguish I’ve been feeling.
    I am moving back to Jersey the end of next month to be near my grandchildren and my older daughter, her fiance and my son-in-law. I had rescued 2 dogs about 6 years ago and have had to rehome them with a schnauzer foster home. I miss my dogs – as much as I miss my daughter – and yet, the apartment I am going to be moving into (in Jersey) doesn’t allow dogs. My dogs are doing well and seem to have adapted to their new environment and their new Mommy – who is very sweet. The new Mommy and I have spoken quite often and I am grateful that they are with such a kindhearted, loving woman. But I still miss them and it feels as if the heartaches just won’t stop. I’m losing close to $23,000 on my home here, but my heart isn’t here. I won’t be going back with much money, but I belong back in Jersey near all my grandchildren. My grief is not abating here (I cry every day and night) because I am all alone.
    I’ve noticed that lately when I try to do metta mediation, I start to cry and can’t stop the tears. Hard to meditate when you’re blowing your nose and wiping tears constantly. I am, however, attempting to meditate on my breath and try to somehow ‘let go’ of some of this pain and anguish. I have cried more in the past 7 months than I think I’ve cried during my whold 64 yrs. of living.
    I know there is suffering in life. A lot. I can’t bear to watch tv anymore or the news. If I see an abused animal or hear of some child being beaten – I quickly change the channel and begin to sob. I feel like I’m becoming too aware of all the sad things happening and it’s causing me to just ‘fall’ deeper and deeper into this dark well I’m in (most of the time). Hardly anyone ever talks about anything good happening anymore. All this greed, this hatred, this anger, the delusion, the need to control, our wildlife being hurt by us (our oil drilling, our need to reduce the population of wolves, hunting seasons, global warming hurting our polar bears, all the shelters filled with poor dogs and cats who’ve been alone, hungry and/or abused, poverty, wars, loss of lives, etc….. It’s all so sad and causes me great pain. I feel I’m headed toward a downward spiral that I will not be able to lift myself up from.
    Packing alone with a very sore arm and back – but just want to go back to where I was born and raised — and to where my loved ones are.
    How does one do metta medition for others – for theirselves (my daughter, myself, my dogs, all beings – both human and non-human) – and how does one keep from crying? I don’t know why I am so affected by hearing or seeing that someone has been hurt – whether it be animal or human. I try to send out spaciousness, light, wellness, peace and joy to them – and all the while I’m crying.
    Losing my daughter has changed me. I am more hyper-emotional and do cry a lot. I’m trying to learn how to let go of loved ones (and not cling to them). Very difficult for me to just ‘love’ and care for them (5 grandchildren) and then be able to let them ‘go’ and make their own choices – no matter what I think. I know I don’t own them (believe me, my daughter who passed had a strong will and a mind of her own) – but I have this need ‘within me’ to try to protect them from this horrid world of greed, hatred, anger, prejudice, delusion,ego and much indifference.
    Any suggestons or advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you so very much. I want to let go and not be so attached – I just want to love and care for my family members (and others) – but know that they are just part of my life during this lifetime. How does one get to that point , without becoming a Nun and/or Monk?

