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Letting Go of Unpleasant Past Experiences  

ShaunaODorothy 52T
23 posts
7/30/2018 6:51 am
Letting Go of Unpleasant Past Experiences

The easiest advice to give—and the hardest to use—is “Let it go.”

Didn’t get the job? Let it go. Still thinking about your awkward speech last week? Let it go.

All the Paul McCartney tickets were bought up in seconds by scalper-bots? Let it go.

Life will go on, after all. Just put it out of your mind!

Of course we’d let go if we could. If we had the ability to simply drop worry, or anger, or a throbbing in the temples, we wouldn’t need to be told. And being told to let go tends to make the feeling even more stubborn.

Letting go is possible. But it’s done differently than we usually think.

We humans tend to overlook a very useful fact: every experience does go, at some point. Every sight, sound, taste, or feeling you’ve ever had is gone, except what’s happening right now as you look at this screen.

The pleasure of the last chocolate treat you ate… where is it now? The pain of the last time you singed your finger on the stovetop… where is it? Itchy mosquito bites, stress over past deadlines, uneasiness about where that<b> wedding </font></b>toast was going… gone.

The fleeting nature of experience becomes a lot more obvious in meditation. When you dedicate some time to observing the arising and passing of your experiences—namely bodily feelings, emotions, and thoughts—you begin to notice that that arising and passing happens surprisingly quickly.

A bubble of anxiety, if you observe it, might be truly unpleasant for maybe fifteen seconds or so. A faint residue might linger a little longer, but it’s quite bearable. And at some point it becomes undetectable.

However—and this is the vital part—if you had tried to get rid of that bubble of anxiety, you would probably notice it getting worse.

This is where all the confusion about letting go happens. All experiences do go, guaranteed, but you don’t make them go, you let them go.

When you let experiences go, they tend to go sooner.

But we often don’t let them. We fight with them. We tend to see present-moment experiences as though they’re more permanent than they really are, so we think it’s necessary to fight with ones we don’t like and cling to ones we do like. We don’t quite recognize, for example, how few seconds the pleasure of an ice cream cone really lasts, or how quickly a moment of embarrassment passes if we don’t dwell on it.

The result is that we count on pleasures too much, and resist displeasure too strongly. We create stress by trying in vain to slow up, or hurry along, any experience we don’t have direct control over, which is the vast majority of them.

At a meeting, you say something dumb and feel embarrassed. If you could simply notice that feeling come and go, without the normal contentiousness, it might last a minute or .

But we tend to do the opposite. We complain in our minds that we’re an incurable klutz, or maybe that other people are too judgmental. We vow to prevent it from happening again.

Of course, we don’t have enough control over life to protect ourselves from such normal human feelings. This demand for an impossible level of control over our experience is intrinsically stressful.

Sometimes we can make an experience happen, or stop happening, if we have some direct means of control—stepping out of the rain if we’re getting wet, or turning on a lamp when it’s too dark to see.

But such clean and easy fixes, especially for our emotional experiences, aren’t usually available. You can’t open an umbrella to shield yourself from a bad mood, a physical pain, or a distracting thought.

Letting things go is a skill we can learn, but it’s easily confused with making things go, which is usually impossible.

I like the way John Yates, a meditation teacher and neuroscientist, makes it part of a longer phrase:

Let it come, let it be, let it go.

This phrase reflects a realistic understanding of how life actually happens. All experiences arise and fade, and that can be observed in real time. There’s no such thing as a permanent experience. Each comes, is, and goes.

We need to stop and observe our experience carefully to really see that happening. This is the basic aim of mindfulness meditation.

If we develop sharp enough attention, we can see specifically what feelings and experiences we tend to cling to, or push away. Then we can consciously, gently refrain from pushing or pulling, and let the experience go. We can become free of the stress around a given experience, even while that experience is still happening.

Whether or not you take up meditation, you can practice letting experiences come, be, and go in their own time.

Daily life offers many opportunities. Start with the easy stuff. Closing the shower faucet and noticing the warm-water sensations cease. Putting your fork down when you’re finished eating. Turning the reading lamp off for the evening.

See if you can appreciate how beautiful, or at least poignant, all of this coming and going is. The going of experience is often synonymous with the coming of another, and sometimes there’s a bittersweet quality to be noticed in the transition.

Reaching the final moments of a book, or a sunset, or a slice of cake. Closing the door after bidding your friends goodbye.


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