Virtually every wisdom system I have studied, and of course my pattern is insistent and persistent, eventually advises me to learn to “let go”. I have noticed this because both the advice and my attention to it have revealed to me that I am not very good at it. This stunning insight has led to a lot of hard work and reflection. I have made progress however I know that I am still not good at it. I have a propensity for selecting feelings for long term “hanging on”.
“Letting go” has two dimensions in my understanding of it. The first is the feelings I have for things I really, really like that I want to hang onto forever, asking them to stay fixed, consistent, and as I like them. Any parent who has dropped off their child for day care, kindergarten, or the really tough one, college, knows this type of letting go challenge. I want the things I like to stay as they are and never leave or change. It is foolish, of course, but I still want it.
The second struggle is messier. This involves hanging on to “bad” things. Someone is rude to me, or worse, cruel to me or someone I care about. They do things I deeply disapprove of, find reprehensible. I take in the experience, ponder it, fret over it, sorting through a range of feelings including anger, resentment, even revenge wishes and worse. I don’t merely have the normal feelings such experiences evoke, and then “let go”. I invite the feelings in, give them room and board, a place to hang out, nurture them…these bad things need a lot of time and energy. I clearly am not “letting go”. This kind of hanging on can eat whole days, weeks and years.
As is true for all humans, this two-faced gremlin wanders through my consciousness on a regular basis, reminding me I have work to do if I hope to embrace the wisdom dimension of “letting go”. In addition, life hands me really great experiences to help me sustain a degree of self-honesty about my struggles with “letting go”.
The recent powerful Pacific Ocean surf storms along the California coast altered the geography of the beaches in my neighborhood that I frequent. When I returned from my holiday travels, I went to my two favorite beaches to check out their well-being. Things had changed; there were some damages, there were also new deposits on the beach. A few days later, as the storm impact subsided, I went to my favorite beach for my daily walk, and to check out the storm effects.
I walk at the water’s edge. To get there, I have to carefully climb down a modest bluff, and after my walk, climb back up. The trip down involves gradual “steps” created by nature that I can attentively manage. For the trip back I use an incline of about 20 feet that is challenging but not dangerous. I use the latter because it eventually provides a walk back on asphalt when I have become tired due to the earlier exercise fighting the shifting sands.
That day, after slowly going down the “nature steps”, I was startled to find much of the beach covered with stones, most washed smooth by the ocean. My sister the geologist assures me that this means we “lost a lot of sand” and in the process, unearthed the rock layer under the beach sand. I started walking through the stones, which were varied, variegated, beautiful and seemingly endless. Abruptly, I sighted what looked like it might be a seashell. I was surprised; this beach tends to yield few seashells.
My collection of seashells over the years has been extensive, some would say out of control. I was excited to see this shell. It was large, somewhere between the size of a grapefruit and a cantaloupe. It was partially broken, but mostly intact, and was a conch shell. Most striking, it was black with small white spots sprinkled along its spiraled lines. I had never seen anything like it. I picked it up, and felt like I had been blessed by the Pacific Ocean spirits with a special gift.
I set out to continue my walk with my new treasure, and realized it was difficult to carry it and use my walking sticks at the same time. I was by then near the incline I used to leave the beach and return to my car. I realized I could leave the shell on a safe raised stone near the incline and pick it up on my return, which is what I did. I found what I viewed as a “safe” raised stone surface, deposited the shell there, and continued my walk, thrilled with my new shell.
Heading back toward the incline, I noticed a man wearing a hoody, hood up, who was heading to the same incline I was heading toward but was probably three or four minutes ahead of me. There were very few people on the beach at that time so we had at some point noticed one another. He stopped and looked down at a stone near the incline for a long time, looked around as if trying to see if anyone was watching, looked toward me but seemed to look past me, then reached down, picked something up, and put it in his hoody kangaroo pocket. He climbed the incline.
I arrived a few minutes later, and as I feared, watching the prior scene play out, my shell was gone. I looked up and he stood at the top of the incline, studying me. I had this overwhelming impulse to yell at him: “You Stole My Shell!” I was furious. And yet I just stood there, realizing how bizarre the impulse was, how odd it was that we were standing there staring at one another, and how much I wanted to get him to give me back my shell. I did nothing. He turned and walked away. By the time I climbed to the top of the incline, he was gone.
I was overwhelmed by the emotion of the experience, watching myself housing the feelings of a small child on the playground, feeling both the “hanging on” of my precious shell and the “hanging on” of my feelings of rage, frustration, disappointment, and powerlessness. I could watch the movie I was staring in, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the projector. “Letting go” was a remote and blurry option I had not yet considered.
As I walked the asphalt back to my car, I found myself watching myself going bonkers over a seashell with some degree of amusement, curiosity and shame. I got in my car, trying to pretend all was fine, and started pulling out of the parking lot. I saw him again then; he was standing by the open front door of a van, and he reached in his pocket and pulled out something (my shell), looked at it, repocketed it, and got in the van. I drove out of the parking lot, talking myself into not looking back. I congratulated myself that I had not rammed his van.
To demonstrate to myself that I had clearly not let go, I looked up the shell, and found that black shells are valuable and can be sold. Really! I would never sell my precious shell, but started ruminating: that guy who stole my shell would sell it. I do know all of this is pretty crazy, but watching the “research the shell” sequel to the first film was as entertaining as the initial “shell snatching” tale.
As is perhaps obvious, it is hard to pretend you have mastered “letting go” after you waste large portions of several days on a “shell heist” and your feelings about the loss. I would like to say I have let go, but I don’t trust the announcement. I sense a triggering could be lurking that will catch me off guard. What the experience has taught me yet again is that we humans can become deeply distracted with that which is not essential.
I tell this story for several reasons. For others struggling with the challenge of learning to “let go”, this should bring you comfort. At least you don’t have life crises over pilfered seashells. It also shines a light on how mundane and even foolish our refusal to “let go” can be, and yet while watching the nonsense, we still hang on. I want to think that watching the seashell robbery can evoke compassion, help us see that we humans really struggle with “letting go”. Being sensitive to this struggle in one another can be a way of caring and connecting. We are all trying to learn to let go of exquisite seashells.
"Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
"What is essential is invisible to the eye," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery -
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