I originally wrote this for myself as a reminder of what I know to be true, but I thought you might appreciate it as well.
A few years ago, I found myself at a difficult crossroads in a relationship. It was the height of autumn in New England at the time, and so hoping I could ease my frustration, sadness and anxiety, I decided to go for a walk. To my surprise, I came upon a random hiking trail and felt called to follow it into the woods.
It led me down a long dirt path for some time, until the commotion of society faded into silence far, far behind me. I found a stump, turned off my cell phone and sat, immersed in the quiet serenity of nature.
After several minutes of watching multi-colored leaves peacefully falling from gently swaying branches—the world around me began to come into focus, and it was surprisingly alive. All around me worms were mulching and insects were crawling, eating and dying. Seeds were growing. Flowers were wilting. Birds were building. Dead wood was decaying. Bees were buzzing. Moss was—mossing.
All around me things were simultaneously dying and bursting into life.
As I took in the world from my little stump, I imagined a week was passing by and how the forest would continue to expand, change, die and re-birth itself—right before my eyes.
I started to realize how this constant evolution is similar to our human relationships. One of the experiences that bonds us all is that no matter what religion, race, culture, ethnicity or beliefs we have, we all know the emotional turmoil that comes with the ups and downs, peaks and valleys, life, death and evolution of relationships.
If we look at all this through the perspective of an alien visitor who didn’t feel emotions, we would see billions of people completely at the mercy of a continually shifting spectrum of emotional pain, discomfort and turmoil—with no physical cause—throughout the entirety of their lives.
Why? Is this just an unfortunate flaw of insanity for the human species, or does it serve some actual greater purpose?
I see that the answer is in nature. A forest is a perfect, self-sustaining system, and (as long as we don’t mess with it) everything naturally feeds back into itself as it continues to change, grow and evolve.
This is nature.
Nature is messy.
So are relationships.
Nature is ever evolving, changing, growing, dying and re-birthing in the smallest “microscopic fungus” ways to the biggest, “redwood tree crashing to the ground” ways.
So are relationships.
And while we all do our very best to make it look as if we’re above all that messiness, (I certainly do) we’re not—because we are nature.
The difference is simply this—nature doesn’t have an ego that tries to hold onto itself.
Don’t get me wrong, having an ego is a huge asset to our survival. It’s what got us nominated as the most adaptable species on the planet. (Nice work, everybody!)
The “nature” of our ego is to create labels, expectations, attachments, judgments and so on. See much of that in the natural world? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Again, nothing wrong here—you simply may have forgotten that you had signed up for nature’s advanced program (and by the way, you wouldn’t be here, reading this article right now if you hadn’t).
But again—why must we deal with so much emotional turmoil?
The pain is because humans have two different natures, in conflict with each other:
1. We are naturally designed to be ever-changing, expanding and evolving beings.
2. We are naturally designed to have an ego that works to insure it’s survival by attempting to define, control and attach itself to other evolving human beings—who also have egos. Starting to see the problem here?
It’s no wonder we feel as if we’re being torn apart when some aspect of our relationships inevitably begins to change, evolve, die or even come to life in new ways.
Here’s how I unintentionally taught myself about the human ego, when I was seven. I bought a plastic toy capsule from one of those classic vending machines at the supermarket for a quarter, and as an experiment I packed the vessel full of dried pinto beans, filled it with water, wrapped layers of my dad’s masking tape around it and then left it overnight.
When I looked at it in the morning the beans (nature) had forced the plastic container (ego) to expand to the point of completely exploding. Yeah, it’s kinda like that.
We are both the beans (nature) and we are also the container (ego).
So there is a constant battle happening between these two parts of our “self.”
But here’s the kicker—in the end, ego loses. Every time.
Until, it learns to expand with nature.
And that, my friend,
is nature’s way
of forcing us
That’s the purpose of us feeling emotional turmoil.
There is no way around it, and there is no way out of it.
This is the advanced program that you, me and everyone we know signed up for. (And lucky for us, it comes with a lifelong membership!)
No, you can’t have a refund.
The good news however, is that there is a big difference between pain and suffering.
If you’re experiencing emotional pain, and you’re not allowing your ego to expand with it, then you suffer. That can feel a lot like, oh—say, a little plastic capsule forever being slowly torn apart as it tries to resist the expanding, changing nature of all the little human beans in its world.
Very. Not. Fun.
If there was a basic, one-size-fits all strategy then it would simply be this—learn to expand your “ego” to allow for the emotional pain of change.
Consider that because a rainforest is constantly expanding, contracting, dying and coming to life, in it’s own way it is in a constant state of “pain”—but it’s not “pain” as we know it.
Imagine for a moment that the rainforest was an actual person like you and I. If that were true, then this person would have let go to the pain of their own expansion/evolution/death, and they would have re-birth so fully, that they would actually be in a state of constant and complete bliss.
Yeah, as in—“It hurts so good!”
In that sense, the rainforest (or any forest for that matter) would be the most enlightened being you know. Even the Dalai Lama couldn’t touch this one.
Could this be why so many of us experience such a state of bliss (or confrontation) when we’re submerged in nature?
Is this why so many of us feel connected to whatever our personal experience of god or divinity is when we’re in the nature?
Is that also why so many of us feel completely disconnected from the natural world around us?
So, where nature flows with change—the tendency of our human ego is to resist change. Nature doesn’t suffer, because unlike us, it doesn’t hold onto anything that wants to change forms.
If you want to practice this, then simply see your relationships as nature. Watch what happens when you let go to change. On the deepest cellular levels, a forest knows that whatever it composts is going right back into the birthing of more life. Compost gives us fruit. That is the perfection of nature, and so—when we are brave enough to let go, it is the perfection of us.
A joyful, blossoming life can only occur when we let go of all that is ready to die, change or transform—whereas holding on only restricts new life from emerging. Can you imagine a forest that resisted letting go of every dying leaf? Not only would it live in a perpetual state of strain, contraction and suffering, but it would also make for one creepy-ass hike.
It would feel more like death than life, and that just ain’t nature.
When it really comes down to it, all I know is this…
Many years ago I had built an entire life of friends and community in Los Angeles, and one day my time finally came to leave it all behind and move to San Francisco. I didn’t have a single friend there. I was very sad, scared, and I could only trust that it was the right choice. As I drove away with my car packed to the gills, I felt as if a beautiful, plush forest that I had nourished and grown from just seeds was now burning to the ground. I felt the searing pain of letting go of so much precious life I had fostered.
It was only in looking back that I could see the beauty of the process. I saw how the ashes of everything I had let burn, deeply enriched the soil of my life. I saw how it was the very thing that allowed new, far richer life to grow and blossom from that ground. I found that the friends who were the true rocks in my world remained solid and in place and as new life began burst and emerge all around me, new rocks were pushed to the surface.
This natural process extends far beyond the tiny bubble of our own little garden planet and into the vastness of space where countless stars—some of them billions of times the size of our own sun—are in their final gasps of life, and at the same time countless solar flares are flashing. Gas clouds are growing. Black holes are birthing. Entire planets are perishing. Galaxies are expanding, colliding, collapsing. Quazars are—quazaring.
Our entire world, universe and cosmos are in a constant process of birth, death and re-birth—and as far as we have any proof, it is only our so-called “intelligent life” that actually resists the process.
So quit it.
No it’s not easy—and no, it’s not without natural messiness—but whatever part of your world is dying, changing or wanting to become something else, the “Master of Letting Go” wants you to know this one thing.
It’s okay to let go…
Author: Garrison Cohen
Editors: Caitlin Oriel & Yoli Ramazzina