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Gary Schouborg, PhD
"Letting Go in Everyday Life".
Letting Go in Everyday Life
Ram Dass once told an interviewer that his recent stroke and paralysis was a blessing because it left him much quiet time in which he could simply let go. Over millennia, spiritual teachers have left us many such testimonials. But what precisely is the process of letting go? What do we let go of? What are the benefits?
The Paradox of Enlightened Everyday Living
Teachings on enlightenment primarily discuss letting go as a process in meditation, where instead of engaging our thoughts as we ordinarily do, we disinterestedly observe them as they come and go in our awareness. The teachings say comparatively little about letting go as a process in our daily lives. This disparity is understandable, since meditation is relatively simple compared to daily living and therefore more amenable to instruction. However, the disparity is also unfortunate, since the teachings say that letting go in meditation can liberate us from suffering and transform our daily lives. Yet countless spiritual seekers report that they find peace in meditation only to lose it when they return to their everyday duties and concerns. Transformation is not automatic. To increase its likelihood, we need to understand how to let go not only in meditation but also in our daily activities.
The problem is that letting go seems incompatible with the engaged activity of our practical, everyday lives. We draw conclusions from our thoughts, make plans, and implement them. We make commitments to one another. Such activity requires that we engage our thoughts, not let go of them. How then can letting them go in meditation transform how we engage them in everyday life? The discussion below explains how that occurs in roughly the following steps. First we learn the process of letting go in meditation, where we discover two different levels of experience: conditional satisfaction and dissatisfaction, which come and go, and unconditional happiness, which abides. Being able both to let go and to discriminate between conditional and unconditional experiences transforms our emotional life and improves our performance of everyday activities. We discover that letting go of habitual attitudes is the difference between merely managing our everyday lives and transforming them. Key among those attitudes is identification, the illusory belief that some conditional satisfaction will give us the unconditional happiness that we really seek. Perhaps the most pernicious form of identification is unconditional self-valuation, the belief that we are unconditionally worthwhile or lovable, worthless or unlovable. We learn how identification and self-valuation cause us unnecessary suffering and undermine the performance of our everyday activities.
In meditation, letting go is relatively simple. While sitting quietly, we let go of any thoughts that may arise in our awareness. (I’m using ‘thoughts’ broadly to refer to any mental object of awareness such as feelings, images, concepts, beliefs, attitudes, desires, or decisions.) In letting go, we observe any feeling or image that may arise without judging whether it’s good or bad and without trying to maintain it if pleasurable or eliminate it if painful. We observe any concept that may arise without exploring its nature. We observe any belief or attitude that may arise without assessing its truth or validity and without pursuing its logical implications or engaging in any action that it directs us to do. We observe any desire that may arise without judging whether it’s good or bad and, in any case, without trying to satisfy it. We observe any decision that we may make as a temporary lapse from the one decision to which we are temporarily committed — to engage in meditation by letting go of all our thoughts.
To put all this another way, in letting go we reduce our executive functions of engaged thinking and decision making to a minimal, bare awareness of any thoughts that emerge. In reducing those executive functions, we heighten the use of our other executive function: establishing a reflective or meta-level consciousness in which we observe everything that comes in and out of our awareness. But instead of responding as we usually do to everything that arises, we let it go while maintaining our awareness.
Like silt in still water that finally settles to the bottom, our thoughts may eventually cease to arise, so that there is nothing more in our awareness to let go. Even if we never achieve this pure, thought-free state of consciousness, in the very process of letting go of particular thoughts we learn to notice three important aspects of our mental life. First, we awaken to the transitory nature of our thoughts, how they flit in and out of our awareness. Second, we notice the contrast between the tension we feel when we engage our thoughts and the relaxation we feel when we let go of them. Third, we may begin to experience a happiness that is unconditional in the sense that it does not depend on our thoughts and circumstances, abiding while they come and go. Awakening to these three aspects of our mental life is key to transforming our everyday lives.
During meditation, we begin to experience a happiness that is unconditional in the sense that it does not depend on our thoughts or circumstances. It is a satisfaction that abides while all our other experiences, with their pleasant and unpleasant qualities, come and go. This unconditional happiness is a sense of feeling whole, of not needing something further to be happy. We should not confuse unconditional with perfect and acceptable happiness. Perfect happiness requires that all our desires be satisfied. Acceptable happiness requires that enough be satisfied that we would rather be alive than dead. In contrast, unconditional happiness is unconditional precisely in existing however successful we may be in achieving our desires. It abides whatever our thoughts or circumstances may be.
