To live well and be present, we need to learn the art of letting go of negative thoughts. This article describes simple yet effective strategies to letting go of all those things that don't add value to our lives.
Two Monks and a Maiden
This is not a bar joke. Just so I’m clear...
Two monks had started to cross a river on their way back to their monastery. Not long after, they came across a young maiden struggling to cross the river. Upon seeing the monks, the maiden approached them. She requested them to assist her in crossing the river.
The monks looked quite unsure. You see, the monks had vowed to not interact with outsiders as part of their monk-training. They were now presented with a rather peculiar quandary between breaking their vow and being of help to someone.
One of the monks soon hoisted the maiden on his shoulder and carried her safely ashore. The other monk walked along silently, surprised and a little taken aback. After dropping the maiden off, the two monks continued to tread quietly towards the monastery.
A couple of hours passed and no words were exchanged. Finally, the monk who had simply witnessed the incident couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. He asked the other monk why he had carried the maiden, especially when it meant he may have flouted the rules of his vow.
To this the carrier-monk replied, ‘I let her go hours ago, why are you still carrying her in your mind?’
Clearly, the surprised monk had not yet learned the art of letting go. Not even with his monk training. No wonder letting go is so difficult for us mere mortals.
Why you need to drop 'it'
We carry with us a whole lot of physical, mental, and emotional stuff. This load from the past weighs us down; literally in the case of physical stuff and metaphorically in the case of mental and emotional baggage. So whatever your 'it' is you need to find a way to let it go!
Unfortunately, all the stuff makes us bloated and that much harder to navigate life’s twists and turns. Not that I’m fat-shaming, but we’ve got to find a way to lighten the load so we’re able to be nimbler and freer in our encounters with life.
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be – Lao Tzu
The reason we need to learn the art of letting go is grounded in Science.
Our brains are primarily engineered for the survival of our species. Therefore, any threat to our survival is met with strong counter-resistance from our brains.
An extension of this theory is that bad news usually evokes a stronger reaction than good news. This is called the Negativity Bias and has close roots to the theory of Loss Aversion.
We tend to fear and worry about negative events and losses more than we tend to enjoy positive ones.
My favorite behavioral economist in the world, Daniel Kahneman, illustrated this with an example. His research found that the degree of sadness when you lose $100 tends to be higher than the degree of satisfaction when you gain $100.
Our brains pay more attention to distress signals than positive fun ones; noting any negative experiences we experience as ‘potentially harmful’ to our survival.
For instance, if someone said something hurtful to us or if we embarrassed ourselves in front of our colleagues, the brain records these in BIG BOLD RED letters. When exposed to similar situations later, we’re alerted to the possibility of this happening again.
This reinforces our fears causing us to engage in some rather irrational, sometimes comical behaviors such as
- I’m going to invent amazing ways to be passive-aggressive to the person who hurt me. She won’t even know what’s coming her way.
- I’m NEVER again going to speak to this bunch of losers at company events.
It’s easy to armchair comment on how ridiculous the above behaviors seem. But if we look within, we'll notice similar lines echoed in our very own lives.
Art. Backed by Science
See why the title of this post is ‘the art of letting go’? Because, like any other form of art, this requires some skill development. It is not hard. But it takes time. And practice.
So, how can we learn to let go? First, by understanding what the opposite of letting go i.e. holding on feels like.
We don’t realize that most of us hold on to a remarkable amount of stuff in multiple forms – physical, mental, and emotional.
It’s not without reason that Hoarders is such a popular show on TV and decluttering is a common verb form.
But you don’t have to be a ‘hoarder’ in the traditional sense. Physical holding on comes in many forms and for many reasons, and they can be quite detrimental to your overall well-being.
There’s enough material to fill a 12-volume-book series on this section alone. But I’ll try to give you the condensed version.
Reasons we hold on to stuff
There are many reasons why we hang on to stuff. See if you recognize some of these in your own life.
- Imagine a purple suede piece of home décor you received as a gift from a relative on your last milestone birthday. Every time you see it, your distaste for suede increases. But you feel obliged to leave the piece on display because your aunt constantly reminds you of how she bought this valuable piece at a competitive auction.
