the Little book of Letting go
A Revolutionary 30 Day Program to Cleanse Your Mind, Lift your Spirit, and Replenish your Soul
By HUGH PRATHER
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2000 Hugh Prather
All rights reserved.
Letting Go: The Basics
Within the human heart, we all feel the call to be simple, to be present, to be real. Yet throughout the day, the world urges us to be at war with ourselves and each other: "Be resentful about the past." "Be anxious about the future." "Be hungry for what you don't see." "Be dissatisfied with what you do see." "Be guilty." "Be important." "Be bored." "Be right." Little else in nature exhibits this need to be more than it is. The simplicity of rain, the clarity of a star, the effortlessness of a bird, the single-mindedness of an ant—all are just what they are.
Underwear on the floor can break up a marriage. Yet the eyes of puppies light up when they see boxers or briefs. To them, dirty socks are not reasons for fights but reasons for play. Obviously, most little animals are hooked on something quite divine. Something within them releases enormous freedom. I suggest that something is simplicity and purity, and that we can experience the possibilities of this natural state as well. A mind that learns to let go gradually returns to its inherent wholeness, happiness, and simplicity.
For example, the people who are in our lives today, are in our lives today—what could be simpler than this? Yet so often we react to those we encounter with a mind churning in conflict: we don't want them here; we can think of other people we would rather have here; we're not even sure we want to be here; when will this be over; why does this always happen to us; and on and on. When we become preoccupied with what we want or don't want from someone, or what we do or don't approve of, we fail to see that person's goodness, malice, gentleness, sadness, or anything else that is present. This habitual reaction to other people and to everything else in life needlessly complicates our lives and blocks simple enjoyment and peace.
When Gayle's and my son, John, was two years old, we lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One day he and I were standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, when a semi slowly began rounding the corner just as the walk light came on. Suddenly I was caught up in the delay this truck was causing by passing in front of us. Then I heard John say, "Big truck." I looked down and his eyes were wide with amazement. I looked at this enormous semi passing so close we could have reached it in one step. And I said, "Big truck." Because now I really saw it. It seemed like the mother ship in a Star Wars movie.
Maybe I'd been thinking that the truck shouldn't have been there or that what I had to do was more important than what the truck driver had to do. Whatever it was, that thought was all it took to keep me from enjoying just standing beside my son and holding his hand. Just one unnecessary thought. Little children have very few, if any, unnecessary thoughts, and that's why they are usually focused, present, and happy.
A mother bird sees a snake climbing her tree and thinks "snake." Immediately she starts dive-bombing it. I have seen what a bird can do to a snake that doesn't climb down fast enough. However, it's clear what would happen to her babies if that same mother bird saw the snake and thought, "I do more good in the world than that snake." Or, "I don't like that snake; it's slimy looking." Or, "A snake in the grass has no business being in a tree." Or, "I'm going to give that snake a piece of my mind."
Not only do we give people a piece of our mind, we give them a piece of our happiness, wholeness, focus, and sometimes, a piece of our health.
Our lives are filled with useless battles because our minds are filled with useless thoughts. We never finish thinking about anything. We carry around unhappy scenes from the past as if they were still happening, and we chew on the memory of whatever we just did. This glut of thoughts profoundly affects the world we perceive and the life we live. A man who sees his mother in every woman he meets can't see the women he meets. This one unnecessary thought lands him in solitary confinement and assures he will die alone. A mother who can't accept her son-in-law into her heart because he has "a lot of metal" (say, double earrings, a nose stud, and something rumored to be somewhere else) merely attacks her own capacity to love and be happy. She doesn't change the son-in-law and she doesn't eradicate her daughter's love for him. Yet this one unnecessary thought means her daughter will not have the mother she needs.
These last two are somewhat poisonous examples of what happens when we don't let go. Yet throughout each day, failure to let go can eat up every small chance we have to be happy. Just trying to write this page has been a typical example.
About an hour ago, our son Jordan asked me if I could fix him "weenies the way Mother fixes them." I stopped writing and headed into the kitchen where John, who is now twenty, asked me if I could look at a business proposal he had outlined for his managerial accounting class. Gayle, being a banker's daughter, ordinarily would handle this one too, but she's at Trader Joe's buying organic yogurt.
"As soon as I fix Jordan's weenies," I said.
"Oh," John said, "would you fix me some too?"
"Yes," I said, through only gently clenched teeth.
