Is ‘Letting Go’ All That?

Autumn Leaves 2

As we border on the Autumnal Equinox, it is a terrific time for reflection and self-inquiry. The leaves falling exposing bare branches is a gentle reminder to us of the fleeting nature of all things. This equinox is the duality between the light and dark that exists in each of us as well as the work of spiritual transformation. All things must die before they can be born and all of us who move toward the “light” must get real with the darkness inside…to begin the process of letting go of the way we see things to open to who we really are. The autumn equinox symbolizes a moment of self-inquiry in the process of enlightenment. Autumn is a time for letting go and releasing things that have been a burden.

As practitioners, we espouse the idea of letting go. We hear it all the time. We know that our practice is a constant source of inquiry, observation, and transformation. We know as we peel back the layers, we reveal something new to possibly let go of that may not be serving us. Elephant Journal published a marvelous little piece by Michelle Margaret Fajkus entitled 18 Fantastic Ways to Let Go. While I’m not typically drawn to list posts, it started in this way:

What Letting Go Isn’t.

Letting go isn’t just cliche spiritual advice. Letting go isn’t not caring. Letting go isn’t passive. Letting go isn’t merely saying, “It’s all good” or “whatever.” Letting go isn’t lazy. Letting go isn’t giving up. Letting go isn’t the easy way out. Letting go isn’t always fun. Letting go is the most courageous thing you can do.

Letting go is wise.

Letting go enables life, energy, love and learning to flow freely. Letting go takes practice. How can we turn it into a revolutionary daily life practice?

It then went on to enumerate ways in which we can let go and this was number three:

Let go of clinging.

The opposite of letting go is clinging, grasping, clutching. See how softening your grip, opening your palms and relaxing brings peace and ease into your body and mind. As Buddha teaches, “You can only lose what you cling to.”

But for a few months now, I have been asking myself the question…is ‘letting go’ all that?

In college, one of my favorite classes was a Philosophy of Death and Dying course.  In it, we read Leo Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, and Viktor Frankl among others, and, of course, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Kübler-Ross, as you undoubtedly know, wrote the seminal On Death and Dying in 1969 where she outlined the Five Stages of Grief as being  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

We love the idea of having systematic steps toward a goal even if it’s something as delicate as the grieving process. We love the idea of “if this, then that.” It allows us to comprehend the, at-times, incomprehensible. But life, death, and understanding ourselves doesn’t always work that way, despite what the Kubler-Ross model may say.

In the weeks since my Father died, I watched my feelings rise and fall. I clung to the idea of slotting what I was feeling into the model I knew, but I was mostly feeling untethered. The model wasn’t working and that grounding I always knew and felt when my Dad was here on earth had turned to airiness. I wasn’t able to find my footing. And while the Five Stages of Grief had offered intellectual comfort after the tragic loss of a friend in college and after the untimely loss of my partner…they offered neither intellectual nor emotional comfort to me around the loss of my Father. What I did find was that I was becoming hardened to the world around me. I found myself indifferent in what I could possibly offer to the people around me and in particular those who come to my classes. I wasn’t capable of offering compassion to myself…so what could I possibly give to them or anyone for that matter?

But the work we do…the self inquiry…we learn that the mind of enlightenment, that innate curiosity, is always there…whether it’s pleasure or pain. Pema Chödrön in The Places that Scare You  speaks to the rawness of a broken heart.

“Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.”

A few weeks ago I sat quietly contemplating my Father. He was a devout Catholic which I believe informed all of his actions and which I believe to be the foundation of my spirituality. He was magnanimous, humble, honest, sincere, and compassionate. He instilled in his children and grandchildren discipline, respect, common sense, and an acerbic wit. Somewhere in the midst of my grief I had forgotten these gifts he bestowed on us. In that moment, I extended to him my gratitude. In that moment, I began to soften in his generosity. In that moment, the tenderness revealed itself.  It was in this realization that the grounding began to return under my feet. I understood that I had plenty to offer. It was then that I let go of the intellectual ‘where I was supposed to be’…and was just there. I let go of how I thought I was supposed to feel in the process…and just became aware of the feelings. Indeed, letting go can be the most courageous thing you can do…but sometimes the most courageous thing you can do is to stop clinging, a loosening of the grip to the idea of letting go.

Just as this Equinox reminds us of the duality between the light and dark that exists  in each of us, there cannot be compassion without suffering. Ram Dass in Acknowledge Suffering so eloquently writes:

“You hear the dual nature of it. You have to have suffered because the suffering is what burns through you and deepens the compassion and opens the door. Suffering brings you closer to the mystery. At the same moment if you hold on to the suffering and grab at it and sort of wallow in it or cling to it, it stops the journey.”

As we grip and grasp to what and how we believe things should be…suffering persists and our journey can become stagnant. When we learn to release, be it the breath, the body, or the mind, we access understanding. We can open ourselves up to moving from the darkness to light. We can lighten some of the burden.

As you move into Autumn, open yourself to the light and dark. Be receptive to how things really are rather than how you think things should be. Soften to what’s going on inside…even if you can’t see the light in the moment.

Wishing you happiness, wishing you joy, wishing you freedom from suffering.


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