How To Let Go

M.C. Escher, Phosphorescent Sea, 1933.

This is part four of the ‘Ask @dailyzen series’ where you ask me questions and I write a post responding to them. I don’t really claim to have straight-up “answers” but hope this will turn into a dialogue that can benefit both of us in some way.

Today’s question:

“How do I let go?” (asked by @spidermahatman )

One of the side-effects I’ve come to notice after practicing meditation is a heightened sense of perspective. I recognize my place temporally, geographically, and emotionally, and have come to more fully comprehend the balance between simultaneously feeling like I’m the center of the world and also being insignificant. This understanding can help begin the process of letting go.

Delve into thought exercises that develop a sense of humility and perspective. You’re having trouble forgetting an abusive relationship? Walk down the street. Look at any person. Realize that they were once a child with parents, and may now be a parent themselves. They care about X, they prioritize Y, they believe in Z. And, like you, they will die eventually. Pretty soon, actually, if you’re looking at a human life in relation to the age of the world-at-large. In a few thousand years, they’ll be mostly forgotten— all of the greatest human achievements will be forgotten.

There is a Buddhist meditation rooted in the Theravadic tradition called Patikulamanasikara, or “reflection on repulsiveness”. It involves contemplating your own body as a sack of flesh, and acknowledging its naturalness and nastiness in order to overcome feelings of lust and desire. Remembering that you yourself are just a temporary, accidental vehicle for a little bit of the world’s matter is a humbling experience.

The process of introspection puts you in your place. Mindfulness drops the curtain of Ego and allows you to see yourself as you really are.

Letting go is a process of coming to terms with the fact that the externalities we latch on to in life are not real. Your internal state reacts to external factors but can be tamed and managed so as to be non-reactive. What upsets one person doesn’t upset another; this is a simple proof of the meaninglessness of externals. Zen does not prescribe a moral system because morals are made up. 

To let go of your attachments, realize that they are meaningless. Look into yourself for a little while each day. Over time, the non-essential elements of your personality will drop away. Your delusions of grandeur, sense of ego, neuroses and perversions will slowly but surely fade into the void.

Letting go relies on the assertion that what you perceive as your Self isn’t your self at all. It’s mutable and changes from moment to moment. You are not really an individual. You do not exist independently from the world, but instead as an element in a cosmic scheme that has no set framework and cannot be pinned down. This is why the most precise level of physics is entirely theoretical; the most important part of the world is the part that humans cannot understand.

A fear of loss comes from not being present, from not realizing that your only obligation right now is to exist. In the present, you have everything you need. If you are not looking towards the future or back into the past, you can experience a certain degree of contentedness. To worry about the future causes anxiety; to yearn for the past and feel hopeless in relation to it leads to bouts of depression. To exist right now is a core principle of Zen practice.