Learning to Let Go

I love quotations. Sometimes hearing how another has observed life and then tried to make sense of it, or has somehow managed to articulate a complicated emotion or an approach to dealing with it… well, these words can help me clarify my own thoughts and choose a course of action that instinctively feels right. I am motivated by words, I nod in agreement, or I tear up at an emotion well-remembered, but survived. My collection of quotations is vast, and I add to it whenever I can, as brave and true words are a source of nourishment to me. When I struggle, I turn to my collection of wisdom as a source of comfort and inspiration.

Today I found a quote that seems like it would be helpful during difficult times. You see, one reads so much about just letting go, and how what is meant for you will be there, and what isn’t meant for you will go, and it sounds so peaceful, this letting go. But no one really ever explains how to do it. If you can manage to “let go”, this well-meaning advice makes it sound as if the experiences or the people you have come to love and want most in your life will just float by as if part of a grand river and what is meant for you will come to rest beside you, effortlessly, while the rest flows on. But letting go is hard, and often feels incomplete. Conversely, so is staying, just as a reed that is caught on a rock will still be buffeted by the flow of the river even as it stays put.

So bottom line? Life is hard, always, for all of us. It is a struggle to stay with certain life situations and it can be a struggle to let them go. Sheng-Yen, a highly-revered Chinese Buddhist monk who died in 2009, offered this advice:

“When faced with any difficulty of life, resolve it by following these four steps: face it, accept it, deal with it, and then let it go.”

Face it. How often we don’t face the truth of the messes we’re in, the steps we’ve taken to put ourselves there, the decisions which seemed right when they were made but that have now added up to a difficult situation. To face our choices is to acknowledge why those decisions were made in the first place, to remember what led you to this place, to admit where you could have made a different choice but didn’t, and then to remember how each step in this journey has led you here. This is not always a comfortable act, but it is honest and necessary.

Accept it. Once you face the mess you are in and call it what it is, the problem, whatever it is, becomes a little more manageable. They always say what can be measured can be managed. Well, by looking at a situation and calling it what it is, you accept it and this can help strip it of its power. If you see it clearly, it can be addressed. It is in the hiding that problem situations gain their power and seem insurmountable.

Deal with it. Not much more to say here. Once you have faced a problem and accepted it, in your heart, you know what needs to be done. A critical conversation, a commitment to yourself and your truth, a decisive action. It may take time, it may take lots of steps, but you cannot fully let go of something until you complete this step, and deep inside, you already know this.

Let it go. And now you can breathe again. You have dealt with your difficult situation in honesty, with yourself and others, and now you can breathe deeply and let go. Letting go doesn’t mean that you’ll never think of it again, that you won’t miss someone or something now and again, or that you won’t have similar problems in the future. But it does mean that you’ve done your best with this problem, this situation, and knowing that, you can let it flow by you now, keeping the good, and letting the rest go downstream.

Simply Say Thank You

With the cold and gray days of winter lingering, it is easy to fall into a bit of a funk. Winter seems so long sometimes, and everything takes more effort, more energy, and definitely more clothing, as even going outside to walk the dog becomes a process taking twice the time for bundling up and then un-bundling when you come back in! It is gray outside and at this time of the year, I often feel gray inside, too.

One way to feel hopeful again, and to stay on the brighter side of the remaining weeks of winter is to keep a gratitude journal. I know, I know, you’ve heard this all before and it seems either too cheesy, too time-consuming or unlikely to be something you stick with for any length of time, so why start? And did I mention it sounds a little cheesy?

But if you can keep it simple, a gratitude journal can be a five minute practice at the end of each day that will change the way you approach your life.

A couple of years ago, I moved into my current home. I had never lived on my own before, and while I was excited by the prospect, and really happy about my choice in a new home, I was also feeling very overwhelmed with the ‘what-ifs’… what if the roof leaked or I had an electrical problem? What if my basement flooded or someone broke in? Was I safe here (and of course that meant physically, mentally, emotionally)? It was easy for my mind to spin out of control as I imagined the infinite number of scenarios in which something bad could or would happen. I knew that this way of thinking was harmful and that this negativity was keeping me from enjoying my new life. And besides, I was OK. Everything negative was in my mind, so it stood to reason that if I replaced those thoughts with more positive ones, my approach to this new life would change, too.

So I began a simple habit that I still use almost daily to make sure I stay focused on what matters. I keep a small pocket sized notebook in my nightstand, and each night before I go to sleep, I list five things for which I am grateful. On good days, I can think of specific events to list, good and serendipitous things that have happened. On the rest of the days, I can list the basics: my daughters whom I love so much, my special friends who care so well for me, my health, my job that pays the bills, my warm bed, and if nothing else, the fact that I can go to sleep in a few minutes and forget the day ever happened!

Five things… simple. If I spend a minute thinking about each one, that is enough to remind me of my good fortune, and to make every day, no matter how gray and wintry, one to be thankful for!

Healthy Friendship

Over the holidays, I regularly host a large ornament exchange, to which i invite about fifty people, and maybe twenty to thirty come. We always have a great time, and many of these friends tell me it is the highlight of their holiday season, which is nice, because it is certainly a highlight of mine. Why? Our children (who were the basis of our acquaintance, friendship and frequent socializing years ago) are grown and gone now, and with our busy work schedules and other commitments, many of us only see each other at this annual event; and sadly,we are not unusual. Many adults are alone more than they’d like to be, and if this solitude becomes isolation or loneliness, it can have an effect on our health and of course, our overall quality of life.

Let’s face it, adult friendships are typically forged through work or at school or sporting events with the kids. Once that is gone, it takes a much more intentional effort to make the social connections that everyone needs to thrive. But the effort is worth it, not only to fill our social calendars (if that’s what we want), but also to stay physically and mentally healthy. We are above and after all, social beings, and one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is to cultivate our social lives.

One way to do this is to build on the wonderful way in which all of us become much more ourselves in middle age. By this time, pretense has fallen away. All of us have won and lost at life; we’ve questioned our decisions, and made small or radical changes as the years have gone by. We realize the value of companionship, of being seen and appreciated by someone we too see and appreciate. Without anything to prove, we can just enjoy each other. The pressure to impress is over.

I find that I am conversely more protective of my alone time, and at the same time more open to saying yes to social outings with acquaintances and neighbors I don’t know so well. The paradox has provided a certain balance while making life more interesting. I’ve even found a few new friends along the way. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, “The sun of real happiness shines in your life when you start to cherish others.” What are you waiting for?