© Dr. Chris Schriner 2004
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 22, 2004

From the order of service:

This is the third sermon in a series on letting go of attitudes that harm us. Here is a summary of key ideas:

Without knowing it, we often hold on to destructive attitudes such as worry, resentment, and frustration. And if we are holding onto them, we can let them go. We sometimes let go of tensions for no reason at all, just because we choose to do so. Other times we think ourselves into feeling better. We look at a problem in some way that helps us relax.

The late Ken Keyes suggested that there are two different ways of reacting to a problem:
1. "I cannot be happy unless this problem is solved." (I link my happiness to the outcome of the situation.)
2. "If the problem isn't solved, I can still feel okay." (I disconnect my happiness from the outcome.)

If you want to try letting go simply through a process of choice, start by practicing the release of muscle tension. When your body feels tight you can soften the tightness just by choosing to let go.

Three tricks: First, whether you're releasing physical tension or emotional distress, don't try to let it all go. Aim at releasing a little bit of stress. Second, don't insist that you let go of the tension forever. Let go just for this moment. And finally, practice at first on minor issues. Later you can work up to bigger challenges.

The Sermon:

What does it mean to let go? What does it feel like? How can we do it?

The moment of letting go is a moment of living-without-fighting. We are awake, alert, and free from conflict. There is no struggle to change anything around us, no struggle to change anything inside of us. We may actually be changing something around us or changing something within us, but there is no struggle. There is only action and awareness. Even when we are busy coping with complicated challenges there is a deep serenity, because we are not fighting with life.

Right now you're listening to a sermon. You probably want to understand what I am saying. But do you need to struggle to do that? All you need is to listen and reflect. Understanding will come -- or it won't. Tensing yourself up trying to understand will probably not help.

It's amazing what we can handle if we are feeling relaxed and balanced. Some of you may have wondered about the front cover on your order of service, which shows a dancer falling through space. He landed just fine with no broken bones, and we can learn to let go and fall, and roll when we get to the ground.

This is the third part of a sermon series called "The Art of Letting Go," which will be followed by our spiritual retreat March 6, and I've now added a supplementary sermon on March 7. It feels good to be returning to this topic, because I was strongly focused on letting go for about 15 years, leading up to the publication of my book, Feel Better Now, in 1991. But as time has gone by, I have lost touch with some wonderful wisdom about letting go that I was so fortunate to receive, and I want to re-learn those lessons today.

These sermons are about letting go of attitudes that harm us. Many spiritual and psychological teachers have told us we hold on to harmful attitudes as if we were gripping them tightly with our hands -- attitudes such as worry, resentment, and frustration. And since we are the ones holding onto them, we have the power to let them go.

This morning I am going to talk about letting go by describing its opposite, what letting go is not. I'll begin by describing two patterns of tension that almost all of us hold on to. The first of these patterns might be called pushing.

Picture a baboon in the zoo who spots a ripe banana, a few feet from his cage. He reaches out toward the banana, and pushes against the bars, forcing and grunting, but the fruit remains inches out of reach.

The baboon used a basic animal strategy -- he pushed to reach what he wanted. But brute force didn't do the job. You and I aren't limited to brute force. We could have reached for the fruit with improvised tools, persuaded people outside the cage to toss us the banana, or let us out of the cage, or even talked ourselves into thinking we weren't hungry in the first place. Yet underneath our rich repertoire of abilities, the same old animal tendencies keep driving us. Even while pursuing a non-physical goal, we may push and struggle as if we were shoving against the bars of an invisible cage.

Unfortunately, in dealing with non-physical problems, pushing often prevents us from getting what we want:
o A salesman is pushing hard to close a deal. The buyer senses his aggressiveness, and walks away.
o An accountant can't recall where he filed an important document. The more he pushes to remember, the more his mind is a blank.
o Someone is applying for a job and trying to make a good impression. But those who try to make an impression usually make an impression that they're "trying."

In each of these cases, a person (1) wants to reach a goal, (2) tensely grabs for it, and (3) winds up pushing the goal out of reach.

Pushing is often purely internal, as when a person is sitting still at a stoplight, wishing it would turn. Hurry up, hurry up! Or suppose you are with someone who irritates you. You may be polite on the surface, but inside of you there's a whole lotta pushin' goin' on. Notice that pushing is often connected with wishing -- "I wish he were different. I wish she weren't here. I wish they'd see my point of view." So if you're angrily wishing, you're probably pushing.

Unfortunately, internal pushing usually makes us feel worse. If I'm around people who bother me, and I keep wishing they were different, that will multiply the discomfort I feel by ten times or a hundred times. So is my distress coming mainly from the irritating people or from my own thoughts? Well, both, but mostly I'm manufacturing my own little private perdition, and I don't have to do that. I have a choice about whether to keep wishing and pushing.

So pushing is the first of two basic tension patterns. People push when they want something to happen and they're afraid it won't. On the other hand, if people want to prevent something bad from happening and they aren't sure they can prevent it, then we encounter another pattern that might be called bracing.

To understand how bracing feels, think about a trip to the dentist. Leaning back in the chair, mouth wedged open, we brace ourselves against possible discomfort. Unfortunately, some of us live our entire lives as if we're about to have a root canal. A counseling client once told me, "I walk around braced against a blow, like someone's about to let me have it." Another counselee saw a connection to his childhood: "When I make a mistake I feel like my father's going to jump up out of nowhere and yell at me, even though he hasn't actually yelled at me in years."