Seasoned with my ambivalence over having been asked to stop writing about kindness and peace and actually practice them, the free-range weenies soon were simmering away in free-range chicken broth—oxymorons cooking in an oxymoron watched over by a large oxymoron.
So there I was thinking about how I wasn't getting to do what I wanted to do; wondering where Gayle and I went wrong if our boys couldn't fix their own weenies; thinking it was a good thing we were on record against forcing kids to be vegetarians; and debating whether a dead free-range chicken was more spiritual than a dead chicken.
In a sense, we all have two minds—one whole and peaceful, the other, fragmented and busy. I was definitely in my busy mind. Just then I remembered Gayle's final words as she headed out the door: "I think we should say in the book, 'Make your state of mind more important than what you are doing.'"
And maybe apply that to ourselves as well?
I have practiced letting go enough to know that it feels a whole lot better than not letting go. Although my mental state wasn't too bad, it was not whole, happy, or at peace. Why must even this little bit of misery be endured? Why can't a couple of small tasks be done happily?
My mistake was the one Gayle indicated. I had made circumstances more important than my state of mind. Now I had to reverse that. I had to let go. In my experience of this process, I've come to see that it involves three steps:
The first step of letting go: To remove what obstructs your experience of wholeness and peace, you must first look at the obstruction.
Well, I wasn't out-and-out upset about the weenies, but I was a little resentful about what I was not getting to do, and a little conflicted about what I was doing. As I went deeper into these feelings, I found the obstructing thought: "I shouldn't have to do what I don't want to do." I looked at that idea for a moment and realized I didn't even believe it. I do things all the time I don't want to do. In this case I wanted to fix my boys this food and I wanted to read John's proposal.
Check off step 1.
Before we go to step 2, I want to emphasize one aspect of letting go that is crucial to its success. In seeking clarity about what I wanted, I would have sabotaged the entire letting-go process if I had slipped into wanting my boys, Gayle, or the situation to change.
The moment I think, "I shouldn't be fixing these weenies," all I can do is wait to be saved from the weenies. Maybe the electricity will go off and I can announce, "I tried, boys, but there's nothing I can do about it." Then I can shake my head in frustration and go back to my writing. Or perhaps Gayle will get back early and take over. Or maybe John will come into the kitchen and say, "Dad, you've been cooking weenies all your life. I think it's time I took over. You go back to writing."
Whenever our desire is for people to change or circumstances to go our way, we are not taking responsibility for our state of mind. Because now all we can do is be a victim and wait to be saved. We obviously can't let go if we are waiting to be saved. Certainly there are real victims, but most of us put ourselves in this role needlessly. And we do it every day.
When our goal is to maintain our sense of wholeness and connectedness regardless of what the day throws at us, we simply will not become a victim. Nothing is "beyond our control" because we are not interested in control. We let the people and situations we encounter be who and what they are. We are not motivated to reform or remake them. This doesn't mean we like how everyone behaves, nor does it mean that we fail to protect ourselves and loved ones from destructive people. But if we commit ourselves to changing even pleasant people when they don't want to change, we instantly become victims of their reactions. Each little response to our efforts pulls at the strings of our emotions.
For example, possibly you have been amazed, as I often have, by how frequently drivers put themselves in danger just to teach another driver a lesson. They will speed up to let someone know that he or she should not be cutting in line. They will tailgate a driver who is going too slowly. They will "run up the back" of a driver who just dangerously entered traffic. They will cut off someone who just cut them off.
Those who take it upon themselves to reform the driving public are classic victims. They have a good commute or a good trip only to the degree that other drivers act like they got the message. But other drivers never get the message.
No one has ever been made more sensitive or more thoughtful by being judged, bullied, or frightened. Putting pressure on others doesn't change their hearts. It merely engages us in a pointless conflict that splits our mind and muddles our emotions.
The second step of letting go: To go beyond the obstruction, you must be certain that you want to.
This was easy. I wanted to cook weenies in peace. I wanted to grant a simple request from my boys in peace. I wanted to be able to break with my personal agenda in peace. I indeed wanted peace more than I wanted the thought that was obstructing peace. I took a moment to probe my honesty about all of that. I found it was pretty solid.
Check off step 2.
The third step of letting go: To experience your wholeness, you must respond from your whole mind and not from your conflicted mind.
To do this, I had to find the place of wholeness within me. This is an attribute of the heart that we all possess. It is the place where we feel a quiet and loving connection to others. Even though it is always there, if your mind holds a disrupting thought, and if the first two steps are not done honestly, you simply will not feel wholeness or any real connection with other people. But if you are able to go to what has been called "the place of beauty," then you must respond from this place—and you must resolve not to slip back into your old, conflicted state of mind.