Unconditional happiness also emerges as a unique gift (gratia, grace), something that neither we nor our circumstances have produced. Our circumstances do not produce it, because they constantly change whereas unconditional happiness abides. Nor do we produce it, though we do collaborate. Like any other gift, unconditional happiness requires both a giver and a receiver. If the receiver doesn’t have a receptive attitude, there is only a transfer of goods but not the experience of a gift. When we let go of all our thoughts in meditation, we adopt a radically receptive attitude, one that is necessary but not sufficient for unconditional happiness to emerge, just as being receptive to a gift is not sufficient for actually getting one. Who then is the giver? Precisely as unconditional, this happiness is not tied to any specifiable cause or giver. For this reason, religious traditions have called the giver God, the Absolute, Cosmic Consciousness, or Brahman. I would suggest, leaving the argument for another time, that the cause is a neuropsychological condition, perhaps the activation of endorphins in the absence of the cognitive processes that give specificity to our everyday experience.
Because we do not experience unconditional happiness as having any specifiable cause, we do not experience it as occurring at any specifiable time. What is specifiable is when we awaken to it. But because there is nothing temporally specifiable about unconditional happiness itself, we experience it as already there — outside temporal categories, so that we cannot say it goes in and out of existence. This sense of unconditional happiness as pre-existing our awakening to it is strengthened by its contrast with clinging — the illusion that to be really happy we must have something specific that we do not presently have, something that our thoughts or circumstances can give us. When we let go of that expectation, we awaken to unconditional happiness. (More accurately, some of us awaken to unconditional happiness and others are left only disillusioned. We don’t yet understand why individual experiences differ.) If we yield again to that expectation, we lose unconditional happiness. This incompatibility between clinging and unconditional happiness gives the impression that the latter is a constantly existing state to which we lose access by clinging and gain access by letting go. However, all this is how we experience unconditional happiness. A causal explanation may tell us something different. Perhaps letting go activates endorphins, which produce unconditional happiness. In that case, though we experience unconditional happiness as a gift, we may indeed be actually producing it. Or perhaps there is some constant brain state that produces unconditional happiness, which brain state we lose access to when we cling and regain access to when we let go. This explanatory issue is an open question until we know more about the relationship between neural processes and our experience of unconditional happiness.
Conditional Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction
Experiencing unconditional happiness heightens our awareness that our ordinary experiences are conditional: transitory and interdependent. We discover that we unnecessarily create suffering for ourselves by clinging: mistakenly attributing unconditionality to merely conditional experiences. We grasp at conditional satisfactions because we mistakenly take them to be necessary for our unconditional happiness; and we rigidly avoid conditional dissatisfactions because we mistakenly suppose them to destroy our unconditional happiness. In clinging, we look for (unconditional) happiness in all the wrong (conditional) places. We therefore diminish the conditional satisfactions otherwise available to us. No longer feeling whole, we find ourselves wanting more no matter how successful we are in achieving our desires. And whatever dissatisfactions we experience only intensify our sense of incompleteness.
In contrast, if we let go of clinging to pleasant experiences, we discover that we can enjoy their momentary pleasure while maintaining our unconditional happiness. And if we let go of rigidly avoiding painful experiences, we find that at worst they go away more quickly than if we obsess about them, that their painfulness is moderated by our simultaneous experience of unconditional happiness, and that at best our disinterested observation of them may even dissolve the pain itself.
We therefore realize a second sense in which we are already happy. We have seen that we experience unconditional happiness as prior to our ordinary experience in the sense that we cannot describe the happiness itself in temporal categories. It seems timeless and in that sense predates our ordinary experience. However, our experience of unconditional happiness is temporally prior to future everyday experiences. Therefore, once we experience unconditional happiness, we are already happy before we ever engage in everyday activity. Success in everyday activity is not necessary for us to be happy. At this point, there arises the ancient problem expressed most famously in Plato’s allegory of the cave: if we are already happy, why would we pursue any goals at all? Instead of engaging in practical, everyday activity, why wouldn’t we just rest in our happiness? Indeed, it seems that a very few mystics enjoy doing just that. However, most of us want to pursue other goals because we enjoy it. Once we experience unconditional happiness, our pursuits become a flowering of an inner happiness that already exists, rather than an attempt to fill a life that is incomplete.
