© Dr. Chris Schriner 2004
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 8, 2004

How many of you have seen "The Return of the King," the final film in the series based on Lord of the Rings? Toward the end of this movie, the hero, Frodo, has traveled to Mount Doom to destroy the evil Ring of Power. But as he prepares to hurl it into the flames, he suddenly hesitates. He is tempted to keep it rather than throw it away. His companion, Sam, pleads with him, "Let it go, Mr. Frodo, let it go." Interestingly enough, moments later Sam says just the opposite as Frodo dangles from a cliff over the abyss, "Don't let go! Don't let go!"

If only we could have the wisdom and courage to let go of what harms us and hold on to what gives us life.

My theme for the next three Sundays is "The Art of Letting Go," and the idea of letting go appears over and over in various religions and philosophies. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam tell us to let go of trying to run the universe, and to turn our troubles over to God instead. Some Asian religions counsel us to let go of our attachment to the physical world, because the world we see is an illusion. Buddhism tells people to let go of every shred of craving or desire, by following the Buddha's Eightfold Path.

Today spiritual and psychological teachers exhort us to let go and live, let go and love, let go of guilt, let go of resentment, let go of expectations, let go of toxic relationships, and let go of the past. Twelve Step programs say we should "Let go and let God." Gerald Jampolsky wrote a book called Love Is Letting Go of Fear. And our worship associate, Holly, quoted Jack Kornfield as saying, "It is only by letting go of the hopes, the fears, the pain, the past, the stories that have a hold on us that we can quiet our mind and open our heart."

Of course, people sometimes use the same words even though they are not talking about the same thing. But at the very least, all of these teachers are using the same metaphor. Letting go is a word picture, and it's a picture based on the way we use our hands. Our hands hold on to things (like Frodo clutching the Ring) and our hands let go of things. When someone suggests that we let go of resentments, this implies that we are actually holding on to resentment as if we gripped it tightly in a fist. That would be good news, because if we are holding on to resentment, we have a choice about whether to keep doing that. It probably seems as if we can't help holding on, but this may be an illusion. Perhaps attitudes which seem automatic and involuntary are partly voluntary. Perhaps we could learn to see how we are clinging to resentment and then learn to let it drop away.

Worrying is another example. "Worrying" originally meant to gnaw at something, as when a dog worries a bone. When we're worrying, we're holding on to some problem, chewing it over obsessively, and we could choose to stop that gnawing and gnashing. Holding on to resentment, worry, and other stressful attitudes is the opposite of letting go.

There was a time in my career when most of my energies were focused on this theme. I was learning and practicing the art of letting go in my own life, I was teaching it to others, and I was writing about it. It was the main subject of my first and third books. And this feels like the right moment for me to return to this focus, both in my personal life and in my ministry.

I want to tell you a little about my own journey of learning to let go. I have always been interested in psychology, and I went to theological school during the flowering of humanistic psychology and the Human Potential Movement. After I graduated I started going to a therapist. I also practiced various forms of meditation and studied Buddhism, and all of these pathways involved letting go. Meditation, for example, is a way of experiencing zero effort, not striving, not pushing for or against, simply being here now.

I also attended several pre-packaged personal growth programs, such as Est, Lifespring, The Silva Method, and the Sedona Method. Est (Erhard Seminars Training) was intriguing because it suggested that people could change their own attitudes just by choosing to do so. But I was suspicious, because this sounded like repression - sweeping unpleasant feelings under the rug. I had assumed that emotions had to be either repressed or expressed. If I was mad at somebody, I had to either stuff the feelings down inside or give vent to them, verbally or in some other fashion. Was there a third alternative? Could we make emotions disappear, by deciding to let them go?

I knew that we could make physical tension disappear by deciding to relax:

(1) We become aware (let's say) that our shoulders are tense.
(2) We realize that we have been unconsciously tensing ourselves up.
(3) We choose to let the tension go, and the muscle relaxes.

In this example we are obviously not repressing the physical tension. We aren't pretending it doesn't exist. And we are not "expressing" the tension in the sense of moving our shoulders around, or verbally expressing an emotional upset that has made our shoulders tense. We are choosing to relax, and the tension vanishes. So perhaps the same thing could happen with emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness. Perhaps they could be dissolved, without being repressed.

Around 1977 I began exploring a three-step technique:

(1) Experience an emotional tension.
(2) Decide whether or not I want to keep it.
(3) If I don't want to keep it, choose to let it go.

During this period I was a pastoral counselor, and I started using some of these ideas with my clients. They were mostly dealing with ordinary, everyday human problems, not with severe mental illnesses that can overwhelm the human power to choose. And for everyday stresses, one of the most important principles is that in order to let go, we have to stop for a moment. We need to pause in order to break the cycle of tension. Just as we can relax our bodies when we stop and take a few breaths, we can relax our minds when we pause and say, "Hey! Look what I'm doing to myself. I'm getting myself all worked up and I don't need to."

