This version of a classic Zen story of letting go is from one of my favorite children’s books by Jon J. Muth called Zen Shorts.
Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.
The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.
As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!
“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”
This message holds true more than ever today, as we continue to face uncertainty and change. It’s easy to get stuck in thinking about what “should have been,” but in doing so we can become immobilized in painful feelings and memories. Of course, a negative or triggering situation is painful, but after it’s over we have the choice to “put it down”. We can decide to go from overthinking to moving on. This has been my motivation for incorporating mental fitness training, mind-body practices for coming into the present moment and out of the rumination cycle, into my coaching. Letting go is harder than it sounds!
If you’re ready to let go of a situation or belief you feed trapped by, begin by reducing the stress that’s keeping you in survival mode.
Here are some simple but proven strategies:
Gratitude Focusing on what you’re grateful for may sound more sweet than helpful, but research shows the benefits are real. Gratitude practice reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis found that a maintaining a daily gratitude practice, which can be as simple as listing what you’re grateful for at the beginning or end of each day, improves mood, energy, and physical well-being. “The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” said Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude. Pretty incredible for a free, 5-minute exercise!
You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them. If you find yourself unable to put the load you’re carrying down, try reframing the situation. 10 years ago, after being on the losing end of a business partnership gone wrong, my 6 figure investment was paid back in boxes of mismatched product. It was a nightmare no doubt, but after it ended I held on way too long. I lugged my boxes of apparel through 3 moves, unloading product here and there hoping to recoup some of my loss, before finally donating the rest to Goodwill. Talk about carrying baggage!
Looking back I learned a lot, including that fixing the situation isn’t always possible, no matter how hard you try. And holding onto it is not only unhealthy, but it also keeps us from moving forward in ways that let us grow. Had I known the strategies I know now, I would have reframed my story of victimhood from a multi-year drain to a valuable life lesson. In hindsight, thank goodness that relationship ended as early as it did! And now I know that if it had gone well, I would have been sidetracked into a career I wasn’t passionate about. I thought I would love apparel design, but now I’ve crossed that off my list and found what I know is the right fit – helping others through all the hard life lessons it took me years to learn. I’ve almost finished a book on the subject!
Now, rather than rely on emotion to guide me, I turn to a technique that sounds too simple to be true. Breathwork. Knowing how to control your energy and emotions using your breath tops the list of Mark Divine’s Navy SEAL model Big Four Skills of Breath Control, Internal Dialogue, Imagery and Task Focus / Micro Goals.
You can learn to manage your emotions, energy and focus using proven breathing practices. The key is to make mental fitness a daily priority. It’s the first step on the path to letting go and moving forward.