To see how this realization transforms our everyday lives, let’s suppose that we have just lost a substantial amount of money in the stock market.
In the simplified environment of meditation, we learn that engaging our thoughts and feelings involves a certain amount of tension or stress in our bodies, which letting go releases. We can therefore exercise the skills of letting go that we learned in meditation in order to relieve unacceptable levels of stress in our daily lives. Upon feeling the stress of having lost our investment, we can take a time out and let go of the thoughts about our loss that are causing us stress.
But stress relief isn’t yet transformation, which implies something deeper and more pervasive. What takes us beyond mere relief and begins our transformation is our growing appreciation that every activity involves tension, which is the engine of action. However, although some tensions are unpleasant, others are pleasant. The difference often lies in our expectations. We may have initially found our investment efforts exhilarating if we expected to succeed. Or we may have begun with painful anxiety if we did not. More fundamentally, whether hopeful or anxious, we intensify our feelings if we suppose that winning is critical to our happiness.
We may have made an idol out of the money we lost, taking it to be essential to our happiness. The loss therefore makes us unhappy, an unacceptable state that we feel is urgent to repair. Let’s be clear. Unhappiness is unacceptable. To accept being unhappy is despair, “the sin against the Holy Ghost”. We should refuse to accept unhappiness. The mistake is the self-defeating illusion that we can overcome it by pursuing specifiable goals. In fact, we already lost our happiness as soon as we supposed that the money we invested was essential for it. Had our investment worked out, we would have felt some temporary satisfaction; but we would soon be wanting more.
What most fundamentally transforms our daily lives, then, is that in letting go in meditation we begin to experience an unconditional happiness that abides while conditional pleasures and pains come and go. This unconditional happiness provides a felt perspective on the conditional goals of our everyday life, so that we do not mistakenly think that our happiness lies in achieving them. We can then invest with equanimity, because our happiness is not hostage to our results. We are disappointed by our loss, since it’s unpleasant to fail and pleasant to succeed. But we are not made unhappy, since unconditional happiness does not depend on whether our conditional life experiences are pleasant or unpleasant.
Unconditional happiness not only transforms us emotionally by providing an abiding satisfaction in life. It also helps us perform more effectively by concentrating our attention on our everyday goals.
The idolatry of mistaking any conditional satisfaction for unconditional happiness decreases our flexibility. Increasing our disappointment if we fail, idolatry makes what would otherwise be loss of a limited good into loss of something we mistakenly perceive to be essential to our happiness. Consequently, we’re unlikely to accept failure. Therefore, we’re unlikely to respond realistically, moving on to other, more achievable goals. Accepting our investment loss means giving up our dreams of happiness, a state of despair that presents us with at least four choices. First, we can wallow in our sense of loss and never be happy again. Second, we can half-heartedly move on to other goals, whose achievement we see as not giving us what we really want. Third, we can refuse to accept our market losses and try to recoup them, enmeshing ourselves only more deeply in the illusion that this money is essential to our happiness. At best, we recoup the money and discover that our happiness recedes in the distance as we find ourselves wanting more, since in fact this conditional achievement doesn’t slake our thirst for unconditional happiness. Finally, we can replace the idol of investment success with some other idol, such as a great love or spending more time with our family. We accept the loss of something we thought critical to our happiness by replacing it with some new, allegedly critical goal. We have only changed treadmills.
The preceding responses to not achieving an idol not only leave us emotionally dissatisfied. They also diminish our performance by undermining our ability to address our goals realistically, undermining the integrity with which we act. We find ourselves unable to let go of activity that is irrelevant to achieving our investment goals. We waste time worrying whether our investment strategy will succeed, instead of letting go of worrisome thoughts that do not direct us toward effective action. Or to give ourselves a sense of control, we compulsively engage in strategies that have no reasonable chance of success. Impatient to have our investment winnings in the bank, since we will not be happy until we do, we take shortcuts. We fail to do our homework, thereby decreasing our chances of success. We also find ourselves unable to let go of our investment goals themselves when it becomes clear that we cannot achieve them or that we can do so only at unacceptable cost. Having created the illusion that they are critical to our happiness, we cannot contemplate failure with equanimity, so that no cost is too much to achieve them. In sum, the first thing we need to let go of is not the goal itself, but our evaluation of it as critical to our happiness. It’s from that overvaluation that inept action and unnecessary suffering derive.
