We have now reached the last day of the mindfulness introduction. Today’s topic and the related exercise relate to the mindfulness practice of observing thoughts and emotions – and letting go of them. This is a fundamental idea in mindfulness, and something that the previous exercises touched upon. But because it is so fundamental, it is worth looking at it in a bit more detail.
There are many different interpretations of the “letting go” principle in mindfulness practice. I’ll try and share a few of the most important ones here. All of them share the basic premise of “letting go” is acknowledging that, ultimately, one has little control over many things: from the weather to behaviour of others, from our own emotions to our death, ultimately we have little control over them. We can observe many of these, as we have done during the last few days, but often we can’t change them.
At first this may sound like quite a passive and indeed negative statement to make. When I first heard it, I remember thinking that the ultimate conclusion is then, surely, to simply give up and stay in bed. Hardly a very encouraging thought! However, when you think about this a bit more, you’ll see how liberating the acceptance of certain inevitabilities is. In fact, it can help to reshape your thinking from one of constantly fearing loss – to thinking that embraces options and possibilities. The exact opposite outcome of what I originally thought!
So how can the acceptance of this be ultimately liberating? Let’s look at an example: Think about growing older. This is a fact of life you can’t change, no matter how hard you try. Much of the society (and some parts of the gay scene in particular) preach the idea that somehow miraculously you can delay or even avoid growing old: go to the gym, use cosmetics, wear clothes that make you look young. You name it, there are many, many products and ways out there that promise you directly or indirectly to delay growing old. Some may indeed be beneficial, others will have little or no effect. But the promise of keeping you young still managed to generally sell those products very well.
This is, of course, all very well. But what does this create in the individual: a lingering assumption that s/he need to do something to avoid or delay this big problem. It may not be always on your mind, but, somewhere deep down inside, as long as one doesn’t accept that it will come no matter what you do, the thought is festering away.
Even worse, not accepting the inevitability of growing old (and many other inevitabilities), can actually distract your mind from experiencing the moment – and shape the way you approach things. For example, do you do exercise because how it feels? Or because it helps you stay younger? Or maybe even because it will make you more attractive to someone (over whom and over whose reaction you do, of course, ultimately again have no control)? Are you trying to obtain a certain physique because you believe that this is what is “expected”? In fact, does your feeling good depend on how much someone admires you and your body when you meet?
Of course, this example is maybe a little obvious and excessive: few people would do exercise purely because of those reasons. However, dig a bit deeper, and those reasons are likely to be around somewhere… a great motivator maybe, but also festering around somewhere in the mind (while handing over control over one’s happiness to something unchangeable and other people whose reactions we can’t control). In short: these thoughts keep you from enjoying the feeling of doing what you are doing (being mindful!) and keep focusing the mind on something else: a reward at the other end of … well, wherever it may be.
If on the other hand, you accept the thought of the inevitability of growing older (and also the inevitability of rejection), then you leave your mind free for actually experiencing what you are doing – and shaping things the way you want them to be. In other words, you create mental capacity to empower yourself to do better for yourself, enjoy what you are doing – and care less about the inevitable.
Of course, it doesn’t mean becoming emotionless: the opposite is true. Through the mindful practice of observing the emotion (an other inevitability!) you can actually start to take ownership of the issue and resolve it. Think back to the unpleasant moment awareness here. By simply looking at your emotions or thoughts and observing them, they tend to loose the fear factor. This can become quite healing, even fun if if you practice doing it for a while. With a bit of practice, you can become skilled in “zooming out” into mindfulness mode, observe something that is keeping you from moving on, compassionately acknowledging it – and then letting go of it, to focus back on the actual moment. Just think how many things are actually often less bad when they are actually done – and you can get a feeling of what this is in practice.
To try this out, for today, identify a situation where at present you have little or no control over the outcome. Sit back for a few moments, relax, bring your attention to your breath and become mindful.
Now bring up the situation or emotion that you have identified. Imagine it coming in a box. Open the box, to bring out the emotion or situation. Now observe it carefully: Why is it there? What is it telling you? What is it doing to you? Does it stop you from doing things? Does it make you do things you don’t enjoy? Just observe it from different angles.
Once you are done, imagine how you are putting it back into the box. And put the box away. Refocus on your breath for a few minutes … and then return to the space and the here and now.
After completing the exercise, many people report how this was empowering. I hope you felt the same way. Why not share your thoughts below using the comment form?
Tomorrow, we will recap the main points of mindfulness – and then move on to bringing our mind not just to the present, but also to meditate and control our mind a little more.