What does let it go mean? I’ve always wondered. I’ve also always had a slight aversion to anyone telling me or anyone else to just let it go. Truth is, I don’t completely understand what the process of letting it go actually entails.
I spent some time with a couple of friends this weekend and one was sharing something deeply upsetting to him about the current political climate. The other friend told him that at some point (the implication being now) he needed to just let it go, the whole argument he was having inside his head. The friend who told him to let it go is a kind and wise woman and not inclined to speak with malice or impatience. I know she meant for her advice to be helpful. I’m not sure it was. The man to whom she made the suggestion did not appear to be helped when she said it. Later, when I asked my friend what she meant by let it go, she explained that it was about his moving on inside himself, from the argument happening in his head, and simultaneously, choosing to accept what reality is right now.
When she said the second part, about choosing to accept reality, I realized that I also don’t really know what it means when we say acceptance in this context. I was in a real pickle now. I didn’t understand the first concept, let it go, and I didn’t understand the concept used to define it either. And so I decided to try and discover and maybe create my own meaning for let it go and, depending on how far I got with that, maybe, for acceptance as well.
What I know about let it go is that when I hear it, whether spoken to me or another, it often feels like a demand and a judgment all rolled into a one kind suggestion. It’s a demand because we’re supposed to do it and if we don’t we’re failing to make ourselves happy and thus responsible for our upset. It’s a judgment because we’re choosing to hold onto something painful that we could simply release. That said, if we continue to suffer, it’s essentially our fault. I often want to respond to let it go (or what’s usually just let it go) with, Yeah but how do you do that?
Depending on the topic, let it go can also feel like a kind of impatience with what’s being expressed, an “enough now” or “I’m tired of listening to you.” Let it go, therefore, has the potential to arrive as a kind of abandonment, a way of saying I don’t want to be with you in this pain anymore.
Now that I’ve entirely trashed let it go, I will say that I do believe that there’s something profoundly important and helpful about the idea of letting go of what no longer serves us. But once again, what does that really mean and how on earth do you do it?
To understand what something means I like to begin by understanding what it doesn’t mean, which is sometimes an easier place to start. Letting it go does not mean using our will power to annihilate what we’ve decided needs to go. It’s not forcefully efforting to block something out of our consciousness. Letting go is not an act of doing so much as it is one of undoing.
Furthermore, the suggestion that we need to let something go also suggests that we’re holding onto, grasping, or clinging to it, which begs the question, what does it mean to hold onto something, particularly a thought or feeling? Alas, always more questions than answers.
Holding onto a thought or feeling can mean many things. But one way that we hold on is by continuing to re-think, re-tell, and ruminate over painful thoughts and experiences. We mentally rehash the source of our suffering even when it’s not organically present in our now. We bring it into our now by talking about it, engaging with our thoughts about our resentment or pain, and actively invoking the feelings of sadness and anger. It can feel as if the pain itself is compelling us to keep feeding it. And we are, paradoxically, loyal to our pain and driven to keeping it alive.
Another way we cling to thoughts and feelings is by constructing narratives around them. We make our suffering sticky when we supplement our experience with a mental storyline about the experience. Let’s say we become aware of a tightness in the belly. Very quickly, before feeling the sensation for more than a moment, we name that tightness fear. Within seconds we have written a story about why we’re afraid, who’s to blame, what we need to do about it, and what’s wrong with us that leads us to feel and be this way. And that’s just the beginning of the narrative. Our initial belly constriction is usually manageable. Even the naming it fear is tolerable. But by the time we’ve added on all the toppings, we’re pretty cooked and the direct experience of belly constriction is no longer manageable, because of what we’ve determined it means. Using our experience as a launching pad for narrative, the rope with which we hang ourselves, is clinging.
Letting go then is the practice of restraint, refraining, and simplicity. It’s breaking the habit of continually re-introducing thoughts and feelings that cause us pain—declining the mind’s invitation to replay our grievances in the hopes of figuring out a better outcome or solution. So too, letting go is resisting the urge to build a storyline out of our experience—getting in the habit of feeling our direct experience on its own, in our body first, and perhaps naming it if it’s helpful. But, and this is the key, leaving our experience there in the simplicity of what it is, without the who, what, where, when, and why of it that follows and tightens our grip.
Letting go is not denial or ignorance; it’s not about pretending our hurts don’t hurt. It’s also not about willing ourselves into a pseudo-okayness with something we’re not really okay with. Letting go is a process of stopping—stopping to cause ourselves further suffering when we don’t have to. Some grievances will fade away when we stop stoking them, some will remain painful when bumped into. It’s not really up to us. But what is up to us is the choice to stop awarding our grievances with our habitual attention, romancing them if you will, parading them for others and ourselves to see, again. Furthermore, we can choose to stop feeding and growing our hurts with more thoughts and beliefs about them, the storylines we write which then intensify their importance and strength.
Imagine holding onto a little bird, holding it tightly because we want to keep it from flying off and leaving us. That little bird is our pain. We grasp onto that pain because we believe that keeping it, remembering it, and feeding it, is a way of taking care of it, and ourselves. But what if we loosened our grip on that bird, opened our hand a bit. That bird might want to fly off. Our pain might want to fly off. Letting go is trusting that taking care of ourselves might not be feeding our bird but rather opening our hand, and allowing our pain to transform and be free to fly.