Meditation is often referred to as the art of letting go because, as you meditate, you aim to recognize any feelings and thoughts that arise and let them pass, rather than hold on to them. SIYLI’s founder Chade-Meng Tan views this skill as one of the essential foundations of any mindfulness practice; he writes in his book Search Inside Yourself: The central importance of letting go leads to a very important question: Is it possible to let go and still appreciate and fully experience the ups and downs of life?
We argue that it is possible to experience life fully because mindfulness, by definition, requires acknowledging emotions in the present moment. Our emotional highs and lows are recognized and felt, but the key is to not judge these emotions, which can be achieved by letting go of two things: grasping and aversion. Grasping is when we allow our minds to cling to something and not let go (think of how we tend to ruminate), while aversion is when we won’t allow our mind to accept something (which is also sometimes called avoidance). The two are polar opposites that work in tandem and account for much of our unhappiness and suffering. Between the two lies a small gap: letting go.
It’s no coincidence that forgiveness is also often referred to as the art of letting go. If we’re angry with someone, it’s easy to disparage that person or replay the story or stories in our head that feeds our anger or hurt. Turning off this voice can be difficult because the stories support the ego, but these internal conversations are a prime example of grasping, clinging to the allure of anger and hurt and refueling it each time we retell the story or stories. Alternatively, it’s easy to avoid someone after a conflict or bury our feelings of hurt. That’s aversion in action.
Letting go comes via acceptance (the opposite of aversion), avoiding patterns of grasping, recognizing our hurt and/or anger (thus, fully experiencing the ups and downs of life) and then—gulp—extending goodwill, or at least compassion, toward the person who harmed us emotionally—even when it seems he or she might not deserve it.
If we cling to anger and hurt or find ways to avoid it, we invite unneeded stress and unhappiness into our lives. If we choose to accept anger and hurt without clinging to it, we can forgive and move on.
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the most important Stoic philosophers and the last of the Five Good Emperors, wrote, If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
So you have the power: Letting go is a decision, one that can affect your disposition dramatically. Right or wrong, deserving or not, perhaps the question to ask yourself might be: How could holding on to hurt or anger possibly serve me better than letting go?
PS: Science shows that letting go of our grievances leads to a healthier life both physically and emotionally.