Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.

How to find home in the clutter

It’s time to shake things up a bit. Get the dust out of the corners, check for cracks in the foundation and clear the clutter. Fall – the time of new clothes, new schools, new jobs – is the perfect time for spring cleaning – not just in your home, but maybe in your life.

imageTransitions into summer and winter feel almost seamless to me, but moving into spring or fall is always more significant. Wardrobes change, colors change, and the association with the start of the school year never fades, no matter how long I’ve been out of school. That trepidation I felt as a child is reflected in the feelings that start after Labor Day – time to get serious about work, start new projects, and stop spending dreamy afternoons in the sun. Start asking, “What serves me well, what doesn’t?”

The idea of spring cleaning (or fall, in this case) has roots in various religious and cultural traditions, often connected to the start of the New Year. The Iranian word for the practice translates as “shaking the house”, and what better image is there for the clearing of clutter, both literal and figurative?

Two weeks ago, I happened to be in California when an earthquake actually did “shake the house”. But we don’t need something quite that dramatic to spur us to take a look at what needs a revamp. Unfortunately, we often view the clutter in our lives with a lot of negative self-judgment, which sometimes just causes us to procrastinate more. By encouraging yourself, rather than focusing on shame, you leave the personalizing behind, accept where you are now, and begin to think creatively about it.

Carolyn Koehnline, a therapist who helps people with clutter, recommends “clearing clutter with compassion.” A lot of times, the physical things we need to lose, as well as the relationships we need to change, are so loaded with emotion that we just get stuck. Koehnline recommends some writing prompts that help get you past the stuck point:

Finish the sentences:

If I keep it…..”

“If I let it go….”

Or make lists:

It is time to let go of….”

“It is time to keep….”

“It is time to make space for….”

Not only do these writing exercises help us visualize possible scenarios, they also solidify our intentions, making action more likely. Notice that the list-making is constructed in the present tense – instead of wishfully saying I will do this in the future, I create a world where I am doing this right now.

In a Slate magazine piece, J. Bryan Lowder also recommends reassessing all of the “passive systems” in your environment that enable clutter. Is there something about the way things are designed or placed in your home or office that encourages accumulation and confusion? What habits do you have that support disorder? Can you change your relationship with your space and your stuff?

Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the best-selling book, The Not So Big House, followed that up a few years ago with a book called The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters. It is a workbook for examining our relationship to time, space, work, and possessions. She says that often our desire for more stuff is really a way of covering up what our hearts are actually longing for – a life that is a true reflection of who we are.

When I moved a few months ago, I had to face my clutter head-on and make tough decisions about what it was time to let go of. In many ways, I am still in that process of creating a life that reflects who I am. But I remind myself that home isn’t the building we live in, the furniture we sit on or the things we own. As Sarah Susanka says, “Home is a way of being in one’s life.”

Handle with care

I watched a video on YouTube yesterday called “A Wild Year”. It depicts the activity at just one spot in Banff National Park in a time lapse taken over a 12-month period. The video reveals all the different seasons and the various creatures that crossed the path in that spot, including people, bears, deer, moose, goats, and what looks like a mountain lion. What’s fascinating to me is that each species is at the spot at a different time, and it makes me wonder how much awareness each had of the others.

We all know that animals use more of their senses than people do. Humans rely overwhelmingly on vision most of the time, and hearing second. Would paying more attention and cultivating our other senses allow us to become aware of others in a way that we usually miss? Watching the Banff video raises the question of how we fit into the bigger world. How does what we do affect others? Who can tell that we were here?

The question applies to environmental issues, bringing to mind the American Indian ethos of “tread lightly on the earth” and the Boy Scouts’ philosophy of “leave the world a little better than you found it. “  We can broaden the concept, though. Bringing mindfulness to all of the micro-interactions we personally have every day might change the stamp that we leave on the world.

There is a mindfulness practice I sometimes assign my students, called “Letting Go”. It was created by Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute.  It involves paying close attention for one full day to how you let go of things: a doorknob, a pen, a dish, someone’s hand. Are you letting go with a sense of intention, or in a careless way? Can you be more deliberate about how you let go, noticing the movement and how it feels? Does the texture, shape or weight of an object determine how you let go of it? At the end of the day, what were the consequences of paying attention to the act of letting go? How did things change?

Most of my students who have tried this practice say that it heightened their awareness of their actions, and of the physical world around them. They became more conscious of their sense of touch. Slowing down their actions also helped calm them, by avoiding unnecessary abruptness and noise.

If we bring more sensory awareness to our everyday acts, maybe our presence can leave things, people and places just a little bit better than how we found them.