Are you feeding your own stress? (Hint: I’m 99.9999999% sure the answer is yes.)
We humans are a dissatisfied lot. We want the things we like to stay the same, and our attachment to it creates a fear that it won’t. We want the things we don’t like to change, or at least leave us the hell alone. And we stiff-arm it with resistance to try to keep it at bay.
If you look at your own life, you’ll probably see what I’m talking about. It doesn’t even need to be about the big things. Every day, we make a bazillion small judgments about how things are and how we wish they were (“It’s too hot in here.” Or, “This checkout line is moving too slow.”) Sound familiar?
Clinging to what we want and resisting what we don’t want does nothing but create inner friction. And often, it doesn’t even help us keep things the way we want them.
Much of my own personal journey of late has centered around the practice of letting go. Any time I find myself constricting, any time I notice myself at odds with the world around me, or with myself, I try to turn it into an opportunity to practice letting go.
(Lest that sound too impressive and out of reach, I should be clear that I have maybe a 50/50 track record with it. So perfection isn’t the goal with this. An increased awareness and ability to let go is.)
Letting go – over, and over, and over – is a simple practice that can help you both stop feeding your tension and stress and feel a greater sense of peace.
Relaxed or constricted?
Try this. Tense up every muscle in your body. Squeeze hard. Notice how it feels. Notice the impact it has. Is it comfortable? Uncomfortable? After a few seconds, stop squeezing. Let that tension go and let your body relax.
Which of those felt better? Imagine walking around all day feeling one or the other. Which would you prefer?
If I were a betting man (which I’m not, thanks to a dollar I lost in a bet on the Super Bowl when I was ten – but that’s another story), I would bet that you would opt for the relaxed mode, not the constricted mode.
And yet, again and again, we commit ourselves to the constricted alternative. Every time we grasp what we want and resist what we don’t want, it creates a tension. Every time we indulge in our opinions of how things should be and judge people and situations that don’t line up with that, there’s a contraction.
Sometimes that contraction is emotional, sometimes it’s physical, and often it’s both. It might not be the hyper-constriction of the exercise above, but it’s a tension nonetheless.
This constant battle of clinging and resistance permeates our lives. As with any positive change, developing a greater awareness is the starting point. Here are a few examples of how it might show up. Each of these provides a potential starting point for the practice of letting go.
When we’re at odds with what is, it often shows up as tension in the body as well. Start exploring where you hold that tension? Is it a tightness of the shoulders? A clenched jaw? A tense abdomen?
When we take a black-and-white stance on anything, it’s a recipe for constriction. Why? Because there are numerous shades of the rainbow between the two, and the world doesn’t tend to be a neat and tidy binary place.
Judging how things should and shouldn’t be
Byron Katie has a wonderful quote that sums this up. “When I argue with reality, I lose, but only 100% of the time.” When something is outside your immediate control, and you invest your energy into a spin cycle about how they should or shouldn’t be instead, you will always end up getting the short end of the stick.
Most of us kind of suck at the whole change thing. Change creates uncertainty, and uncertainty feels unsafe. Sometimes the fear that creates is intense, while other times it’s just a subtle undercurrent. Either way, the resulting resistance creates tension and stress.
Finally, we can create a big ol’ knot of stress through habitual self-criticism. Not only does it make us feel worse about ourselves, our brains respond to it like an attack. Just like it would when we experience a physical attack, it kicks the fight-or-flight response into gear.
The practice of letting go is just that – a practice. As I mentioned earlier, your goal isn’t to be perfect. It is simply to use the opportunities life presents as a training ground to practice and improve. Here are a few exercises you can keep in mind.
Relax the physical tension
When you notice a physical tension in your body, see if you can let it go. Sometimes it might be as simple as noticing and relaxing. Other times it might take a little more.
When you note a tension in your body, try this. Take a deep breath. Imagine that you are breathing into wherever you feel that tension. Gently hold your awareness there for a moment, imagining that tightness loosening up, or dissolving. As you breathe out, picture the breath carrying that tension out with it. Repeat the process as often and for as long as you like.
What if it’s OK?
When you find yourself feeling emotionally reactive about something – perhaps you’re having a challenging situation you’re worried about, or you’re angry about something somebody did, or you’re worried about a situation – stop and play with this simple question: “What if it’s OK?”
Allowing something to be OK doesn’t mean approving of it, or not working to change it. It simply means, “What if, since it is how it is right now, I don’t have to fight it? What if I don’t have to feed my stress by resisting the immovable object of what currently is?”
Sometimes when I do this, I’m able to let whatever it is go with ease. “What if it’s OK that I picked the slow checkout line at the grocery store?” Other times the head of steam I have worked up is too strong (usually if I feel wronged or attacked, or if someone is stepping on my sense of justice), and my grip on resisting it is too tight.
When I experience that, I go to my second option. “OK, I get that you can’t let that be OK. But if it were OK, how would that feel?” This creates a small space for a thought experiment where I can practice the experience of letting go, however briefly.
What I love about the thought experiment approach is that, the more you practice something, the better you get at it. Even a thought experiment approach to letting go starts to rewire my brain to make letting go easier in the future.
I find the simplicity of this practice to be part of why it works so well. But sometimes it can be helpful to have a little more to sink your teeth into. If that’s the case for you, I recommend explore Byron Katie’s work.
Practice with the little things
Life is jam-packed with small opportunities to practice letting go. I often talk about “the big power of small irritations.” What I mean by that is that, if we start noticing those small irritations and using them as an opportunity to practice letting go and navigating life in a more fluid way, we can use the very things that disturb our inner peace as the path to that inner peace.
Practicing with the small things gives you the opportunity to work with letting go in situations where there isn’t a high charge of reactivity.