Thursday, 28 April 2011

Letting go of grudges

I've always thought of myself as a pretty forgiving person because I really believe that we do not forgive for the sake of others, we forgive in order to be freed from the burden of the past. However recently I discovered that deep down I had been harbouring a bitter resentment towards someone who had hurt me many years before. Holding onto this grudge, even sub-consciously, had begun to distort many areas of my life, even down to the way in which I made decisions about my career and my future.

You see I had thought that I had forgiven this person years ago and it wasn't until I heard news that he had changed careers and was doing remarkably well in the field in which I myself worked that I found myself feeling some really intense feelings of dislike and anger towards him. 'What is he doing muscling in on me like this? Who does he think he is?' I even started to distance myself from this area of my work and to tell myself that I wasn't really interested in it anymore. I couldn't accept that I would have to come second to this person. I began to think of myself in opposition to this person by creating a separation between us that doesn't really exist. I could then turn him into an enemy. 

Of course this person had no idea I was feeling this way. From his perspective we were 'ok'. We had talked over our problems years ago and I had forgiven him. Or so we had both thought at the time. My grudge towards this person were harming only myself. I became caught up in thoughts and feelings that made me feel unhappy and incompetent, and even risked losing the work I love and through which I can make a useful contribution to the world.

So how can we let go of a grudge like this that is so deep seated as to be almost unconscious? Well I believe the first key is to see how so many of the things we resent from our past have actually been opportunities to grow and to change, or have created turns in the path that have led us to where we are now. We become stronger through crises such as these and because these people have instigated this growth and change we can choose to think of them with gratitude instead of resentment. In fact some teachers even suggest that such people are actually crucial to our life journey and without them we would not be able to evolve to our full potential.

Secondly, it's important to see where your own actions played a role in your own hurt. We are never victims in this life but active agents manifesting our reality from moment to moment. Look back at the situation and you will probably see where you failed to follow your intuition, or acted in anger or with a lack of consciousness. Maybe you should have spoken up about something, stood up for yourself, or even walked away. But you didn't. You cannot pretend that you were not involved and cast all the blame on the other person.

Finally, I think it's important to see that we can only see another as an enemy when we think of them as separate from us. Discoveries in quantum physics are showing that our idea of separateness, of independence, is really only an illusion created by the mind. We are in fact one being, we co-create our reality. When we acknowledge this it becomes much harder to hold a grudge, for who are we resenting but our self?

Letting go of our grudges frees us from our past, from our painful, obsessive and illusory thoughts, and allows us to move into a place where we can trust that everything that happens is an opportunity for growth and change. We are not a victim of life but its creator. We are not separate from each other but interdependently linked, constantly co-creating ourselves and our reality.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Letting go of needing things to turn out 'right'

Over the last few months my partner and I have been going through what most people would call a 'rocky patch'. We've become really reactive to each other and have both said and done many hurtful things. Things are definitely not 'right' between us. There's a lot of resentment and anger and we're finding it hard to forgive.

Because I'm the sort of person who likes things to be just so, I'm having a hard time accepting this 'not rightness'. I feel that I need to do something to change the situation, or to change him, or to change myself. I struggle with this feeling of uncertainty and transition and I feel that if I can't make things 'right', right now, then I might as well give up, run away.

But what I'm realising is that it is often in these times of chaos, or pain and disillusionment, that real transformation occurs. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön advises, when things fall apart, when we cannot get a handle on anything anymore, when we lose all control, then an opportunity is created to reconstruct things in a new way.

It's the same when our plans don't turn out the way we want them to. Here we can either struggle and moan, fixating on our idea of how things 'should' be, or we can let go and allow this new set of circumstances to reveal itself to us. Perhaps it is life's gift; even if it is a challenge it could still provide an opportunity for us to look at ourselves differently, to expand our idea of ourselves or the world around us. It's all about perspective, of acknowledging that just because life doesn't feel 'right' (according to our limited idea of what right is) doesn't mean that life isn't in fact perfect as it is. 

