LETTING GO, PART II: FROM DEMANDS TO PREFERENCES

© Dr. Chris Schriner 2004
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 15, 2004

[The choir has just finished singing Lennon and McCartney's "Let It Be."] Thank you for that beautiful song. Those are truly words of wisdom, "Let It Be."

This is the second in a three-part sermon series called "The Art of Letting Go," and what we are dealing with here is letting go of attitudes that harm us. Many spiritual and psychological teachers have told us we hold on to destructive attitudes without realizing it, attitudes such as worry, resentment, and frustration; and if we are holding onto them, we can let them go.

Last week I mentioned that we sometimes let go of tensions for no reason at all. We just do it. Other times we think ourselves into feeling better. We think about a problem in some way that helps us relax. For example, it's easier for me to release tension if I remember that I don't have to do everything myself. There are forces for good in this universe that I can count on, and some of these forces are far greater than I am. Lennon and McCartney wrote, "When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, Speaking words of wisdom, 'Let it be.'" Some of us turn to Mary or Jesus, some pray to God, some trust in love, or the human family, or our own inner wisdom, or collective consciousness, or the Great Mystery.

I wonder if any of you tried letting go this past week, either by telling yourself things that made you feel better or just by choosing to let go for no particular reason except that you were ready to. I want to invite a little conversation about that. See if you can remember some times when you did let go, and also times when you didn't. And can you think of any attitudes you have been noticing that you'd like to let go of, even if you're not sure how to do that? (Discussion.)

This morning I want to explore one particular way that we can think our way into releasing tension and frustration. This approach has roots going back to the Buddha, who suggested that suffering results from tanha, a word which is translated as desire or craving. The Buddha said that if we eliminate all craving we will cease to experience suffering. Of course, some people criticize Buddhism for assuming that we should totally eradicate suffering. One could argue that a certain amount of displeasure actually adds to our experience of life. But regardless of whether we want to eliminate it entirely, an enormous amount of human suffering is unnecessary, unproductive, and unhealthy.

The late Ken Keyes (last name rhymes with "eyes") translated the core concepts of Buddhism into terms that speak to many Westerners, and he called his approach Living Love. He had a personal growth center in Coos Bay, Oregon, and led workshops around the world, some of which I attended.

I remember one of my counseling clients who especially benefitted from Ken's work, a man we'll call Andy. Andy was an extremely judgmental individual. He seldom voiced his criticisms, but in his own thoughts Andy was secretly and silently criticizing his friends, relatives, co-workers, pets, appliances, elected representatives, and most of all, himself.

I suggested that Andy read a book by Ken Keyes called Handbook to Higher Consciousness. The Handbook says there are two different ways of reacting to a problem. The first attitude is,

1. "I cannot be happy unless this problem is solved." In other words, I link my happiness to the outcome of the situation.

But we could also have the attitude that:

2. "If the problem isn't solved, I can still feel okay." I disconnect my happiness from the outcome.

Ken called the first attitude "demanding," because we are telling ourselves we must have what we want. There's no flexibility; we're locked into rigid expectations. The second attitude is more like "preferring." We prefer to have things our way, but we can accept an alternative result. Life does not always have to match our pictures of how things ought to be.

So in Ken's work, the terms "demands" and "preferences" are given a special meaning. They have to do with whether a person is linking happiness to the way a situation turns out. When Ken said someone was demanding a certain outcome, he wasn't necessarily talking about demanding words or demanding actions. A woman whose purse has been stolen may appropriately demand that the robber return the purse. She may also demand that the police pursue the thief. But later on, if she believes she cannot be happy without the purse, she is doing herself a disservice. That is the sort of inner, mental demand that ends up frustrating us.

Andy saw the value of this idea of demands versus preferences. He told me, "To crawl through life chaining my own happiness to whether or not I get my way is a prescription for misery. At any given moment, I'll either feel unhappy because something is wrong, or happy but insecure because something might start going wrong. I don't think happiness plus constant insecurity is really happiness, any more than good health plus a terrible cold is the same as 'being well.'"

In transforming demands into preferences, Andy used the idea of surfing, based on watching his teenage son ride the waves. He first practiced surfing on little "waves" such as his reactions to a rainy day, a rattle in the car, a moldy loaf of bread, or a phone call from a telemarketer. Then he worked up to more difficult issues.

Eventually it is possible to disconnect one's happiness from extremely serious frustrations, and Ken Keyes himself managed to do that. Listen to this passage from his autobiography.

". . . in February 1946, I was hit [by polio.] Both of my legs and the fingers of my left hand became totally paralyzed and the fingers of my right hand generally so. Functioning arm muscles were few . . . In one week I had gone from a 25-year-old businessman to a convalescent who needed constant assistance just to stay alive."

Ken used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Certainly he would have preferred to be able to stand, walk, and run. But was he supposed to be miserable forever as a result? That's what would happen if his preference were also a demand.

Shifting from demands to preferences is not phony rationalization. Ken didn't tell himself, "It makes no difference whether I can walk." Instead, he could shift demands to preferences based on a statement that is absolutely correct and realistic: "It is possible to be a happy human being and use a wheelchair for mobility."