One day a friend told me about a course in letting go which was available in San Francisco. So in July of 1978 I came up here for a two-weekend seminar called Mind Freedom. As a souvenir, I purchased a cable car mug, which some of you have used as a coffee cup while visiting my home. In between the two weekends of the program I stayed in the city and practiced the Mind Freedom technique, and I had plenty of opportunities. Early in the week, while getting into a San Francisco taxi, my wallet fell out of my pocket and I never got it back. So I got to practice dealing with distress about my lost cash and credit cards. I also came to understand Mark Twain's comment that the coldest winter he'd ever spent was summer in San Francisco! Every time the class walked outside for our lunch break, I would be letting go - letting go of bracing myself against the cold. Allow the cold to be there. I don't have to fight it, and whenever I really stopped fighting it, the cold no longer bothered me at all. Even now, this technique helps me keep the thermostat at a more ecologically friendly level. I don't succeed all the time in letting go of resisting the cold, but I'm grateful whenever I do.

Those who took Mind Freedom had to promise not to reveal its techniques to anyone, and I will keep that commitment. And my telling people would not enable them to use it, any more than reading a page of Arabic vocabulary to someone would enable that person to speak Arabic.

When I returned to Costa Mesa I was very happy with the results of the program, and some of the improvements sort of snuck up on me. For example, for many years I had experienced two or three days during almost every week when I felt rather frustrated and depressed. I had assumed that this recurring pattern of "down" days was part of my emotional makeup and might even be biochemically based. But after taking the letting go workshop, I realized one day that this wasn't happening any more. During some weeks I didn't have even one down day. I was amazed that the pattern had melted away without my even trying to change it. Like everyone else, I still get into bad moods and have difficult days, but that old pattern of bad moods is gone.

Unfortunately, in a few weeks I became distracted by everyday busyness, and I started forgetting what I had learned in San Francisco. By Christmas of 1978, it seemed as if I had lost my ability to let go. I even wondered whether I had ever had it in the first place. Had I been deluding myself? This was actually an example of the kind of negative thinking that I had been wanting to get rid of. I went back to practicing the method very systematically for a while, and before long I got the knack of it again.

Mind Freedom is now called the Sedona Method, and I have been thinking of taking the course again. Even though the Sedona techniques are still helpful to me, I'm a little rusty after all these years and I could use a refresher.

So now that you know some of my experiences with letting go, I'd like to hear about yours. Even if you haven't thought about it much, all of us let go of emotional upsets. We may not realize we're doing that, but sometimes we notice an unpleasant emotion and decide to stop being upset. For example, a student who is about to take a test may be worrying about whether he or she will do well. And sometimes it's as if a little switch is flipped in the brain, so that one relaxes and stops worrying. Often some reassuring thought will help trigger this release. "OK, I've studied as much as I'm going to. Either I'm going to do well or I'm not. I can't do any more now." And then we let go. But sometimes we don't relax because of some thought that makes us feel better. Sometimes we choose to let go for no reason at all.

So let's look at this further through a period of prayer and meditation. During this quiet time you can think back to occasions when you have let go of some tension or frustration. So I invite us all to close our eyes and relax. Take a few deep breaths, and enter into an attitude of prayer or quiet reflection. Now allow yourself to think of some situation when you were feeling unhappy or stressed about something and you stopped for a moment and then released the tension that you felt. You didn't necessarily stop thinking about the problem. Maybe it was an issue you needed to keep dealing with. But you stopped being tense about it. Or if nothing comes to mind, then try imagining what it would be like to stop in the middle of an emotional upset, experience the feeling for a moment, and then let it go.

Now take a few deep breaths to close this time of prayer and meditation, and open your eyes when you are ready. Let's hear from a few people either about times that you remember letting go, or what you think it would be like to release a tension simply by choosing to do so. (Discussion.)

Any time I talk about psychological or spiritual growth, some people in the congregation may decide to explore further on their own. To those who want to experiment with letting go, I should emphasize that I can't say everything I want to about this topic today. Even three sermons and a retreat will only be a beginning. If you'd like to start trying it out, I suggest you begin with letting go of muscle tension, remembering that when your body feels tight you could soften the tightness by choosing to do so. And as you release muscle tensions, try suggesting to yourself that since you can let go in your body, maybe you could let go in your mind as well.

Let me also mention a couple of very valuable tricks that make this process a lot easier. First, whether you're releasing physical tension or emotional distress, don't try to let it all go. Start small. Aim at releasing a little bit of stress. Second, don't insist that you let go of the tension forever. It is extremely valuable to focus on letting go just for now, just for this moment. As time goes by, those just-for-now releases will stretch out longer and longer.

And one more suggestion: If you experiment with letting go of emotional upsets, please start with minor issues. Life presents us with plenty of trivial snags and irritations, such as a traffic tie-up or a cross remark from a clerk in a store. Treat these little bite-sized challenges as the opportunity you have been waiting for, an opportunity for learning to relax under pressure.

People love to watch Lord of the Rings because we identify with Frodo's heroic quest. And every human life is in some ways a hero's journey, a journey in which we try to let go of what harms us and hold on to what gives us life. It harms us when we hold on to tension and frustration. But fortunately, we usually have a choice about that. We can stop and decide whether we want to keep on feeling physical and emotional stresses, and then choose to let them fall away. The process is a little tricky, and at first it may be difficult to do this with anything other than minor irritations, but the more we practice the more effective we will be. So much joy, peace, and fulfillment is waiting for us, if we will practice the art of letting go.

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