What does it take to let go in our lives? To allow for loss – of a loved one, a cherished object, a known and familiar feeling or experience. How do we go about surrendering and letting go?
My experience is that most of us will cling to that someone or something, refusing to let it go completely. We make excuses, rationalize and bargain with ourselves. Confronted with the event of loss we tend to grip, to cling, to wrap ourselves around the very thing we need to let go of. It is human nature to fear surrendering what we most love, what we have grown accustomed to. It is human nature to fear surrendering and letting go, period. It frightens us, it makes us feel vulnerable, makes us feel alone, existentially doomed to loss. What will we have once we let go? Once we surrender? It takes a leap of faith, a belief that once we release our grip we will be able to continue our life in a different, and perhaps even fuller way.
We build our lives around loved ones, family, things, objects, habits, beliefs, you name it. And letting go of “it” whatever “it” is, threatens our very sense of being. Talking with a patient about her struggle letting go of her persistent binging, and of her tendency to isolate and sleep, to wrap herself in familiar patterns, her fear that she will always have a black hole inside, she tells me a Buddhist story:
A man slips and falls down the side of a mountain, he begins to fall quickly, the end of the precipice thousands of feet below. He manages to grab a branch, and as he clings to it for dear life, he begins a dialogue in his head:
“Dear lord, if you get me out of this one I promise I will pray and I will never do wrong again.”
“SURE” a voice replies, “THAT’S WHAT THEY ALL SAY.”
Startled, looking for the source of the voice and glancing down at the precipice below, the man continues, “No really, I will, I promise, just help me get out of this one, and I will do anything you want, anything really!”
“EVERYONE SAYS THAT IN YOUR SHOES.”
“Please, I promise, I will, I will do anything you say.”
“ARE YOU SURE, ANYTHING AT ALL?”
“FINE….THEN LET GO!”
To let go is counter intuitive to us, and yet, we cannot advance without doing so. The very act of clinging keeps us immobile, tightly wound around the thing we cling to. Even when we want to let go, we fear… the precipice. I think this must be akin to what Sartre had on his mind when he described existential angst. Very unlike the next example, which celebrates letting go as part of the natural order of life.
Around Christmas time of 2009, I heard a beautiful sermon on WQXR radio (by Reverend Bruce from the Unitarian Church in NYC) on this very topic. He was speaking on the need to let go with gratitude and an open heart. He shared an experience, which was recorded by an observer in the Metro section of the New York Times newspaper. It went something like this:
A woman steps out of a subway car and starts to put her gloves back on when she realizes that she is missing one. She turns to look at the subway car and sees one lonely glove on the seat, the companion to the one she is holding in her hand. It is now too late to retrieve the glove from the train, so with a shrug of the shoulders she throws the glove that is in her hand back into the train as the doors close. She smiles and walks away.
Surrendering with gratitude and open heart.
My colleague, Dr. Mark Epstein (Open to Desire) talks about the difference between holding and clinging. Holding is done with an open hand, so that whatever we hold near and dear to us is free to move and be. Clinging is more akin to gripping- tightening our hand around something so that it lies prisoner within our grasp.
Surrendering with gratitude and open heart requires an open hand. It requires a lightness of touch, a lightness of being. Openness rather than tightness. Think about what we do when we are afraid: we tense up, tighten up every muscle we have; we crouch, cross our arms, we close up. We grip and hold onto ourselves. We do this to try and protect ourselves. The question is: from what? Some fears, perhaps most fears, come from within, even if they are triggered by external events. In the case of letting go, it is our fear of not having, of looking into our own precipice, of losing our (known) sense of self, that makes us grip and hold on.
Once we think of surrendering with an open heart we are immediately confronted with the fact that to do so, requires an act of faith on our parts. I do not mean of the religious or spiritual kind, I mean of the personal kind. A personal leap of faith. The woman on the train platform did exactly that when she threw her remaining glove into the train: she released her grip with a smile. Her act of faith exemplified in her release of the glove – in her belief that she could let go, and that she was better off throwing it back into the train to join its companion, rather than bemoaning her loss, or worse – attempting to retrieve it. The act of letting go creating new possibilities of ownership (anyone need gloves?) as well as freedom. Can any of us disagree with that?
Surrendering has to do with acceptance. Acceptance of who we are, of all of those parts of ourselves that we spend much our lives not wanting to know, but nevertheless know of. Acceptance of what we do, how we think, what we say, and of course, of what has happened to us in our lives. Acceptance of our limitations and our not so nice parts. Years ago, a patient described what it took for her to stop smoking. “I finally surrendered” she said, “finally gave up in acceptance that I could no longer fill myself with smoke, while telling myself I was soothing myself”. She surrendered to the idea that she wanted to live despite the inevitable suffering that might come as part of really living. This took accepting the fact that her addiction was not to nicotine, but to the way smoking filled her loneliness and cradled her agita. Twenty years later, she tells me that she still believes that smoking is the best anti-depressant, and that when she gave it up, she had to deal with not being able to instantly fill that space up. She had to accept her loneliness and even her depression, and do something to address those. She had to let go.
Like the man hanging on a limb in the precipice, most of us will do “anything” not to let go. We will bargain, get angry, deny, all part of the cycle that leads us to acceptance and surrendering. We all have much to learn from the woman on the train.
First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on June 21, 2010.