It might seem like stating the obvious to observe that most of the moments in our days are spent getting from A to B. Getting to work, and home again. Getting to a movie, or dinner. Life follows the same pattern- we’re trying to get somewhere: To a better job or relationship, to grad school, or to our next vacation. How many of us spend the winter waiting and wishing for spring to get here? That’s the conventional approach to life- always on the way somewhere, looking forward to something in the future. It’s the natural flow of life, orienting toward the next project, goal or experience. And in many ways it’s all good. We need goals to reach for. They give us meaning, purpose and structure.
But there can also be a problem in this. We tend to approach difficult feelings like anxiety or sadness or hurt, in this ‘get somewhere’ mindset. When we do, it doesn’t tend to work too well, and we can multiply our difficulties. Not only do we have an uncomfortable feeling on our hands, but now we’re trying to get somewhere- usually, away from it. So we end up trying to run away from the feeling, but of course it comes with us. How poignant, our efforts to run from something that’s inside us and isn’t really a thing anyway. It’s the very human mistake of approaching an internal experience with the same tools we use for external things.
Few experiences can make us feel more out of control or crazy than trying to control something we can’t control.
Many of us have never been taught this important distinction between things we can do something with and those we probably can’t- so it’s certainly not our fault when we fall into this trap.
The meditation traditions teach us a different skill- how to be, rather than what to do. We learn that with uncomfortable feelings, what sometimes helps the most is recognizing how we struggle with what we feel: Not trying to ‘get’ anything or anywhere. Not trying to get free of them, get rid of them, or get anything else. It’s a tricky skill to master, because there’s so little that we actually ‘do’ in Mindfulness. In fact, a lot of Mindfulness is learning to stop the doing- to stop struggling, stop avoiding, stop judging (ourselves or our feelings) and stop trying to solve anything. On one level, we learn to just let go.
As the great Thai Forest meditation tradition teacher, Ajahn Chah, said:
If you let go a little, there’s a little peace.
If you let go a lot, there’s a lot of peace.
If you let go completely, there’s complete peace.
This skill of letting things be is a good addition to anyone’s mental/emotional tool kit. But we also need to remember it’s not the answer to all of our problems. We need both the ability to do, to act, and sometimes we need the opposite. It’s been said that wisdom is the growing understanding of when to act and when to let it be. And it’s often our fruitless struggles to do something in reaction to something that can’t ‘be done’ that teaches us the distinction.
There’s a humorous story that illustrates how we can learn from our fruitless struggles and choices, and take the valuable learning: A successful professional was asked how she got to her impressive level of career success. “Making good choices,” she said. But how, she was asked, did she learn to make good choices? “From experience,” she said. And how did she get this experience? “From making poor choices,” she said. Funny how that works!
Mindfulness helps us see the results of poor choices, including when we try to control or avoid what we feel. It gives us the option of putting down the struggle for a moment or two, and noticing how that feels. Quite a bit of good research has shown that people feel better when they learn and practice Mindfulness, including through learning to stop struggling with things they have no control over. Letting go of fruitless efforts to control, ironically, tends to make people feel more in control of themselves.
Instead of trying to get ‘there’, we learn to be ‘here’, differently, with less fear, less struggle, more acceptance, more self-compassion.