If you let go a little, you have a little peace.
If you let go a lot, you have a lot of peace,
If you let go completely, you have complete peace.
— Ajahn Chah
The call to let go lies at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions. Non-attachment to outcomes, surrendering desires, accepting the present, opening to a higher power, relinquishing the ego, forgiveness — they all entail letting go.
Why is this deemed so important? Holding on, these teachings repeatedly affirm, limits our perception, clouds our thinking, and lies behind much of our suffering.
Letting go, on the other hand, brings relief. The mind relaxes, and free from tension and the energy that went into holding on, we feel more at ease. We see things as they are without an overlay of fear or anxiety. We are more open to others, and to love. We realize that what we were seeking by holding on — safety, happiness, joy, peace of mind — was there all along. But our holding on veiled its presence.
Letting go can take many forms: letting go of fixed beliefs or points of view; letting go of being right; letting go of ego; letting go of the past, or expectations of the future; letting go of attachments to possessions or a relationship; letting go of judgments and grievances; letting go of unhealthy emotions; letting go of assumptions about how things should or should not be.
In these and many other instances, we are being called to let go of beliefs, projections, expectations, interpretations, attitudes, and attachments. These aren’t things in the way objects like a book, a house, or a person are. They exist only in the mind.
They are the lens through which we experience the things of this world. If you are wearing blue-tinted spectacles, you will see things with a blue-ish tinge. But the lens itself is not part of the world you see. In a similar way, the lens through which we see our world is not another thing we see. In this sense, we are letting go of the “non-things” that color our view of the world.
Hence the title of my new book: Letting Go of Nothing. Or, as I sometimes put it, “Letting Go of No-Thing.”
If letting go is so valuable, why don’t we just do it? The answer, as we all know from experience, is that letting go is not as easy as it sounds.
After the death of a beloved animal companion, for example, friends may see our distress and say something like, “You just have to let go.” Something similar can happen after a devastating relationship breakup. People say, “Just move on.” And while these suggestions may be correct in a way, they are not so helpful because “just letting go” under such conditions can be extremely difficult. The painful memory of such a loss still strikes us to the core, no matter our good intentions.
The difficulty stems from treating letting go as another task to do. But we can’t “do” letting go, however hard we try. To let go, we have to cease the “doing” of holding on. And that requires a quite different approach.
Imagine you are holding a small rock in the air. Holding on takes effort, which keeps the muscles of your hand tense. To let go, we relax our muscles and release our grip. We cease holding on; and letting go happens.
It works similarly with the mind. Here the grip we need to release is a mental one — our holding on to some attitude, belief, expectation, or judgment. We need to allow our minds to relax — literally, “to be loose again.”
So we should approach letting go, not as another thing to do, but as un-doing the holding on. It is not trying or efforting in any way; instead, it’s developing the internal conditions that help the mind relax, and allow letting go to happen.
Although this may sound unconventional — and it certainly does entail a very different approach from the frustrating “trying” to let go we easily default to — I have found it a far more effective path. To this end, I like to reframe “letting go” as “letting in” and “letting be.”
Letting something in may, initially, sound like the opposite of what we want. We assume that letting go of something means getting rid of it, pushing it away. If we want to let go of some grievance, we may try not to think about what the other person did and how awful they were. Or if we want to let go of our attachment to money, we may try to stop worrying about our finances, and push such concerns to the back of our minds. But I have found it is often better to do the opposite. To release the grip our mind has on some attitude or idea, we should first let in the experience of holding on. If we are not aware we are holding onto a rock, we cannot let our grip relax.
To “let in” an experience means to allow it more fully into awareness, to become curious about what is going on. Let’s take, as an example, some bodily discomfort or tension. You may already be aware of discomfort somewhere in the body. If not, simply be curious whether there might be something you haven’t noticed. Some sensation may then reveal itself. It was probably on the edge of your awareness, but because your attention was focused on reading this, or some other experience, you didn’t notice it. Innocent curiosity opens you to the possibility that you might have missed something, giving it the opportunity to enter your awareness.
When you do notice physical discomfort somewhere, let it in, be curious as to how it feels. It might appear as some tightness, an ache in a muscle, or a feeling of pressure somewhere. How far does it spread? Is it localized or more diffuse? The key is opening your awareness to what is, rather than trying to change anything.
Having let the sensation in, the second part of letting go is letting be. Don’t try to change the feelings that have appeared or wish they weren’t there. Instead, accept them as they are. Let your attention stay with them in an innocent curious way, almost as if you were experiencing them for the first time. Think of it as making friends with the sensations, getting to know them.
As you let the experience in and let it be, you might notice that it begins to change, sometimes in unexpected ways, and without any effort on your part. A sharp sensation might soften. An ache might grow stronger and then fade. Numbness might give way to other sensations. A tense muscle might begin to unwind of its own accord.
This is just one example of the principle of “letting in and letting be” at work. I have found it equally valuable in letting go of unwanted emotions, distressing stories we tell ourselves, judgments and grievances, and egoic thinking. Almost anything where our attachment is getting in the way of our living a happier, more peaceful, and loving life.
When we want to let go of or our attachment to something we want to be free from it. But I’ve found that trying to get rid of it or push it to the edge of my mind where it cannot influence me so much (or so I think) doesn’t really bring freedom. On the other hand, as we open up to what is going in that moment, with an innocent, curiosity, the attachment begins to soften and the letting go begins to happen by itself.
About the Author
Peter Russell is a fellow of The World Business Academy and The Findhorn Foundation, and an Honorary Member of The Club of Budapest. At Cambridge University (UK), he studied mathematics and theoretical physics. Then, as he became increasingly fascinated by the mysteries of the human mind he changed to experimental psychology. Pursuing this interest, he traveled to India to study meditation and eastern philosophy, and on his return took up the first research post ever offered in Britain on the psychology of meditation.
As one of the more revolutionary futurists Peter Russell has been a keynote speaker at many international conferences, in Europe, Japan, and the USA. His multi-image shows and videos, The Global Brain and The White Hole in Time have won praise and prizes from around the world. In 1993 the environmental magazine Buzzworm voted Peter Russell “Eco-Philosopher Extraordinaire” of the year.
His principal interest is the deeper, spiritual significance of the times we are passing through. His work seeks to distill the essence of the world’s spiritual traditions and present it in ways relevant to the current times. His new book, Letting Go of Nothing: Relax Your Mind and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature, was published in August 2021. His other books include The TM Technique, The Upanishads, The Brain Book, The Creative Manager, The Consciousness Revolution, Waking Up in Time, The Global Brain / The Awakening Earth, Seeds of Awakening, and From Science to God.