    Thank you,
    Sandy

    1. Sandy — my heart goes out to you. You describe a tale of so much loss — first and foremost your daughter — there is no pain worse than the loss of a child — but also the loss of your friendship with your cousin, the loss of your beloved dogs, and the financial losses incurred by moving to Florida and now having to move back again. Once you have lost a child, I’m told there is always a hole in your life — a place of pain that is always there and never completely heals. That pain needs to be honored and respected — but it doesn’t always have to be at the center of your life. It can eventually become something that you touch every now and then and are maybe always aware of somewhere on the periphery, but it no longer defines your being. But it is still early yet.
      I think the most important things in life are connection and meaning. Your loneliness is the most corrosive part of your existence right now. You seem to be taking a very positive direction in moving back to be near your five grandchildren. Being closer to people you love will make a difference. It also sounds like you are doing your meditation practice as a solo practice. If there is a sangha near where you are moving, I’d like to suggest that you connect up with it as soon as possible. Practicing together with others is another important part of the Buddhist path — and being part of a community of practitioners is one way to gain encouragement, support, and advice about your meditation.
      Being with your grandchildren will also give you a chance to put your loving heart into action — you have lost a daughter, but these beautiful growing beings need your love, care, and attention. It can help pull you away from being self-absorbed with your own pain and give life more meaning. You’re right that you can’t control/protect them and that rearing children and grandchildren is always training in letting go, but it sounds like you have a big heart and a lot to give. In terms of the ugliness and violence and greed of the larger world — finding time to getting engaged in making the world better is another way to reinvest meaning in life. It might help to work at a soup kitchen, volunteer in some capacity, get involved in political action, etc. Not only is it a way to reinvest meaning and help refocus off your pain, but it’s also a way to add more connection in your life.
      I also feel a need to add that sometimes grief becomes more than grief — it becomes incapacitating depression that robs one of one’s vitality, one’s will to act, one’s ability to be there for others. If your grief has become more than grief — if it has become depression — seeking a counselor to talk to can be of benefit. I once heard a Zen master George Bowman declare that 20 years of meditation hadn’t helped his depression, but that one month of Prozac had.
      Zen master James Ford has a book out with the title “If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break.” I haven’t read the book yet, but I love the title. Living fully in the world, seeing and feeling the pain of life — ours and others — can break our hearts wide open. Getting through pain is the only way to growth. Hopefully, someday it will seem that enduring and transcending this experience will have made you a bigger person inside.
      Now to the question you actually asked — what to do about crying during meditation. This is not necessarily a problem. Meditation is about awareness of the way things are, and if tears are the way things are right now, we need to just accept it and not see it as a problem. I once had a meditation group that had a member who had just accidently killed someone. Whenever she sat down to meditate she would see the image of the accident and start crying convulsively. She stayed with the meditation process after being given permission by the group to cry. Week after week she cried during meditation. Then one day she could visualize the horror of the accident without crying. She eventually found a way to dedicate her life to helping others through her own unique talents as a way of atoning for causing a person’s death. You might be encouraged by reading the biography of Dipa Ma who began her meditation practice after the death of two children and her husband and the onset of her own debilitating illness. The first year she meditated, she had to drag herself up the steps of the temple to get there she was so weak, and when she tried to meditate she would just fall asleep. A whole year went by like that. She eventually became a meditation master. Persistence is all.
      One last thought — I am glad you dream about your daughter. Please don’t think of that as an attachment you have to let go of. In my own experience, people who can still feel some presence of their lost child, even if just in dreams, do better than people who feel they have lost every connection. Attachment in the sense of feeling connected to others and loving them is not the same thing as the “bad attachment” Buddhists talk about. Non-attachment is just the acceptance of reality the way it is — pain and all.
      All my best to you.

    2. Good afternoon Sandy,
      I just read your post. I understand. I am going thru some of the same emotions. Do check this “Inspirations by Sudhir Krishnan’ on Facebook. Does help. Do write to me and I think we can become friends. You will get thru this Sandy. Maya ([email protected])

  2. I love this article. I’m in a situation in which I’m attached to the desire to reconcile with someone who no longer wants to speak to me. Neither of us were blameless in the situation, but how can one let go on a practical level and feel peace? Does it involve mindfulness of the experience? Can cognitive restructuring help, in which you challenge your beliefs?

    I somewhat disagree with your statement, “we can become stuck in an unrewarding job, or stuck on a goal that’s beyond our talents.” Research by psychologist Carol Dweck shows that believing that talent is soely innate makes people give up on goals and that believing it can be cultivated helps them to accomplish goals. Not saying there isn’t a base level of talent; I just disagree that it’s impossible for people not to attain a goal just because it’s not a natural strength.

