By Leo Babauta
One of the keys to living a life of calm and purpose is the art of letting go.
If you’d like a more peaceful life, it’s powerful to look at what disturbs that peace, and practice letting go of whatever you’re holding onto that’s causing you anxiety and frustration.
If you’d like a life of purposeful focus, it’s powerful to examine what is standing in the way of that … and let go of whatever is blocking you.
Letting go can seem quite simple, but it isn’t necessarily easy. We have attachments that we cling to quite tightly, and letting go of them is often something we don’t want to do.
In this article, I’ll share the deeper part of the practice of letting go. Then I’ll talk about how you might practice.
The Heart of Letting Go
When we are clinging to something that’s causing us to resist purposeful action, or to have our calm disrupted … what’s causing that?
The cause is some kind of idea, concept, or narrative we have in our minds. Let’s look at some examples:
- We often think it’s something outside of us — that person over there did something that upsets me, frustrates me, annoys me. But the other person isn’t the real cause — they’re just doing something. The real cause is that we have idea that they shouldn’t be the way they are.
- Sometimes we think we’re the problem — we shouldn’t be so lazy, or undisciplined, or something like that. We blame ourselves, feel bad about ourselves, then try not to think about it. But what if the cause of our feeling bad is that we think we shouldn’t be the way we are?
- If we’re resisting doing something, we might think that the problem is with the task/activity we’re resisting … or with ourselves for not being strong enough. But what if the cause of resistance is that we think the activity should feel some other way than it does?
You can see in these examples that I’m pointing to an idea that things should be different than they are. People will resist this … because they want things to be different than they are. They want change. And that’s understandable, we want to change what we don’t like. But what if we accepted what things are like, and then created change from a different place — from wanting to create, to play, to love, to explore?
How to Let Go of Conceptions
All of this stems from having an idea of how things should be that’s different than how they are. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this idea — but it is just an idea. And to the extent that it’s causing difficulties, we can see how it would be helpful to let it go.
Imagine that you’re frustrated with or feeling bad about yourself, someone else, or a situation you’re facing. Imagine that this frustration or feeling bad stems from an idea that things should be different than they are.
Now imagine letting go of that idea. You’re just left with the experience of this moment, just as it is.
Notice how freeing that can be. It’s not about letting someone “off the hook,” or letting go of accountability or commitment to change. It’s about freeing ourselves from the attachment to an idea that’s causing some kind of suffering (frustration, resistance, feeling bad).
We’re freeing ourselves, by letting go of the idea we’re holding onto.
The key realization is that the idea is just an idea. It’s not that it’s wrong or bad, but it’s a mental conception, rather than reality. We can use mental conceptions when they’re helpful, but let go of them if they’re not.
Our idea of other people, of ourselves, of any situation … is simply a mental conception. What if we could free ourselves in any moment by realizing that there’s a mental conception that we’ve created that we don’t need right now?
It can simply evaporate, if we let it. Our conception of how things should be can become cloudlike, looser, more open.
Try it right now: whatever you think you should be, whatever you think someone else is, is just a conception you’ve created. Can you let it go in this moment, and see what you’re left with?
How to Practice
OK, so how do we practice with all of this?
First, notice when there’s a difficulty: frustration, resistance, feeling bad about yourself, annoyance, anxiety. If you notice this, it gives you access to being able to practice with it.
Second, without needing to judge how you’re feeling, could you simply be with it? For example, if you’re feeling frustration, could you just let yourself feel the frustration as a physical experience in your body (as opposed to getting caught up in the narrative of frustration)? Give yourself compassion if you can. But there is nothing wrong with feeling what you’re feeling. Often it’s useful to simply let ourselves feel the emotion, rather than trying to fix it.
Third, if you’d like to free yourself, you can let go of the mental conception that’s causing the difficulty. It’s usually an idea of how you think things should be. What if you could just let it evaporate, and let yourself be free? Play around with it.
Fourth, you might just experience the moment free of conception. Just pure experience. Is there something in this moment you can be curious about? Be grateful for? Can you feel the wonder of this moment?
Fifth, once you’re free, you can take action if any is needed. For example, you can take on the task that you’re resisting, once you’re free of the idea that the task should feel different. Or you can have a conversation with someone, once you’ve let go of your frustration with them. Being free doesn’t mean we don’t take action — we just do so from a different place.
Would you like to take on this freeing practice?