Why is letting go valuable?
Most of the world’s spiritual traditions encourage letting go in one form or another. Non-attachment to outcomes, surrendering desires, accepting the present, opening to a higher power, relinquishing the ego, forgiveness—they all entail a letting go. Letting go, it is claimed leads to greater happiness, open-heartedness, and inner freedom.
Holding on to anger over something that someone did in the past, can keep us feeling bad in the present moment. Or, believing our interpretation of a problem is the right one, can prevent us from seeing more creative solutions. Being continually anxious about what might happen in the future, can build up an inner tension, with possible consequences for our health and well-being.
When we let go of a particular interpretation, judgment, or emotional response that is not serving us, the mind relaxes. Free from tension and the energy that went into holding on, we feel more at ease. We see things as they are without an overlay of fear or anxiety. We are more open to others, and more creative in our approach to life. And we can be more in touch with our true self.
What does “Nothing” in the title mean? How can we let go of nothing?
It is partly a play on words. Nothing meaning “no thing.” When we find ourselves wanting to let go of something, maybe something that upset us, or something we desire, we may think it is the thing itself which is the problem. But what we need to let go of are not the actual things, but the thoughts and feelings that we’ve become attached to.
Letting go of an attachment is releasing our mental grip. And that grip comes from the way we see things. Our point of view or interpretation of events. Our way of seeing things is not something we experience, like a person, or a book, or the thoughts and feelings that may arise . It is not a tangible thing. In this sense it is a non-thing. Or nothing.
What we are really letting go of are these non-things. In this sense we are letting go of nothing. Rather we are seeing things from a different perspective. It’s really about a change of mind.
Why do you emphasize letting in and letting be?
As most of us have discovered, letting go doesn’t always come easily. The difficulty stems from treating letting go as another task to do. But we can’t “do” letting go, however hard we try. To let go, we have to cease the “doing” of holding on. Although this may sound unconventional—and it certainly does entail a very different approach from the frustrating “trying” to let go we easily default to—I have found it a far more effective path.
The first step is to let in the experience of holding on. To let it in to our awareness. Initially, this may sound like the opposite of what we want. We assume that letting go of something means getting rid of it, pushing it away. If we want to let go of some grievance, for example. we may try not to think about what the other person did and how awful they were. However, a central idea of this book is that we should do the opposite. In order to release the grip our mind has on some attitude or idea, we first need to let in the experience of holding on.
Having let the experience in, the second part of letting go is letting be. Don’t try to change your experience, or wish it weren’t there. Instead, accept it as it is. I recommend just being with it in an innocent curious way, almost as if you were experiencing it for the first time. When you do, the mind can begin to relax and you’ll find letting go comes much more easily.
How can we let go of uncomfortable emotions?
Letting go of distressing emotions is not about getting rid of them. They’re there for a reason, and need to be listened to.It is more about relieving any unnecessary stress and discomfort they are causing. Or impacts on our lives that we don’t want. Our first reaction to an uncomfortable emotion may be to avoid feeling it fully. Why should we feel something unpleasant when what we want is the opposite? So we may repress it, or push it to the back of our mind. But as most of us know, that doesn’t really work; it can still be there quietly nagging at us.
So, the first step in letting go of an emotion is to do the opposite, and let it in more fully. We can notice how it feels in the body. With anger, there may be a clenching of the fists, and perhaps a gritting of the teeth. With fear, a quivering sensation in the body as it prepares to run. Then, whatever you notice, let it be there – often by opening to it, not resisting it, it ceases to grip us as much.
Along with the feelings in the body, an emotion usually has some story behind it — by which I mean something we are telling ourselves about what has happened, or might happen. With anger, you might have a story about how someone upset your plans. Again, let it in, become conscious of what you’re telling yourself. Then ask is this story really true. How do I think they should they have behaved? As we begin to see it for what it is — a story we are telling ourselves — it’s grip on the mind diminishes and it becomes easier to let go. (continued)
Why do you say meditation should be effortless?
Some types of meditation do involve effort and concentration, but the practices I’m interested in are those that allow the mind to relax, and settle into a quieter, calmer state. Here effort tends to be counterproductive, and likely to make the mind more tense rather than more relaxed.
I encourage people to simply notice their experience in the moment—the sensations in the body, the flowing of the breath, the sounds they hear. Allowing them to be there, just as they are. Not wanting some other experience; not trying to get somewhere else. It is the essence of letting go— simply letting in your experience, whatever it is, and letting it be.
People often ask “What about thoughts?” I can’t stop thoughts coming in. When you do notice your attention wandering off on some idea, don’t use effort to try and stop them. Just choose not to follow them further. Over many years of teaching meditation I’ve found that when people stop trying to meditate, and let go completely, they drop into a quieter state of mind much more easily.
What do you mean by true nature?