Life's perfection is chaotic and it's just this quality that makes it so magically synchronistic and replete with potential. We can never predict or control it, and if we try that's when things start to go wrong. When we resist life it starts to become deformed, things don't flow so smoothly anymore, the wheels and cogs of life become snagged on our rigidity, our refusal to surrender to it's infinite possibilities. 

Learning to let go of the need for things to turn out 'right' seems at first like a hard task. But if we look at it another way we can see that holding on takes a lot of energy. Letting go just means relaxing, falling back into the arms of life, trusting that all will be well. When we see it in this way letting go becomes a simpler way of living. We don't have to worry so much anymore. As Eckhart Tolle advises, we can simply 'allow things to be as they are'. This is true freedom.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Letting go of needing to be liked

Most of us spend a lot of time censoring our behaviour because we don't want to be disapproved of by others. In fact many of us actively make decisions in order to make sure that others like, respect and approve of us.

Why do we do this? One reason is that we have learned to define ourselves by the responses we receive from others. If others are impressed by our intelligence, tell us we're beautiful or that we've done a good job then we feel validated. We feel worthy. This method works just fine as long as we can ensure that people only think and say good things about us. But as soon as the criticisms start making an appearance we fall apart. What makes it all the more ridiculous is that our self-identity is often so fragile that one little negative remark can override years of compliments and approval. Someone thinks an idea we had is impractical and suddenly we feel as though we are incapable of having a good idea ever again!

Clearly this is a very tenuous way to live. It sets us up to be constantly swinging from self-confidence to self-doubt. We will always feel needy of others' attention, always looking for the next kind word that will buoy us up. Perhaps more importantly it prevents us from living our lives freely and to our fullest potential because every time we open our mouths or consider doing something a little differently we end up thinking: 'But what will other people say?' If we cannot be completely sure that other people's responses will be positive we may avoid doing something that could help us learn, expand our horizons or express our creativity. We are trapped by this need for others' approval.

It's easy enough to see how this works in theory but how does one become free from this need to be liked? Well it all comes down to how you define your self. Underneath the part of us that is a reflection of other people's responses (sometimes called the ego) there is another self that doesn't give a damn what others think. Accessing this deeper self is the key to letting go of the need to be liked.

Connecting with our deeper self can be achieved through practicing meditation and mindfulness in everyday life. When we meditate we watch our fears and desires flit across the screen of our mind without becoming attached to them. We let them come and go without judgment; we just observe. This part of the self that observes is the deeper self. Sometimes it is called the witness because it doesn't get involved in the action, it doesn't have any needs or fears of its own. It is beyond fear and desire.

When we have accessed this deeper self, and become more and more identified with it, it becomes easy to let go of the need to be liked.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Letting go of the need to be right

Have you ever found yourself passionately involved in an argument about something that doesn't really matter at all and yet you will not give up your point of view? Say you're arguing about who's turn it is to do the dishes, or why dogs bark more at night, or whether the Queen of England is the richest women in the world. The outcome of the argument has very little bearing on your life, or on the lives of others, and yet you somehow cannot back down. You are determined to prove that you are right and the other person is wrong!

Many wonderful relationships have been ruined because of the inability to let go of the need to be right. In the moment we feel so completely justified in our position that we somehow convince ourselves that we are prepared to sacrifice both our own happiness and the happiness of our friend in order to prove it. At the same time we close ourselves off from learning anything new because to do so would require us to let go of our solidified perspective on the world and to open up to other ideas and viewpoints.

Why do we feel this need to be right? One reason is that our self-esteem is so fragile that we associate being wrong with not being good enough. Even if we know deep down that we are mistaken we can sometimes go into denial and continue arguing til we're blue in the face. The irony of this is that by being so stubborn we often cause others to lose respect for us.

