When I’m teaching mindfulness, I often hear participants use the phrase, “let it go,” to explain how they are responding to their thoughts and feelings in a mindful way. For instance, they’ll often say, “I had so many distracting thoughts, but I was able to let them go.” Or they will explain how successful they’ve been with responding to their anxiety in a healthier way by “letting it go.”
At first, I simply noticed these statements as examples of mindfulness working for them in helping them manage their difficult thoughts and feelings. However, upon giving these statements more thought, I realized that letting thoughts and feelings “go” implies that they are bad and we need to get rid of them. Although subtle, this is a form of avoidance, which is the antithesis of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is often misunderstood as a relaxation technique or as a way to feel better when suffering from emotional states like anxiety, sadness, or anger. Mindfulness is actually not a technique at all, and it is not designed to take away stress, anxiety, or any other unwanted state of mind. Instead, mindfulness is a way of being that involves awareness and acceptance. It is about becoming aware of what is happening in our minds and bodies and accepting whatever is there in the present moment without trying to change it in any way. Paradoxically, when we learn to accept our thoughts and feelings, we allow them to pass naturally on their own, which is usually much more quickly than when we hold on to them through our efforts to try to make them go away.
So when someone says that they are “letting go” of their thoughts or feelings, this is a better alternative to pushing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings away (as most of us naturally do). However, it still implies that they need to go somewhere rather than just be as they are. Therefore, I believe that the Beatles had it right when they sang, “Let it Be.”
Letting our thoughts and feelings be implies that we accept them just as they are, and do not need to push them to go anywhere. It’s important to note that acceptance does not mean that we like these thoughts or feelings or that we want them around, just that we acknowledge that they are here right now and accept that they are a part of our current experience. So, by letting them be, we are acting in accordance with the true core principles of mindfulness – awareness and acceptance.
The next time that you have a mildly uncomfortable thought, emotion, or physical sensation, notice what your natural inclination is. Are you wanting to get rid of it? Are you trying to figure out how to make it go away or not bother you so much anymore? See if you can adopt an attitude of acceptance by saying to yourself, “let it be.” Notice what happens in your mind and body. It may actually be more uncomfortable at first, but if you practice this regularly, you will likely start to find that you are able to tolerate these more easily.