Letting Go: What it means. How to do it.

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

Meditation is a practice in letting go. In meditation 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 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 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: 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?”

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, hoping against hope to control the other person who wants nothing more of or from him.

Similarly, nothing kills a 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 so aptly noted), we tell Her our plans. We understand that there’s no such thing as perfection. There’s 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.


Seth Segall, Ph.D. is a retired member of the clinical faculty of the Yale School of Medicine, the former Director of Psychology at Waterbury Hospital, and a former president of the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation. He is the editor of Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings published by SUNY Press in 2003. His blog,The Existential Buddhist, explores issues related to Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethics, meditation, and social activism from a non-dogmatic point of view. Seth is also a professional grandfather, classical piano student, gardener, environmental activist, and aspiring novelist. He is affiliated with White Plains Zen. You can follow Seth on Twitter by clicking here, or on  Facebook by clicking here. Subscribe to his blog’s feed by clicking here.


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15 Responses to “Letting Go: What it means. How to do it.”

  1. Deborah says:

    To tell your tale is to heal

    People like to hear

    the funny

    the amusing

    the happy

    the suspenseful

    But they waver some

    on the tragic

    or unending

    the devastating

    or the horrifying

    They say as an audience

    Let it go


    Get on with life

    Little do they know

    telling has nothing to do

    with unforgiveness

    Telling is the river on the jagged rocks

    It tells and flows

    and tells and flows

    and tells

    and flows

    over the very rocks

    that cut

    and bent

    and bruised

    After a time

    the blood washes away

    the water flows clear

    And the rocks?

    Those jagged cutting edges

    are smoothed, softened.

    Even the sound of the waters voice

    changes from crashing

    to song.

    Deborah Bountiful Davis

    Sent via DroidX2 on Verizon Wireless™

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  9. Lisa Stevens says:

    Thank you for your article that put the practice of letting go so succinctly. Deborah, your poem was lovely, too!

  10. DuvessSimone says:

    Just what I needed . . .

  11. Susan says:

    Best Elephant article I have read!! These words are just what I was supposed to read today.

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