Of course, the root solution to idolatry is actually experiencing unconditional happiness, which provides the reference point by which we not only believe but actually feel the inadequacy of conditional happiness. Still, if we have not progressed that far on the road to wisdom, we can learn to discern the difference between the satisfaction of effectively pursuing our conditional goals and the dissatisfaction of ineffectively doing so. This difference is between effective and ineffective pursuit of goals, not in success and failure in achieving them. There is an inherent satisfaction in clearly identifying a goal, marshalling our abilities in its pursuit, and accepting that success or failure is not completely within our control. In contrast, we create for ourselves unnecessary suffering if we impatiently put our lives on hold until we know the outcome. When we find ourselves suffering from, rather than enjoying, what we are doing, we can let go of whatever expectations are immediately causing the pain. Unfortunately, that is often easier said than done. For our expectations are often entrenched habits that impel us to cling when we are not on our guard, forcing us repeatedly to re-collect ourselves.
Early in our practice of letting go, we may go the whole day so possessed by our conditional goals that we lose our sense of unconditional happiness. Only in meditation at the beginning or end of the day might we regain contact with that unconditional reference point. As we progress, we begin to bring ourselves up short during the day and realize that we have lost our unconditional happiness because we have overly focused on achieving our conditional desires. We can then take a time out and re-collect ourselves, letting go of our preoccupations in order to allow unconditional happiness to re-emerge. However, we are unlikely to continue our efforts if we rely only on such re-collection. First of all, the time we take to re-collect ourselves crowds out the time required for our daily tasks. When demands to which we’ve long become accustomed compete for our attention with a newly acquired intention to re-collect ourselves, inertia is on the side of the demands. Second, the effort required to overcome that inertia is likely to make the overall process unpleasant and therefore demotivating. Third, the more we fail in maintaining awareness of unconditional happiness, the more likely we are to become discouraged.
Re-collection alone is therefore unlikely to transform our daily lives. For transformation, we need to be proactive. We need to head off clinging processes that overly focus our attention on everyday tasks, where we overvalue the importance of achieving our goals. We have to identify and then let go of the habits of thinking that continually incline us to cling. By letting them go, we reduce their power over us. Eventually, they wither away, starved of the energy that we feed them when we yield to them.
The key mechanism of clinging is identification with conditional realities. When we identify with objects of our desire, we make them our whole world, keys to our happiness that eventually fail us because they inevitably fade away. For example, we believe that we can never be happy if this person does not love us, if we do not achieve this socioeconomic status, if we do not own this particular home in this specific location, if we do not esteem ourselves. Or, to return to our running example, we identify with the money we’ve invested, in the sense that we cannot conceive of ourselves as happy without it. This is the sort of thinking that we need to let go. It causes us unnecessary suffering because it’s based on mistaken thinking about how to achieve happiness. In our complex technoeconomy, clinging is usually a briar patch of identifications around which we’ve organized our day. Our overvaluation of our investment money is not an isolated instance. It may even mean little to us in itself, but nevertheless be critically important to us because of other things with which we identify: what the money can buy or what it represents to our self-esteem.
Perhaps the most pernicious form of identification is unconditional self-valuation: judging whether we are unconditionally worthwhile or lovable. Although we can understand being worthwhile and being lovable in many ways, some of them synonymous, I am using the terms here to distinguish between being worthwhile relative to some goal and being lovable inherently, in the sense of unrelated to any goal.