If we have attached our self-esteem to being right it can be difficult to let go of it. One thing that can be helpful is to remember how vast and mysterious the universe really is and to acknowledge that our understanding of it can only ever be partial. That goes for all of us; we're all in the same boat here! Therefore even if you do not know, or are mistaken, this is only to be expected. It does not mean that you are stupid, and it does not mean that you are not good enough.

Another thing that is helpful in letting go of being right is to cultivate mindfulness. When we are mindful we tend to be more aware of what we are about to say before we say it. Thus we tend to avoid getting involved in pointless arguments in the first place. We are also more likely to notice when we are getting attached to our point of view. You'll come to a point where you think, 'Hang on. Does this really matter? What am I getting so worked up about?' It then becomes much easier to acknowledge the other person's perspective and move on to more meaningful discussion.

Cultivating mindfulness also gives you a different view of yourself in relationship to the world. As you watch your thoughts in meditation you find that 'the observer', the part of you that watches the thoughts as they flow through your mind, is unconcerned with your day-to-day anxieties and insecurities. This self doesn't have poor self-esteem, in fact this self doesn't need to be esteemed. All those thoughts in your head that tell you you're not good enough, they're just obscuring this deeper self. When you become connected to this deeper self you become pure peace, and being good enough or pretty enough or smart enough just doesn't matter any more.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Letting go of being perfect

In the past I was one of those people who's addicted to self-help books. Why? Because I've always felt there was something wrong with me that I had to fix, something that I could improve about myself. I felt that until I was perfect I was not worthy of love.

In my work especially I felt I needed things to be just so... Even when I did my best I always felt that I could have somehow done better, that the work I produced was somehow flawed. If someone gave me negative feedback it would send me into a tail spin!

This way of looking at myself meant that for a long time I seemed to attract partners who reflected back my need for perfection. They were always offering suggestions on how I could correct this or that fault, or how I could improve myself. On the other hand, because I had such high expectations of myself I also demanded perfection in them. Needless to say we made one another pretty unhappy!

It took me a long time to realise that achieving perfection is both impossible and undesirable, not to mention that in striving for it we lead ourselves into all manner of difficulties along the way. By expecting perfection of ourselves we set ourselves up to fail over and over and over again, at least in our own eyes. Other people may be impressed by our work, they may love us dearly despite all our flaws but this is never enough. We never believe in their love or praise because in terms of our own aims we have fallen far short.

Letting go of the need to be perfect is difficult, though I've found along the way that a few things can help us along.

Firstly, look to nature; nature is replete with desperately beautiful things that are deeply flawed if looked at from the perspective of conventional beauty. Nature is messy, smelly and seemingly disorganised but somehow harmonious. When we look at our own lives we can see many parallels here; we begin to appreciate that it is our 'imperfections' that make us uniquely, beautifully, who we are.

Secondly, daily meditation helps us to become mindful of our thoughts so that instead of working towards perfection we instead start to notice the kind of thoughts and actions that work for us and those that don't. For example we may notice that drinking a lot of alcohol when we're depressed simply makes us more depressed, so we stop doing that so often. We don't stop because we want to be a better person or to live up to some ideal, we stop simply because we can see clearly that it doesn't work for us.

We no longer struggle to change, we simply let go of what no longer serves us.         

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Letting go of possessions

Very recently I was traveling overseas and had stored a lot of things in my brother's backyard shed. While I was away a great flood came through the area and a lot of my things were badly damaged. In particular, many of my favourite books were ruined.

Now for me a book holds something of a sacred virtue. I know this sounds nerdy but books have been the doorway to so much pleasure, learning and insight that I place them on a sort of pedestal! So of course I was upset. I grilled my brother over the phone. Exactly which books had been damaged? How badly had the water affected them? Were they still readable? I ruminated about the whole thing for hours wishing that I had made a different decision about where I stored my stuff, blaming myself for being so stupid, wondering if my brother could have done something more to have saved them.

Then it occurred to me that most of the books I own I haven't read for years and yet I dutifully haul them from house to house whenever I move. Moreover I have dusted and sorted them, and made room for them in my sometimes small living spaces. Really I was better off without these books!