It is the mind in its natural unperturbed state, untarnished by complaints, desires, or concerns. It is a relaxed state of mind, at ease and at peace in ourselves. It is our true unblemished nature, how we naturally feel when we’re not threatened or worried — happy and content.
We are conditioned to believe that happiness comes through what we have or do, but what all the great spiritual teachings have pointed out is that our true nature is already one of happiness, but all our worrying about how to find happiness in the future veils our true nature in the present.
When we let go completely our true nature reveals itself and we realize that what we were seeking—safety, happiness, joy, peace of mind—was there all along, but our holding to our ideas as to how to find it veiled its presence.
How can we use this to improve our relationships?
One of the most powerful practices in any relationship is that of forgiveness. The conventional notion of forgiveness goes something like: I know you did wrong, but I’m not going to punish you this time. The forgiveness I am talking about is about not letting the other off, but letting go of the judgments and grievances we may be holding against them. in this way, we actually help ourselves feel better —we’re no longer disturbing our own peace of mind. The quality of the relationship then naturally improves
True forgiveness comes when we recognize that, deep down, the other person wants the same as us. In their own way, they are seeking happiness; to be at peace, free from pain and suffering. This is not to imply we should accept someone’s bad behavior, or even condone it. We may well feel the need to give them feedback, or make suggestions as to how they might behave better, but it is better to do so from a compassionate heart, rather than from a judgmental mind. (continued)
You say there’s no such thing as ego, what do you mean?
People often talk about the ego as if it were some entity inside us, another part of our self. But when I look inside myself I cannot find any “thing” I can call ego. What I do find are various thoughts about what I want, what would make me happy, or give me more control over my world—what we might label “egocentric” thoughts. But I don’t find a distinct self, or ego—an entity that is having these thoughts.
What we call the ego is not some “part” of me; it is a mode of thinking, a process, rather than a thing, It’s a frame of mind about what we need to feel safe and secure. At times it may be very useful, if there is some danger or some need that needs fulfilling then it is important that we should put ourselves first. But much of the time this self-centered mode of thinking gets activated when there is no need.
The difference is subtle, but very important. If we see ego as some distinct self, it is easy to fall into the belief—common in many spiritual circles—that we must get rid of our ego, transcend it, or overcome it in some way. But seeing ego as a mode of thinking we get caught in, leads to a very different approach. Letting go of ego becomes letting go a thought system. And that can be an ongoing practice rather than a far-off goal. When we notice egoic thoughts arising, we can simply choose not to follow them any further. To let them go.
What’s the value of asking “Who am I?
There’s an unchanging sense of “I-ness” that has been there all my life. It’s that feeling of being “me,” and is the same feeling I had yesterday, a year ago, and when I was ten years old. My thoughts, emotions, character, personality, desires, needs, beliefs, and preferences may have changed considerably over the years, but this sense of “I” has not.
Exploring the nature of this unchanging self has been encouraged by just about every spiritual tradition. It is not meant as examination of who we are as a particular person – our character, personality, needs, beliefs can change markedly over a lifetime – it is meant more as an inquiry into the nature of this ever-present sense of personal being. That which is aware of all your experience.
The question is an invitation to explore what the word “I” refers to. Not to think about it, but to look into your actual experience and inquire: What do you mean by I? What is the truth here, beyond any ideas you have of the self. Don’t look for an answer. Just sit in the inquiry, with an open mind. And the self will begin to reveal itself to itself. As we come to recognize our true identity, we feel more secure in ourselves and can act more in accord with the needs of the situation at hand than the needs of the vulnerable ego.
Why do you say letting go is now more important than ever?
Today change comes ever-faster, making the future increasingly unpredictable. With events we can predict (for example, an impending hurricane), we have some idea of what will happen and how to prepare. But how do we prepare for the unexpected?
I like to draw an analogy with trees braving a storm. First, they need strong, firm roots. Likewise, we need be firmly rooted in the ground of being – to remain cool, calm, and collected amidst change, not thrown into fear or panic by every unexpected development. We’ll need to let go of our beliefs about what will make us happy; remembering that what we are looking for in life—peace, ease, contentment—is available right here, within ourselves.
Like trees, which can sway with the wind, we, too, should be flexible. We’ll need to let go of our ideas as to how things should be, and what the future might look like. To see things with fresh eyes, rather than those of the past.
We’ll need to let go of whatever stands in the way of our being smarter, more creative, more resourceful, and more compassionate human beings; more in touch with our self, responding to change with greater clarity and wisdom.
Peter Russell, author of Letting Go of Nothing and From Science to God, earned degrees in theoretical physics, psychology, and computer science at the University of Cambridge in England, where he studied for a time with Stephen Hawking. He studied meditation and Eastern philosophy in India and later conducted research into the neurophysiology of meditation. He coined the term global brain with his 1980s bestseller of the same name (100,000 copies sold), in which he predicted the internet and the impact it would have on humanity. He lives in Northern California.