Letting Go

Two nights ago I commented over on Carrie's Cultural Commentary about letting go. She does a very nice reading of Guy Ritchie's Revolver around the concept of letting go of the ego.

When I teach yoga, I talk a lot about letting go. When I live my life, I think a lot about letting go. It's one of those lifelong processes for me.

I'm not talking about the classic Freudian id/ego/superego kind of ego. I'm talking about 'Latin translation of ego is I' kind of ego. The sense of self. Everything that you identify with. Whatever concepts that you defend and feel possessive about as though they were your self. As if taking them away would be a lessening of or a threat to yourself.  Your body is often a good start. Your mind. Then your thoughts and actions. Loved ones. Friends. The ways others see you. Your plans for the future. Your memories of the past. Interpretations of past events. Being able to express your love in certain ways. Hobbies. Souveniers. A standard of living. A job title. All these things can be wrapped in 'who I am.'

Say I post something online. Then someone comes along and criticizes what I wrote. Do I assess it from an objective point of view, or does my fight-or-flight response get triggered? If the latter, then I'm probably seeing my writing as part of myself.  That happens to me a lot!!! Immediately my hackles rise! And I start to think up clever ways of defending my words. It doesn't even matter if they have a good point! That's my Fight response. But sometimes I just don't want to fight. So I begin to emotionally or verbally distance myself from what I wrote. I say it doesn't matter; I disown it. That's my Flight response.  Neither response is a good way to have a conversation. Internet trolls count on the fight response when they try to start flame wars.

(My heart is beating fast just remembering some of these past events.)

But my response to criticism doesn't have to be fight-or-flight. What I said was in the moment. It was an action taken then, but that's not who I am now. Our words are part of the flow of our existence, but they don't define it. Life is like a highway, and just because there's a burnt-out building on mile 23, it doesn't mean there's not a beautiful botanical garden down at mile 49. Even though we think of our lives as one giant chain of cause-and-effect, life is so complex and interacts with so many things, it's impossible to predict what your life will be like ten years down the road. Who you are now doesn't determine who you'll be. Who you were doesn't limit you can be.

Whatever 'you' is.

There's a Wei Wu Wei quote that I printed out a decade ago and put in a little picture frame. Put into prose, it says, "Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9% of everything you think, and everything you do is for yourself, and there isn't one." To an intuitive, that can be quite a zinger, but practically speaking, it's difficult to simply DENY that there's a self there.  So, for now, let's assume that there's a You in there and an I in here.

But whatever that You is, and whatever this I is, those things aren't threatened by a lot of the things we feel threatened by.

Tigers chasing you through the woods. That, my friend, is an existential threat. If the tiger catches you, you get eaten and die. Fight-or-flight is completely reasonable.

Getting a phone call from someone you're trying to avoid -- not an existential threat, but it produces much the same response. The mere fact that you're *trying to avoid* them already indicates that your flight response has kicked in.  What is it that you identify as your Self that you're trying to preserve?

A recurring struggle for me is with the need to be seen as reliable. Part of that is very practical -- I'm self-employed both as a computer programmer and as a yoga teacher. Getting a reputation as the type to flake out on customers and clients isn't very helpful. But there are other, perfectly practical things, that I do without all that stress - I keep my checkbook balanced; I pay my bills on time. But with being reliable, there's a lot of sturm und drang about it. Paying my bills on time is just something I do. "Being seen as reliable" is something that is a part of "me." It's wrapped up with my sense of self. Threatening it is a threat to me.

It's very difficult to 'let go' of something that serves a very practical purpose. Alcoholics can try to go cold turkey. Over-eaters, however, still have to eat.

Around five years ago, I finally realized that when someone says they like a bad movie, I no longer need to tell them that I didn't like it. Not only don't I have to be that kind of buzzkill, but it's unnecessary. Hey, they had a good experience! That's awesome! That's the kind of thing I let go of and leave behind.

But I still get so wrapped up in presenting myself as 'reliable' that it's hard to actually *be reliable* sometimes. And that's counter productive. Like when you're so concerned with being right that you forget to stop defending what you said and start looking at what the truth is.

And so I practice. Practice noticing when I get stressed out. Noticing what causes it. Letting go of what I don't need. And it's not anything to be embarrassed about. We all cling to things we don't need, bits that aren't us. It's never easy to let go. So the next time someone is acting a little crazy, it might just be because they're being human.