On Letting Go, Part IV

“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.” – David Foster Wallace

I smile every time I read that quote because I can relate.

Letting go is hard. It’s also a process. A repetitive process.

I no sooner put something down, for just a minute… and I find myself snatching it up again.

And when I do, I cling to it more tightly than before.

Perhaps it’s just an aspect of human nature that we want to cling to things, wishing, however illogically, that they would stay as they are.

Even though we know that it is the nature of things to be always changing.

One of the things that I like about meditation is that it makes it easier to just “be with” things – even things like my difficulty letting go.

It’s a gift to be able to watch things, to watch our stories, and even laugh a little bit, from time to time, at our own craziness.

Because, what we’re trying to achieve isn’t perfection – it’s acceptance.

Things are, after all, already perfect.


I just finished reading Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier, in which he discusses his experience with meditation and mindfulness. It’s a fun read, which I can easily recommend to anyone who’s ever wondered about meditation, or felt a little skeptical of some of the “new age” players.

He asks the question, “Even if we were handed everything we wanted, would it really make us sustainably happy?” It’s an issue I’ve discussed here before…it’s easy to say yes, at first, that if we got everything we wanted, we would undoubtedly be deliriously happy. But one need only look at some high profile stories of celebrities to see that this is not the case.

Another point discussed in detail is the fantasy that “I’ll be happy when…” which I’ve also written about here. It’s a trick we play on ourselves – happiness is always just around the next bend in the road, after the next major life event. He observes, “The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.” This is because happiness is an inside job.

Two questions I’ve taken with me from the book that bear some reflection…

First: “Is this useful?” Which we can ask ourselves anytime we find that we are planning, ruminating, projecting, worrying, and the like. In other words, preparations are sometimes required, but to what extent? If we have passed the point of usefulness, it’s time to stop.

Second: “What matters most?” This is particularly helpful anytime we find ourselves worrying about the future. It’s useful for us to be aware of what we really want. We may not find that our life situations tick all the boxes, but when we can identify what’s most important, we can make decisions more easily, and can create a life that satisfies our most deeply held values.

Meditation is a different experience for everyone, and the results can be both subtle and profound at the same time. The beauty is that nothing much is required…only the willingness to inquire within.

The Season of Comfort

“I dread winter because it is the season of comfort.” – Jean Nicholas Arthur Rimbaud

When I first read A Season in Hell, this final poem, and this line in particular, confused me. I had to give an interpretation of it, in French, no less. And at the time, this line stumped me. I had no idea what to make of it.

But I think now I understand.

I’ve been talking with a few different people lately about the idea of being comfortable.

Unfortunately –  I’m sure I’ll be very unpopular for saying this – I think comfort and growth are antithetical.

There’s a quote that’s been floating around on Facebook recently that goes something like this: a comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.

Now I’m not advocating the return of hair shirts or anything like that. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable in this life, per se.

The problem, I think, is when we make being comfortable our highest value: when we’re afraid to be uncomfortable. Or when we avoid it at all costs.

A little discomfort is a good thing. It means you’re trying things that are outside the circle of your comfort zone.

A comfort zone is kind of like a rubber band. You can keep stretching it, and eventually it gets bigger. (On the other hand, if you don’t stretch it at all, it seems to contract.)

If you feel a little uncomfortable it means you’re growing.

Now, of course, it’s a matter of degree. Try doing things that are miles outside your comfort zone, and you’ll be in a world of distress that will provoke massive internal paralysis and resistance (otherwise known as cognitive dissonance).

Stretch the rubber band too far and it breaks or snaps back – ouch.

But keep pushing the boundaries. Little by little. It’s just one way to keep life interesting, and fun, and you never know what you might learn.

Inquire within.


“I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed.” – Rihanna

Maybe it’s a stretch to look for wisdom in pop culture, but I think one is as likely to find it there as anywhere else. So, whether you want to take it from Rihanna and Eminem, or the Buddhists, the message is the same: it’s important to be comfortable with all the parts of yourself.

There a strong tendency in spiritual community to focus on the positive. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, the difficulty arises when we push away the darker aspects of ourselves. Or when we try to avoid dealing with perceived negative emotions, like anger.

