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Letting Go: A Guide to the Challenging Art of Moving On
Change can be a wonderful thing. Even when it comes in scary packages, such as illness, it can help us appreciate the miracle of our lives. The problem is, when we get scared, we have a tendency to tense up and cling to whatever we can grab onto – whether it's people, habits, food, drink, or what have you. It's a natural, human reaction. It also makes letting go very difficult.
I've noticed that people often try to "get Zen" about a situation, and stay calm no matter what’s happening in their lives. But this is a delusion. Bad news is going to rattle you. Even the most enlightened teachers of Buddhism have bad days. Kanju Khutush Tulka Rinpoche, a highly regarded teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, said it best: "People commonly feel that because I am considered a living Buddha I must experience only serenity, perpetual happiness, and have no worries. Unfortunately this is not so. As a high lama and incarnation of enlightenment I know better."
The key to letting go is to give yourself permission to truly experience your reaction and feel everything it has to teach you. If you are angry, get mad and yell. If you are sad, watch a tearjerker and cry your little eyes right out of your head. One emotion will likely lead to another, like the old game for kids, Barrel of Monkeys, so don't be surprised if you get taken on a rollercoaster ride. It might take you an afternoon, a week or a year. Allowing your emotions to pass through you will get them to move along much more quickly than if you ignore them or stuff them down. I know it seems like a frightening proposition to allow yourself to feel your darkest emotions, as if you were opening a box that you’d never be able close again. But, as one of my favorite teachers, Max Strom, says, it's more like uncorking a bottle of Champagne. Yes, there will be some spillage in the beginning, but it will pass and the sweet rewards will be able to flow freely. Please ask for help if you need it. I have always been delighted by how open people are when I have gone to them in an obviously emotional state and asked for their support.
If the person who needs to do the letting go is someone besides yourself, the best thing you can do for them is model the behavior and let your example and your energy draw them out of their holding pattern. Let them see you cry so they can also see how much better you feel afterward. Show them how wonderful it feels to try new things by inviting them to do something that they know you are afraid of. And because the body and the mind are so intertwined, here’s a simple breathing exercise to help you flush out any old feelings or ideas that you may be clinging to. I learned a variation of this from Max Strom.
Breathing to let go
Lie on your back with a pillow or rolled up blanket under your knees and your hands on your belly.
- Inhale to a comfortable level.
- With your mouth open, make a loud whisper sound, as if you were trying to fog up a mirror, and exhale all the air out of your lungs. When you think you are done exhaling, gently use your hands to squeeze out any last bit of breath.
- Allow the inhale to occur naturally.
- Continue breathing this way for at least 5 minutes.
We typically only expel about 50% of the air out of our lungs with each exhale. This breath really works to get out the stale air and infuse the body with fresh air. It sounds simple, but it’s no joke! After all, the Latin derivation of “inspire” means “to feel with breath.” You can modify this exercise and use it throughout your day too: Anytime you feel yourself tensing up or getting rigid, concentrate on making your next exhale longer than usual.