June 28, 2016

A Better Alternative to “Letting it Go.”


As a long time yogi and full-time yoga teacher, I have heard and said the phrase “let it go” a thousand times over.

This phrase has become a standard cue in the yoga community, and, at one point, they tumbled out of my mouth as easy as the word “breathe.” Over the past year, however, I have been more careful using this vague and over-used instruction. Perhaps this is because I have become more descriptive with my language, or perhaps it is because the challenges I have been through this year have shown me “letting go” is not always possible, nor is it the most skillful action we can take in our lives.

In my experience, I have discovered that sometimes just “letting go” of challenging emotions can actually deny them the time and space needed to process and integrate the difficulties that come with them. Prematurely trying to “let go” negates the time for honest, non-judgmental self-reflection. In some contexts, “letting go” can aid in bypassing what is actually happening in the mind and heart with the hope of producing a more pleasing emotional state. 

While we all want happiness, it is almost impossible to walk through life without experiencing unhappiness.

As the Buddha outlined in the first noble truth: with all life there will be suffering. Even within a relatively happy life there will be praise, blame, gain, loss, pleasure, pain, fame and disrepute. Both unpleasant and pleasant experiences are part of being human. So is “letting go” of the feelings we don’t want to feel the most skilful way to practice or operate within our lives?

Tibetan Buddhist practitioners would argue that our suffering is the soil in which compassion, empathy and love grow. Rather then attempting to “let go” of what is unpleasant, we can use it as grist for the mill. In fact, in Tibet, monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for the suffering that has been bestowed on them.

“Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in the deepest possible compassion and wisdom” ~ Jack Kornfield.

I think it is possible to learn from our suffering if we allow ourselves time and space to feel it, rather then categorize it as something to “let go” of. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn by sitting with our fears, obstacles and difficulty, as Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche wrote:

“To be a spiritual warrior means to develop a special kind of courage, one that is innately intelligent, gentle, and fearless. Spiritual warriors can still be frightened, but even so they are courageous enough to taste suffering, to relate clearly to their fundamental fear, and to draw out without evasion the lessons from difficulties.”

I think that the words “let it go” can have more potency provided that there is context, support and time. After all, letting go is healthy and necessary to live in a life that is always changing. But how do we let go without pushing away the truth of what we are feeling? I have found the mindfulness training R.A.I.N. (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Non-Identification) to be an excellent guide to help transform difficult emotions and mind states.


Before we can let go, we first have to name what is in our experience that is hindering us. Try and name the feeling tones that are present with your difficulty—are you confused, sad, irritated, or angry? Several emotions can happen at one time so this can require careful attention. How do these emotions appear in the mind? Simply naming and recognizing what is difficult is the first step.


Allowing an emotion to be in the space of our mind and heart can be the hardest part of this practice, because for many of us, it is easier not to feel. Try giving the difficulty a lot of space rather than resisting it or prematurely trying to let it go. I will often ask myself the question: “what am I avoiding feeling?” I then take a few deeper breaths, and imagine the breath making more space around me. The nature of our mind is spacious, and “without space, there can be no movement and no change.” ~ Dzigar Kongtrul


My teacher Sarah Powers says that emotions only stay in our body for about 90 seconds. It is our ceaseless thinking that perpetuates the emotion to create a never-ending loop of overwhelm. The next step, investigation, helps us stay with the physical feelings of emotion. How does the emotion present itself to you in your body? Where do you feel the emotion in your body? Does it have a shape, size, color or temperature? Examine these elements with curiosity and give them space just to be there with every breath.


After we finish investigating how our body expresses difficulty, we can then take a step back and remember that emotions are not personal. In Buddhist Psychology, emotions are seen to be a product of causes and conditions that usually are out of our control. When we choose not to identify, we can recognize the emotion as a product of our humanness, rather than something we created. We can see that emotions pass though us like a river and we can be there to compassionately observe.

Initially I found the step of Non-Identification curious because emotions can feel incredibly personal, especially in our society where difficult emotions are often hidden behind closed doors. But our language proves that emotions are universal; the very fact they have names is because others have felt them too. Others have felt anger, others have felt loss, others have felt fear and uncertainty—it is nice to know that in this game of life you are not alone. Difficulty is part of being a human. Knowing this, we can begin to develop compassion for ourselves and also for others.

While sometimes it is necessary to let go of unhealthy thoughts, unhealthy relationships or physical tension, sometimes more support, space and time is required. Sometimes we are ready to “let go,” but more often than not, it is better to first let it be.

Feeling into difficulty, rather than trying to let it go, can be a wonderful learning process and result which results in feeling greater compassion for yourself and others. As Sogyall Runpoche says:

“Whatever you do, don’t shut off your pain; accept your pain and remain vulnerable. However desperate you become, accept your pain as it is, because it is in fact trying to hand you a priceless gift: the chance of discovering, through spiritual practice, what lies behind sorrow.”  


Author: Stephanie Staniforth

Image: Katia Romanova // Flickr

Editors: Sarah Kolkka; Renée Picard

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