Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Letting Go

How letting go engenders happiness

Last week my 18 month-old son, Cruise, started Montessori preschool. The first three days my wife and I dropped him off he cried so hard he could hardly catch his breath, his chest heaving in great racking sobs. By the fourth day, however, we were listening to him repeat his teacher's name every few minutes on the way over, and when we dropped him off and gently prodded him into the classroom, he entered, stood, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and stared curiously at all the other toddlers crying around him. When we came to pick him up at the end of the day, we watched him through the classroom's observation windows sitting in a little toddler chair eating a piece of cantaloupe with the other toddlers, also in chairs, and drinking juice out of a plastic cup by himself for the very first time. Rather than burst into tears when he saw us realizing we'd been separated from him all day, he ran up to me, wrapped his arms around mine, and smiled.

Even before he was born, any threat to his safety, real or imagined, would cause a panicky feeling to rise up and choke me like two hands around my throat, sparking in me an overpowering drive to keep him from harm. Luckily, up until last week, keeping him protected was relatively easy. His entire world consisted of my wife and me, our house, and our nanny.

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But as I watched him sit in his little chair at his little table eating his little snack with his little friends, I realized I was already being confronted with the need to let go of my need to keep him entombed in our own little world. At Montessori, I wouldn't be around when another toddler took his truck or his blanket or refused to throw a ball to him. Whether I wanted it or not, the outside world would now be able to touch him without me around to make sure it did so gently.

LETTING GO IS A SKILL

I realized as I sat watching him just how valuable the skill of letting go really is. I know, for example, that if I cling to my drive to protect him past the point of rationality (where my emotions certainly take me), it might seem to cause little harm and perhaps even do some good but would in fact risk him not learning how to protect himself. No real way exists to master any skill except by practicing it yourself. Further, life will always take things from us we want to keep (sometimes desperately), and unless we learn how to let go of them in our hearts, we'll continue to suffer their absence.

This realization led to me think about what other things I've had to give up that I tried to keep, thinking I needed them to be happy but which paradoxically caused me mostly pain. Here's a partial list of things I've mostly succeeded at surrendering:

  1. My need for the same degree of freedom I had when I was single. How could any marriage possibly survive this?
  2. My need to be perceived as great in everything I do. How could anyone possibly be great at everything?
  3. My need to be liked. As I discussed in an earlier post, The Good Guy Contract.
  4. My need to be financially secure. How long was I going to let fear prevent me from pursuing my dreams?

Here's a list of things I have yet to give up that I know I must:

  1. My need for my son to be just like me. No matter how much I may say I want him to be himself, there are parts of me I want to be parts of him, both big and small (my disdain for following the herd, my belief in the fundamental goodness of people, my love of learning and books, to name a few).
  2. My need for his childhood to be just like mine. It's not just that I had a good one, which I did. It's that I seem to believe no better childhood could exist, that my experiences are best ones for him to have.
  3. My need to protect him from painful life lessons. How to allow him to challenge obstacles on his own while protecting him from real harm? True strength can only be gained from fighting a real battle that risks real loss. I genuinely believe it's not in his best interest to always succeed (as if I even had the power to prevent him from ever tasting failure...). How else will he learn to go on when he feels utterly defeated except by experiencing failure or devastating loss and then actually going on? But to have to watch him fail...
  4. My need to forbid him from doing something just because I can or because it's convenient for me that he not do it. The worst outcome I could imagine from this would be for him to grow up afraid to try new things.
  5. My need to leverage his need to please me to get him to do what I want. If it's about keeping him safe, that's one thing. If it's about trying to steer his life in a direction I'd prefer, that's another. Parents abuse this power all the time.
  6. My need for everyone to agree with me. Why is it so important that others believe as we do? I feel the tug of this all the time, yet I've never fully understood why.
  7. My need for my wife to behave the way I want. It would be great if she existed only in one dimension as an automaton who made the central focus of her life pleasing me. But then she wouldn't be my strong-willed, fiercely independent wife at all.
  8. My need to control the exact outcome of everything that's important to me. Whenever I think about this one I only shake my head and wish myself luck.

HOW TO LET GO

How do you let go of things you don't actually want to give up? By deeply recognizing two things: 1) all desires are created out of beliefs about what you need to be happy and 2) you don't need any one thing to be happy, no matter how attached to it you may be. True happiness doesn't ever lie in capturing and squeezing to yourself things or people, no matter how much you may love them. It lies in cultivating an inner life state that's invincibly strong, that can stand to lose its most precious attachments without being destroyed. Paradoxically, this is also the life state from which you can enjoy your attachments the most.

Learning to let go, I'm convinced, is one of the keys to happiness. This is because invariably letting go of something tangible means letting go of some delusion that drove us to covet that tangible thing in the first place (eg, wanting to become famous because you need others to love and worship you to be happy). And letting go of a delusion is always a good thing because the delusions we believe are what set the height of the ceiling on our happiness. How do you arrive at a place where you can finally let go of some of the things I've listed above? For me the answer has always been by going through difficult experiences. How else can we learn the difference between beliefs we hold which are true and those which are false? Something has to show us, and unfortunately that something is almost always painful.

I look at my son now, at his barely formed personality, his nascent character, and conceive of him as perfect. In reality, of course, he's really just a mostly empty slate. Soon he'll evolve into a recognizable person just like you and me, with virtues and flaws just like you and me, who'll experience joy and suffering just like you and me, and want to live his own life just like you and me—a life I'll have to let go of wanting to envelop completely inside my own unless I want to add to the portion of misery life is already guaranteed to bring him. I'm lucky the process will be gradual. Otherwise I might not be up to it.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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