- An expensive craft-maker-kit you purchased (for a steal!) during your favorite local store’s going-out-of-business sale. It’s been two years now. The vacant lot has been replaced by another store so much so that people have forgotten the space used to belong to someone else earlier. But you still haven’t opened up the craft-maker-kit. You aspire to be a Martha Stewart one day, just not yet.
- You have a large (non-functional) grandfather clock in your basement. Also, you’ve watched one, too many episodes of Antique Roadshow on TV. From your crystal ball, you can tell, how this clock, by itself, will pay for your family’s fortunes in the distant future. (The thought that it may be a cheap, Chinese knock-off hasn’t crossed your mind yet)!
- In the name of ‘need’, there are closets full of backup stuff in case you run out of your main item. Not just Plan B, you have Plan Cs and Ds. Never mind that the store you buy from is 5 minutes away.
These are but a few reasons. Any of these ring a bell or convince you that the art of letting go is worth pursuing?
The Impact of Physical clutter
We don’t just buy and accumulate such items over our lives but we move from smaller to larger spaces to accommodate all this additional stuff. Especially, here in America, we go a step further and repurpose our garages and rent additional storage spaces for our burgeoning stuff!
Then, to pay for all of this added real estate, we work extra hard at our jobs, leaving us with less leisure time.
To top it all, we use that precious leisure time to ‘organize’ and clean stuff to make way for newer items.
It’s exhausting to even write about this, much less to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.
Space constraints and the constant upkeep requirements are just superficial problems caused by physical possessions. The deeper and more pressing issue with stuff is how they affect us mentally.
- The suede décor from your aunt causes unpleasantness and negative energy every time you look at it. But you don’t want to risk upsetting your aunt, so you leave it sitting there.
- Since you haven’t opened the craft-maker-kit, you are riddled with guilt every time you see it
- Your kids play catch in the basement. So, you’re constantly nervous about the grandfather clock, concerned that they make accidentally knock the clock off.
- You worry about items in your pantry expiring because they’ve been stocked for too long.
See, I wasn’t kidding about the 12-volume-series. Unfortunately, stuff tends to rule us, unless we learn the art of letting go.
Holding on to mental and emotional baggage
Now let’s pivot from the physical stuff to the big Kahunas - the mental and emotional landmines we carry around in our heads and hearts.
If you’re even a little cynical, you’ll know there is no dearth of negative energy sources around us. Our own thoughts, environmental factors, other human interactions are all rife with the potential to make us feel bad. If we choose to go down that path!
Here are some common forms of mental and emotional baggage we’re tempted to carry around. Just recognizing the havoc these can cause in our lives is reason enough to learn the art of letting go.
I have dedicated a whole post to worrying here. While we know intuitively that worrying about something is not going to solve the problem we’re worried about, we continue to worry and overthink. That’s because somehow by worrying we feel we are DOING something to resolve the issue. Even if it's just to worry.
So, we hold on to these worries and can’t let go.
Guilt is a gift that keeps on giving! It is omnipresent and abundant.
We feel guilty about not doing enough at work or at home. Or doing too much in one place and hurting the balance. We feel guilty about not exercising enough. Or we simply have Mom guilt about anything and everything. It is an endless list, for sure.
That said, asking you to let go of something you already feel guilty about is like adding fuel to a forest fire. It simply will act to exacerbate the situation. Instead, the solution is to find a way to remove the feeling of guilt in the first place.
The pleasure of being human, as opposed to say being a panda, is our ability to experience the entire gamut of human emotions. I’ve never been a Panda myself so I can only guess. And since you’re reading this, I’m assuming you aren’t one either.
As humans, we can be sad, happy, tickled, angry, disgusted, overjoyed, surprised, horrified, envious, sympathetic, empathetic, satisfied, amused, etc. I read somewhere there are over 50 different emotions that are truly distinct from each other.
Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. Because of our capacity to distinguish between all these feelings, we tend to hold on to past emotional performances (either real or imagined) quite heavily. Especially negative ones such as hurt, anger, disapproval, envy, disappointment, expectations etc.
Here are some common themes of what these emotions are like. I'm sure you'll find some to identify with:
- If only she hadn’t acted that way…
- I wish he were a little more organized
- Can you believe they treated us like that?
- I hope my kids get into xxx college
Just imagine freeing ourselves up from all of this and learning the art of letting it go. Just picture the lightness and relief! Almost like the balloons featured in the cover picture.
