When it comes to emotion, I’ve always felt the concept of “letting go” is an existential question – and one I’ve struggled with for years. You know the advice, “Let go and move on.” Easy enough to say, fearsomely difficult to do. It’s all very well to clear out the clutter in our closets or consign those old love letters to the bin, but there is no easy way of clearing up the mess in our heads. Only the other day my brother said to me that he wished he could take his brain out of his head and give it a good wash. It’s rather a marvellous thought, isn’t it? A lovely, freshly laundered mind. Or there’s the friend who longs to reset the hard drive in her head, and put it back to factory settings.
To my shame, I sometimes even feel jealous of small children and their careless joy, their lovely innocent minds uncluttered by thoughts. They play, they sing, they are alive with boundless curiosity. Recently, on a train packed with kids during the half-term break, there was a small boy and his mother sitting next to me. His questions were endless, but his pronouncements were profound with certainty. “Milk is good for you.” His mother, with saintly patience explained, at length, that too much can sometimes be a bad thing for grown-ups but it is very good for children, because it contains calcium, which builds strong bones so it would make him strong and healthy. After long consideration, he said, “You know that nasty cough I’ve got? I’ll drink lots and lots and lots of milk and then I’ll be strong and healthy and all better again.” And that was that, problem solved. By the time I got to my stop, I was tempted to thank his mother for the madly entertaining floor show.
When I first attempted meditation, – in the vague hope of achieving that blissful, peace of mind that the Buddha described as innocence, I thought I must be doing something wrong. “I can’t stop thinking,” I said to my teacher. He simply smiled. “We are alive. We think. It’s as simple as that but it’s what we think, or what we hang on to, that matters.”
As the saying goes, emotions are only thoughts in action. So there we go again; back to the fiendishly difficult task of the action of letting go. And then comes the question. What exactly are we letting go of? Fear, anger, jealousy, resentment – the list goes on. As good as the human mind is at multi-tasking, when it comes to destructive, unnecessary emotions, if we give it too many to process, it becomes confused and muddled. Any clarity of thought goes straight out of the window so it seems to me only sensible that we pick only one or two.
Mine are regret and expectation. Regret is both corrosive and pointless. If we’ve made mistakes, we can make amends and leave the past behind, but if we keep looking over our shoulders we’re going to keep tripping over our own feet so we’re going nowhere. I call it the “if factor” or letting go of the “if’s” in my life. If only I’d done this. If only I’d said that. Well, I did and I didn’t and no amount of regret is going to change that.
It’s the same with the future, or loading expectations on ourselves. If this happens I’m going to be happy or sad or lonely. Who knows? We’re not clairvoyant and nor are we in control of our own lives or destinies, as much as we like to believe that we are. Sure, we have free will and we can take action but basing our lives on imponderable outcomes keeps us stuck and, more often than not, it is fear that we are stuck in. We get so trapped in expectations we make no choices at all or we expect something to be fabulous and, when it’s not, it sends us spiralling down into despair.
Having no expectations is not the same as having low expectations. That’s just negativity or cynicism. No expectations means not relying on outcomes such as, “If I meet a man, I’ll be happy ever after.” We load all our hopes and dreams on a singular focus, which is pretty much a guarantee of disappointment and, when that knight in shining armour turns out to be a mere mortal who staggers under the weight of our expectations until his knees buckle, our thoughts turn to resentment which is the emotion that turns any relationship into stone. Conversely, if our expectations are so low they turn to negativity, we decide that we will never find happiness which keeps us so shut down emotionally that even if somebody came tapping at our door we’d look right through
Letting go of regret and expectation leaves us open to possibility and if there’s anything more liberating than that, I have absolutely no idea of what it might be.