The Art of Letting Go

October 10, 2012

No matter how calm and mindful you are, you cannot fully eliminate unproductive and distressing emotions from your life. Paul Ekman, one of the most preeminent psychologists in the world discussed precisely this topic with the Dalai Lama. They both agree that it is impossible to stop a thought or emotion from arising. And since the Dalai Lama is pretty well-regarded mindful authority, it’s safe to assume that’s he’s probably right about that.

So there is no mindful practice that can prevent you from feeling an unhelpful emotion like anger. What do we do now? Should we give up and just throw a tantrum whenever we feel angry? No, please don’t throw a tantrum.

Though even the Dalai Lama can’t prevent negative emotions, he finds makes an important point: while we cannot stop an unwholesome thought or emotion from arising, we have the power to let it go, and the highly trained mind can let it go the moment it arises.

Think of how much more productive you could be if you were able to dismiss any negative emotions the moment they occur and were able to move on with your day.

Letting go is an extremely important skill. It is one of the essential foundations of mindful practice.   In the words of Sengcan, a great mindful teacher, “The Great Way is without difficulty, just cease having preferences.” Is it possible to let go and still appreciate and fully experience the ups and downs of life?


The key is to let go of two things: grasping and aversion. Grasping is when the mind desperately holds on to something and refuses to let it go. Aversion is when the mind desperately keeps something away and refuses to let it come. These two qualities are two sides of the same coin. Grasping and aversion together account for a huge percentage of the tension and stress we experience.

Imagine that you’re in an evaluation and you feel it’s not going well. You focus on your feelings of stress and instead of learning from your evaluation, all you focus on is the negativity in your mind. Instead of dwelling on feelings of stress, what if you could acknowledge them, then let them go to focus on what your boss is saying. When you dismiss the stress and refocus, you’ll be able to move forward and learn from the evaluation how to improve your work.

When we experience any phenomenon, we begin with contact between sense organ and object, then sensation and perception arise, and immediately after, grasping or aversion arises. The key insight here is that grasping and aversion are separate from sensation and perception. They arise so closely together that we do not normally notice the difference.

As your mindfulness practice becomes stronger, you may notice the distinction and maybe even the tiny gap between them. For example, after sitting for a long time, you may feel pain in your back, and almost immediately after that, you may feel aversion. You tell yourself, “I hate this pain. I do not want this sensation. Go away!”

When you work without mental distraction, you work better. Start your mindful practices and you’ll see how SIYLI stress solutions can keep you happier and focused at work.

SIYLI Suggestion: Use your mindful minute to help you focus on separating sensation and perception from grasping and aversion.