Mindfulness and the Art of Letting Go

By Yael Schweitzer, LCSW, BC-DMT

“Do everything with a mind that lets go. Do not expect any praise or reward. If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.”

– Achaan Cha, A Still Forest Pool

When we practice mindfulness, when we learn to notice thoughts without getting carried by their content, and when we learn to sit with pain or discomfort, we practicing letting go. Most clients who come to see me are holding firmly onto something—their story, their fears, losses, expectations, relationships, or possessions—even when these things cause them pain and suffering. We all tend to hold those things and more. Learning to let go can be an act of release and healing.

The major part of holding takes place in thoughts: obsessive thoughts, worries for the future and regrets of the past, thoughts that form your life philosophy and beliefs about who you are and your journey in the world. There are three ways of mindfulness practice that cultivate letting go of the grip of thoughts.

Awareness and Exploration
By bringing awareness to the content of thoughts through inquiry, one can learn to identify themes and topics that rise repeatedly, note them, and simply observe them without getting involved in their content. This “scientific” observation approach serves as a way to let go. When you are curios about the phenomenon of thoughts, you naturally are less attached to the message that the thought carries. Observing the process of how thoughts emerge, develop, rise and fall, and appear and disappear helps to neutralize identification with the content of the thought.

Focusing on the Breath, the Body, or an Object
The basic method for practicing mindfulness is to focus on the breath. When the meditator notices thoughts coming, he or she just shifts awareness back to the breath. This gentle inner action of shifting awareness serves as a practice of letting go. When one notices thoughts, the tendency is to follow, to get engaged in the content of the thought, even if this engagement brings pain and suffering. Noticing the inner activity of thinking and choosing not to get involved, but rather to reconnect with the breath, is an act of letting go. You allow yourself to let go of the thought.

Physical openness: Holding means tightness. Holding with your hand means that you tightened and folded your fingers. When we hold sadness, anger, hatred, worries, and more, there is a tightness and closing in the chest, belly, and jaws. Adapting a sense of openness and developing a sense of wide chest, open arms, and open face helps to let go of the inner holding and tightness.

Mental openness: Developing a wider view of a problem, and seeing the relative place it takes in the whole tapestry of one’s life, helps to let go of the sense of emergency and magnitude of whatever one holds. Assuming perspective can apply not just to one’s life, but also to the general scheme of things and the place of the individual within the society, nature, and the universe. These forms of mental openness release constant hovering over the issue and give a sense of release.

Mindfulness is not Distraction
We all know of another way to let go, usually for a limited amount of time, the way of distraction. Distractions can be helpful sometimes to ease tension, anxiety, and pain, and as long as they are not destructive, they can be used. However, distractions are not part of mindfulness, and their affect is limited, with no cumulative effect of growth.

It is important to note that in the mindfulness methods, the idea is not to ignore a problem or avoid addressing it—it is about a choice between suffering and freedom. One can still choose to deal with issues that need to be addressed, but do it from a place of non-attachment. Letting go releases the energy that was captured by holding to be used for creative and meaningful changes.

© Copyright 2010 by Yael Schweitzer, LCSW, BC-DMT, therapist in Portland, Oregon

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