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Letting go is not giving up

At my meditation group last night, we discussed “letting go” in the context of painful memories, anger, disappointment, frustration, and injury.  I found myself intrigued by what seem to be two different meanings – a conventional cultural one and the Buddhist one.

I’m sure most of us have had the experience of being told by well-meaning friends and family that we should just “let go” of our feelings about some injury or heartbreak we have suffered.  In fact, we’ve probably said the same thing to ourselves (or to other people) once we feel that the suffering has gone on long enough.  Letting go seems from this perspective to have a meaning of getting beyond the feelings, forgetting them, or giving them up.   This seems to be a very difficult thing to do, at least in the short term.

In contrast, I take a Buddhist perspective on letting go to mean something much simpler and more possible in the short term.  By bringing mindfulness to the situation at hand, we may be able to recognize that there is nothing to be done at this moment about our anger, frustration, etc.  Therefore, we can let go of the need to ruminate at that moment.  This approach recognizes that the painful feelings are honest – it validates the fact that we still feel them – but it also recognizes that the situation does not require action from us.  If the situation does require action at that moment, we would hopefully recognize it and take the needed action.  In my experience, however, most of the time I’m feeling some angst, it’s me telling myself a story from the past or about the future.  The feeling may be honest, but worrying about it at that moment isn’t helping me – it’s usually hindering my ability to be fully functional in my life.  Therefore, letting go is very useful.  I know the feelings may come back, but hopefully at a time when I can use them skillfully.

This approach is summed up nicely thus: “Letting go is not a one-time decision. It’s something we may need to do repeatedly. But the more we practice, the easier it becomes to come back to the present moment.”

Many teachers emphasize that this is one major goal of basic breath meditation – to teach us to recognize when we are not present and to let go of whatever thought or feeling took us away.  Practicing this little letting go on the cushion can help us to do it with larger feelings when we’re off the cushion.

I would be interested to hear whether people have found this to be true in their experience.


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Yes, totally true!

Thanks for sharing your interesting observations. They lead me to wonder what is behind the aversion to "letting go". "Giving up" implies escaping or running away and in some sense there is value in not "denying" one's feelings/thoughts. At the same time what value is the there in "indulging" or obsessing over them?

So where is the line between denial and indulging. Am reminded of the "touch and go" phrase offered by Chogyam Trungpa and elaborated by others which instructs to take note and move on or come home. Rather than giving up, letting go creates a "space" around which the skillful use you mention can arise over time. And the new space seems to add new and interesting characteristics to the letting go and indulging.

Here's to "letting go, creating space, and not giving up"!


Thanks alot for this post. Due to my Traumatic Brain Injury, there are alot of instances where I contemplate how certain situations could be altered (including favorable ones) with a couldda//wouldda//shouldda type of mindset --that leaves me grasping onto whichever experience(s) by ruminating endlessly until the emotional intensity ends up dissolving.

Letting go is not giving up.
What I appreciate the most about mindfulness is how it allows
a sense of being present in presence
with gentleness by ACCEPTING   mindlessness yet not consuming it with permanence.

Nothing to be Done

This summer, on retreat, Larry Rosenberg said, "Letting go is the same as allowing." It really knocked some sense into me and I think I finally "get" the meaning of letting go now.

Thank goodness for 84,000 dharma gates!

Glad for your posts, Douglas, really enjoy reading them!

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