Letting Go to Get it Done: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Times
Therapists often counsel clients in working on what they can control, thoughts and feelings, actions within their direct control, and letting go of the rest. It is a difficult practice but appears again and again in the mental health lexicon, think about the AA serenity prayer:
“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.”
These concepts are rooted in a long history of wise teachers who described these concepts in different ways you may not have heard of, so let’s take a deep dive into the history of what made this concept popular and effective.
Buddhism and Taoism are philosophies that encourage letting go of attachment in order to feel better, get more done, and enjoy more.
Let’s start with a quote that really encapsulates it, from Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, which says,
“In letting go, it all gets done,”*
Now this sounds counterintuitive until you put it into practice. Think about it this way, have you ever been so stressed about the amount on your plate that you could not start anything? That is exact opposite feeling this quote is trying to invoke, so let’s work backwards from there. Think about how difficult it would be to do a yoga class with all of your muscles tensed. The idea is that trying too much is just as bad as not trying at all.
Which leads, conceptually to the idea of an attitude of non-striving or achieving without focusing specifically on the achievement, which allows you to relax. Think about your workouts, no doubt you have had some where you were so focused on the outcome that it was zero fun, but then you take a Zumba class with Cat Medina and suddenly before you know it you are smiling and shaking and forgot you were working out and burned a couple hundred calories at least. That is the concept of non-striving. To focus not on the goal so much that you forget the moment you are in. The moment you are in is very important, and you will never get it back.
Taoism and Buddhism share the concept of non-attachment. Now this is a funny one too, but its very similar to non-striving, and less heartless than it sounds. It’s not that you no longer care about anything. It is just that you allow things to come your way without emotional reactions.
A Study in the Journal of Adult Development showed that emotional non-attachment in university students was positively correlated to,
“wisdom and self-actualization.”
The same study also showed that mindfulness was also a path to access some of these same benefits.
This is a way of experiencing the world around you for what it is, and not taking personally what is happening. The idea is to detach meaning from things you cannot control like a car accident making you late when your boss is expecting you. It is easy to think that the Universe is against you, but it is more likely that it had nothing to do with you. It is okay to be disappointed and have emotions, however to try to allow more and attach less will help make situations out of your control easier to manage. This concept can help make your emotional existence more steady and therefore more peaceful.
Think about a boat out on a nice Miami day, with little chop, when emotions are less choppy or less affected by each storm, the boat is smooth and you get where you want to go easily. This is the it all gets done part, that’s where it starts to come together and you start to be able to do more while stressing less. However, if a storm comes, and you attach your emotions to that storm, and say things like this is happening to me because, or why does this always happen to me, the waves start up, and the boat has a harder time moving through.
Meditation and mindfulness are awesome tools to start to calm the emotions and let go of the circumstances around us we cannot control. Try this excellent beginner guided meditation by the Brighton Wellness Centre, UK.
*Translation Laozi, ., & Minford, J. (2018). Tao te ching (Daodejing): The tao and the power.
Whitehead, R., Bates, G. & Elphinstone, B. Growing by Letting Go: Nonattachment and Mindfulness as Qualities of Advanced Psychological Development. J Adult Dev 27, 12–22 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10804-018-09326-5
Therapists often counsel clients in working on what they can control, thoughts and feelings, actions within their direct control, and letting go of the rest. It is a difficult practice but appears again and again in the mental health lexicon.