A colleague of mine often reminds me that her least favorite piece of advice is being told to “let go.” As someone who suffers from acute anxiety, she finds herself battling against intense bouts of stress all too often. Friend after friend, family member after family member, massage therapist after massage therapist—they all tell her to try and “let go.”
Of course, this advice comes from a place of pure intentions. Many years ago, I remember one of my Tibetan meditation teachers telling me to “stop trying” when I was in distress about a close friend of mine who had been hospitalized for a series of psychiatric episodes. I was desperate to help, to fix my friend’s suffering. Intellectually I knew I couldn’t—that trying to mend his emotional trauma would be as futile as trying to fly, or be invisible. It wasn’t a superpower I had—that anyone had—nor should it be.
At first, I wondered whether my teacher meant to suggest that I shouldn’t care, that I should disregard my friend’s suffering. But as I reflected on my teacher’s specific language—stop trying—his wisdom became clear. I had to let go.
I’ll pause here to say that “letting go” is not easy—it’s a classic example of “easier said than done.” I completely understand why my colleague finds the instruction to “let go” a frustrating piece of advice.
At the same time, clinging to the idea that things should be a certain way is what tends to make us so unhappy in life. As I spent the past few years working on my book Real Love, I encountered thousands of stories from students and friends about the importance of letting go in love. Indeed, it’s one of the most challenging parts about love—learning how to simply be with our loved ones, without feeling a desire for our love to be received a certain way by them.
Letting go doesn’t mean we don’t try, but it does mean that we surrender a certain degree of control. When my friend was in the hospital, I expressed my love and concern for him by visiting him regularly. As I sat beside him in bed, I heard other friends of ours offer him advice—all in a genuine attempt to make him feel better. But as I reflected on the words of my teacher, I tried my best to offer my love silently, subtly. And it was difficult! I felt myself grappling with the impulse to fix my friend, to do things like buying him treats in an attempt to speed up his recovery. I tried my best to notice these impulses, and practice resisting them. That resistance is another way to think about letting go.
Of course, it’s important to recognize and accept that wanting to feel in control when our loved ones are suffering is a totally natural impulse. We don’t have to judge or critique the instinct to “fix” things for others. But we can notice it, and by doing so, we realize that ever person’s growth and change has a rhythm that’s independent of us. To show others our love, we can simply accept things as they are.
Frustratingly, our culture perpetuates some disempowering myths about love. For one, we’re conditioned to think that asking for help from others when we are in need is a sign of weakness—rather than courage and self-protection. This means that many people find themselves shutting down to love in times when they need kindness most. Sometimes, I teach a guided meditation in which I ask students to visualize themselves at the center of a circle of people, receiving phrases of lovingkindness from each member of the circle. When I ask the students after the meditation how it made them feel, inevitably, several respond by voicing their discomfort. It’s understandable: most of us are not brought up to believe that we’re inherently deserving of love and kindness from those around us.
Another love myth that we find constantly in pop culture is the belief that love from another will complete us. This is, perhaps, the other side of the same coin. It comes from the belief that we are, when on our own, incomplete. It’s as if the shadow side of unwavering self-reliance is a belief that we cannot rely on ourselves whatsoever to feel “complete.” This idea is embedded deeply in the idea of “a soulmate”—the idea that there exists a singular, complimentary other for each of us. That person is the ethereal other who, we’re told, will complete us.
Particularly in romantic relationships, many find themselves confronting profound disappointment and frustration, and sometimes even grief. Each of us inevitably encounters the realization that no one else can “fix” or “complete” us. And even if we’ve rehearsed this truth for years, decades, even, the experience of accepting ourselves—and others—as we are can continue to be painful and difficult.
Letting go of our expectation to fix others, and for others to fix us, is one of the greatest acts of love each of us can experience each day. In the context of our closest relationships, we must also practice letting go constantly.
In my book, I refer to this as navigating “the space between”—the boundaries, emotional and circumstantial, that exist between siblings, partners, spouses, and friends. Accepting the existence of that space, and the fact that it waxes and wanes over time is another one of the most difficult and profound acts of love we can show ourselves and others. A parent who, in spite of their fears, lets their child hike a mountain. A person who supports her friend’s choice to move across the globe to pursue a dream. A spouse who accepts his partner’s choice to accept a job cross-country, and live a bi-coastal life. These are real, difficult and generous instances of letting go. Despite the mythic idea of love as a merging of minds and hearts, it is the willingness to accept the present that is one of the greatest gifts of love.
The willingness to accept the present is one of the greatest gifts of love. @SharonSalzberg (Click to Tweet!)
Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and NY Times bestselling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and the author of ten books including NY Times bestseller, Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness and her forthcoming release by Flatiron Books, Real Love. Renowned for her down-to-earth teaching style, Sharon offers a secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings, making them instantly accessible. She is a regular columnist for On Being, a contributor to Huffington Post, and the host of her own podcast: The Metta Hour. For more information, visit www.SharonSalzberg.com.
Image courtesy of Léa Dubedout.