Happy New Decade! The traditional New Year of January 1st always brings about a sort of gritty transition for me, and this year has been no different. Coming out the other side with a renewed sense of self-worth, I felt inspired to write this blog post as a sort of ‘counter-culture’ option to all the mainstream positive messages of “letting go of the last decade” and the over-used mantra of “Let go of what no longer serves you!”

Let’s be clear, letting go is incredibly healthy and a huge part of where people get stuck emotionally and spiritually:

The emphasis is on the what you can’t change in this wisdom. Yet I have observed (definitely myself, and in others as well) a rise in an almost obsessive attempt to let go of things still in our lives that we can change still.

I have experienced the painful swing pendulum swing of trying to forcefully let go of things I was attached to, having been taught by most traditions that attachment (and desire) is unhealthy. Yet this kind of behavior is disconnected from what it means to be human (read: ungrounded). It also does not even address the root problems that my good intention was seeking to address, namely those things which cause us to suffer. I find it no accident that the recent Kylo Ren story in the Star Wars saga showcases the “darkside of letting go.”

Kylo Ren famously said “let the past die, kill it if you have to.” I am here to warn against this kind of self-aggression and self-harm. A fine line exists between letting go of what we cannot change, and running from pain we are not willing to face and transform.

Let’s break this down into two different mindsets that could use some balancing:

Letting Go of ‘Bad’ Habits

Take time to reflect on all the bad habits you’ve wanted to give up over all the New Years in your life. I know it seems a common trope now that most people fail at successfully keeping to their resolutions and creating unsustainable goals, but I am curious as to why this is- what is going on underneath the surface?

The first step is to identify the need that the habit is meeting. Ask yourself “what do I get out of this habit?” “How do I feel when I tend to go for this habit?” Most often there is an emotional need being met, and once we get clear about that we can move toward what we want to hold onto instead.

So we find a new branch (think of us as monkeys we are, because habits and emotional needs are working with the more primitive parts of our brain). Now unless we are quite agile, it is far easier to “test” various branches before finding one that is secure and sustainable. That is to say, keeping our grip on what’s been working (set aside judgement about the habit itself for a moment), we try various other methods.

Let’s go with the example of eating junk food. Perhaps through our introspection we notice that eating junk food gives a sense of “certainty.” It eases our anxiety, and is a predictable (and tasty?) way to settle our minds. Ok, now what else can produce certainty? Perhaps we try various rituals, which in the non-religious sense are repetitive behaviors that can calm and focus our minds. Listening to the same song every day is a ritual, and through this practice perhaps we start to hear newer dimensions or angles of this song: wow a new branch that brings novelty as well as certainty! So we try this branch on for awhile, but still find ourselves eating junk food.

Maybe we do a physical ritual, such as the same Taichi form. This ritual is telling our minds “its okay, we know how to do this. We know what will come next in the form, we are safe and there are things we can control.” Now every time we reach for a snack, we find ourselves doing a quick Taichi form instead. Instead of fighting to stop ourselves from craving, and struggling to change a neural pathway-we have simply found a suitable replacement! A better vehicle to meet those needs.

Now comes the holding on part. We have the sense of novelty and enjoyment from trying a new thing and the changes it produces are noticeable enough to keep us at it. Yet tenacity and holding on will be needed to continue to satisfy our emotional need. Emotional needs often aren’t as loud as physical needs (we would notice if we stopped breathing pretty quick!) so action even when we don’t “feel like it” will help us from slipping backward. Hold on to what’s working!

Discovering what you Value

The next type of “letting go” requires a harder look at ourselves. I will present myself as the example because this was a hard-earned lesson of the last decade that I would like wiser (read: able to implement sound advice) souls to not have to endure.

This week I have had a series of dreams involving finding the courage to overcome insurmountable forces for people I care about. Such is the unfortunate nature of life that sometimes outside pressures do not mean well for you, and will try to get you to let go of what serves you. In the last decade I took those pressures and signs of hardship (especially in relationship) as a sort of message from the Divine that I was supposed to let it go. As if everything worthwhile in life would come so easy and be so effortless! Ah the follies of youth, and for trying to adhere so strictly to a philosophy (Daoism and those of the East in this case) that I missed entirely what really mattered. Despite the few warnings and signs that I could have listened to, I continually threw away a relationship I was attached to in service of ‘enlightenment’ or some ‘desire-less state.’ Yet throwing away what I cared about lead to me continually picking back up when my rigid self-disciplined, and my human self re-emerged. If anyone has had had on “on again, off again” relationship this is what I believe to be at the heart of it.

Turn the wisdom on its head. Is what you are strongly attached to some sort of sin? Or is it merely life showing you what you truly care about?

There is a time for letting go of things, certainly when they fall into that category of “things that you can no longer change.” Yet trying to let go of things because they have become ‘painful’ at times is not a marker of enlightenment. In my case it was a sign of the lack of strength to care for what matters, and do the work to maintain things that my attachment showed my I valued.

Do you see yourself selling your home when you discover the endless projects and maintenance it requires? Maybe. Maybe you have found that you value a less rooted lifestyle, and can safely make that decision. On the other side, maybe this is a chance to reflect on whether you value the stability and ownership of home to motivate you to do the painful chores and upkeep of that treasure!

In the End, Here you are

I want to summarize my position by highlighting that it wasn’t so much that the Eastern traditions lead me astray. They were merely vehicles that I took too far and did not understand correctly. At the heart of wisdom is caring about what is right in front of us. I skewed the teachings with my lack of tenacity, and took detachment to mean constantly letting go of whatever came into your lap. Instead for this new decade, I wish for us all to be curious about what comes into our lives and hold on to that which we find ourselves gripping firmly-not straining, but simply the firm grip of touch that says “I will not drop you.”

May 2020 reveal what you care about, and you find the courage to Love once again!