The other thing I realised was that many of the books I own help me create an identity that I use to present myself to others. You know how we gravitate towards someone's bookshelf when we visit them for the first time? How we judge their character by the titles they own? Well I wanted other people to be impressed by the books in my shelf, to think of me as a certain type of person: a serious-minded, intelligent and spiritual person with a wide range of interesting hobbies. Many of the possessions we own are used for the same purpose: to impress those around us in some way, to present to the world a persona that we think of as an ideal. For example we may want others to think of us as wealthy, or stylish or unique; in all these cases possessions can provide a means of demonstrating this persona to others.

Image: Copyright Petr0.

So beneath our attachment to possessions often lies a deeper attachment: the need for others to approve of us, respect or like us. And this attachment ties us up in even more knots than the first! When we are attached to the good opinion of others we are forever afraid that our mask will slip, that we will ultimately reveal who we really are and that this 'real' person will not be good enough. Moreover by creating this identity with our possessions we cut ourselves off from others and this can lead to feelings of separation, loneliness and alienation.

Letting go of possessions can be liberating not just because we now have less things to clean around, dust, move, organise and tidy, but also because by letting go of these identity props both we and others will see us more clearly. This is not so scary as it might sound: in fact life becomes simpler, we become more genuine as human beings and we move closer to the truth of who we really are.

Letting go of our ideal world

One of the things I find most difficult to let go of is my vision of an ideal world.

For many years now I have worked as a social and environmental activist trying to bring about change through education and community development. At first this work came from a sense of outrage: how could people be so greedy and selfish, so blind to the suffering of others and so ignorant of the beauty around them? After a while I began to realise that people do not mean to cause harm. Mostly people act out of fear, or out of a desire to build a secure, happy and safe little world for themselves and their families. So my work began to be about developing awareness, building connections and demonstrating a better way of living.

But of course no matter how noble our desire for change may be the world does not conform to our ideals. If we are too attached to this ideal then inevitably we will begin to feel as though our work means nothing, that nothing is changing. And we think that we cannot be happy while the world is the way that it is. At this point a feeling of hopelessness sets in. Even though we realise that we cannot change the whole world we still cling to our precious vision, we still refuse to accept the way things are even though we can see that we are struggling against the current.

Image: Copyright AD-Passion.

Letting go of how we want things to be is easier if we are able to acknowledge that we cannot always see the full picture, that reality is a much more complicated place than we can comprehend. It's useful to use the metaphor of a camera lens to see this more clearly. We can zoom in close and then our little world and our concerns about it are very real, or we can zoom out and see, perhaps for the first time, that our planet is a tiny speck of dust in the immensity of a vast universe, and that our human species has existed only for a second in the larger timescale of universal ages. We see more clearly that these things are not our responsibility to fix and we can let go of our struggle to change them, our need for things to be a certain way.

In reality the polarities of hot and cold, dark and light, good and evil are necessary to sustain the dynamic equilibrium that makes our world the wondrous, diverse and magical place that it is. The universal laws that govern life are constantly working to keep these polarities in balance but this is not a static process; there is a continuous movement from balance to imbalance and back again. From our limited perspective we cannot see this very long-term, very large-scale process. We see only that things look out of whack to us and so we panic.

Ironically by letting go we are freed to act in ways that we may not have seen from our narrow perspective. When we are tethered to an ideal we quite often also tie ourselves to all sorts of dogmas that prevent us from making a wise and loving choice in the present moment. We are too busy scheming, too caught up in our strategies and plans to see the potential for change right here and right now. Usually this change is what we social engineers might see as insignificant: perhaps it involves correcting a prejudice we've been carrying unconsciously in our minds, or maybe it's a simple connection between two people. Yet if we use our telephoto lens again we see that small acts such as these can change the world too: because the microcosm is just as significant as the macrocosm. It just depends on how you look at things.