Not surprisingly, the strongest case for letting go is in the are of emotional well-being. Because, ultimately, emotional reasons are the basis for holding to all things (including physical stuff) .
So, how do you reverse the trend of holding on and learn to let go?
From Knowledge to Action
To learn the art of letting go, start with just ONE simple behavior change.
Find a way to stop reinforcing the negative emotions that you are trying to let go of. To explain what this means, here's a thought experiment:
Reinforcement and Memory
Do you remember:
- What you had for lunch 3 days ago?
- How about where you were on 9/11 when the towers were struck?
Chances are you don’t remember your lunch but you remember the 9/11 incident in rather shocking detail.
This is because the human brain is an efficient organ and so all mundane activities simply get clubbed together making recall difficult. On the contrary, any out-of-ordinary events get special treatment.
Also, since you’re more likely to think or talk of out-of-the-ordinary experiences, you reinforce the special place in your brain through recall and repetition. (Sidebar: if you are trying to learn something new you’d do well to use this technique). This means every time you recall the negative incident, it’s akin to picking up and polishing the memory. No wonder you have a hard time letting go. Your brain likes to hold on to its shiny objects!
The Art of Letting Go
The art of letting go of painful stuff is, therefore, actually very simple. In theory.
There’s a reason I don’t have the Nobel prize in Psychology. I realize this stuff is easier said than done. But, as Yoda says
Do or do not. There is no try. Yoda
Your sole objective is to move negative emotional experiences to the same area in your brain that has the details about what you ate for lunch 3 days ago i.e. a bottomless pit that leads to nowhere.
That will ensure that in due course the emotion will become rather inconsequential, thus losing its power to hurt or cause distress.
Deal with a negative emotion just like how you’d deal with pests. To make rats disappear, simply remove all food sources. Similarly, stop providing oxygen to the negative emotion, it will dissolve on its own.
I’m not talking about repressing emotions. Instead, every time the emotion shows up, be attentive, and acknowledge it. But stop fueling it further. That is how you build resilience. That is how you start to push back and let go.
In other words, quit thinking or talking about it SO MUCH. Stop telling yourself and everyone else how much you’ve been wronged, or how unfair the world is. Every time you do, you embellish the original experience in your brain with more detail, making it much harder for you to move on.
To get better at this, you just need one tool. Mindfulness. Cultivated through Meditation. There is no other option. You’re not going to magically develop the ability to be attentive when bad stuff happens or know how to react with care and compassion towards yourself and others.
Meditation is THE practice that will help you cultivate the art of letting go. You practice on the mat, so you know what to do in the war zone aka real life. You learn on the mat what the negative emotion feels like and looks like in your head. Once you recognize it, you then develop the ability to gracefully acknowledge the emotion and say ‘Ta ta. Thank you for stopping by’.
I know this is a long post but at the risk of prolonging it further, I feel compelled to share this experience with you.
I was about halfway done with writing this post a couple of days ago. It was late at night. I noticed some issues with saving the document to the cloud, which is where I usually store all my work. I thought I had resolved the issue and closed the document. Soon, I thought of one more point I wanted to add to the article before I went to bed.
So, I opened my document to add those details. Guess what I found – a 1KB document with just the title and endless white space. Everything I had thought and typed up over hours had just disappeared. Poof!
After spending an hour searching all folders and hoping for a miracle, I gave up. Can you guess what the odds were that I fell asleep peacefully right away?
The irony that I had just been thinking and writing about the art of letting go, was not lost on me. So, I spent about 5 minutes cursing all the technology companies that exist in the universe today and my own stupidity for such a rookie mistake. Then, I decided to truly let it go. Because, what choice did I have?
Defying all odds, I fell asleep and woke up the next morning quite peacefully knowing I needed to start again. No one died from my mistake. So, what was there to fret about?
Yes, I learned my lesson about saving documents locally. But I got to look at fear, anxiety, disappointment in the eye and tell them I had other plans. Typing up 1000 words again was such a small price to pay for that experience. And I got a bonus too - additional material to share to illustrate what this article is all about.
The point of this anecdote is that life is a great teacher. You’ll keep getting lessons every single minute if you care to pay attention. So get ready. Just say Om, breathe deeply, and get started on letting it all go.
Ultimately, you want to do these two things.
Keep the lesson. Let go of the pain.