In meditation and in our daily lives there are three qualities that we can nurture and cultivate. We already possess these, but they can be ripened:
Precision * Gentleness * the Ability to Let Go.
– Pema Chödrön
My lumbar spine regularly chants (and sometimes shouts) a mantra after every backbend practice: “OUCH, STOP!” A recent X-ray confirmed my suspicion: Osteoarthritis. It’s in my low back; it’s substantial, and it’s painful.
But, gosh, I still love backbends. My vitality, passion, and metabolism soar after a deep backbend practice. And yet presently, even the gentlest lumbar extension has me limping out of class. Backbends, at least as I used to know them, have left the building. And I’m OK with that. I’m starting to Let Go.
I’m using “backbends” here as both a literal and figurative example, but when the going really gets tough and your tidy, predictable, life suddenly goes sideways, how do you begin to Let Go . . .
. . . of family and friends who die?
. . . of children who leave home for the first time?
. . . of resentment after a deep betrayal?
. . . of your favorite yoga poses that suddenly shift beyond your reach?
From the Bhagavad Gita to the Sutras of Patanjali, there is no shortage of teachings on Non-attachment, and they are resonant. But one thing my own experience has taught me is that Letting Go cannot be forced. You can’t clench your fist, furrow your brow, and will something away.
The Art of Letting Go is really about the Art of Surrender.
It begins with surrendering to the reality – with stark, clear-eyed honesty – of what is happening at any given moment. For me, this surrender is crucial because I’m a virtuoso at tricking myself into manufacturing realities that are more pleasant than the ones I am actually experiencing. It’s a survival tactic that I refined long ago to avoid emotional and physical pain. We humans are quite adept at creating alternate realities, but we can’t work with lies. Letting Go absolutely depends on Honesty – a truthful recognition that the time is right.
So let’s witness Pema’s formula at work, shall we?
In 2007, during a routine physical exam, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening, congenital heart issue that required immediate surgery: my mitral valve needed to be replaced.
Step 1, Honesty: I looked the diagnosis straight in the eye and surrendered to this reality. The sonogram proved it; my dad died of it at the age of 53, and the symptoms were palpable. There was no ambiguity and nowhere to hide. I left the doctor’s office, and, in the privacy of my own home, I had a full-blown panic attack.
Step 2, Precision (AKA The Yoga of Action): I pulled myself together and got to work. I sought out alternative, pre-op modalities to strengthen my heart. I became an online “expert” on open-heart surgery. I found others who had undergone the same surgery and picked their brains. I improved my diet, chose my surgeon carefully, and even picked a date that was astrologically optimal. I was not passive here. I was aligned, diligent, and precise. I did my best. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t control the outcome – I had to let that go – but I did have control over how I arrived there.
Step 3, Gentleness: I was easy on myself in the process. I increased the positive self-talk. I rubbed oil on my body, and I let currents of love flow in by allowing myself to receive more tenderness, prayers – and yes, even gifts of money (UGH, not easy!). I asked for help and reminded myself that I am worth it. I became better friends with myself and with my perfectly imperfect heart valve.
Step 4, Let Go: I couldn’t force this. As I was wheeled into the operating room, the work in Steps 1-3 had prepared me for this moment. I couldn’t control what happened at this point. All I could do was exhale and pray because my life was, quite literally, in someone else’s hands. I looked the surgeon squarely in the eye and asked him to please operate on me as he would his own son. And then I released myself fully to his care.
What I have noticed over the years is that while I may not be able to Let Go on-demand, the time it takes to release and move on is becoming shorter and shorter. This is progress on the path!
Recently, I was looking at an old photo (circa 2005) of me and my three buds Noah Mazé, Chris Chavez, and Todd Tesen. We 4 Musketeers would gather every Wednesday afternoon at a park in Beverly Hills for a playful but intense asana practice which usually included multiple scorpion poses and drop-back backbends – poses that no longer spark joy for me and have slowly vibrated out of my life.
With Pema in my heart and taking a page out of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I have learned to Let Go: I bow to these poses; I thank them for the service they provided for so many years, and then I say goodbye and pass them on through my teaching. Whether it be yoga poses, relationships, old clothes, or your heart valve, there are things in our lives that serve us well for many years. Until they don’t anymore.
And, if we can be Honest about that, we will have arrived at Step One of Letting Go.
Want to embody this practice of Letting Go? Click HERE to access a great YogaGlo class that puts Pema Chödrön’s quote into action.
Julissa Carranza says
Beautiful! Honesty and vulnerability will set us free yet. Look forward to seeing you.XOXO
Marc Holzman says
Julissa thank you so much for your kind words. Until December! xo
Barbara Kuhl says
So lovely, so true, so important…..
Marc Holzman says
merci bien BKuhl. looking forward to a meal when i return in early Nov.
Leslie Salmon says
Thank you, Marc. This quote has been helpful to me this year as I ‘let go’ of store rooms of family belongings (furniture, knick knacks, etc.). Before I travelled to Spokane to ‘let go’ I read somewhere that our attachment is an emotional one and we will retain the memories, the stories. So, just as you remember the ‘good old days’ with Noah et al, I remember the stories associated with a particular chair or dish.
Marc Holzman says
So true Leslie. I don’t need to keep around loads of ‘stuff’ for memorabilia – it’s all in my mind and heart. thank you the comment!
Amanda Dates says
Hey Marc, this is so timely. Thank you. This has been my rentree mantra, self-study, and often painful reminder. I find the hardest part is the ambiguity, the gray area that holds the self-doubts and second guesses. Am I truly being honest? Was that the right decision? (As we get older, grayer, and “wiser” aren’t we supposed to have less of that noise swirling around?) In the context of the world we’re living in today and the nearly hourly deluge of horrific news it is simultaneously more difficult and never more necessary than now to Let That Shit Go. In the days leading up to Irma, one of my oldest and wisest friends posted this on FB – “I feel like now is a really good time to make amends, get closure on matters, apologize if you should, and get ready to let go. Tell people and animals and places how much you love them. In the letting go we will each see where we can serve others as best we can. What if we each have something to contribute during these troubled times? Letting go makes us available to hear where we need to be.”
Take good care of that ouchy back and hope to see you soon 😉 xoxo
Marc Holzman says
‘i feel now is a really good time to make amends’
this is so beautiful – making amends is another facet of letting go.
thank you for this insight and great post amanda! xoxo
kathy simonik says
I think your blog was written from an intelligent, non emotional place and very mindful. Always best to listen to someone who has been through an injury first hand, as opposed to someone who can only project an opinion. Students need to listen to their own instinct and inner voice, when it comes to practicing. Its totally cool and ok to admit limitations and find interesting ways to work with those limitations. Injuries are the best teachers. Taking action in a positive way is what you are talking about and inspires others to keep practicing regardless with more mindfulness. That is a sign of a mature yoga practitioner. Thank you for this inspiring and important piece Marc!