The Scientist’s Art of Letting Go

It’s an art, they say, this process of letting go. Letting go of balloonOne that takes patience, determination, and practice. It takes faith that all will be all right in the future. It is not something that comes naturally to many of us. Which is why it’s so hard.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh recommends we begin to let go by sitting.

When we are calm, we can look deeply into a difficult emotion to see its roots and understand it better. First, we nourish ourselves with the joy of meditation, calming the breath, body and thoughts. Then we embrace the difficult feeling. This brings some relief and gives us a more solid basis for investigating and transforming the difficulty so we can get the healing we need. 

Finally, we can explore if our emotion is based on something happening in the present or something that we are still attached to from the past. If it’s from the past, we can begin to let it go, to more truly see and experience the present moment.

This sounds good. But is it realistic?

I tried to explain the art of letting go to one of my sons lately, without even bothering about the sitting part. He was in a bit of a snit when he discovered that some of his more valuable personal property went missing from the rented house he shared with a bunch of other young men. Not only did he want to get his belongings back; he wanted to avenge the wrongdoing. I tried to convince him that, while the confiscation and disposition of his personal property by others–without his permission–was unequivocally wrong, and technically, against the law, there was likely little he could do to identify the specific perpetrator or to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that said person had committed a crime. “The best thing you can do,” I told him, “would be to learn from this unfortunate event and let go.”

Yes, easier said than done. But the opposite of letting go is remaining stuck, and feeling like peanut butter on the roof of a mouth isn’t pleasant. I know, because I get stuck on disappointments all the time. Like the never-ending influx of rejection letters that appear in my inbox, dashing my hopes to get a particular piece of work published in a certain forum. Or the unexplained cancellations of key interviews I’ve set up which I believe are critical to a project I’m working on. The spontaneous “drop all plans” moment when I have to put someone else’ needs first–even though I had my day already planned out (thank you very much) and would rather not have to deal with another problem right now. The disappearance of my younger self’s waistline and spotless bills of health.The slow decline–or sudden termination–of a relationship I’d thought was solid but have come to learn wasn’t.

The loss of a loved one.

There are so many times in our lives when we have to face disappointments and losses. And the choice we must make is whether to let go of the anger and sadness, the fear and regret, and move forward–or whether we’d prefer to remain stuck where we are.

Letting go doesn’t have to mean giving up. I’m not necessarily a fan of pop artist Mariah Carey, but I like her lyrics that say letting go involves releasing anything you “need to let go of that’s holding [you] back or bringing [you] down.” I also like the way yoga and meditation practitioners think of letting go as allowing all the obstacles [to] disappear so that we can become more in touch with our inner selves. (Side note: yoga also helps so many of our physiological symptoms that also become blocked when we’re stressed. Letting go physiologically goes hand in hand with letting go emotionally. See Jenn Miller’s article for more info on that.)

Letting go can be hard even if it’s about something that seems trivial. It could mean replacing potato chips with protein drinks. Or clearing all those never-worn clothes out of the closet.

But of course sometimes it’s crazy hard. And sometimes it means putting the needs of a loved one in front of your own needs. That’s what Dan Diaz did earlier this year when he let his wife, Brittany Maynard, die with dignity. “That’s the thing is … is you don’t want to let go of your loved one,” Diaz said. “But to suggest that she should suffer for me, for anyone? No.”

To me, letting go means accepting change as a law of life. It means looking at the world from a new perspective. It means looking for the dapples of sunlight along a shady path and hunting for the treasures of the past.

In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s beloved spider helped Wilbur begin to let go of their friendship by viewing it as a treasure of the past.

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Last month, we all had to let go of Oliver Sacks, the phenomenal neurologist who understood humanity better than most of us non-scientists. Oliver SacksHe was perhaps most well-known for his books, “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” but what I think I most loved about him was his practical, sensitive, and often profound way of looking at life. When he announced his cancer diagnosis earlier in the year, he wrote about how he was approaching the difficult process of detaching from the living world. While he acknowledged his fear of dying–of letting go–he said his predominant feeling was gratitude, underscoring for me the notion that letting go is an art–and he is indeed an artist.

“I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

RIP, Oliver Sacks, and thank you for helping us see that letting go is really a process of recognizing the privilege of life.

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