Every one of us has something we wish we could let go of, but we can’t.
An old regret from the past, maybe? Or something you’d never use again but can’t bear to throw out. Or a worry about the future that doesn’t go away.
Whether it’s a thing or a memory, from the past or the future, the feeling of grasping tightly onto something is the same — constricting, hardening, burdening, like clenching a lump of hot coal as it burns, but not willing to release it from our hands.
We know we should let go, that letting go of this thing would free us, but we don’t, and it feels like we can’t.
Why is that? Why is it so hard to let go?
Why We Resist Letting Go
We resist letting go because we don’t like change.
We don’t like negative changes, like when we have to lose something we own, a job, or a loved one. Even positive changes that we like don’t last long before they change again.
And we even hold on to hard feelings, because we don’t want to change the stories we tell ourselves about why and what happened around those feelings.
Life is changing unceasingly, and it makes us want to hold on to something for security and comfort.
But the truth is that we are standing on running water, always. We are born, we live, and we die, and in between, we never know what each new day will bring.
That’s why remembering that everything is impermanent is the first step to letting go. Whatever you’re holding on to will fade in time, even though it doesn’t look that way now. And you too will be gone one day. So why hold on to something that cannot really be held onto?
4 Ways to Let Go
So how can we let go?
At the most basic level, we have to accept that we’re holding on.
It doesn’t mean that we agree with what we’re holding on to, or that we allow ourselves to clench onto it even tighter. It simply means that we see how we’re holding on, and accept that it’s happening.
If you’re holding onto a lump of hot coal, you need to first see that you’re holding onto a lump of hot coal to let go of it. Telling yourself that you’re not actually holding onto coal, or visualizing it as a block of cold ice, won’t help the fact that it’s burning your hand.
The second step is to feel what holding on feels like. We often hold onto something unconsciously, without looking at what’s running through our minds and bodies as we do so.
What are you saying to yourself? What memories come up? Where do you feel it most in your body? What does it feel like in your body?
When you hold on, this helps you know that you’re holding on. Sometimes, just realizing that you’re holding on helps you to let go. Other times, letting go needs more work.
The third step is to be kind to yourself. Holding on can bring up all sorts of difficult emotions. Being hard on yourself during these moments won’t help you to let go of them, it’ll only make things worse.
Instead, radiate feelings of love and kindness to yourself. Like how you can’t heal a burn by applying more heat but only with cooling medicine, kindness helps you to release these difficult feelings and let go.
If you find it difficult to be kind to yourself in these times, then think of all the other people in the world who, like you, are finding also it hard to let go of the same thing, and apply your kindness to them.
If you still find it hard to let go, then remember that you are more than the things you’re clinging to. You are more than the sum of everything you’ve ever owned and will own, have experienced and will experience. Let this open expanse help you to let go and move on.
But there is still one more ingredient for letting go.
Letting Go in the Storm
Near the end of 2015, I was holding on to a lot of anger, fear, and despair over mistakes I’d made in my life. I decided it was time I faced them head on at my third meditation retreat.
When I sat with my inner world during the extended periods of meditation, I was surprised at just how much fury and regret were boiling inside of me — not just at the people I hated, but at myself.
With hours of meditation stretched out before me, and no talking, reading, or writing allowed, all I could do was face the turbulence inside. Some sessions felt like I was in a small boat being churned around in a raging sea storm.
But as the hours and days went on, there were moments when I wasn’t consumed by my inner turmoil. The anger was still there but I wasn’t angry, I was simply aware of it. Like my friend, Phra Paiboon told me, “It is not me, it is not mine.”
And slowly I began to let go of my anger, my fear, my regret, my despair. They were still there, but I didn’t hold on to them as much anymore, and the less I became them, the more quickly they faded away.
I came to see that even these strong emotions, which seem so pervasive, are impermanent. It might take a while, but they too will cease in time — even faster if you find the strength and pliability to let them go.
And so I discovered that letting go becomes easier with practice. Some things you can let go of quickly. Other things take time and effort. You have to be willing to do the work and give yourself the time to let go.
Meditation is one way to strengthen your ability to let go. Think of meditation as the ultimate exercise in letting go; whatever thoughts and feelings arise during your meditation, you simply let them go and focus on the breath.
The Lightness of Letting Go
Letting go can be hard, but it isn’t impossible. With practice, it can be done.
Accept that you’re holding on, watch how you’re holding on, be kind to yourself, and remember that you are more than whatever it is that you’re holding on to. Practice letting go as a skill, instead of thinking of it as a decision, and remember that everything fades in time — even the things you’re holding onto.
I hope you find the space to let go of whatever you’re clinging to, and the freedom to move through life more lightly.