It can be both liberating and terrifying to let go.
At its core it means that ultimately there is nothing we can hold on to. In its essence it comes down to the final pose in almost every yoga class, final relaxation, a pose of deep surrender. Over and over again on and off the mat we let go.
Everything passes and changes. Nothing stays the same. In life we let go all the time.
Grasping leads to suffering yet we live in a world that virtually demands we grasp: after staying young forever (anti-aging), after having the perfect body, life, job, marriage, income, house, zip code.
We’re even taught to grasp spiritually, to always be calm, peaceful, loving, happy, generous.
We have very little tolerance for messy emotions. For debt, getting old, not having the right job, or car, being single, (especially if you’re a woman no longer in her twenties), being homeless, being a starving artist. (For fill in the blank…)
And we have even less tolerance for death.
Because we can’t control it. In death we have no choice but to let go. The person we loved is gone.
You can’t use a cream or the latest everlasting youth serum on death. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Although overall we do a pretty good job at something I like to call death denial.
I was so mad after my dad died. For many reasons. I was twelve years old, he was 46. I had an electra complex (think female version of oedipal complex), and he was my world. Then one night he got into an accident racing horses (he raced and trained horses professionally), he was thrown into a coma, and I never saw him again (other than comatose in a hospital bed).
But I was also angry because no one around me knew how to react.
What do you do when the father of someone you know dies? When he’s in a coma? If I had to hear the words “I’m sorry,” one more time I would have screamed. But in a world that is full speed ahead on the death denial highway people have no clue what to do when someone actually dies.
And how could they? It’s not as if it’s something we’re taught in school, or for most of us in our families, or by our friends. So where are we supposed to learn it? If we’re fortunate enough to be part of a decent religious or spiritual group we might learn something about it there. But, otherwise, where?
It’s not in our media other than violent, catastrophic deaths that people are bombarded with and overwhelmed by.
We could learn something from Mexico which has a Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, or Japan with their family altars honoring their ancestors and their festival of lights honoring the departed, or the city Varanasi in India, that welcomes the dead and dying and is considered one of the world’s most auspicious places to die.
Death is (if not celebrated in these places), given the reverence and respect and honesty it’s due. Because it’s important to grieve. And it’s important to know what to say to a friend who’s father has just died. To know how to be with one another when we need community, compassion, intimacy and caring the most.
Ultimately, cultivating the courage to surrender means the courage to let go of your life, and not just physically but also to your attachments and expectations around the way your life will be. What it will look like. What it will feel like. Who you will be with. Where you’ll live. What job or car you’ll have. What your paycheck is.
It is very important that we take care of ourselves, have enough money to pay the bills and the rent and take care of what we need, have a job that means something to us, be with people we deeply love and who deeply love us. I never want to imply that we should be renunciates. Which is often just another form of running away.
But it is also important that we continually examine what our often unconscious motivations are and where they come from. Why do we want what we want? And would it be the end of the world if we didn’t get it? Or perhaps the beginning of a whole new adventure we could never otherwise have imagined?
Being in the present moment is all about letting go.
With each exhale we let go of the previous inhale.
In yoga as we move through the asana, the postures, we let go of the one before to enter the one we’re moving into now.
In final relaxation we let go of all the previous poses, feel those poses dissolve and culminate into this final pose of rest, of surrender.
And despite all these words I write surrender will always be one of the most challenging practices for me. One I will return to over and over and over again throughout my life, until my death.
My dad was in a coma for a week before he died.
On the night he died I had a dream.
He came to me in the dream and took my hand. We skipped and sang, “We’re a couple of misfits,” our favorite song from the show Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. At the end of the song we stopped skipping and he let go of my hand.
“I have to go now,” he said, “I don’t want to, but I have to. I’ll always love you.”
I woke up screaming. I knew he had died. And when my mom, who had been at the hospital while I slept over at a friend’s, came to tell me the following morning that he had passed away that night I looked up at her and said, “I know.” She said it gave her chills.
Perhaps after all these years I am still learning how to let him go.
Perhaps the pose we’re always returning to, in our practice and in our life on and off the yoga mat, is final relaxation.
We are messy. And beautiful. We are flawed. And perfect. We will get what we want, and lose it. Or decide we no longer want it. One moment we’ll perform a pose perfectly, and the next moment that pose will be gone.
Our suffering doesn’t arise from the mistakes we make, our messiness and our vulnerability, our changing moods and shifting desires, it comes from the way we choose to respond.
We can make ourselves crazy by praising ourselves when we “do well,” and punishing ourselves when we “mess up,” or we can let go.
Let go with love.
Try your “best,” but recognize that your best is also not a static state. What is our best one day, can be miles away from what it is the next day. My best on a day when I feel good is very different from my best on a day when I don’t feel well.
So we even have to let go of our rigid relationship to words. Even words change.
Do what you can. Then let go.
Love yourself when you’re a mess and when you’re flying high.
This is what unconditional love is. And ultimately it comes down to letting go, to surrender.
When we surrender to what is we create a space where love can flow in, and flow out.
Right now I’m holding that little girl who lost her dad, with her anger and her pain and her grief, with her messy, vulnerable, and raw emotions. I’m telling her I love her. I’ll always love her.
And maybe, someday soon, I’ll be able to let her go.