Letting Go: What does it really mean to let go?

By Laura Good Sept. 5, 2018

“You can only lose what you cling to.” – Buddha

What does it mean to “Let go”? If I asked you to name three things you need to let go of, right now, I doubt any of us would have trouble coming up with a list. On some deeper level we know the feeling of relief that comes when one has that moment of letting go, of how something just doesn’t bother us like it did before. We can’t place an exact time or place, the letting go just happened at some point and we now feel “different”, the associated suffering is less or gone. But when we think of letting go of our loved ones, our cherished beliefs, our way of life, no way do we want to lose them.

When someone tells you to just “let it go” we often have an angry or fearful reaction. Who are they to tell us that? Who we love, what we have, how society sees us is who we think we are. If we “lose” these things then who are we? But who are we to think that, those things are what we are? At some point in the past we imagined a desired version of our lives and if things don’t go according to plan, we suffer. Whose plan was it anyway? The dreamings of a child, or someone in pain or trauma or God or your parents?

When I was young I loved all kinds of music. I would play my mom’s records and sing along, fantasizing I was some jazz diva or Julie Andrews.  Yet it was Aretha Franklin that really got to me. Her voice would open me up and I felt free and inspired.  I desperately wanted to sound like her when I grew up. Yet as hard as I tried there was no way this skinny white girl from the suburbs was ever going to sound like her.  The universe had already created one Aretha, never to be repeated. Your DNA creates your vocal muscles, a certain length, a certain thickness, you can improve your singing, but your basic tone quality is yours alone. And so is your own history.

I didn’t know Aretha had babies at age 12 and at age 14.  A preacher’s daughter who was already bringing in the big crowds to church, what part did this play in her artistry? What did she have to let go of so young?

I had to learn to appreciate my own voice. I had to learn how to tell my own story through music, the story that for whatever reason was mine to tell and let go of how I wanted to sound.

I remember seeing Aretha sing the song, “Rock Steady” and her backup singers would answer, “what it is, what it is….” Whenever I feel unhappy about how things are, in my head I hear them singing “what it is, what it is” and I try to just let go. This is what is happening now. This is what it is, moment to moment.


Letting go does not mean “doing without”. The Buddhist path is often associated with renunciation and a lifestyle of simplicity and restraint. But this path was demonstrated by monastics.  Though we are guided by the precepts, lay people aren’t asked to give up money, or sex, or certain clothes or experiences etc. In fact the unburdening effect of monastic renunciation can sometimes be considered the “easier” path, compared to the life of “householder” in the real world which is a daily test of desire, emotions and earning a living.

Asceticism or renunciation that goes too far can turn into aversion or repression, or not taking care of our health.  This is not the middle way. Buddha himself tried the ascetic path for six years and it didn’t work. Letting go is about letting go of the clinging to an object and not the object itself. As the second noble truth reminds us, this is the cause of suffering, or dissatisfaction, clinging to our desire.

Of course we form “attachments” but what we’re talking about are really “bonds”. We form bonds of love and friendship, this is not wrong!  We take care of our children and our environment and our responsibilities, this is how we survive and thrive. But we are not attached to the outcome.

Philip Moffitt says, that it doesn’t mean we don’t push and pull when we have to in regards to doing what’s right, but by using mindfulness and always an awareness of what right action is, we let go of the result.

Close your eyes and ask yourself, “What do I want to let go of, right now?” Not “should” but “want”. Notice how you feel in your body.  Is there a tightness or a sense of release? Are you projecting into the future about how you think you’ll feel if this happens? Are you proposing “if-then” scenarios?

Letting Go practice by Ajahn Sumedho

“The practice of ‘letting go’ is very effective for minds obsessed with compulsive thinking: you simplify your meditation practice down to just two words—’letting go.’  “I did nothing but this for about two years—every time I tried to understand or figure things out, I’d just say, ‘let go, let go’ until the desire would fade out. So I’m making it very simple for you, to save you from getting caught in incredible amounts of suffering.”

“Some of you might have the desire to become the Buddha of the age, studying the four noble truths and the seven factors of awakening and the eight this and the three that, becoming a famous teacher and writing Buddhist books and going to International Buddhist Conferences! There’s nothing more sorrowful than having to attend International Buddhist Conferences! But instead, I suggest just being an earthworm … who knows only two words – ‘let go, let go, let go.” –

Non-Abiding and The Diamond Sutra:

The Diamond Sutra was given its name by the Buddha himself because its teachings will ‘cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting’. “the emancipation from the fundamental ignorance of not knowing how to experience reality as it is.”

This classic Buddhist text, is primarily concerned with the idea of non-abidance: emptiness, entities neither exist, nor do they not exist.

Ajahn Chah  says non-abiding leads to prajñā (wisdom), as it enables one to consider that worldly issues are empty, so there is no point in retaliation or disputes.

We see we need awareness, we need wisdom but how do we really let go?

How to let go:

Pema Chodron defines renunciation as “letting go of holding back. What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. Instead of resisting, can we possibly just open up to what is happening? Not how it does or doesn’t fit into our version of how life is supposed to be.”

Who calls us up, who drives too slowly in front of us, who is making you angry.

So we name it, “There is anger arising.”

We investigate,” Wow, so much anger arising! Look at that anger go!”

We start identifying with the investigation of the anger instead of the anger itself. Mindfully being with it, letting it soften or open the heart. We have the tools, we can let metta in, let some breathing cool things off, let the body feel the earth or take a walk, listen and cultivate the conditions for letting go.

My teacher, Eugene Cash, would say, “YOU don’t do the letting go, the letting go happens by itself, on it’s own time.” 

Tips for Letting Go 

Be mindful of what is happening
Identify the suffering
Investigate what reactivity is happening (don’t be imprisoned by it)
Recognize intention to let go
Be willing to step into the experience as it is.
Use mindfulness, meditation, etc.
Release the outcome

How do we know if we’ve really let go 

There’s calm in the body
We relax
We feel some dignity, humility (not humiliating) freedom
Awareness, acceptance of change
Compassion for yourself and others
We don’t have resentment or keep score
We let go of fixed beliefs
We don’t label things as good or bad fortune

Maybe (Taoist story) 

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

“Buddhism teaches that joy and happiness arise from letting go. Please sit down and take an inventory of your life. There are things you’ve been hanging on to that really are not useful and deprive you of your freedom. Find the courage to let them go.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

Letting go is letting happiness in.