“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”
One of the 9 core attitudinal foundations proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn for the cultivation of mindful living is letting go. It can sound like an action, and certainly it seems to be something other people often tell us to do. It makes sense then that in mindfulness training we describe this better as letting be, because letting go can feel really hard and just triggers more resistance.
A useful metaphor to explore this attitude is learning to swim. Remember when you learnt to float? The more we struggle and thrash about the more we sink. It’s the moment when we find the courage to trust the water to hold us that we discover we can – that we have a natural buoyancy. Just as we surrender to the water and the water holds us, what we learn to trust in mindful living is that our awareness will help us meet whatever arises. Slowly, and only ever moment by moment, we learn to trust ourselves and life a little more. Which doesn’t mean we just jump into the water without checking the current, the depth and maybe even the temperature (although its fun and deeply enlivening to surrender to that too sometimes!). It does mean though that sooner or later we can take the plunge! Mindful living is the invitation to give ourselves over to life.
When we are mindful we open to what’s here to be felt, sensed, and perceived in our direct experience rather than all the ideas, evaluations, judgements we have about what’s happening. It’s a wonderful rest from the almost incessant conflict with the way things are that can really dominate our living. Have you noticed all the little moments through the day when liking or disliking colours your experience – we want the good stuff to last longer but then feel disappointment when it ends, and we work hard to push away, resist or avoid the unpleasant and yet it persists. Here we are in a constantly changing weather system, around us and within us. And just like the weather there’s often not much we can do to change it. Sure we have our preferences, and it’s wonderful to be able to choose what and when we eat and drink, and the conditions of our immediate environment whenever possible. Discerning what we need and making efforts to take care of those needs is living with wisdom and care. It’s when life isn’t unfolding as we would like it to that ‘there’s the rub’.
Try clenching one hand to hold on, and stretching out the other arm and hand to keep something away – how does it feel? This perpetual grasping with one hand and rejecting with the other limits our flexibility, and is exhausting. Another possibility is open handedness, a posture that represents equanimity. Simply opening both hands, palms open – you’re not dropping anything but you’re not holding on so tightly. Letting go is simply not holding on.
And anyway as it turns out life is simply happening anyway, it’s unfolding regardless of our plans and wishes for it to be a certain way. This can feel like bad news indeed. On the other hand once we’ve recognised that the only aspect of living we can ever really control is our relationship to what’s happening then we can find a different sort of ease – a real sense of freedom and choice. We might discover that surrendering to the immediacy of life, it’s ever changing nature and the possibilities of living fully present when we get out of our own way – past our opinions and judgements about who we are and how things should be – is really the only way we want to live. It feels more natural, easeful and real. And this way of being is what we can taste each time we practice making contact with the life that’s here. Sit, move, stand, walk, lie down and feel life moving through you. Just for a moment, let it be…
Watch Jon Kabat-Zinn short talk on Letting Go, one of the 7 attitudinal foundations of mindfulness