As 2014 dawns, I find myself thinking more and more about letting go.
I've made all my usual resolutions -- get back to the gym more, lose those 5 pounds, spend more time with my family.
But lately I've been wondering: Could it be that many of my problems could be solved -- would dissolve actually -- if I could let go of things more?
I'm thinking of all the things I hang on to, despite my better judgment -- worries, anger, unrealistic expectations, and the constant desire for more.
Meditation teacher Martine Batchelor illustrates this with a story about stairs. Each time she walked up the old, beat-up stairs in her house, she saw in her mind a second set which were perfectly refinished. Hanging on to this perfect set in her mind caused her a lot of grief.
How often do we make ourselves miserable by holding on to two sets of reality? The house I have, and the house I want. The place I'm at, and the place I want to be. The children I have, and the children I think I should have. And of course there is my personal favorite: The parent I am, and the parent I would like to be.
Despite the fact that it makes us so unhappy, the impulse to hang on for dear life seems to be very strong. Why do we persist?
Perhaps it has to do with feeling safer in the face of fear. I remember sitting at the top of the slide at the swimming pool, my father waiting to catch me in the pool below, a long line of kids waiting behind me, and my not being able to let go. Hanging on just felt safer.
One of our first reflexes is the palmar reflex -- a baby can grasp with its little fists from birth -- and in our evolutionary past, we needed to grab on to a furry mother and hang on for dear life. Maybe it's not so surprising that the act of letting go is sometimes accompanied by an irrational fear.
Letting go is difficult for other reasons. It can feel like letting go of control. Two friends of mine had a dispute they couldn't resolve. Both seemed to be unwilling to let go, even at the price of losing a good friendship. Being "right" seemed more important than the friendship.
And when we let go of anger, other feelings may be lurking underneath -- feelings like sadness or shame. Feeling angry may feel safer.
But hanging on to anger takes a lot of energy. It can be exhausting. I am reminded of the Tibetan monks who endure months or years of torture, yet who practice compassion for their captors. This is not just an act of altruism, but an act essential to their own spiritual survival. A heart burdened by anger is not free; indeed, the more we rail against our captor, the more he takes up residence inside us.
If someone who has been tortured can let go of anger, couldn't the rest of us give it a try?
What must we let go of to free ourselves of suffering? When I ask myself this question, the answer pops up immediately: Let go of comparing yourself to others, let go of the dream of perfection, let go of anger. Let go of the constant worrying.
I don't mean that we should ignore our feelings of anger, sadness or grief. Perhaps, rather, we can simply be with those experiences -- feel them, but hold them more lightly. Unclench our fists a little, and let them evaporate on their own. As Tara Brach says, let them move through us and beyond us.
But how do we accomplish this?
I think compassion and forgiveness can help. Compassion for ourselves, for our tendency to judge ourselves, expect too much from ourselves, and compare ourselves to others. Compassion for the pain of living this human life -- for what it feels like to be angry, sad, distraught, worried.
Just as important, we need compassion for those who have wronged or hurt us, even unknowingly. Like compassion, forgiveness is also an act of letting go. For what is forgiveness if not letting go of the hold of anger which imprisons our hearts? Only by letting go of our emotional albatross and embracing compassion and forgiveness can we begin to heal ourselves.
My mother-in-law Janice taught me this lesson on her deathbed. As she lay dying, she slipped into a coma. We thought the end had come. But, miraculously, the doctor was able to revive her again. Her son Jim and his wife Abby (my brother and sister in laws) sat by her bed. Janice and Abby had often had a difficult relationship. This time, Abby brought a bouquet of flowers to Janice. Janice inhaled their scent and began to sing, "Wouldn't it be lovely?" a song she had always loved. Would you sing with me? she asked Abby. My sister-in-law was moved by this request, and all three began singing together.
Abby related the story to me with joy. She told me in wonder how much she enjoyed spending these precious moments with her mother in law -- someone she had previously avoided -- and how the pure joy and love seemed to shine through her: "Once you got under all her anxieties and worries, she was just pure love. It was like I was finally seeing who she truly was as a person."
What an amazing gift! Janice had finally let go of her lifelong worries, resentments and fears, her struggle to control all of them and others. When she let go, the joy and love that was always there just flowed.
Will we also wait until our deathbeds to let go, or can we decide to do it now?
What do I need to let go of to be happy? As this new year unfolds, I let this question arise when it wants to and listen for the answer. I can't say that I've given up my New Year's resolutions completely -- I still want to lose those five pounds, get to the gym, and spend more time with family.
But I'm realizing that sometimes less is more, and that letting go of things might be a surprisingly simple, if not easy, way to happiness.