Mindfulness and the Art of Letting Go

sand-falling-from-hand“Do everything with a mind that lets go. Do not expect any praise or reward. If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.”

– Achaan Cha, A Still Forest Pool

When we practice mindfulness, when we learn to notice thoughts without getting carried by their content, and when we learn to sit with pain or discomfort, we practicing letting go. Most clients who come to see me are holding firmly onto something—their story, their fears, losses, expectations, relationships, or possessions—even when these things cause them pain and suffering. We all tend to hold those things and more. Learning to let go can be an act of release and healing.

The major part of holding takes place in thoughts: obsessive thoughts, worries for the future and regrets of the past, thoughts that form your life philosophy and beliefs about who you are and your journey in the world. There are three ways of mindfulness practice that cultivate letting go of the grip of thoughts.

Awareness and Exploration
By bringing awareness to the content of thoughts through inquiry, one can learn to identify themes and topics that rise repeatedly, note them, and simply observe them without getting involved in their content. This “scientific” observation approach serves as a way to let go. When you are curios about the phenomenon of thoughts, you naturally are less attached to the message that the thought carries. Observing the process of how thoughts emerge, develop, rise and fall, and appear and disappear helps to neutralize identification with the content of the thought.

Focusing on the Breath, the Body, or an Object
The basic method for practicing mindfulness is to focus on the breath. When the meditator notices thoughts coming, he or she just shifts awareness back to the breath. This gentle inner action of shifting awareness serves as a practice of letting go. When one notices thoughts, the tendency is to follow, to get engaged in the content of the thought, even if this engagement brings pain and suffering. Noticing the inner activity of thinking and choosing not to get involved, but rather to reconnect with the breath, is an act of letting go. You allow yourself to let go of the thought.

Openness
Physical openness: Holding means tightness. Holding with your hand means that you tightened and folded your fingers. When we hold sadness, anger, hatred, worries, and more, there is a tightness and closing in the chest, belly, and jaws. Adapting a sense of openness and developing a sense of wide chest, open arms, and open face helps to let go of the inner holding and tightness.

Mental openness: Developing a wider view of a problem, and seeing the relative place it takes in the whole tapestry of one’s life, helps to let go of the sense of emergency and magnitude of whatever one holds. Assuming perspective can apply not just to one’s life, but also to the general scheme of things and the place of the individual within the society, nature, and the universe. These forms of mental openness release constant hovering over the issue and give a sense of release.

Mindfulness is not Distraction
We all know of another way to let go, usually for a limited amount of time, the way of distraction. Distractions can be helpful sometimes to ease tension, anxiety, and pain, and as long as they are not destructive, they can be used. However, distractions are not part of mindfulness, and their affect is limited, with no cumulative effect of growth.

It is important to note that in the mindfulness methods, the idea is not to ignore a problem or avoid addressing it—it is about a choice between suffering and freedom. One can still choose to deal with issues that need to be addressed, but do it from a place of non-attachment. Letting go releases the energy that was captured by holding to be used for creative and meaningful changes.

© Copyright 2010 by Yael Schweitzer, LCSW, BC-DMT, therapist in Portland, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Christopher

    May 19th, 2010 at 4:56 PM

    Years ago,my younger brother and I had a big argument and in the ongoing conflict he hurled abuses at me. I was taken aback. I had always been nice to him and had taken care of him like any good elder brother would of his younger one. But here he was, abusing me! I was shocked and was actually frozen for some time.

    That day I decided never to talk or stay in touch or have anything to do with him at all. My mom came up to me and tried convincing about it. I was firm because I was really hurt by his words that day. Mom took me to a part and explained to me that even if I do not talk to him or keep in touch, our relationship will never cease to exist. She showed me many pairs of siblings there and reminded me of how my brother and I used to play in that same park when we were little. Just then I realized that keeping grudges and being angry is of no use and that it is better to let go of things. That very day, my brother came up to me and apologized. We just looked at each other and then hugged each other tight and almost cried. I have never felt so emotional in my life. I felt like I got a brother back from the ashes and I am thankful to my mother even to this day to have showed me and my brother the way.

  • Fran

    May 20th, 2010 at 3:00 AM

    I know that there is a part of me that feels like if I let it go then I will forget and that is something that I don’t want to do. So this is the big question that I have- how do you learn to let go of the negative feelings that a certain memory may bring, but also learn to keep it as a part of your life so that you can continue to learn from it but not be affected in such a negative way by it?

  • Evie

    May 21st, 2010 at 4:50 AM

    a choice between suffering and freedom. . . I will take the freedom

  • Yael Schweitzer

    Yael Schweitzer

    June 17th, 2010 at 11:10 PM

    Thanks for your comments, for sharing your stories and asking questions. Regarding the question of how to let go of negative emotions while remembering the event, learn from it and honor the experience – it is a question worth living with. Meaning – keep it as an open question. This is the power of the mindfulness practice. Being mindful of the emotional reactivity with compassion and practicing loving-kindness may lead you to insights and understanding of how to navigate between the emotions and cognition.

  • Bill Arsenault

    June 29th, 2013 at 6:35 AM

    Without knowing the term “mindfulness”, I realized, from your article, that I had been employing it and professing it for about a decade. It truly has freed me to live a much more qualitative life. Thank you for the affirmation.

  • Brandi G.

    February 8th, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    Second last paragraph should read effect instead of affect.

    Great article though! Many are so unaware of what it means to be mindful and most seen to rely on distraction to cope with emotions or anxiety.

  • sergi

    February 23rd, 2015 at 1:39 AM

    In the paragraph titled ‘Mindfulness is not distraction’ you wrote “…their affect is limited…” where the correct word is ‘effect’ :)

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