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:
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.
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!”
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 agitation. 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.
And one more, just because I think it's a cool list ...
Christmas and New year are over, probably a busy stressful time for many and, whether we like it or not, a time to look back and look forward.
My first post of the year, just a light hearted glance at some of my favourite posts from Facebook and |tumblr over the past month ...
My personal Favourite is the one about the wolves: which one will you feed this year?
If you are struggling with the New Year, or any aspect of your life and feel you need help, support or counselling, maybe now is the time and this year is the year to find that support.
Gateway Counselling provides counselling and support, specialising in depression, anxiety and stress (which covers a huge amount of other things as well).
I also provide sessions using a variety of tools and chats to build life skills, maybe become more confident or talk through options.
Please do take a look at my Home Page and consider finding the support you need.
And as always, look after yourself and take care.
Which ones did you find most interesting or meaningful?
Which did you agree with and not agree with (and why) ?
What would you add?
Make Your Own List.
Adapted from James Aggrey's 'Parable of The Eagle' and James and Jongeward's 'Born To Win'.
Once upon a time, while walking through the forest, a certain man found a young eagle, only just from his mothers nest. He took it home and put the baby eagle in the Barnyard where he kept chickens. So it was that the eagle learned to eat chicken feed and behave as chickens behaved. Perhaps it's behaviour was so changed that the eagle believed he was a chicken and not an eagle.
One day a Naturalist passed by the farm and asked the owner why the eagle, who was now grown, was confined to live in the barn with the chickens when he should be free to fly and be who he really is?
The owner replied: 'I have fed it on chicken feed, and it has lived its whole life believing it is a chicken, and now it has never learned to fly, never learned who he really is. He is no longer an eagle because he does not know he is an eagle. I have persuaded him he is a chicken.'
The Naturalist disagreed, seeing the hidden potential in the eagle. 'He is really an eagle' said the Naturalist, 'but he has been so confined his whole life, given the wrong messages, not allowed to be who he really is. But I believe he is still an eagle, and if we give him the freedom to discover and the chance to fly, I believe he can break free of those limitations and fly.'
The same day, they took the eagle to the forest, and the Naturalist held the eagle up gently and said to the eagle 'you have been lied to. You are not a chicken, You are an eagle. You belong to the sky, and to freedom. Stretch out your wings, do what is in your own nature and fly.'
The eagle however was confused. He did not know who he was. He was afraid to spread his wings and fly (even though he desperately wanted to). So it was that he returned to the barnyard and ate chicken feed. It was all he had known.
For the next few days the Naturalist took the eagle to the forest, to different places and challenged him to fly. Each day he would say the same thing: 'You have been lied to. You are not a chicken, You are an eagle. You belong to the sky, and to freedom. Stretch out your wings, do what is in your own nature and fly.'
And each day the eagle who wanted to fly was afraid and returned to the barnyard and the familiarity of the lies he had been told about himself.
Then, one day, this day, now, the Naturalist took the eagle and held him high above his head. He said: 'You have been lied to. You are not a chicken, You are an eagle. You belong to the sky and to freedom. Stretch out your wings, do what is in your own nature, and fly.'
The eagle trembled, looked up into the sky, looked back at the farm in the distance behind him, and stretched out his wings. He let out the cry that only an eagle can cry, and took flight. It was an amazing sight. He flew, and then he soared.
It may be that the eagle still remembers the chickens. Maybe he looks back and wonders why he ever believed the lies he was told about himself. Maybe he regrets not flying sooner. Or maybe he just flies and soars and does not look back.
What is it, I wonder, about our need to blame?
I have been thinking alot about this recently. In the news at the moment is a tragic real life event about a young four year old child who lost her life being attacked by a rescue dog. The mother, as I understand it, entered the room, tried desperately to get the dog off of her little girl, and had to kill the dog to do so. Her child still died.
Unfortunately the response from the public, from us, is one of two reactions. One is of huge compassion, feeling for the mother, horror at what the child has gone through, grief at the loss of such a beautiful, innocent life. Many also feel compassion for the rescue dog, who must have suffered horribly under previous owners, and reacted to an unknown trigger which ended so tragically.
The second reaction is, of course, blame. Somebody has to be at fault. Did the child do something unintentionally to scare the dog? Was the dog merely vicious and attacked without provocation (it was, I believe, a mastiff, which has a reputation that clouds this issue in many people's eyes). What about the mother? Should she have got a rescue dog, or been more aware of the issues? Should she have left the child alone?
There is something inside us that has to find someone or something to blame. If we can do this, we can somehow find closure. It makes us feel better.
But the truth is, blame doesn't matter as much as we think it does, and compassion matters far more than we often think. Compassion points us to the suffering of the child and the grief of the family and others. Compassion points us towards the rescue dog and what it must have endured at the hands of less loving people.
Things happen. Good and bad. We, as always, have a choice. We can choose to blame, making ourselves feel better, somehow justified, right, without doing anything else. Or we can choose to show compassion, understanding, gentleness.
This is true of tragic stories. It is true in our relationships with our parents, our partners, our children, even our friends and enemies. It is even true in our relationship with and view of ourselves.
I choose compassion (even though I am not always good at it). It is a work in progress.
What will you choose?
This, I think, is one of the most important points in counselling and therapy for people to grasp.
What we tell ourselves has a huge impact on the way we think, how we feel and what we do about our lives.
Even more so, the stories we tell ourselves and keep retelling ourselves have a huge impact ... those stories we also keep telling to other people to justify why we feel the way we do or why we do what we do.
A person who constantly tells themselves they feel useless, convinces themselves they can't do something, reminds themselves of all the times they tried and something went wrong or others made fun of them, even tells others those stories as if in jest, but they're not really joking ...
What's going to happen to that person?
And what about the person who feels that life isn't worth living ...
They remember all the struggles, the pain and hurts which are incredibly real and actually happened, they have a list in their heads of every bad thing that happened, and probably a list of who was to blame for it. They may even have convinced themselves that they are to blame somewhere buried inside. They have a 'yes, but' for every time someone tries to convince them life is worth living, a story they recount as if to prove their point. They retell all those stories, not just to others but to themselves over and over again (and by default ignore all the reasons people give them for why life is worth living, because those reasons don't fit what they want to believe).
What is going to happen to that person.
And finally (for now) ...
What about the person who says ...
- Things will get better (because they have to ...)
- I am important (because I am alive and I am here ...)
- This too will pass (because all things do if I can just persevere ...)
and so on.
What will happen to the person who remembers the times they succeeded (even though there were times when they failed), reminds their friends of the better times as well as the worst, chooses to look at the beauty in the world (even though there is plenty that is not beautiful).
It is not an easy path. It is easier (and often more popular) to look at the crap that happens to us (and let's face it, it happens to all of us and there is no shortage of examples)
But maybe it's time to let go of those stories and find better ones.
The choice, as always, is our own, yours and mine