I’m often asked about “letting go.” You know how it is. There’s an incident with someone – a friend, a family member, a boss, a colleague at work. For the most part we tend to be able to deal with the situation, even if it’s not as satisfactorily resolved as we would like. Then, in the aftermath of the storm, we start to re-think our words, our posture, our approach. The wheels begin to spin and the revolutions ramp up so that all we can think of is that better response, that smart retort, or that air of calm we could have projected. We replay the scenario over and over like an ancient (often badly acted) TV show until we’ve taken apart all the lines of all the players, including our own. How do we let go of this sticky tape that runs and runs through our mind? How do we step back and see that it’s a “done deal” yet dragging us into the past and sometimes invading the future?
Well, we just love a good drama… or a good horror story! It doesn’t take much to be hanging out in our mind and them BAM! we’re having this knock-down-drag-out battle with someone over something that is long, long gone. At one level, these moments, when we can haul back quickly enough, serve to remind us that our practice of awareness of the quality of our mind is really important! Without that practice, we end up sitting at a train station and unwittingly hopping on a train whose destination I don’t realize is the station of Raving, Spewing, Me-Bashing or whatever station name you want to give it. With the practice of awareness, we realize we’re on this train to nowhere and get off.
So, this is a good time to be reminded that these ruminative spin outs is why we practice constantly and not just when we’re under stress. Our practice of letting go of these wayward and seductive thoughts when we’re on the cushion or under minimal stress strengthens our ability to do the same when we’re in a tough situation. And that is really important because when we hop on a train to someplace really horrid, we recognize where we are headed before we do too much damage to ourselves.
The other part of this stickiness involves time-travelling – what John Dunne calls “pursuing the past” or “ushering in the future.” We’re hoping to gain some wisdom from taking apart our past actions and we try to predict all the worst-possible outcomes so we can be prepared. But the problem is that we’re using a faulty data set. Under stress, we tend to hear the threat-laden information more loudly and miss the more nuanced pieces of the interchange. So what we’re reacting to is really the high-end alarms. (Now those may well be there in some conflicts but not all.) Layered on this is our belief that we just didn’t live up to who we hoped we would be in such circumstances.
Practice is relational. We act to cultivate a relationship with ourselves, with others, and in community. It’s our way of developing a sense of responsibility for ourselves and others so it’s not surprising that we want to honour that intention. And when it doesn’t happen the way we wished, we tend to be hard on ourselves and flip into problem-solving mode. The antidote is compassion. Kindness for what we believe we have done, how we think we behaved, what we believe were/will be the consequences.
Simply put, first practice getting off these trains to nowhere. Second, meet having got on them with compassion. It points to your strong sense of stewardship to your world. And yes, we tend to believe we have failed in some way by hurting or allowing hurt to happen to ourselves and others. And that in itself hurts.
Here’s Five Skillful Habits you can practice:
(1) Respect your limits of how much time you can spend in these toxic mini-dramas (we all consume a certain amount); self-reflection is good but pathological scrupulosity is not.
(2) Honour the life you have that is less accessible when you are caught in this kind of time travel.
(3) Be generous with yourself when you finally hop off that train and take care of the bumps and bruises of the bumpy ride.
(4) Be attentive of all the toxic stories about yourself that you consume – media, others, old habitual thought patterns. Step back from them.
(5) Finally, watch your language. Cultivate an inner discourse that is sustaining and respectful of who you really are, not who you imagined yourself to be in someone else’s mind.