Some of our demanding attitudes may be realistic, except for the fact that we hold onto them so rigidly. For example, it's realistic to want people to treat us well. But if we link our happiness to the way they treat us, we set ourselves up for a letdown.It has been said that, "Disappointment is the caboose on the train of expectation."

I also want to emphasize that when we transform demands into preferences we are not necessarily lowering our standards or giving up our goals. Calling something a preference does not imply that it is trivial. Greater flexibility is a step forward in consciousness. It does not mean we are settling for less. We still want whatever we want, and we still strive to get it. However if we don't get it, that does not ruin our day, week, or life.

Here is the strategy for changing demands to preferences that I suggested in my book about letting go:

When you're feeling dissatisfied, stop for a moment and identify the demand at the core of the unhappy feeling. It may help if you ask yourself, "What do I think I must have to be happier?" Realize that it's fine to prefer whatever you like, but that demanding it may be making you tense. Allow the demand to soften or "expand" into a preference, and then do whatever you can to fulfill your preference.

Notice that the last step in this strategy is an anti-copout clause: "Do what you can to fulfill your preference." In this way, you are consciously reprogramming your mind, combining relaxation with positive action rather than with helpless passivity. Sometimes we may choose to spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money trying to fulfill some particular preference. That's fine. Ken is not suggesting we lower our sights or think small. In fact, his attempt to promote the Living Love philosophy was based on a grand vision for transforming the world. He even found time to work for nuclear disarmament.

Letting go is not giving up, and we are often far more effective when we relax. Tension may stir up so much dust and fog in our minds that we can't see how to handle our problems. I am amazed how often situations resolve themselves when I relax and do my best without being overly anxious. But even though letting go is not giving up, our minds tend to be thoroughly confused about this. We can expect that sometimes we will tell ourselves that the only way to let go of tension is to stop attempting to get what we want. We need to remind ourselves that this is baloney.

Why do we assume that we'll become ineffective if we relax? It has to do with our experiences growing up. When we were children, we were constantly confronted with challenges. Every time we turned around, we were being asked to accomplish difficult new tasks. As a result, many of us learned to associate the feeling of strain and struggle with the sense of accomplishment. We would make ourselves anxious and tighten up our little bodies and frown and worry, and then we would finally manage to tie our shoes, or control our physiological functions, or master long division, or hit the baseball. So we began to connect tension with getting positive results. That is a terrible connection to make, but it's inevitable unless a child is systematically taught that he or she can usually get positive results without tensing up.

At the same time, we also formed another mental association. We began to connect relaxation with giving up. Sometimes we'd be confronted with a challenge and we were scared that we couldn't handle it or we just didn't want to bother with it. So we would give up, cop out, make excuses, forget our homework, or get "sick" and stay home from school like I used to do. Then we would be rewarded, in the sense that we got off the hook. We might feel ashamed. We might be scolded by parents and teachers. But we also felt relieved because we didn't have to attempt an intimidating challenge.

So almost all of us, to one degree or another, are unconsciously programmed to think that if we want to get things done, we have to be tense, and if we want to relax, we need to accomplish less. What a miserable predicament! Now I admit that sometimes it's good to slow down and lighten up our commitments. We need to enjoy days when we have "no deeds to do, no promises to keep, . . . dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep." But "feelin' groovy" is not the only way to relax. I believe that 99% of the things we struggle to achieve can also be achieved while we are feeling calm inside. Being tense may seem to help us, but all it usually does is drain away energy and wear us out and we don't need it!

Once a friend of mine was hitchhiking in northern Vancouver Island. Cars were few and far between, and none of them had stopped. She was very anxious about missing her boat. Suddenly she realized, "This is ridiculous! Here I am in an exquisite natural wonderland, and I'm fretting as if missing my boat would be a disaster! Well, I don't have to 'miss the boat' in terms of being able to enjoy the scenery right now." So she relaxed and began to smile. Five minutes later she heard a car behind her. Shethought, "I'll turn around so they can see I'm a woman." The car stopped, and an older couple let her in. The driver said he was glad she turned around, because he had thought she was a man, and he would have been afraid to stop for a guy. If she had still been feeling anxious, she might not have had the idea of turning around. And even if she did turn around, she might have had a less pleasant expression on her face! When we release our anxieties it's like opening up a big window so we can see everything more clearly. And so often, people sense our inner serenity, and they connect with us and cooperate with us.

So those are some ideas about how we can change the way we think about problems and therefore change the way we feel. Next week I'll conclude this series on letting go, focusing more on how we can let go for no reason at all, simply because it's good for us. The attitudes that I'll be discussing are difficult to put into words, slippery as soap, but (I think) extremely important to understand.

Everything in life starts with our attitude. If we start with the stance that Ken Keyes called "demanding," we link our happiness to the way situations turn out. If we begin with a preferential attitude, we can still feel good even when life doesn't fulfill all of our expectations. We can be calm on the inside, and effective on the outside. We can do the best we can, and then "let it be."

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