The subtle art of letting go

For a moment, let go of all trying to understand. Let go of all understanding. Here it is.

The subtle art of letting go

Life can be stressful at times. And a lot of that stress comes down to the thoughts and feelings that we are holding on to.

These thoughts and emotions don’t necessarily do us any good. Feelings of anger, or resentment, do nothing but cause us suffering. Say you’re driving along, on the way home from work, and someone cuts in front of you. You can get angry about it. You can shout at them from behind the wheel and wave your arms about. You can take that anger home with you and spend time in your evening thinking about it.

All the time that you’re allowing it to occupy your thoughts, you’re causing yourself suffering. You’re distracting yourself from being able to be present in the moment by rooting your mind in the past. You’re giving these thoughts weight and value that could be better spent on other things.

So, how do we remedy that?

I'm a big fan of a type of philosophy called Stoicism. You may have come across it, but if you haven't, that’s ok - it was originally very popular in ancient Rome. If you've ever seen the film Gladiator, then you'll have seen one of the most famous Stoics, Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism has three things to say when it comes to letting go.

  • Be mindful of the things that do not matter
  • Remember that nothing is permanent
  • Reside in the moment

But what does all that mean?

Being mindful of the things that do not matter comes back to what we were talking about just now. Does it matter that the person cut in front of you when you were driving home from work? Does it matter that the person you held the door open for didn’t say thank you? It would be nice if they did, but it doesn’t really matter.

Remember that nothing is permanent. In the words of Buddha, “this too, shall pass”. It’s a realisation that life is change. That nothing stays the same and nothing lasts. Wealth, possessions, reputation. They are all fleeting things.

Lastly, reside in the moment. As human beings, we have a tendency to become transfixed by what has happened in the past, and what is going to happen in the future. And that’s completely understandable.

The past is the source of who we are, the forge of our experiences. It shapes how we think and feel in the present. Of course, it's going to occupy our thoughts.

Likewise, the future is prescient because we must plan for it. We need to think about what we're going to do when we retire, or where we're going on holiday this year. Even down to what we need to get on our next shopping trip.

The problem is that if you're too focused on the past or the future, then you exist entirely outside of the place where life is actually happening, and that's right now, in the present moment. Spending too much time in the past or the future are the causes of our worry and anxiety.

Everything that brings us happiness, happens now. In the present. Marcus Aurelius tells us that the shortest way to get to what we want in life is to let go of our past and our future.

If we decide to be anxious about what the future may bring, we bring that potential unhappiness into the present. Likewise, if we fear a repeat of the past, our mind brings any unhappiness from our past into the now.

We need to remember that the past cannot be changed, so we shouldn’t allow it to worry us. In the same way, the future is unpredictable. So why bring a vision of something that might not come to pass into the now to plague us?

Both the past and the future are outside of our control. As long as we are concerned about either of them, then we give up our potential for happiness in the present.

Letting go and acceptance are both intrinsically linked. There are often times in life where we feel we’ve been wronged by others, or there’s something going on that we wish we could change. In these moments, we have a choice. We can fight against the current, or we can accept that this is reality as it stands.

Accepting something doesn’t mean that we have to like it, or that we have to think of it as a good thing — far from it. We may have been made redundant at work, or our holiday plans have been cancelled due to a certain pandemic that’s going on right now. In these moments, we may grow angry at the situation, push back against reality, or deny that anything has even happened at all.

Where does that get us? What does being angry at something we have no control over achieve? All we are doing to ourselves, as Deepak Chopra puts it, is creating “turbulence in our minds”.

When I find myself in trying times, my mind navigates its way to a Stoic “workflow” that I came across a while ago. It goes like this:

Is your life ok?
If yes, then don’t worry.
If no, can you do anything to change it?
If yes, then don’t worry.
If no, then don’t worry.

Now, that may seem a bit glib, but I feel there’s a lot of wisdom in it. If we have the power to change something, then there’s no need to worry about it. We can affect change. We can influence the outcome.

If we can’t change something, then, by accepting it is outside of our control, we realise that there really is nothing that we should worry about. If we grow angry over it, then we become like Sisyphus — eternally pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down again.

There is often a lesson to be learned in the things we cannot change. By approaching them with gratitude, rather than animosity, we allow ourselves to grow, to learn, and to walk the path to a lasting happiness. To fight against the immutable brings us only suffering, and it’s a suffering that we cause to ourselves. A self-flagellation of the mind.

Acceptance does not just happen overnight. It must be practised. Sustained. We must build this habit of thought and turn our perspective into a positive one. So don’t become disheartened if you want to accept something but are finding it difficult. It can be challenging. It will be challenging. But like all things, the more we practise, the better we become.

It may help to start with the small things. Say you’re out shopping and the supermarket has run out of your favourite breakfast cereal. Be present in the moment, and accept that this is reality. Don’t be angry at the universe, because I guarantee that the universe is far too busy worrying about other things, and all that will happen is you’ll cause yourself suffering.

The important thing to remember is that everything is transitory. “This, too, shall pass”. Things might not be how you want them now, but that will change.

Accept the moment, for it, too, shall pass.