“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water.” ~ Bhagavad Gita
As a little kid growing up in a traditional Christian church (in the South no less), I often heard the phrase “You gotta give it up to God, girl.”
I could never understand what it meant. Every time I had a problem someone would tell me that I had to give it to God, but no one ever quite explained what giving something to God meant or how to do it, so eventually I chalked the phrase up to cliché—one of those things people say all the time, like “everything happens for a reason.”
A few years ago when I began my yoga practice I was surprised to hear my yoga teachers saying, essentially, the same thing.
“Let it go. Give your problems to the Universe,” they’d say, sounding awfully familiar.
But I still didn’t exactly understand.
Up to that point, the greatest suffering in my life had been caused by two things, which were really part of the same big thing: attachment. I was overly concerned with controlling other people and with controlling situations. I wanted people to do what I wanted them to do. I wanted things to turn out the way I’d imagined and the way I believed was best.
I was attached to my expectations and it was destroying my life.
People rarely do what we want them to do and things usually don’t go as planned, but I found this all very hard to accept and extremely frightening. My heart broke when I saw people I loved making bad choices. I became anxious and disappointed about experiences that didn’t turn out the way I’d imagined, so I was pretty miserable a lot of the time and I was confused too. I felt that I knew best the way everything and everyone ought to be, so why did things always go so seemingly wrong?
Because I couldn’t detach myself from my desired outcomes (people doing what I wanted and events going according to my plans) I grasped even harder for some illusion of control.
I ramped it up when I should have been stepping back and this caused increased anxiety and grief for me.
I lacked faith. It was as if I somehow imagined myself as wiser and more powerful than the Universe (or God or whatever you want to call it). I thought I knew best and that if I planned more and did more and worked harder and gave people even more unsolicited advice and got into even more of other peoples’ business and manipulated situations in my own favor (tried to anyway) even more that finally something would work and everyone and everything would finally conform to my idea of what wonderful was.
This plan continued to fail dramatically.
Yet I resisted more. The more my plan failed the more I fought against it until I finally, one day, broke. I kind of just lost my mind and while I won’t go into the details of that here, I will say that losing my mind was a good thing. I needed to get rid of my old perspective and old way of doing things in order to gain clarity, find a new way of seeing the world and yes, finally, learn to let go.
My yoga teachers often told the story of the lotus flower that manages to bloom beautifully while hovering over the mud.
The lotus lives in the mud, as we all do, but it isn’t affected by it. Its petals don’t get dirty because ultimately the lotus is detached from the mud.
The lotus is just happily doing its flowery thing. It doesn’t sit there on the lily pad freaking out that mud is near it or that mud is going to get on it. It doesn’t make itself crazy trying to figure out myriad ways of cleaning up the pond. Nope. It just blooms with no worry whatsoever about the mud that is, oh my god, inches away.
Learning to detach from my desired outcomes has been an ongoing, superhuman act of mindfulness.
It hurts. It’s really hard. It’s like a never-ending Brazilian bikini wax of the soul.
But with a lot of practice, I’m getting better, though I suspect this will be a lifelong process for me.
Detaching began with a decision and a resolution: I will no longer worry about what other people are doing. Actually I think it was more like: “Screw all y’all. I’m sick of worrying about what nonsense you’re doing. I’m going to do my own thing from now on regardless of what mess you people get yourselves into.” You know, whatever works, right?
To practice detachment I had to learn to turn my focus inward. Translation? I had to mind my own business.
Minding my own business involved creating a full, rich, happy and inspired life for myself. In trying to control everything around me, I had neglected myself and when I learned to detach, I started nurturing myself more.
I went to yoga, started eating better, sought spiritual guidance, played outside, had more fun and opened myself up to a wider range of creative experiences. I did things that I wanted to do and filled my life with everything that interested and excited me to the point where I no longer had to fret so much about everyone else.
The hardest part of learning to detach had to do with faith. I don’t really know how to tell someone to “get” faith and honestly, I don’t even know how I got it. It just sort of came when I realized that I wasn’t in control and that when I tried to control everything I did a truly disastrous job.
Faith also came with reflection. When I looked back on my past I could find meaning and lessons in my experiences. I’d made awful mistakes and done all variety of stupid things but in each catastrophe there came spiritual, intellectual and emotional growth. So, if that was true for me, then it was true for everyone else too.
I had one of those light bulb moments then. Other people were learning and growing too and I had to get out of their way and let them learn on their own. This was enormously, immensely, beautifully freeing. Everyone was on their own paths! I didn’t have to do anything! Everything was exactly as it should be, even if it didn’t seem like it.
I had to trust and I did.
I can do this with experiences now too. It’s okay if things don’t go according to plan. Most of the time I don’t even have a plan anymore and I’m able to detach enough to be flexible and trust that I am having the experience that I was meant to have and that there will be meaning and purpose in whatever is happening to me, even if it’s not necessarily what I might have wanted. This is such a relief.
Finally, there was the worry. I’ve always been a worry wort. Worrying was such an ingrained part of me that releasing it felt like a physical amputation.
I’m not even kidding. It was that difficult. My worry served an irrational magical function though. It was a crutch.
I felt like if I worried about bad things happening that I could somehow prevent them from happening, which was so not true. I don’t have those kinds of powers and that is a good thing. I worried that if I stopped worrying that the entire world would fall completely apart and it would be all my fault because the strength of my anxiety was keeping everything together.
Except it totally wasn’t.
People who worry focus everything they have on a projected future that doesn’t even exist. I chose to focus on the present and what was happening right this second instead. I decided that I would deal only with things once they’d happened instead of always trying to predict what might happen.
Ultimately, I really did learn to “Give it to God, girl.” I still don’t know what that means for others, but for me it means that I can relax and say “Universe, I trust that every experience I’ve been given and every person who’s come into my life has come to help me learn and grow and find the beauty and meaning in this wild and messy life, and I’m okay with that. We’re all going to survive.”
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Wikimedia Commons