    Thank you.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Shane. I think mindfulness of the feelings and the beliefs and thoughts that generate the feelings can be helpful. You make a space for the feelings to be there, and don’t try to change them or make them go away, but just take a step back inside and observe them and let them be, without strengthening them or diminishing them. Just breathe with them. Observe what thoughts stoke the feelings, and wonder about them. Don’t expect them to go away. Accept them and let them be. Feelings are transient. They come and they go. It’s the thoughts that we rehearse over and over in our mind’s that perpetuate them. As you observe yourself thinking one of these thoughts that generate the emotion, don’t try to suppress the thought, but just observe it kindly with curiosity and interest. Wonder about it. Is it true? Does it have to be endlessly repeated? Breathe with the questions.

    As far as reaching goals and talent is concerned, I will never be a great concert pianist no matter how hard I try and practice. I will never be a great basketball player no matter how many hours I put in. I will never be a great mathematician no matter how hard I work at it. These are facts. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy playing the piano or basketball, or appreciating mathematics, and being the best I can be at them. I practice playing piano every day and love it! But if I planned on making a living by playing piano, I would just be deluding myself and wasting my time.

    1. Anna, jealousy is a feeling that comes and goes depending on the thoughts we are thinking. Some thoughts strengthen the feeling, and others allow it to weaken. Step one would be to pay attention to the thoughts that generate the jealousy and investigate them with curiosity. Jealousy may be jealousy over someone having more than you do (envy) or it may be jealousy within a relationship, i.e. is someone giving us too little attention, or paying too much attention to someone else. Is a person we love trustworthy or not? It’s important to understand that we cannot control other people’s emotions or behavior. We cannot make someone else love us the way we love them, we cannot make someone be faithful to us. If they betray our relationship, we will feel pain and hurt, but we can’t prevent other people from doing the things they do. We need to accept that we do not control others. We need to accept that we can be hurt. We need to let go of relationships in which we are hurt. Of course, it can also be true that our jealous thoughts are not justified. We may suspect someone of betrayal when in fact, they are innocent. In this case, the jealous feelings are being generated by insecurity — the fear that we are not lovable enough to keep someone else’s love, the fear that we need someone so desperately that we would crumble without them. These insecure thoughts need to be investigated too. If we can stop rehearsing and practicing the thoughts that create problems for us, the feelings will fade and become less of a problem.

  4. Hello Seth and thank for another great post!
    However there is something I still don´t get in the buddhist vision of love (in a relationship): I think true love is when you love somebody so much you would die for her/him, it´s irrational and…the deepest of attachments. How can you love somebody without being attached to her/him? If you are not attached, you don´t really care. And yes, you love someone because she/he fills a certain void in you and balance your insufficiencies and you are grateful for this and give her/him the same with your whole heart. After all, who among us is so perfect so as not to need anyone?
    Love knows no reason, it´s passion and utter joy – and suffering and tears. Otherwise it´s a lukewarm, lifeless feeling. There´s no third, moderate way in love in my opinion. What do buddhists say about this?

    And second thing: how can you love all the people, even those who make suffer for example such beautiful and innocent creatures like animals (because of their ignorance, I know, but it´s their fault anyway because they could choose to act differently like compassionate people – but they don´t simply because they are just too egoistic or lazy)? Isn´t truer that if you say that you love everyone in reality you don´t love anyone at all?

    Sorry for all these words, with these posts I am just trying to understand if buddhism is something I could relate to given my vision of life. And thank you once again for this very intelligent blog!

