Practices for letting go

Our theme this month is “letting go,” and what strikes me first is not why this is a worthy practice, but how it’s even possible sometimes. We all realize that letting go of things that no longer sustain us, or that are doing us harm, or that disconnect us from others are worthy of being released from our lives—but how we go about doing this is the more difficult question.

Spiritual practice is a key to unlocking the “how” of letting go. I’ve just started an after-work meditation group on Thursday evenings, and this month we are exploring the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. At the core of the Noble Truths, which explore why we humans have anxiety and stress in our lives, and how we can have less anxiety and stress, is the notion of letting go of the fixations and attachments that weigh  us down. We cling to all sorts of stuff that is often harmful to us: difficult pasts; haunting stories; losses, hurts and disappoints. Even the good stuff in life, when we cling to it, can lead to suffering because the good stuff can be taken away and cannot last forever. We lose (or fear losing) our friends and loved ones, we lose (or fear losing) our youth, we lose (or fear losing) the status and fortune we mistook for happiness.

When we learn to take the “our” out of these phrases, and realize that pasts, stories, hurts, and disappoints aren’t actually “ours” but are universal human experience, we can let go more easily and move along to the good stuff in life: cultivating compassion and connecting with others to start.

Knowing these facts of human existence doesn’t help us unless we have a system for identifying, being with, and helping us to let go of hindrances. Everyone needs a spiritual practice. Most religions offer them in some form: prayer, chanting, meditation, rituals, movement, daily devotional, the list goes on. This is one shortcoming of our tradition. Unitarian Universalism has been light on giving people spiritual tools for helping us deal with life’s impermanence and difficulties. Ralph Waldo Emerson told us to go out in the woods and experience God directly. He was light, unless we actually read deeply an abundance of his writings, on what we should do once we’re out there on our own, how we can hang up the to-do list and really notice our connection to the “Oversoul.” What a beautiful word he coined to describe the universality of experience and divinity of All.

Considering another transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden went to the woods and built a cabin to live deliberately and fully. How many of us remember not only that he did it, but how?

Identifying a spiritual practice is somewhat easy. Are you doing it for the physical exercise? For intellectual growth? To perform? To lose those last 10 pounds? These may be beneficial, but they aren’t truly spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is about the intention behind why you are doing the practice. On the other hand, are you doing a practice to calm the mind so that you gain insight into what’s happening in your life? To sit (literally or figuratively) with the difficulties and anxieties of life? To turn off the monkey mind and observe the deeper workings of thought? To give the mind a backseat for a few minutes a day, or several minutes a week, in order to allow the deeper pieces of yourself to come to the surface? To find radical acceptance of life as it is?

I encourage you this month to find a spiritual practice that works for you, or to go deeper with the one you have. There are so many: sitting or walking meditation, yoga, creating music, chanting, communing with nature, sitting and listening to others. The trick is two fold. First, to identify it as a spiritual practice and not merely a self-help exercise (the two are not mutually exclusive, neither are they synonymous). Second, to cultivate and grow within your practice, whether newfound or longstanding.  If you don’t have one, you’re invited to join us Thursday nights after work. Regularity of practice is also of great benefit to your spiritual path.

Spiritual practice is about cultivating quiet space in our lives where we can identify and accept the totality of our life experience, its joys, sorrows, transcendent moments, disappointments, and so forth. As we learn to sit with them in complete acceptance, we gain the ability to let go of our attachment to their holds on our lives. We learn to “be with” in order to “let go of.”

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