Thought Bite: Learning to Let Go

There is a law in life that everything changes. No-thing stays the same. The green leaves of Spring turn yellow and red in Autumn and fall off the tree. The baby’s cuddly body grows into a lanky youth, followed by the strong adulthood and full maturity; then the body begins to wrinkle and shrink as it approaches old age. Even mountains change their shape by the slow work of wind, water, and earth movement.

This changing nature of the world comes into direct conflict with the ego’s tendency to become emotionally attached to objects and circumstances being a certain way. A child receives a toy and loves it passionately, plays with it constantly. But then the toy breaks, and the child cries.

This is the way with us all. Life is changing but our ego becomes attached to things being a certain way and so we suffer. As we grow older, our attachments increase and expand and thus, so does our exposure to pain and suffering. This is why the great sages of Yoga teach that attachment brings pain and recommend decreasing our attachments.

One of the goals of Yoga is to lessen suffering. No doubt it is for this reason that vairagya, dispassion—which basically means being non-attached—is suggested for those on the Yoga path.

But, how can a person be non-attached, be dispassionate, when becoming attached seems to be the nature of our being? Don’t we want to love our families and partners and the work we do? Attachment arises toward things we love. So, perhaps it’s not possible, nor even desirable, to have complete unattachment.

It’s always important, in considering Yoga concepts, to understand that there are levels of practice. The practice that will be appropriate for a very advanced yogi living in the caves in the Himalayas is different from the practice to be done by those who live in the world and have homes and families.

For very advanced yogis, complete non-attachment is essential to reach their goal of self-realization.

The rest of us can practice a more mild form of vairagya in our daily lives, to lessen our pain and increase our enjoyment of life, by means such as the following:

(1) Practice relaxing your grip on things a bit by thinking thoughts such as the following, often recommended by Swami Rama: With respect to everything in the world, imagine that you are a guest in someone’s house; you have a right to enjoy all of the beautiful things in the house but you do not have the right to claim them as your own or to take them from the house. By constantly reminding yourself that the things you “have” are not yours, that they could be taken away in a moment, your emotional grip on things may lessen a bit.

(2) Practice letting go in smaller and bigger ways.

a. Smaller ways

i. Swami Veda used to recommend cutting down by 10% on the stuff you gather. So, for example, rather than buying every new gadget you feel attracted to, cut down just a bit. Learn that you don’t need them all. Instead of ordering every option on your new car, order 10% less. Cut your consumption by 10%. In this way, you’ll learn to let go a bit of your tendency to be attached.

ii. Another way to learn to let go in small ways is to be generous: give to charity, give things away, and in this way learn to hold onto objects less tightly. I’ve heard of friends who regularly go through their closets and give away most of their clothes to the needy.

b. Bigger ways

i. Sometimes, life brings opportunities to practice letting go. Let me tell you a story: Some years ago, I was living near Santa Cruz, California. At that time, my parents were aging and really needed some help, and I decided to move down to Los Angeles to be with them and help them. But it was hard to leave the little cottage in the woods in which I was living. I loved the cottage and almost daily enjoyed taking walks under the nearby redwoods and going to the beach where I could feel the wind in my face and the freshness of the sea. I was very attached to that cottage and the area. But I could not stay there and be with my parents. In contemplating the situation, it became clear to me that life gives opportunities to practice non-attachment, and that this was one of them. So, I chose to leave the cottage, and moved to L.A. Yes, there was some sadness involved in doing so, but I have no regrets. Moving to L.A. and caring for my parents in their last years was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and by leaving that cottage, by letting go despite my attachment, I learned how to let go.

So there are ways to lessen the attachment in your life, and by doing so, to diminish the sadness of life. Practicing gentle vairagya through the sort of practices mentioned in this writing can help make life more enjoyable and less frightening. This is especially important as our body ages and we approach death, the Great letting go, through which gate all must pass.

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