The Fear of Letting Go

Listen to this post:

“If there’s one thing it pays to practice over and over again, it’s letting go.” – Sally Kempton

My dad is dying. My mom is deceased. So is my sister. Once my dad passes away, I will be the last person from my immediate family line. Neither my sister nor I had children. At times, I’ve felt some sorrow about this, along with an impending sense that the hourglass is three-quarters of the way empty with nobody coming to turn it back over. 

Other times, when I am nestled inside of conscious awareness—the truth of what I AM, I sense a blissful sweetness about the temporal nature of all things. The sand, in this case, is comparable to an elaborate Tibetan Mandala that forms a work of art for healing and purification. The image represents the universe and is destroyed after completion to remind us of the transitory nature of everything that exists. 

My family mandala is close to being seventy-five percent wiped out. The losses have provided a lot of time to contemplate non-attachment and prioritize what little time I do have while still alive. Spending countless hours of my youth chasing jobs and friendships where the fruits were either limited or not ripened and sour, I learned that external seeking feels like what I imagine as a repetitive merry-go-round in the Bardo. 

A friend sent me a text the other day describing her sadness with recent repetitive losses. People often turn to me when they’re struggling with challenging periods in their lives, as they sense they won’t be judged. Meditation, after cumulative years, creates a palpable subtle body that emits a safe and calming energy. As a teacher, I know this presence exists inside each one of us if we develop the discipline to cultivate it. 

Faced with letting go of something big, such as a loved one, or losing a job, can provide doorways to new ways of facing our emotions. That’s not to say that smaller losses, such as finishing a project or moving to a new city cannot, but they often don’t pack that wallop that rattles us enough to make a real commitment to discovering a new way of being with ourselves. 

A way that requires a commitment to sit each day, quietly and alone, observing All That Is.

The profundity of what’s discoverable is that underneath all loss, pain, and suffering, there is an unshakeable, unbreakable, impenetrable self. A self that is present regardless of the volatile waves splashing on the surface. This place of serene stability is glimpsed early in meditation and then can fade quickly. But even the tiniest taste of it is often so tender, it’s enough to call us back. Returning to sit and revisit the process. When repeated over time, it trains our brain and our nervous system that we’re serious about meeting and merging with that space.

Conversely, if we tell ourselves repeatedly that we’re going to do something and then do not follow through, our brain and nervous system become wired to not complete tasks. Ever notice how many people joke about their “ADHD” these days? As if to say, “Well I can’t help that I never follow throughI have attention deficit disorder!” 

Meditation and the ancient practices that point us toward states of dissolution prepare us for loss. We even begin to see that loss is but a repeated point in the life cycle of all things, right down to our breathing. Each exhale is the release of the oxygenating inhale prior. Someday that exhale will be our final one, the one where we leave our body. 

Learning to encounter and identify with what it is that remains beyond the loss is the most helpful skill I’ve ever learned. I wish we taught it in every kindergarten classroom. It would prepare human beings for what naturally occurs repeatedly and cannot be controlled. It would also teach us to be far less afraid of—and far more compassionate with—others when they are amidst loss and learning to face our own pain allows us to be fully present to another’s. 

A byproduct of the unknown is fear. The remedy for fear is learning to sit with the unknown. Everything is going to go. So gracefully letting it go as it reveals its readiness to do so is the most loving and reasonable thing to do. How we become graceful at it is by making the deliberate choice to practice letting go consciously each day, one tiny individual choice at a time. 

Fully let go of your next exhale. Let go of your need to be right the next time you want to be. Let go of rushing headlong into to your day and sit for five minutes, alone…in solitude…listening to your breath. Let go of a desire you have (just one!), an extra cookie, drink, picking up your cell phone, or even a distressing thought—likely untrue anyway. 

Let go of making your partner wrong, let go of the anger about the guy cutting you off in traffic, let go of your ideal body image, let go of your plan to become better than you are or at something you do. Let go. And each time you do, slowly but surely, you’ll begin to see most of what you’re letting go of has nothing to do with who or what you are. 

Learning to let go dissolves the fear of dying. Losing the fear of dying allows us to really live! And when our lives end, we’ll be prepared to let go. Perhaps it won’t be easy, but it will be familiar—we will know with certainty that we are so much more than all the things we once attached ourselves to. 

The hourglass will empty. The mandala will be destroyed. But every beautiful relationship we experienced, every kind act we proffered, and every effort to act righteously will remain. They will travel with us—forever. That’s something to hold on to. 

Photo: TheCameraGeek on Flickr