Updated: Mar 12, 2022
How often we get caught up holding on to specific ideas, emotions, beliefs and thoughts - at least I know I do. At times holding onto seemingly positive thoughts and emotions because they feel good or make sense to me, and generally pushing away negative ones because they are challenging, make me feel uncomfortable and emotional whether angry or sad.
One of the key attitudes to employ when practicing mindfulness is that of letting go, neither pushing away thoughts and emotions or holding onto them. In actuality, letting go involves being aware of a feeling - in the mind and body, allowing it to arise, being with it and letting it run its course without wanting to make it different, or even do anything about it. Emotions are somatic - they are felt in both the mind and the body i.e. somatisation is when emotional distress causes physical symptoms. And so, the aim is to really feel the emotions in the body - naturally the mind gets in the way, thoughts that judge the emotion, or we may notice the tendency to try think the emotion away and find that it’s just not possible to think your way out, perhaps we can suppress them or pretend they are not there, in doing so the physical symptoms get worse, and these emotions manifest in future uglier ways.
You may be aware of this well-known story depicting how holding on can cause problems, but it’s great so here it is again: “They say in India there is a particularly clever way of catching monkeys. As the story goes, hunters cut a hole in a coconut that is just big enough for a monkey to put its hand through. Then they drill two smaller holes in the other end, pass a wire through, and secure the coconut to the base of a tree. Then they put a banana inside of the coconut and hide. The monkey comes down, puts its hand in and takes hold of the banana. The hole is crafted so that the open hand can go in but the fist cannot get out. All the monkey has to do is let go of the banana. But it seems most monkeys do not let go.”
Meditation as a method for letting go:
What I have found from meditation is that it can be used a mind fitness tool to learn about the activity of the mind and the things that we hold onto or push away. During formal sitting practice, we’re training awareness, simply being aware of what we’re aware of. Things arise in our field of awareness - thoughts, sounds, emotions, memories etc. We notice that we attach to certain things that grab the attention, this attraction can be very strong and so we may use breathing as a means to anchor ourselves. The minds gets pulled away again, we notice and come back to the breathing. Over time we may notice a pattern in what the mind gets attached to - thoughts, emotions, ideas, memories etc. Or what the mind wants to push away and avoid feeling…
"Let go of anticipating the next moment, trying to control it, trying to hang on to the moment that has just passed. Let go clinging to what has just occurred."- David Hawkins
At this point and with this awareness of what arises regularly, we’ve an opportunity for self-reflection, and eventually acceptance - the foundation for moving forwards. Noticing the judgements about the feelings and emotions, we can drop them to accept they are there. When letting go, allow the thoughts to settle, without paying attention to them as best as possible. Focus on the feeling itself, not on the thoughts. Thoughts are endless and self-reinforcing - it’s clear that they multiply, and attach onto other thoughts, breeding even more thoughts. The feeling is real, the thought is not…how does it show up in the body - experience the physical nature of the emotion, is it pulsating, stretching, heavy, vibrating, light or heavy etc.
As we cultivate this present moment awareness of what is, there is the opportunity to become aware of how we unknowingly we live in the past, replaying old memories or wishing things hadn’t happened as they did - this awareness of now enables us to recognise that these things need not be held onto if we so choose. We have the power to choose to let go. Finally, I’d add that it’s important in this process of letting go to incorporate physical practices - whether that be pranayama (breath work), yoga (stretching with awareness of breathing), walking or simply moving up and down. After all, emotions are trapped in the body and so the body needs moving. Heavy emotional work may need guidance and support, especially if working with trauma - so best to take some time to research a coach or practitioner that can help facilitate the environment for you to heal and explore your inner landscape.