L is for Letting Go (and Hot Lava)

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began

                        –Mary Oliver

Hello, Dear Readers. This week has certainly been one full of lessons on Letting Go. It’s funny—as I make my way through the alphabet, ever so slowly, I have realized that each blog presents itself when it’s time. And not before.

So many things have converged in the past week, from family shit to online dating adventures, to the possibility of moving, to health concerns (not mine). As we emerge from this pandemic, like so many light-deprived moles crawling out of our long dark tunnels, blinking at the bright sun and shrinking from the intense heat (seriously, it was over 100 degrees here last weekend—that is not normal), we can only hope that the future is better, but it has not been a stellar re-entry back into the world.

The first lesson in Letting Go has to be that life is not going “back to normal.” What was before lockdown last March will not be returning. We have to let go of a “return to normal” and adjust to moving forward into something new. A friend invited me to a movie this week, at a theater. Inside. I’m not ready yet. And from the looks of the news headlines—shootings, forest fires, climate change havoc, declining vaccination rates, increased political polarization—it seems we should all just continue staying home. There needs to be a global Letting Go of the status quo. We cannot go on like this. I have no answers. Just a sense that if we don’t let go of what was, we will not be able to move forward, collectively.

On a more personal level, I have decided it is time to Let Go of my house. I put it on the market a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have a set plan yet. I just know that I’ve been in this house for 23 years, it has served me well, and now I no longer need it. When I was a kid, our family moved around a lot—I went to four different high schools—and when I landed in Bellingham 40 years ago to attend college,  I immediately put down deep roots. Maybe I didn’t even decide so much as just instinctually grounded myself here. I needed the continuity. But now, that need has subsided. It’s time for adventure. It’s time for me.

I spend my weeks urging clients to take care of themselves, reminding them that no one benefits if they aren’t getting their own needs met, that we can’t fill up others if our own wells are dry. Occasionally I remember to heed my own advice. But Letting Go of my home has repercussions beyond just me. My adult kids have feelings about me selling. Of course they do. I understand. My parents divorced and sold their home 20 some years ago, evoking all kinds of feelings of loss for me. I’ve had to Let Go of an intense urge to take care of my girls and to “do better” by them. But, Letting Go also means letting go of the past, of old wounds, of old habits, of old feelings that keep me trapped. Keeping my house is not going to heal the wounds I felt 20 years ago.

Letting Go means no longer being a place of refuge for others, and at times, I feel guilty for closing that door, but if not now, when? This house has been a refuge, a sanctuary, and now it feels more like a burden, a weight, an unnecessary commitment. Too much for me. I can’t wait. Some days, I am pursued by the specter of Alzheimer’s—it got my mom by 65 (in retrospect, it seems to have started there). She’s been robbed of her final decades—I cannot wait for it to get me too. I have to Let Go and Get Going into my own future.

Letting Go of my home also opens up a new range of possibilities—a life on the road, of Airbnbs in cities that call to me, of the possibilities of meeting people beyond the confines of this state, of opening myself, my life, my world up to more, bigger, different. Letting Go of what I thought work and the future held and embracing uncertainty.

When I work with clients who want to move forward but can’t seem to let go of what feels secure, I use a metaphor of the monkey bars. Remember hanging there, suspended over the “hot lava” your best friend breathing down your neck behind you, urging you to let go of the back rung in order to swing forward? The fear of falling, the knowledge if you didn’t let go, you’d eventually succumb to gravity and fall to the ground and be consumed by the metaphorical lava or crocodiles?

So, you took a deep breath, summoned your courage, and Let Go. Into the unknown, flying unsupported for one terrifying moment, the specter of death, of failure, of pain fleeting, until your hand met the cold, smooth metal and you were again safe. Ready to do it again, and again until you reached the end. Triumphant.

you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

-Mary Oliver, from Dream Work

L is for Letting Go

L

(disclaimer–I’m not a Buddhist nor an expert on such things. The following information is simply my take on a Buddhist concept. Please explore the links provided for more (and better) information. Also, we are taking a break from the running theme).

I’ve been listening to a lot of Tara Brach lately, mostly at night before I go to sleep. A Western Buddhist meditation teacher and clinical psychologist, she has a soothing voice, and as riveted as I usually am by her talks, I generally drift off before she’s half way through. When I wake up at three a.m. with the next hot flash, I restart the talk and listen some more until I drift off again. I am pretty sure lulling me (or anyone) to sleep is not the intention of her talks, but they beat taking pills, and I always pick up a morsel or two of wisdom.

Letting Go is a recurrent theme in her podcasts from the Insight Meditation Community in Washington DC. Letting go of expectations. Letting go of control. Letting go of desire. In the last podcast I listened to (from 2014), she talked about how expectation blocks true intimacy—when we have expectations of other people, situations, experiences, we miss out on what is actually happening in the moment. Instead we are focused on our own fantasy about what we want to happen, and we miss the opportunity to authentically experience the other person in the here and now. We forfeit the opportunity to meet people where they are because we expect them to be different, to meet our own needs.

I know it might sound kind of like hippie dippy voodoo shit, but I’m trying to put the theory into practice in my life. Last week, for example, I started a new quarter at school. I have some pretty high expectations about my classes, the instructors, and my classmates, as well as for my own performance in said classes. But what I discovered this week was that my expectations interfere with reality and serve only to make me miserable and take me out of the moment. Until I let go of my expectations of what I thought the class should be, I couldn’t fully participate in the class as it actually was. I was a wreck. Once I let go, everything improved. And trust me, Letting Go was no easy task.

Suffering, according to the Buddhists, occurs when we ignore reality, when we have expectations or desires. To avoid suffering, we need to Let Go. Tara tells a story about a guy who falls over a cliff and grabs onto a small branch on his way down (there’s always a branch), and as he dangles precariously over the jagged rocks, he calls for help. A voice commands him to Let Go. He asks, “God is that you?” “Yes,” the voice replies, “Let Go.”

The man calls out “Is there anyone else there?”

Letting Go is hard and scary, but sometimes the only thing we can do is to drop down into the abyss. There’s a true story (a book called Touching the Void) about Joe Simpson who was mountain climbing and fell into a crevasse, breaking his leg in the 150 foot fall. He couldn’t climb up out of the crevasse and after days of struggling, he finally realized that his only chance at survival was to Let Go, to drop down into the abyss. So he did. And he found a tunnel that he crawled through. The tunnel led to a town. He survived.

Give it a try. Let go. See if you don’t suffer a bit less and enjoy the moments a bit more.

Loosen your grasp. Let
It go, and in the release
find deliverance