The Art of Letting Go: Remedy for Stressful Holidays
By Joseph Brady
Can you worry yourself sick? You bet you can. As we head into the holiday season after a bitter election, many are dreading the political conversations with that crazy old uncle that every family seems to have. . If we don’t handle it well, we not only suffer rifts in the family fault lines we can actually weaken immune response and make ourselves sick.
Bruce Lee on the Art of Letting Go
Bruce Lee wrote that
“we should learn all we can about our arts, and then try to forget everything we learned so that a raw organic spontaneity can flow through us. Lao Tzu told us that we have to let go of what we think we are, so that we can be open to becoming what is trying to unfold through us. If I had to summarize Tai Chi, Qigong, and the Internal Arts into minimal words, I would call them The Art of Letting Go – and this is what Taoism is. It sounds much simpler than it is. Yet, when looking back, it is that simple, the simplest thing in the world. A wise man once wrote that ‘truth is always simple, but humanity will always stampede all over
simple truth trying to get to something more complicated.’
Letting Go of “Fight or Flight”
We have worked very hard to develop our “fast-paced world” and we thrive on the challenges presented by a highly productive society. We do not, however, want to continue functioning for the rest of the world at the expense of our own health. Redirecting stress and having a little balance in our lives may be the key to having it all. In ancient times the kind of stress faced by our ancestors was very different than that of today’s world. The fight-or-flight response developed when our ancestors faced an attack by a saber tooth tiger or a Roman legionnaire. Their systems released adrenaline and other stress hormones that enable muscles and the overall system to respond to and survive the immediate stress. It either worked right then and there … or it didn’t. Today the battles are being fought with well-dressed barbarians in the business world … battles between work and family commitments. Conflicts between lone individuals and huge institutions create ongoing stress. The result is a continuous release of these stress hormones.
We cannot and may not want to change our work-ethic culture, but we can change how we respond to it. Our continuous release of these stress hormones can be balanced by letting go. Meditation can be a very useful way to examine our own thoughts and gain insight into our own worst enemy — ourselves.
The Dirty Tricks Department
What we expect in life never fully matches up to what we experience. When the holidays don’t go the way we want, we feel disappointed and we suffer. The ego then tries to figure out why we are unhappy. It usually explains it away by dipping into the subconscious for old thinking patterns that explain why we are suffering. Negative thoughts about ourselves such as “I’m no good,” “I always get depressed during the holidays,” “I guess I’m just a rotten parent,” trap us in unhappiness because it doesn’t allow us to look for and to fix the real reasons we are unhappy. We get stuck like the kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar – unable to escape because we won’t let go of the cookie. Joan Borysenko, Director of the Mind/Body Clinic out of Harvard University, calls these thinking patterns mind traps,
“Doing it my way” and “rationalizing things” are two more of Joan Borysenko’s “dirty tricks department of the mind” that undermine our relationships with others. We spend so much energy insisting that our way is the right way, that we stifle those around us and create our own misery. Do we have to be right all the time? Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?
“The holidays should be like this” or “I should have done that,” result from negative social expectations of what we think others think about us. “What will the neighbors think?” We tell ourselves that we can’t possibly be happy unless we do what society says will make us happy. When we let others rule our lives, we cannot possibly follow our hearts. While we need to be considerate of others, we do not need to meet their expectations to ensure our own enjoyment of the holiday season.
We cannot be thinking about fixing a problem if we are using our thoughts to look for someone or something to blame. Rationalizing is when we are always blaming others. Like it or not, we cannot control what others do — only our reaction to them. A successful stress response over the holidays depends upon our willingness to focus energy on what we can do, not by wishing others would do something.
If these traps fail to relieve our unhappiness, we are in danger of falling into the two most dangerous mind traps of all — disillusionment and despair. “Oh well I tried.” “It will never be like it should.” We give up and turn to drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive behavior – even suicide – to relieve our suffering.
To Change with Change: Going with the Flow
The major stressors in modern life tend to be centered around changes in our lives. Any changes can be stressful. Even positive changes like a vacation, a retirement or moving to a wonderful retirement community may be for the better, yet they still can create enormous stress in our lives. The holiday season tends to pile it on with major stress factors, such as family get-togethers, changes in social and church activities, even trouble with the in-laws. The absence of loved ones or in some cases their unwanted presence can create stress as can illness or the death of someone close to us.
Find a Quiet Corner
What can be done to ease the stress that inevitably comes with living a life? Find yourself a peaceful corner of the world to recharge your batteries. Author Salman Rushdie once wrote “In this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escapes from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss.” Here are a few quiet corners you could explore. Go to the theater. Create artwork. Read books. Play a musical instrument. Even playing cards can give us a few minutes peace. Get out and experience new things. Travel to different cultures or go hang out in nature. If you are so inclined, spiritual thinking, worship, bible/scripture studies or going to church can make for a meaningful, less stressful holiday season. Making love to your spouse, kissing, cuddling or just giving flowers to your lover can put life into perspective. If you don’t have anyone to love, you need to get out and meet new people. Try counseling others, teaching, volunteering , writing letters to friends and family. For a quiet corner that is always available, try learning daily meditation and relaxation exercises. The effect of these exercises is improvement in sensation and performance through learning skill in the conscious control of one’s own body. In turn, this increases functional ability, enjoyment, and the perceived quality of life.
Scientifically, meditation is a very simple and natural process of quieting the mind of its typical chatter by focusing on breathing, movement or some other rhythmic action. This allows the mind to take a brief vacation from everyday problems and normal thinking patterns that distract us from enjoying life. The long-term skillful practice of T’ai Chi and meditation requires a voluntary shift in awareness – away from the limited, ego-centered point-of-view of conventional awareness to the heightened awareness of performance and enjoyment. The ability to think about our problems and plan for the future is a very useful function of the brain However, if too much attention is focused upon thinking about our troubles, the very sensory awareness necessary for enjoyment and quality of life may be effected. The more we become lost in our own thoughts, the less control we have over the body, and the more disconnected we feel from the world around us.
Ray Jackendorf of MIT asserts that consciousness is “enriched by attention.” Although attention is not essential to limited function, full attention is essential for full consciousness. As the meditation practitioner achieves skill in the process of her/his relationship with the environment, consciousness is enriched and the objects of the world acquire a new and deeper meaning. Sensing a deep connection, the world is perceived as humming with life – vibrant, beautiful and somehow indefinably sacred.