Most people, myself included, are holding onto at least one thing way past its expiration date. It could be a belief, perhaps that your hair is falling out and you’re ugly and unlovable as a result, that you can’t say what you really feel in an intimate relationship, or that you must lose ten pounds to be attractive. It could be a desire, such as wishing someone would treat you better, pushing to make a project successful, yearning for a certain kind of partner, or wanting to cure an illness. It could be a feeling, like a fear, grudge, resentment, longtime grief, or sense of low worth. It could be a behaviour, such as jogging with aging knees, playing video games, or buying clothes. It could be something you insist others do, such as make their beds, drive a certain way when you’re in the car, or meet particular goals at work.
Some of the things we’re attached to are obviously problematic—and usually we know it, or could know it with a little reflection—such as self-critical thoughts, obsessions or compulsions, defensiveness about your issues, or drinking too much. These things are relatively straightforward to deal with, even though it could be difficult.
The hard things are the ones that make sense, that have good aspects about them, that would be good for you and likely others if they could work out—like longing for love from someone, or wishing more people would come to your store, or hoping that you’re free of cancer—but, alas, are either not worth the price or it’s sadly clear that you just can’t make them happen.
You’ve watered the tree, fertilized it, protected it, even danced around it at midnight under a full moon… and it’s still not bearing any fruit. Now what do you do?
Sometimes you just have to let it go. For starters, take a clear look at yourself. For example, I’m a churner, a plugger. It’s tough for me to accept that my efforts are not producing the results I want. But to keep trying to grow corn in the Sahara—pick your own metaphor—when there’s little or no pay-off, either present or in sight, means that you’re stressing yourself, and probably others, for little gain, wasting time, attention, and other resources that could be better invested elsewhere.
How to let go of attachments
Step back from your situation, from whatever it is that you’re attached to, and try to hold it in a larger perspective. Get some distance from it, as if you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale, relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions truly present to have it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it simply out of your hands, so that your own striving—however well-intended, skillful, and honourable—just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or let it go. Be with these reflections—perhaps sitting quietly with a cup of tea, or in some place that is beautiful or sacred to you—and let their answers sink in.
Letting go of things is easier when you make it concrete. Try putting a small stone or other object in your hand and imagine that it’s the thing you’ve been attached to. Hold onto it hard; let your desires and thoughts about it flow through awareness; feel the costs related to it; and when you’re ready, open your hand and drop it—and open as well to any sense of relief, freedom, ease, or insight. You could do a similar practice by writing a note about this attachment then tearing it up and letting its pieces fall away. Or you could talk with a trusted being—perhaps a friend or therapist, or in your own kind of prayer—and explore the attachment, communicate your intentions to move on, and let it go.
A healthy sense of giving up
You might still have the wish that something work out, but you no longer feel driven, compelled, intense, fixed, caught up, identified, or strongly desirous about it. You have accepted the way it is. You have surrendered; in a healthy sense, you have given up. Make space for the disappointment or grieving that’s natural when you let go of something that’s been important for you. It’s normal to feel sad about a loss. Then after a while, it occupies your mind less and less, and you move on to more fruitful things.
Open up to the good
Let good things enter the space that’s been opened up by whatever you’ve let go. These could be more time, freedom, energy, peace, creativity, or love. Of course, there are many things worth pursuing, including the next breath, but you can make wholesome efforts while simultaneously letting go of attachment to their results. Let yourself be surprised—both by what might replace what you’ve released, and by the power of letting go in general. As the great Thai Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Chah, once said:
If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness.
If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.
Dr. Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist, meditation teacher and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. This article was reprinted with permission from his free weekly newsletter “Just One Thing.” Visit him online at www.rickhanson.net.