Q. I hear a lot about letting go, but how do I do it? There seems to be few teachings on the subject, except that letting go and practicing nonattachment are supposed to be good things to do.

A. The Buddha said we experience the peace of nirvana by letting things be as they are. Indeed, applying the Beatles' exhortation to "Let It Be" to our lives can bring a lot of serenity and equanimity. My own personal Buddhist bumper sticker is "breathe, relax and smile." It works for road rage and for diminishing all kinds of problems. Repeat after me: "Breathe, relax and smile." Now that's not so hard, is it?

Of course, if it were that easy, we'd all be enlightened by now. Letting go, letting be, or embodying the Buddhist term "nonattachment" greatly reduces and even alleviates suffering. In fact, it is the goal of Buddhism. Buddha taught that the cause of suffering is craving and attachment. Therefore, letting go of our tight-fisted grasping is in our own self-interest, as it helps erode our wellspring of dissatisfaction and anxiety.

Attachment is like holding on tightly to something that is always slipping through my fingers--it just gives me rope burn.

For me, attachment is like holding on tightly to something that is always slipping through my fingers--it just gives me rope burn. But letting go--nonattachment--relieves the constant, painful irritation. A good example of this is not being able to fall asleep at night because you keep turning something over and over in your mind. It's one of those times when letting go is obviously a necessary virtue, and having some kind of relaxation tool can be extraordinarily helpful.

Scientific research has shown that people who are optimistic and have an ability to accept or let go of negative memories, experiences, and events tend to be healthier and live longer than people who are pessimistic and worry about or try to change things that are out of their control. Indeed, acceptance is actually transformative, and awareness is curative. Sometimes mistaken for passivity or complacency, acceptance has a powerful magic that is actually quite dynamic and creative. Have you ever noticed, for example, how accepting your mate rather than trying to change him or her ends up improving your relationship?

The easiest way to work on letting go and letting be is to notice your tendency to want things to be different from what they are and to practice giving up that strong preference. The Third Chinese Patriarch of Zen sang, "The Way is not difficult for those who have few preferences."

There are many means to letting go, from surrendering to God's will, if that is your faith, to undertaking the mind-training techniques of Buddhism. The following are a few simple steps that aid the practice of letting go, regardless of your beliefs or religious affiliation.

Fundamentally, letting go requires just two steps: (1) becoming aware of whatever arises within the field of your experience or consciousness, and then (2) becoming aware of how you relate to it. These two steps can be broken down further into five steps.

We begin to realize that the purpose of meditative awareness is not to have good or bad experiences but to see how we relate to all phenomena and learn to act on them more skillfully.

  • First, practice being aware of whatever arises in your experience--a physical sensation, thought, or emotion--rather than repressing, suppressing, or ignoring it.
  • Second, try to observe whatever arises, without judgment or reaction.
  • Third, investigate and examine the feeling, thought, or emotion, without bringing external or internal activity to bear on it.
  • Fourth, if the thought, feeling, or sensation requires that you act, decide how to channel your energy into action, or
  • Fifth, simply release the sensation, thought, or feeling, recognizing the transitory, empty nature of all experiences.
  • Because our minds cycle through so many thoughts in the course of a day, or even a minute, they are a good place to start in the practice of letting go. In his book "Full Catastrophe Living," meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn writes: "Letting go is not a pushing away of your thoughts or a shutting them off, or repressing them or rejecting them. [In meditation], you are allowing the thoughts to do whatever they do as you keep your attention on the breath as best you can, moment by moment."