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An Excerpt from Letting Go of Nothing by Peter Russell

The other side of letting go of emotions is letting go of the story behind them. Again, the first step is to let the story in, to become conscious of what we’re telling ourself. This is not always as easy as it sounds. We often assume that our view of events is the truth rather than our interpretation of them.

A good starting point is to pause and explore whether what you believe to be true really is so. Open to the possibility that it may be just a set of assumptions you have made. See if you can step back, question your interpretations, and be open to seeing alternatives.

If you are angry, for example, you might ask, What am I telling myself that makes this person wrong? How, in my opinion, should they have behaved? How do I judge them for having acted that way?

I also find it helpful to ask whether I would accuse myself of this. How often, when someone is angry with us, do we feel their anger is unjustified? If only they understood us better and why we behaved as we did, they wouldn’t be so angry.

So try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and consider what might have led them to behave this way. How might they have been seeing you? Did they have other things on their mind? What in their past might have led them to this?

The more we can inhabit another person’s point of view, the more we can understand their behavior. If we understood them completely, we’d realize they were behaving exactly as they “should” have — given their situation and everything that came before. Our belief that they should not have behaved this way is another part of our story.

Holding on to our stories only serves to create more suffering and discontent. I was recently visiting a neighbor when a friend came by. Almost the first words out of the friend’s mouth were, “I still can’t forgive him for what he did.” She was clearly still aggrieved and upset, even though the event in question had happened six months earlier. She was holding on to a story about what had happened, and that story still triggered bad feelings — which only reinforced her story. My neighbor simply said to her, “Oh, I’m sorry for you,” meaning I’m sorry you’re still not over it, “that can’t be nice.”

When we continue holding on to a grievance long after the event, the only person we hurt is ourself. As the Buddha is purported to have said, holding a grievance is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.

If you find yourself doing this, the first step in letting go is to become aware of the suffering you’re creating for yourself. If you pick up a hot coal, you will let go of it as soon as you feel the pain. Similarly, with holding on to some judgment or grievance, the more you can become aware of the price you pay for holding on — the emotional pain, tension, disturbing thoughts — the more motivated you will be to dig deeper, to see what is going on inside and how you might let go.

Emotions often have more to do with our past than our present. A friend not giving us the attention we feel is our due or criticizing our appearance can touch on painful experiences from earlier in life and trigger reactions out of all proportion to present circumstances. Maybe we felt ignored as a child or had parents who were overly concerned about how we appeared in public. Our automatic reaction might be to storm off in a huff or to retaliate with a criticism of our own. Alternatively, we may act out with something apparently unrelated, such as swearing at the dog or indulging in comfort food.

When you notice unwarranted reactions like these, pause, take a breath, and notice what you’re feeling — at this stage, not the story so much as what is going on in your body. Notice where it is tight, feel any unease or discomfort, and observe any impulse to act out. If you can allow these feelings to be there as they are, you may find they begin to soften and not dominate so much. 

Then, when they have subsided a little, look at any story you may be telling yourself. Maybe there’s some truth to it, but how much have you added? Have any events in your past led you to respond this way? Maybe there are issues you need to explore in order to find some resolution or healing. Perhaps some childhood trauma lies behind your reaction. The more you understand what is going on, the less likely old wounds will trigger you in the future.

Emotions are impulses to “move out” in some way; they want some form of expression. So with a strong emotion such as anger or rage, it can be helpful to let it out. But rather than venting on a fellow human being, you might take it out on a pillow or a punching bag. Or, a less violent option, you might express to others what you’re thinking and feeling, in a safe context — talking to a good friend or a therapist, perhaps — allowing the thoughts and feelings to be there without embarrassment or fear of judgment.

Even then, we might hold something back, fearing others might judge us. Or possibly because we wish to keep part of our life private. In such cases, writing to ourselves about what we are feeling can be a good way to vent our emotions. Simply write down whatever comes (four-letter words and all), without any judgment. Let it all in. Afterward you can tear it up or even burn it if you wish. It’s expressing it to yourself that is important.

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Peter Russell, author of Letting Go of Nothing and From Science to God, earned degrees in theoretical physics, psychology, and computer science at the University of Cambridge in England, where he studied for a time with Stephen Hawking. He studied meditation and Eastern philosophy in India and later conducted research into the neurophysiology of meditation. He lives in Northern California.

Excerpted from the book Letting Go of Nothing. Copyright ©2021 by Peter Russell. Printed with permission from New World Library —

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