    1. Two very important questions, and ones that I have struggled with as well! Certainly early Buddhism believed in literal dis-attachment from romantic love, at least for monks who had left their homes to join the sangha. This kind of dis-attachment was necessary to achieve Nirvana, although it was not recommended/demanded for lay persons who were not seeking the final destination. Contemporary forms of Western Buddhist practice tend to be more centered around lay practice and less focused on monasticism, and there has been a concomitant softening of this maximalist stance. Indeed, one can go back in Buddhist history and find examples of married enlightened persons with families — like Marpa the Translator in Tibet. Western Buddhism tends to hold a more minimalist understanding of this kind of dis-attachment. You can think of love for another person as a complex phenomenon with many strands — infatuation, caring, desire for proximity, sexual desire, attachment, dependency, desire for the other person’s well-being, etc. Some forms of love focus more on the other person’s well being and allow the other person the freedom to be themselves, and some focus more on what the other person can do for you and are controlling and obsessive. I personally look at attachment to others as both necessary and good, but I think that a minimalist interpretation of Buddhist “non-attachment” encourages us to focus more on the well-being of the other person, and less on our own grasping, control, and neediness. That’s what Buddhism means for me.

      As far as your second question, I agree that it is both impossible and inhuman to love all individuals equally. There will always be those in our inner circle whom we care about more than others, and those way outside our circle of caring who engender more negative feelings. That’s the way human beings are built. On the other hand, Buddhism challenges us to expand that inner circle, to allow its boundaries to be more porous, to decrease the egocentricism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia that define others as being “other” or “less than,”and to try — as best we can — to extend a general feeling of good-will and a general policy of non-harming to others in all of our dealings. It encourages us to see the potential goodness in everyone, and to not hold onto feelings of envy, hatred, vengeance, or aversion. We may need to avoid harmful people, or protect others from their bad behavior, but we never need to harbor hatred in our hearts for them.

  5. Thank you for this explanation, very clear and undogmatic as ever 🙂 However, even after we split up the concept of love, the fact that we grow awfully attached to the person we love remains as true as ever.

    Let me be provocative (and I don´t belong to any religion so I´m not trying to promote any different concept): isn´t love the perfect antithesis of what buddhism teaches? I mean, you can´t be more attached to anything/anybody than you are in a PERFECT partnership. In love you give and you receive constantly and these are so intertwined you cannot separate them. If your loved one suffers you suffer and if he/she dies you will probably die too. What´s attachment if not this?

    1. I think that my particular version of Buddhist practice enhances intimate relating, rather than being its antithesis. Allow me to give you an example from my own life. My beloved wife of thirty-six years passed away seven years ago after an agonizing one-year battle with cancer. My Buddhist practice during that year was being with her minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour in whatever way she needed, trying to anticipate her needs, comfort her, support her, run interference for her. We were closer that year than we had ever been before. Whatever needs I had were secondary to whatever she required. I cherished every moment we had together. When the inevitable happened and she passed on, I was ready to let go. I cried and grieved, but I was never under the delusion that my life and happiness were over. We were close, intimate, attached — but not fused or co-dependent. My existence and future happiness did not depend on her still being in the world, or her being-there-for-me. In attachment we can care very deeply about the other, want, prefer, and enjoy the other’s presence, desire the other’s happiness, hope our love will last a lifetime, and at the same time, not be obsessively controlling, or needy, fused or codependent, understand that all things are transient, and that deeper happiness (eudaimonia) never comes from clinging to an object of desire. We can be in a relationship in which each member of the partnership lets the other be, lets things unfold naturally, and accepts reality as it is.

  6. I think you are not getting the point completely. You can cling to anything, not just seeing yourself in a dead end job or a stuck relation and not getting out. When you are aware of that already, it already has changed in your mind from clinging to aversion and youll be ready to cling to the next more ‘positive’ thing that comes along. The clinging already happened when it was still all roses and sunshine, having jumped from the previous illusion after that one became obvious to you. I guess if you get it in your mind that nothing ever lasts, everything is doomed to fail, dont get your hopes up on anything to endure or give you any lasting satisfaction, you might be able to avoid the clinging before you get hooked.

  7. Really enjoyed reading the comments like to comment on non attachment I split up with my ex partner whom I have 2 boys to I craved for them non stop I had to let go of them and 4 years later feel so happy and I’m on my own too! We cling to relationships thinking it will make us happy and all it succeeds in doing is pushing the other person from you buddies is empowering too making decisions can be a nightmare with emotion on board

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