And what is the nature of this "resolve"?
It is simple sincerity. Do we sincerely want oneness and equality with those around us? Do we sincerely want to look at our life in peace? Do we sincerely want a mind that knows stillness, wholeness, and a deep bond with our partner, children, parents, siblings, and friends? Or would we rather hold back our heart just a little? Would we actually like to remain in position to judge, triumph, and be right?
Here's where the third step can get a little tricky: The process of letting go of your more destructive emotions and darker impulses does not require tight control of the subject matter of your thoughts, although most people think it does. In fact, it doesn't require control of your thoughts or feelings in any way. You are not at war with circumstances, your behavior, other people's behavior, your feelings, other people's feelings, your thoughts, or other people's thoughts. You simply are not at war. It is just the reverse. Letting go is freedom. When you find yourself in a useless battle, you merely walk off the battlefield.
An illustration of how this third step works can be found in the way we experience love. All of us have seen examples of the disastrous results of people deciding to have or adopt a child because they want someone who will love them. The reason this doesn't work is that the child has to act like the image of the child that the parent expected. But the child is her own person and acts like herself, so the war begins—and war never feels like love. Similarly, people who decide to get a dog or cat for the same reason end up making themselves unhappy. Inevitably, the pet will disappoint.
Those two scenarios are common enough that many people see the mistake. Yet when it comes to romantic relationships, they don't question their desire to find someone who will cherish them, think they are wonderful, share their interests, meet their needs, have eyes only for them, and adore them even in old age. But that doesn't work either, as our divorce rate shows.
There are many people who love gardening so much that they spend significant parts of their day watering, feeding, weeding, pruning, transplanting, and the like. And they feel adequately blessed by every effort they make. It's a pleasure to walk in a garden that someone truly loves.
How do these blessed "relationships" between person and plant come about? It would be absurd to suggest that they hap-pen the way we are now telling ourselves romantic relations should work—the person who wants a garden looks for one that is astrologically correct, that is the right age, the right shape, that had the right upbringing, one that will be lots of fun and meet all the gardener's needs.
The reason a garden "blesses" a gardener, a pet blesses a pet owner, a child blesses a parent, and a spouse blesses a spouse is that we feel love; we have the experience of love. But we have that experience only when we ourselves love. If you don't love, the most devoted pet, child, or lover will not lay one finger on your heart—it just doesn't work that way.
Because it is a fact that when people love, they immerse themselves in the experience of love, we can find parents all around us who feel deeply, blessedly loved by their damaged children, their genetically confused pets, and their overweight partners. We can find couples so old that they are shriveled who see and feel the beauty of love pouring like sunlight from each other's bodies. For this to happen, all you need to do is respond from your quiet, united, loving mind, not from your busy, fragmented, disconnected mind.
Please understand that none of us jumps straight from a conflicted approach to life to one of pure unity and peace. That of course is the choice, but, realistically, we are either heading in the direction of one or the other. We can have a growing sense of inner wholeness and be increasingly at peace with our life and the people in it, but we will have not-so-good days and many notso-good moments. All we can do is the best we can today. It is the direction of our life that matters, not whether we have reached some perfect stage of letting go. It is enough to make a little progress each day. This is a more encouraging and productive goal than attempting achievement.
I have often used the following story to illustrate the effects of responding from wholeness as compared to responding from conflict.
Running in the Hall
Gayle and I were leaving a gymnasium where we had just watched our son Jordan play basketball. As we walked down the long hall toward the exit, three eight-year-old girls came running past, animatedly talking and laughing. As they passed the man in front of us, he harshly yelled, "Don't run in the hall!"
This slowed them almost to a stop. They were obviously confused about why they couldn't run in this virtually indestructible hallway.
When we caught up to them, the man was almost out of sight, and Gayle said, "He didn't say you couldn't skip!"
The girls immediately started laughing and skipping down the hall. We could hear them say, "No, he didn't say we couldn't skip!"
Gayle, as she so often does around children, saw these girls' core of innocence and fun and simply responded from her whole mind. If she had been judgmental of the man and said to them, "What a grouch. I think you should run if you want to," the girls might have started running again, but they would have run defiantly or fearfully and not with the lightness of heart they had before. Although their speed would have increased, their minds would have been conflicted and uncertain.
Excerpted from the Little book of Letting go by HUGH PRATHER. Copyright © 2000 Hugh Prather. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.