Really being at peace with yourself means being able to embrace your own shadows and darker tendencies. To acknowledge them and allow them to co-exist with the other parts of you. Rather than hunt them down and attempt to eradicate them (or cover them over in positive thinking).

What you resist persists. And what you can be with transforms. (So say the Buddhists.)

Sometimes the amount of energy I spend avoiding things is monumental, compared to the amount of energy it would take to face them head on.

What’s tricky about this is that the monsters really do seem, well, bigger and more monstrous than they actually are, when we can’t seem them clearly. They are all the more scary, when they reside in the shadows. But when we shine the light on them, well, that’s when it starts to get interesting.

It’s like a snowball: It’s rolling downhill and as it does, it seems to get bigger and bigger. When it catches up with you, you think it’s going to run you over, and just completely demolish you. But instead it just breaks over you, and dissolves.

“When your demons come, offer them a piece of cake.” – Sara Eckel


When you don’t get what you want

“The problem is not in the wanting; the problem is what happens when you don’t get what you want.” – Ciprian Iancu

Dealing with disappointment is a challenge for many of us. In our culture, we’re trained to think we can get whatever we want, and moreover that we “should” get it. Even that we’re entitled to it. Unfortunately, this type of thinking leaves us blaming ourselves (or looking for someone else to blame) when things in life don’t turn out the way we want.

The reality is that so many things are out of our control.

I recently watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and this quote stood out to me: “The measure of success is how you deal with disappointments.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that sentence.

So often we think of success in terms of achievement: we get what we want, we’re successful (and conversely, when we don’t get what we want, well, then we’re just a failure).

But looking at life in binary terms like that just doesn’t work.

On some level, yes, it’s good to take charge. To set goals and work diligently to achieve them is admirable. But, if we become so focused on achievement that we fall apart when we fail to achieve a victory according to our own narrow definition, well, that is a problem indeed.

Likewise, if we can only be happy when our lives, and the people in them, conform to our expectations, we may find ourselves drowning in unhappiness.

Sometimes, for reasons beyond our control, we just don’t get what we want, despite our best efforts.

And then what?

How do we cope with the disappointment? Do we allow it to make us bitter? Do we stop trying anything altogether, asking “What’s the use?” while shrugging our shoulders?

Or do we view it as an opportunity to change directions, to refocus? As a new beginning?

In any life, there are going to be disappointments. And bad days. And certainly there will be a “worst” day. But, it doesn’t matter so much what happens on the bad days, or even on the worst day.

What matters most is what you do on the day after. And the day after that.

Beginnings and Endings

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” – Alexander Graham Bell

It’s true. We humans are funny creatures.

Every ending is also a beginning. And yet…

Sometimes it’s hard to move forward. Of course, sometimes it helps to realize that by refusing to move forward we are choosing to be dragged kicking and screaming.

Change is inevitable. But how much we suffer the changes of life has to do with the degree to which we hold on, to which we try to avoid and deny the inevitable.

That people we love will grow old, and die. That we ourselves will.

That everything is precious.

And sometimes we don’t have as much time as we’d like to think we have, to do the things we want to do.

And I suppose we could let the fear of death, and the gravity of the whole situation immobilize us.

And that itself is a choice.

But if we can use it, if we can embrace the gravity and the fear in a transformational sense, if it can become a catalyst for making the most of the time that we have, then….well, then we might create something really beautiful.


“I am crowded inside.” – Pradeep Venugopal

We are, all of us, crowded inside. Echoes from the past. Experiences of the present. Dreams of the future. And the tape loop of all of our thoughts and fears. Myriad possibilities, co-existing.

And sometimes, a cacophony of competing voices.

The challenge is to resist the urge to smother some of the voices. And rather to create a space for different and sometimes even opposing ideas to co-exist. Life is messy, and our desires sometimes contradictory.

No, I’m not talking about some kind of Orwellian doublespeak.

But rather I’m pointing out that all of us have conflicting needs, and sometimes the space between who we’d like to be and who we really are is wide. To accept that this is the case, and simply be with it, while challenging, moves us in the direction of self-acceptance and growth.

Knowing ourselves means becoming acquainted with our own voices, especially the ones that tell us things that we don’t want to hear, or things we’d rather not admit to ourselves.

We have inside of us our own wisdom and power, if we are patient enough to learn to access it.

What if you already know the answers to the questions you are asking?

