As a long time yogi and full time yoga teacher I have heard and said the words “let it go” a thousand times over. These two verbs have become a standard cue in the yoga community, and, at one point they tumbled out of my mouth as easy as the word “breathe”. Over the past year, however, I have been more careful using this vague over-used instruction. Perhaps because I have become more descriptive with my language, or perhaps because the challenges I have been through this year has allowed me to discover that “letting go” is not always possible, nor is the most skillful action we can take in our practice.
Through my own reflection, I have discovered that sometimes just “letting go”, particularly of challenging feelings or emotions, actually denies the time and space we need to process and integrate difficulty. Prematurely trying to “let go” negates the time for honest, non-judgmental self-reflection. In some contexts, “letting go” can aid in bypassing what is actually happening in the mind and heart with the hope of producing a more pleasing emotional state.
While we all want happiness, it is almost impossible to walk through life without experiencing unhappiness. As the Buddha outlined in the fist noble truth: with all life there will be suffering. Even within a relatively happy life there will be praise, blame, gain, loss, pleasure, pain, fame and disrepute. Both unpleasant and pleasant experiences are part of being a human being. So is “letting go” of the feelings we don’t want to feel the most skillful way to practice, or operate in our lives?
Tibetan Buddhist practitioners would argue that our suffering is the soil in which compassion, empathy and love grow. Rather then attempting to “let go” of what is unpleasant, we can use it as grist for the mill. In fact, in Tibet, monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for the suffering that has been bestowed on them. “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in the deepest possible compassion and wisdom” (Kornfield 2002). I think it is possible to learn from our suffering if we allow ourselves time and space to feel it, rather then categorize it as something to be “let go” of. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn by sitting with our fears, obstacles and difficulty, as Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche wrote:
“To be a spiritual warrior means to develop a special kind of courage, one that is innately intelligent, gentle, and fearless. Spiritual warriors can still be frightened, but even so they are courageous enough to taste suffering, to relate clearly to their fundamental fear, and to draw out without evasion the lessons from difficulties.”
Let it RAIN: Transforming Difficulty into Compassion
I think that the words “let it go” can have more potency provided that there is context, support and time. After all, letting go is healthy and necessary to live in a life that is always changing. But how do we let go without pushing away the truth of what we are feeling? The mindfulness training “RAIN” I have found to be an excellent guide to help transform difficult emotions and mind states. I like the acronym of RAIN, because rain to earth implies growth; it is transformative. I have found this process of sitting with difficult feelings extremely transformative in my practice and in my life. If you want, give it a try!
Before we can let go, we first have to name what is in our experience that is hindering us. Try and name the feeling tones that are present with your difficulty- are you confused, sad, irritated, or angry? Several emotions can happen at one time so this can require careful attention. How to these emotions appear in the mind? Simply naming and recognizing what is difficult is the first step.
Allowing an emotion to be in the space of your mind and heart can be the hardest part of this practice, because for many of us, it is easier not to feel. Try giving the difficulty a lot of space rather than resisting it or prematurely trying to let it go. I will often ask myself the question: “what am I avoiding to feel?” I then take a few deeper breaths, and imagine the breath making more space around me. The nature of our mind is spacious, and “without space, there can be no movement and no change.”(Dzigar Kongtrul 2006)
My teacher Sarah Powers says that emotions only stay in our body for about 90 seconds. It is our ceaseless thinking that perpetuate the emotion to create a never-ending loop of overwhelm. The next step, investigate, helps us stay with the physical feelings of emotion. How does the emotion present itself to you in your body? Where do you feel the emotion in your body? Does it have a shape, size, color or temperature? Examine these elements with curiosity and give them space with every breath.
After we finishing investigating how our body expresses difficulty, we can then take a step back and remember that emotions are not personal. In Buddhist Psychology, emotions are seen to be a product of causes and conditions that usually are out of our control. When we non-identify, we can recognize the emotion as a product of our humanness, rather than something we created. We can see that emotions pass though us like a river and we can be there to compassionately observe.
Initially I found the step of Non-Identification curious because emotions can feel ULTRA personal, especially in our society where difficult emotions are often hidden begin closed doors. But our language proves that emotions are universal; the very fact they have names is because others have felt them in the same way as we have. Others have felt anger. Others have felt loss. Others have felt fear and uncertainty. It is nice to know that in this game of life you are not alone. Difficulty is part of being a human. It’s hard being a human. Knowing this, we can begin to develop compassion for ourselves and also for others.
While sometimes it is necessary to let go of unhealthy thoughts, unhealthy relationships or physical tension, sometimes more support, space and time is required. Sometimes we are ready to “let go”, but more often then not, it is better to first let be. Feeling into difficulty, rather then trying to let it go, can be a wonderful learning process and result in feeling compassion for yourself and others. As Sogyall Runpoche says:
“Whatever you do, don’t shut off your pain; accept your pain and remain vulnerable. However desperate you become, accept your pain as it is, because it is in fact trying to hand you a priceless gift: the chance of discovering, through spiritual practice, what lies behind sorrow.”
Jack Kornfield (2002) “The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace”
Jack Kornfield (2008) “The Wise Heart: a Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology”
Sogyall Runpoche , (1992) “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”
Dzigar Kongtrul (2006) “It’s Up to You: The Practice of Self Reflection on the Buddhist Path”