The Art of Letting Go – How to Experience More Joy, Less Stress
By Kelly Lawman, BIDMC Staff
A couple of years ago, I participated in a group activity where we were guided in meditation to focus on a minor player in our life who had ‘done us wrong,’ someone who had angered us. We were then asked to experience what it felt like to imagine that same person doing something nice for us.
After the exercise, the woman sitting next to me shared that she had chosen to meditate about a post office worker who had been rude to her when she was trying to retrieve a package. It had really upset her and had stayed with her even days later. She said meditating on him doing something nice for her allowed her to put herself in his shoes and consider what might have caused him to behave the way he did. Maybe the customer before her was rude to him. Maybe he was having difficulties at home or had just received some bad news. Whatever it was, it surely had nothing to do with her, and with that insight, she was surprised to learn that she was able to let go of her feelings of resentment toward him.
It was a lightbulb moment for me, too. I wondered how often my reactions or thoughts were based on seeing things from only one perspective — my own — and how often that limited view influenced my thoughts and actions going forward in detrimental ways. If I could learn to let go, would I be happier?
“We all carry delusional beliefs that come from a point of view that is projected or distorted, or are simply untrue, and those beliefs affect how we think about ourselves and others,” says Tsering Yodsampa, a Tibetan Lama and chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “Learning how to stay balanced and become free of these attachments and aversions is the art of letting go.”
The danger of extremes
A common way we form attachments is by holding onto extremes. We think of our bodies as thin or fat, feedback from our family members as praise or criticism, a project at work as a success or failure.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s lack of self-confidence or over confidence, both extremes can potentially be damaging. Before you go to sleep, you are already worrying about how you will wake up tomorrow and what you will do, and as soon as you wake up, you are stressed,” says Lama Tsering. “And if you achieve success, you feel threatened that it may be gone soon. You get attached, and the pleasure of having success is lost because it is replaced immediately with the fear of losing it or feeling less because you see others have more.”
Integrative medicine doctor Aditi Nerurkar, medical director of BIDMC’s Cheng-Tsui Integrated Health Center, agrees that stress not only compromises our ability to experience joy, it can take a real toll on our physical and emotional well-being.
“Stress has been associated with overeating and relationship problems,” Nerurkar says. “It has also been linked to chronic conditions like heart disease, anxiety and depression, and other physical ailments like migraines and insomnia.”
So, maybe if we obsess less about the amount of calories or fat content in food, we turn our focus more to the balanced diet that most of us need to stay healthy. Or maybe if we let go of attachments to what we think defines success, we’ll be able to get our blood pressure under control and lower our risk for heart disease, and along the way experience more happiness.
Letting go is the wise way
The art of letting go is very much associated with forgiveness and, like forgiveness, it can be a source of peace.
“If you are angry with somebody, thinking and believing that your depression or anxieties are caused by that person, your anger and resentment toward that person doesn’t really mean anything,” says Lama Tsering. “If you let go, you are the one who is getting free from that. Letting go is for your own benefit. It gives you more peace than somebody who is forgiven. It is the highest wisdom.”
Whether it’s forgiving ourselves or others, letting go can break a negative cycle by helping us to stop perpetuating the very things we feel we are victims of.
Gaining insight bit by bit
Freeing yourself from attachments and aversions takes time and compassion for others and yourself along the journey. Lama Tsering recommends developing a meditation practice.
“The place to start is an emotional mindset where you truly see the disadvantages and the obstacles that are there, the things that make you feel trapped,” he says. “That seeing is called insight and insight can be only obtained when you are calm and settled. This contemplation is the practice of meditation.”
Even five minutes of daily meditation can help us begin to examine the beliefs we’re attached to and start to let go of the ones that are holding us back from happiness.
If meditation doesn’t feel like the right fit for you, there are other ways to examine your patterns of interactions with others as well as within yourself.
“When someone finds that they are reacting more strongly to a situation than one would usually presume, it’s likely because it is reminiscent on an emotional level of situations that have prompted a similar emotional response. It’s important to then step back and examine not just the situation at hand but also what associations have been triggered by this,” says BIDMC mental health therapist Stephen O’Neill, LICSW, BCD, JD. “In the example of the woman at the post office, it is important to distinguish between what each person brings to the situation. Meditation, as well as psychotherapy, can provide just such a forum for self-reflection and learning to ‘let go.’”
Nerurkar, O’Neill and Lama Tsering all agree that in whatever form, engaging in self-reflection is an endeavor well worth the time and effort. And even incremental changes in the way we think and behave can help us feel better.
“There is no way you can jump to the roof without even taking the first step on the first floor. So take things slowly. Gradually, through the practice you can start to loosen the grip of the afflictions that are binding you,” says Lama Tsering “I’m not saying surrender. I’m saying develop the ability to accept the flow of life, of course with some determination and willpower to go forward. In this way, letting go will help you become less defensive and experience more joy.”
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.This is a paid partnership between Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston Magazine's City/Studio