There’s no doubt that the idea of “letting go” — the advice to “let it go” — has become more popular in recent years. Especially in light of the popularization of meditation and mindfulness, it seems people are starting to see that there is a profound power in the act of surrender.
In a layman’s example, people are starting to realize that gripping tightly to stress doesn’t make you happier. But, there is a difference between surrendering and succumbing, between letting something go and hurling it away from us.
Letting go is gentle, but it is not characterized by passivity; it involves intention, patience, and a willingness to challenge habits of mind.
In other words, letting go isn’t so easy — whether it be letting go of an annoyance at work, a nagging thought during meditation, something you regret in the past. Similarly, it’s difficult to let go of good things — an amazing day with a friend, a wonderful meal, an engaging book — in order to move on to be open to the next good thing.
In this regard I’ve often thought of meditation as being like a fractal, where one small part of something is a tiny, perfect replica of the whole. Coastlines are jagged whether viewed from the immense distance of a satellite, the far distance of an airplane, or standing just above them on the overhanging bluffs. The entire leaf of a fern resembles a magnified version of one of its own smaller parts. Mountains have the same rough, irregular forms whether we see them from a great distance, or look at them close up in chunks of granite.
The moment our attention wanders away from our chosen object in meditation — a sound, a visualization, a mantra, the feeling of the breath, whatever it is — we are guided to gently let go of whatever has distracted us and begin again by returning awareness to that object.
That’s the fractal moment: practicing letting go and beginning again in that micro setting is the replica of having flubbed something at work and needing to begin again, or having strayed from our deepest aspiration or chosen course and having to begin again, or finding that we have fallen down and needing to stand up and begin again.
In actuality, meditation is simple, but not easy: you rest your attention on something like the breath in order to stay present, and, as thoughts carry you away, you begin again an incalculable number of times. That is why meditation is a practice. It is this practice of training one’s attention that makes meditation so powerful.
Conditioning tells us that if we would only berate ourselves enough, blame ourselves enough, and consider ourselves failures enough, we’d accomplish a lot more. In truth, those habits usually leave us exhausted and demoralized. If we were to look at how we accomplish the most, make the most progress in any endeavor, or put out the most sustained effort in seeking change, it’s a very different environment that brings us closer to our aim.
This isn’t laziness or losing standards of excellence; it really is taking a good look at two things. First, nothing in life is a straight shot. We are often making at least slight mistakes, or slipping somehow from our sense of purpose, and need to begin again. And second, feeling drained and depressed from harsh self-judgment doesn’t help us get the job, any job, done faster and better. When we really take a look, ease in letting go and kindness in starting over is a lot more effective.
There is joy and an important sense of renewal in each effort to begin again. In this way, meditation is not about the creation of a singular experience but about changing our relationship to experience. How do we react when uncomfortable thoughts emerge? And how do we react when we notice that we’re distracted by these uncomfortable thoughts? Can we begin again without rumination and regret?
When thoughts drift during the micro world of meditation, we learn that there is no benefit to be gained from berating ourselves, or from wishing fervently that we had been focused on our chosen object (say the breath) the entire time. We strengthen our minds and our meditation practice each time we recognize these distractions, let go, and begin again. Because it is a fractal of life, meditation is a dynamic practice, one that involves cultivating the art of self-compassion, of learning to relate to ourselves in a new and more forgiving way.
The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation for the practice of self-compassion — to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism. Beginning again is a powerful form of resilience training.
Each time we become distracted or lost in our judgments, assumptions, and other thoughts, we can return to the moment, the most portable and dependable resource at our disposal. We see that no matter what, we can always begin again.