I gleaned this idea from a book on Zen Buddhism one day a few
years ago, and it struck me in its simplicity.
Could it be true?
Consider this idea: a bird in flight. The bird lives totally in the
moment, completely focused on its flight, perhaps using its sharp
eyes to search for food.
It doesn’t start thinking, “Why does it have to be so cold here?
What do the other birds think of me? What am I going to do when
I meet up with the other birds later? Will I be successful at nest
building? Why can’t I have bigger breasts? Why can’t I wake up
earlier like the other birds?”
And so on.
Of course, as humans we have bigger brains than the bird, and we
can solve problems and create poetry and build skyscrapers. So we
have lots more ability and lots more going on than the simple bird
floating on the wind.
These bigger brains, though, cause us all the problems that we
have. I don’t mean the problems with poverty and disease, but the
problems with overthinking things, feeling anxiety and frustration
and depression and anger over the things that happen to us and
might happen to us and have already happened to us but that we
can’t stop thinking about.
So I’ve been testing out this Zen idea in the last few years, and
the results have been amazing: I’ve reduced my stress, started
procrastinating less, improved my relationships, increased my
ability to deal with change, learned to change difficult habits, and
become more present in my life.
It’s hard to overstate the case for the skill of letting go. And the
resistance most people feel to the idea of letting go is just as great.
Let’s take a few examples (I’ll go into more detail in later chapters):
• Stress: Our stress comes from wanting things to be a certain
way, and then we get stressed when things inevitably don’t go
that way. But if we could let go of how we wanted it to be, and
accepted and appreciated reality as it is, we would let go of the
• Procrastination: We procrastinate because of a fear of failure,
hard tasks, confusion, discomfort. But if we could let go of
wanting things to be easy, successful, comfortable … and just
accept that there is a wide range of experiences, we could just
do the task.
• Habits & distractions: By the way, most people have a hard
time changing habits for this same reason — we procrastinate
on the habit just like we procrastinate on work tasks. We also
go to distractions all day long for the same reasons.
• Irritation/frustration with people: We get irritated with
people because they don’t behave the way we’d like. And this
damages our relationships with them, because we’re angry
at them. It makes us less happy. Instead, we could let go of
wanting them to be a certain way, accept them as they are, and
just be with them. It makes the relationship much better —
I’ve seen this with my dad, my wife, my kids.
• Loss & death: When a loved one dies, or we lose a job, or
we get a major illness, this is a loss that causes grieving and
suffering. And while that’s unavoidable (and we should accept
our grieving), being able to let go helps us to deal with this loss.
• Being present: Many of us would like to be more present in
life, so that we don’t miss it as it happens, so that we can
enjoy it fully. Imagine having a delicious dish in front of you,
and you eat it but are thinking about work while you chew …
you’d be missing out on the flavors of the dish. But if you could
give it your full attention, you’d fully appreciate the dish. Life
is exactly like this … we are so obsessed with thinking about
other things, that we can’t be present in the moment. We can
learn to let go of this future- or past-oriented thinking, and be