Buddhism asserts that attachment is the primary source of suffering. So then detachment or “non-attachment” would be our ticket out of that pain. Except that it’s not so easy … letting go of a person, place, or thing that has our heart temporarily held hostage.
You may be grieving the death of a loved one, or the end of a friendship you had hoped would be more, or merely the realization that your father will never be able to give you what you need from that relationship. It seems as though every moment of this life is about letting go, of something or someone that is renting far too much space in our heads. And while there is no way I’d call myself a “let go” expert, I have done a considerable amount of research in this area. So the following are some techniques that … well… will at least get us started.
1. Live in the present.
One of the most beautiful descriptions of grief I’ve ever heard was from Owen Stanley Surman, M.D., a practicing hospital psychiatrist who lost his wife and wrote a memoir about it, “The Wrong Side of an Illness: A Doctor’s Love Story.” In my interview with him awhile back, I asked him how, exactly, does a person concentrate on the moment and know that love is a precious gift not to be taken for granted. He explained:
In Lezlie’s passing, I began to live in the present. Tragedy had cast a spotlight on the beauty of life and the power of love. In Swan’s Way, I learned from Marcel Proust that the past resides in what one has shared in love. Lezlie was with me. Given an opportunity to present at a conference in Jerusalem I explored the Via Dolorosa. At the 12th Station of the Cross, I gazed at the extraordinary crucifix and lit a candle. “Lezlie,” I said amid an outpouring of soul wrenching tears, “This one is for you!”
2. Trust the process.
So much of letting go is finding the right timing. You let go too prematurely, and your process is going to be harder and more time-consuming than it needs to be. You wait too long and things spoil … the relationship or the project. In Dennis Merritt Jones’s book “The Art of Uncertainty,” he includes this great quote about timing by Gary Zukav:
Fruit drops from the tree when it is ready. Staying too long, or moving too early, misses the mark. The mark is the appropriateness that causes the fruit to fall when it’s ready…. The process has its own timing, and it creates changes in your life when those changes need to happen.
3. Expect regression.
The act of letting go for me is less overwhelming when I go into it knowing that there will be days that I’m clinging for dear life to that person, place, or thing from which I need to detach, or “non-attach.” If I can go into this process recognizing the three-steps-forward, two-steps-back pattern, then I won’t fret when my footsteps start reversing, and I can celebrate any progress I have made.
4. Lose control.
If you think about it, we have trouble letting go because it requires relinquishing control. That’s frightening for a person like me who wants to hold the reins 24/7 so that I know exactly what’s coming next. Non-attachment is about swapping the things we know and can control for those things we don’t know and can’t control. But we must remind ourselves that just because we have never met them before, and are not familiar with them or their relatives, does not mean they are inherently bad or harmful. We essentially have to close our eyes and trust that we will find our way to a new, potentially better place. And that God will provide plenty of guides.
5. Make room.
My mom had a rule growing up that for every article of clothing that came into the house, one had to go out. The result was that my childhood closet didn’t look like my bedroom closet today. It was a tad tidier … a tad. This exercise was a simple ritual of making room for something new. If we can see the letting-go process as a transition to a new beginning, one full of potential and prospects–much like getting a nursery ready for a baby– then we can shift some of our energy and concentration from loss to opportunity. As Joseph Campbell says, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.”
6. Break up the pain.
In Elisha Goldstein’s book, “Mindful-Based Stress Reduction Workbook,” he teaches you how to meditate through pain. Much like a woman does in labor—if you can break up the cycle of pain into pangs of acute pain, followed by interludes less-intense pain, then you can begin to manage it, and breathe through it. I have found the same with swimming. I will be sprinting, trying to make a short interval, and then I get two lap to regain my breath. If you process letting go that way, you can enjoy the brief reprieves between the periods of intense pain.
7. Identify false beliefs.
This one is geared more for those letting go of a toxic relationship. Inevitably we hang on to false beliefs about the person or about the relationship that impede the detachment process. In the past, when I’ve had to let go of an important friendship, I remind myself to focus on the facts, not the feelings. Her actions communicated a very clear message, even if I don’t want to accept that. At one point, I would write down the events so that I wouldn’t forget the hurt I felt when she would come back around and want to be my friend again.
8. Admit powerlessness.
I go back to this one a few times each day. I can try all these steps, but when I’m left still clingy as heck, I have to give it to God. Because God is the only one who can take it from me and bring me the peace that I am so craving by my attachment.