Letting Go of Stressful Thoughts and Feelings
Often all we have to do to move beyond a stressful thought or feeling is just let go of it as soon as we become aware of it. It’s much easier to let go of a thought, feeling, or desire as soon as you become aware of it than after you’ve fed it with your attention, since attention strengthens identification. Whatever we give our attention to gains power and becomes more difficult to let go of. With attention, a thought, desire, or feeling becomes more convincing, and more thoughts, desires, and feelings are added to it. Timing is key to the success of this strategy.
Letting go of a thought, desire, or feeling is not as difficult as some may think. We all know how to let go. We do it all the time. We have thousands of thoughts and many desires and feelings in a day that just pass by without contracting us. Because these thoughts pass by so easily, we don’t feel like we’re letting anything go. But we are. By not doing anything about them and allowing them to do what they naturally do—come and go—they naturally go, within seconds or minutes if we don’t get involved with them. All we have to do is let them come and let them go in their own time. If we don’t touch them, they let go of us.
Letting go is more a matter of not doing something than something that we do. The only thing we do is not give that thought another thought. Letting go is the natural result of not getting involved with a thought, desire, or feeling, of simply remaining an attentive witness to our experience. It is a matter of either not engaging in or disengaging our attention from stressful thoughts, desires, and feelings.
To do this, you first have to notice that you’re thinking or feeling something that’s causing you to contract, or that you’re about to. This much awareness takes practice. We have to practice being mindful of, or witnessing, the coming and going of our internal and external experiences without getting involved with them in ways that produce stress. Meditation and mindfulness training teach us to do this, which is why these practices are so important to our well-being. More will be said about these practices in the next chapter.
When you first notice yourself getting pulled into a stressful thought or feeling, stop and take a deep breath, which will help you relax. Then just let everything be as it is, including the thought, desire, or feeling. Don’t touch the thought, desire, or feeling; don’t pick it up and run with it. And don’t judge yourself for having it or go to battle with it or waste time wishing it weren’t there. To counteract any tendency to resist or suppress it, try welcoming it. Smile and say to yourself, “Ah, you again, my friend. Thanks for sharing. Bye!”
Stressful thoughts and feelings are a natural part of the human experience. They don’t belong to you personally, so you don’t have to be ashamed of them or angry at them. Just let them be there. If you remain in a witnessing relationship to your thoughts and feelings, you will feel compassion and acceptance toward them and be able to remain nonattached to them instead of identified with and at the mercy of them.
Then from this place of compassionate acceptance, simply choose to let the thought, desire, or feeling go. Disengage your attention from the cause of stress and engage it in something neutral, such as some sensory experience you’re having, or in something that helps you feel more peaceful and relaxed, such as a mantra, an affirmation, or an internal image of your dog or of a loved one smiling at you.
There’s no need to be contracted and upset by stressful thoughts and feelings. It’s in our power to notice, allow, accept, and let go of them, and put our attention on something else. We do these things as the Noticer, from the aspect of ourselves (the true self) that is aware of the thought, desire, or feeling and is capable of choosing whether or not to give it attention. The true self is what heals and frees us from the suffering of the human condition.
But how do you let go when it seems really impossible, when you’re deeply identified with a thought, desire, or feeling? A related question is: How do you not believe a thought or desire when you believe it, when it seems really true or important? Isn’t believing a thought or desire what makes letting go difficult?
The answer to both of these questions is that simply intending to let go or not believe a thought or desire has the power to release us from the grips of that thought or desire. This is truly mysterious. Releasing happens by simply having the intention to let go! All we have to do is let go as best we can in that situation. We’re often able to let go of feelings this way as well, although we first have to experience them fully energetically without identifying with them (more about this later). As part of making such an intention, you might want to send out a prayer for help in letting go. Prayer is a way of giving more substance to our intentions.
What a marvelous gift this is that freedom depends only on intention and doesn’t require philosophical or psychological acrobatics. The only trick is that the releasing might not happen the instant you make this intention, but repeatedly making this intention when a certain thought, desire, or feeling arises will eventually release you from it.
The beauty is that even when we have no such intention, we can only contract so long before we expand and feel good once again. When we are deeply contracted, it often seems like we’ll stay that way forever. But consciousness, like the flow of life, never stays in one place. The natural order is for consciousness to expand and contract, just like the breath.
It might be helpful at this point to note that no matter how conscious we are and how much we may work at and intend to let go of a mood or a feeling, sometimes nothing seems to work and we are left with letting nature run its course. Like a storm, moods and feelings often take time before they let go and move on. All we can do at these times is be patient and compassionate with ourselves.
It’s so important to be compassionate and gentle with yourself when you are contracted. Not being gentle with yourself will only keep you contracted longer. Getting identified with thoughts and feelings is part of being human, and as long as we are alive, we will probably never stop contracting. Nevertheless, the more awareness and understanding we bring to this process, the less we will suffer during it and the shorter and fewer the occasions will be.