August 11, 2012

Letting Go

What is letting go?

We use the phrase "let it go" all the time, encouraging our friend to stop emailing his ex-girlfriend six months after the break-up or our partner to stop bringing up that thing we did that time. Letting go isn't easy--we're all attached to our ideas of how things should be, and we all have feelings, experiences, and relationships that we don't want to see end--but becoming too strongly attached or holding on for too long can create problems.

How does holding on create problems?

When we're holding on with all our might to a person, idea, or era, we become rigid and inflexible, and we miss out on opportunities. Think of the guy who passes up job offer after job offer while he continues to pour money into his failing start-up. Think of the former competitive gymnast who continues to train religiously into adulthood, trying to preserve her identity as an elite athlete. Think of the time you didn't enjoy a party or a vacation because you couldn't let go of your idea of how the party or the vacation should be or how you thought it was going to be.

The first step in letting go is to realize that you're holding on. There's a story about letting go that we tell in the mindfulness-based stress reduction course: in India, a clever way of catching a monkey was to attach a coconut to a tree, cut a small hole in it, and place a banana inside. The hole was large enough for a monkey to put his hand through to grab the banana, but too small for the monkey to remove his fist. All the monkey had to do to get free was to let go of the banana, but most didn't, remaining stuck to the tree. The moral of the story is that we often act like monkeys, not realizing that our own clinging is what's making us stuck.

Letting go can be exciting and liberating. The day the start-up guy files for bankruptcy is the same day he can accept an exciting new position; the day the gymnast hangs up her leotard is the same day she can register for the beginner's piano lessons she's been thinking about for years. The moment you let go of the vacation you hoped for, you can start enjoying the vacation you're having.

The next time you feel stuck, try asking yourself what's my banana? What can I let go?

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