So finally, I sit down to write the last post in the series on the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness described by Jon Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living. And in many ways the timing feels just right. Autumn is the season associated with letting go, as we watch the leaves fall and have to say goodbye to the warmer weather. I also attended a funeral on Saturday, which always feels like the ultimate letting go to me.
Taking an approach based on letting go and non-attachment is essential in mindfulness practice. When we begin to observe our inner experience, we soon realise there are specific thoughts and feelings that the mind appears keen to hold on to. After something pleasant, we replay the thoughts about the situation and try to prolong the feelings, then we bring the thoughts back to mind to re-experience the feelings over and over again. Equally there are thoughts and feelings that we want to avoid having because they are unpleasant or upsetting or anxiety-provoking in some way.
When meditating we endeavour to set aside the natural tendency to focus on some elements of our experience and to discard others. In it’s place we allow our experience to be as it is and simply practice paying attention to what is happening from one moment to the next. Letting go is a form of acceptance, of stopping trying to make our experience a certain way and different from how it already is. When we watch our mind clinging and rejecting, we can remind ourselves to intentionally let go of those urges, to find out what happens if we do. When we notice we are judging our experience, we can let go of those thoughts too. We acknowledge them but choose not to follow them any further. By letting them be in this way, we let them go. We can let go in the same way of thoughts of the past or the future when they arise and simply observe.
If a particular thought or feeling has a very strong hold over our mind and we are finding it especially difficult to let go of it, we can turn our attention to what “holding on”, as the opposite of letting go, feels like. We can learn about and become familiar with our own attachments and how they affect our lives, as well as what it’s like to finally let go and the consequences of so doing. Therefore, even in moments where letting go does not feel possible, we can still continue our practice of mindfulness, and it will continue to teach us about ourselves and the workings of our minds.
We all have previous experience of being able to let go, through the various losses in our lives so far, and even each night when we go to sleep. To be able to fall asleep we need to be able to let go. If our mind is too active when we go to bed and we can’t let go, then we will inevitably have difficulty getting to sleep. So, we all already know how to let go, we just need to practice applying this skill in waking situations as well.