There’s no problem in principle with valuing ourselves as conditionally worthwhile relative to some goal, as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that the basis of our judgment is our actions. For they are the immediate cause of achieving our goals. Thus, our investment analyses and decisions cause us to succeed or fail in achieving our investment goals. By extension, we can then value our investment habits as to whether they incline us to worthwhile actions. By further extension, as owners of those habits, we can value ourselves as successful or unsuccessful investors. But here our self-valuation is conditional, relative to our investment goals. The problem arises when self-valuations of conditional worth bleed over into one of unconditional worth — judging not our actions, nor our habits of acting in certain ways, nor ourselves as having those habits, but ourselves, unrelated to anything specific. Self-valuations of conditional worth have a basis in specific fact. Our individual investment activities succeed or fail. Our investment habits incline us toward actions that tend to succeed or fail. And we can value an aspect of ourselves according to what habits we possess. But self-valuation of unconditional worth has no such basis in fact. When we move from self-valuations of conditional worth to one of unconditional worth, we move from self-valuations that are meaningful in a specific context — relative to a particular goal — to one that in unmoored from any context that we can identify. In Wittgenstein’s famous words, we lose ourselves in the form of language. A self-valuation of unconditional worth has the linguistic form of one of conditional worth, but it has lost meaning because we fail to employ it in any meaningful context. We can therefore let go of self-valuations of unconditional worth as confused thinking that takes our attention away from our goals.
The logic of self-valuations of lovableness parallels that of worth. Whereas worth is relative to a goal, lovableness is an attribute of actions or personal characteristics that is inherent in the sense of being unrelated to any goal. By extension, we are conditionally lovable to the extent that we do lovable things or have lovable characteristics; we are conditionally unlovable to the degree that we do unlovable things or have unlovable characteristics. The problem arises when self-valuations of conditional lovableness bleed over into one of unconditional lovableness — judging ourselves as unconditionally lovable or unlovable because of our actions or characteristics. This is, of course, self-contradictory. We cannot be unconditionally lovable based on certain conditions (our actions or characteristics). Unfortunately, the self-contradiction occurs all too often. We frequently overextend self-valuations of particulars into global assessments of ourselves. For example, instead of merely concluding that our doing something socially graceless is unlovable or that our habitual lack of social grace is unlovable, we conclude that we ourselves are unconditionally unlovable because we lack social grace. Less commonly, we can overextend positive self-valuations, so that we might conclude that we are unconditionally lovable because we are charming. In either case, we can let go of self-valuations of unconditional lovableness because they draw exaggerated conclusions from limited facts about ourselves.
The preceding explains how self-valuations of unconditional worth have no basis in fact and how self-valuations of unconditional lovableness are overextended conclusions from limited facts about ourselves. The explanation involves an initial phase of letting go: a meta-level, reflective observation of self-valuation. The explanation also involves a second phase of letting go: judging that unconditional self-valuation is not valid, thereby refusing to take our self-valuations of unconditional worth or lovableness seriously. In doing so, we can manage their effects on us. We reduce the emotional effects by not taking their cause seriously. We improve our performance by seeing through ungrounded and self-contradictory thinking in pursuit of our goals. However, this benefit of intellectual understanding is limited and not yet transformative. We can let go further, whatever our understanding, by simply not engaging or acting on our self-valuation of unconditional worth or lovableness. However, we will not be transformed until we so radically let go of self-valuations of unconditional worth or lovableness that we allow unconditional happiness to emerge. Only then can we destroy self-valuation and other forms of identification at the root by having an unconditional experience that does not depend on any valuations at all.
Whether we value our inherent lovableness or our worth relative to some goal, unconditional self-valuation is a special case of identification. When we identify with anything, our confused thinking diminishes both our emotionality and our performance. Remember, identification mistakes conditional experience, which is transitory, for unconditional, which abides. Identification therefore sets us up for inevitable disappointment when pleasant experiences wane and for unnecessary suffering when we imagine that unpleasant experiences will last forever. Such emotional confusion affects our performance by confusing our priorities. Rather than cleanly establish goals and order our actions effectively to achieve them, we wander down rabbit trails of over-reaction to experiences along the way.
We can learn the process of letting go in the relatively simple environment of meditation. By letting go, we learn to discern between unconditional happiness on the one hand and conditional satisfactions and dissatisfactions on the other. On returning to our everyday lives after meditation, we take time outs and let go when we find ourselves clinging to our goals, making them more important than we should. We move beyond this ad hoc management of our activity to personal transformation by identifying and letting go of habitual attitudes that continually impel us to cling. The key habit is identification, where we mistakenly believe that some conditional satisfaction can give us the unconditional happiness that we truly seek or that some conditional satisfaction can destroy our happiness. Perhaps the most pernicious form of identification is unconditional self-valuation, where we judge ourselves as unconditionally worthwhile (worthless) or lovable (unlovable). Identification, and self-valuation in particular, causes unnecessary emotional suffering and undermine the performance of our everyday activities.