And if you connect to your own wisdom, and your own power, what happens next?

Inquire within.

A Sense of Purpose

I recently heard author Dan Buettner speak on the topic of longevity. He made two key points. One is that at least 20% of people don’t have 3 close friends: the lack of close friends is a significant health risk. The other is about the importance of having a sense of purpose in life: people with a sense of purpose live longer. It seems like isolation (sometimes increased by technology) and lack of purpose together constitute a lethal combination.

One of the things that surprises me when I talk to people is how many of them don’t have a strong sense of why they’re here, or what they want to accomplish. I wonder if retirement might be related to losing a sense a purpose: Buettner said the year you retire is the year you’re most likely to die, probably because so many of us rely on our jobs for a sense of identity and purpose.

No matter what your age, identifying (and living) your purpose is crucial to achieving a deeper sense of satisfaction in your life. Buettner spent a lot of time studying various groups around the world in places where people are living 100+ years. He noticed that they all had various things in common. I could list them here, but it’s more to the point to say that several major differences have to do with community and social structure. In other words, the centenarians in these populations had a sense of being useful. They had a purpose.

Buettner says that identifying your talent or skill area, and then finding an outlet for it, is what leads to a sense of purpose in life. I think a lot of people know where they excel, but the challenge can be finding an outlet for it. It often requires creative thinking. One of my favorite books for identifying and living your purpose is Mira Kirshenbaum’s The Gift of a Year. She says, “Knowing what you want and translating it into something doable is a better route to happiness than denying what you really want because it seems impossible in its purest form.” In other words, make your desires doable by taking one small step that brings you closer to what you want.

One of the most amazing trips you’ll ever take is the journey of self-discovery. Inquire within.

For our own good

Sometimes the things we want aren’t good for us.

This message has come to me in various forms, from several different people, in the last couple of years.

I think it has to do with the way we want to see ourselves, and the difference between how we want things to be and how they really are. And maybe even the difference between who we want to be and who we really are.

For example, for a very long time I’ve wished I lived in a warmer climate. I imagine how much better I’d feel if it was warm year-round. And perhaps it’s true. I might feel fantastic.

It’s equally possible that I might not appreciate it the way I imagine I would. Now, I value each day of beautiful weather, because I know it won’t last. But if every day was perfect weather, I doubt it would have the same meaning for me. I probably wouldn’t spend as much time outside as I do now.

Another example would be having the desire for personal space, and the ability to make everything just the way you want it. What if, when you get exactly what you want, you find that you miss the company of others, and you would rather things be a little bit messier, but a little more lively? On the flip side, what if you’ve wished for years for companionship, and when it arrives, you realize how much you miss the quiet?

Over the years, I’ve learned that things in our lives are the way they are for a reason. It’s often an opportunity to learn something. If we can stop resisting what is, we may be more able to see how a current circumstance or situation can be an opportunity to grow.

What if everything is as it should be, right now?

Nothing but Stories

“I’d once heard that we are nothing but our stories. Forget the blood and bones and genes and cells. They’re not what we are. We are, rather, our stories. We are an accumulation of experiences that we have fashioned into our own grand, sweeping narrative. We are the events and people and places to which we’ve assigned symbolic meaning. And it’s when we step outside our stories that we feel most lost.” – Ken Ilgunas

I’ve written about stories a lot here. And this quote from Walden on Wheels is a reminder that everything that happens to us in life becomes part of an inner narrative. I’ve said over and over that it’s not the events themselves, but the meaning we attach to them, that’s important. One really great example of that can be found in Life of Pi. And, if you’re looking to explore the meaning of your own stories, I recommend Everything Happens for a Reason.

Stepping outside of our own stories can be one of the most valuable experiences in life. While losing the certainty of the narrative can be an unsettling experience, it also contains an incredible opportunity. Sometimes we’re so busy slotting people and events in our lives into the prefabricated story that we lose the ability to experience them as they are. (“Oh, this always happens to me…” Cue the self-pity, entitlement, or whatever you like.)

Sometimes getting lost is just what’s needed. When we step outside of ourselves, we gain a whole new perspective on just about everything, that is, if we allow ourselves to just be a little lost. To experience the surprises that await us outside of the familiar and predictable.

Enjoying the journey, detours and all, is part of living well.