Letting go is the opposite of our most basic tension patterns, patterns that go back to the ways we used our hands when we were small children. We push against things with our hands, and we also push mentally, trying to get what we want. We use our hands to brace ourselves against an attack, and we feel braced inside when we are afraid something bad is going to happen. There are also other tension patterns, but these two are so common that whenever we are under stress it is very helpful to ask ourselves, "Am I mainly pushing or mainly bracing right now?" Once we realize that we are pushing or bracing, we may find ourselves letting go without even trying to do so.

It may help you apply these ideas to your own life if we take some time for personal reflection. We'll start out with silent meditation and prayer, and then I'll suggest that you think about the ideas we've been talking about. After that we'll talk about what you experienced. So I invite you to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and enter into prayer or meditation, each according to your own beliefs.

See if you can remember times when you have been pushing: wishing and hoping that something positive would happen. Perhaps you tend to internally push when you're in a hurry. Many of us start pushing as soon as we get behind the wheel of an automobile. We may push in dealing with other people, including children.

Then think about situations where you tend to brace yourself. We sometimes brace when we are with someone who's aggravating, tensing up against physical pain, or feeling shy in a social setting. See if you can think of one thing you could do that would help you to release and relax instead of pushing and bracing. (Discussion.)

When I began exploring the idea of letting go I was amazed to discover that almost all of my own personal tensions were useless and unnecessary. It is astonishing how much needless distress people can generate even if we are well-housed and well-fed and even well-entertained. At one point I began to speculate that virtually every one of our needless tensions went back to the same basic attitude. For now let's just call it Attitude X. Wouldn't it be interesting if we could trace virtually all unhappy feelings back to a single Attitude?

I admit that it probably seems overblown to talk about some mysterious "Attitude X" that is "The Great Cause of All Unhappiness." But even though I realize that I'm going out on a limb, I think it's a fairly sturdy limb. I am convinced that most unhappiness does go back to one single root, and we can directly experience this source of unhappiness inside ourselves. We can feel it quite clearly as it's happening. And the more vividly we can feel it, the better we'll understand it, and the easier it will be to let go.

So my job this morning is to describe Attitude X, and unfortunately that is not easy. I'm going to be talking about some rather subtle, slippery ideas. But you can help me, by making connections between what I'm saying and your own experiences. If we both do our best, some communication will happen.

The easiest way for me to point toward the attitude that causes unhappiness would be not to use words, but to make sounds instead. One sound that would convey something about this attitude would be a sigh, the sigh of a person who is about to give up. Another sound would be the groan of someone who is struggling with a difficult burden. And we could also think of the guttural grunt of a baboon who can't reach a banana.

When I go beyond these animalistic noises and try to put this feeling into words, I think of what Gautama, the Buddha, said 2500 years ago. Gautama taught that unhappiness resulted from tanha, a Sanskrit word that is translated as "craving," "desire," or "thirst." Whenever we crave something, suffering will follow. The grunting, pushing baboon is in the grip of tanha, and so are we when we want to sigh or groan because we can't have what we crave.

So I can express this attitude in a sound, and through the Sanskrit word tanha. And if I were to try to express it in a few English words, here is what I would say: When I experience needless stress, my unhappiness usually results from tensely wanting to make a situation turn out "right." Attitude X = tensely wanting to make things turn out right. I maintain that this attitude is the master mechanism in the human mind that generates frustration and physical stress, the number one cause of destructive emotions, at least among people who are healthy and well-fed and not currently wrestling with a boa constrictor. And I'm going to use the words "straining" and "struggling" as shorthand terms for this attitude of tensely wanting to make a situation turn out right. "Straining" and "struggling" imply pressure, frustration, weariness, and effort without satisfying results.

So this is the enemy of happiness: holding on to useless strain and struggle. To let go is simply to refrain from straining, to say, "I won't do that. I would rather let go and live."

If struggling for situations to work out right is the cause of most unhappiness, then obviously it's important to recognize that attitude when it arises, so let's talk about some situations that would trigger straining in most people. Think about how you would feel inside when you are in these predicaments. If you know what straining feels like, you can use that feeling as a cue that it's time to let go.

1. You walk into a restaurant, ravenous. A hostess takes your name and says there will be a five-minute wait. After fifteen minutes your mind begins straining for your name to be called. How do you feel, physically and emotionally? When the hostess walks toward you, do you take a breath and hold it in, exhaling in disappointment when she calls another party?

2. While bowling, you see your ball wobbling down the lane toward the gutter. Do you gesture toward the ball, as if to change its direction through "body English?"

3. What about the times when you can't think of a word that's on the tip of your tongue? Does the mind struggle to make the word appear? Does this resemble the way it struggles to put the bowling ball back on course or get the hostess to call your name?

4. You're riding in a car, and the driver is careless. Do you silently struggle for control? When a truck swerves in front of you, does your foot push down as if you were hitting the brakes?

If these situations would bother you, see if you can recall the sense of straining--tensely wanting to make things turn out right. That feeling of strain is the enemy.

"Tensely wanting to make things turn out right" is an irritating state of mind. We want to soothe it, just as we would want to scratch an itchy mosquito bite. So we try to ease the tension by solving whatever problem is bothering us. Unfortunately, many of us get caught in the following cycle:
We notice a problem.
We tense up.
We fix the problem.
We notice another problem.
We tense up.
We fix the new problem.
We notice another problem. (And so on, hour after hour.)

Habitually straining for control becomes an itch that cannot be sufficiently scratched. The only way to scratch that itch is to stop playing the straining game.

During the spiritual retreat on March 6 we'll talk more about how to let go. But for now I'll just mention that one of the easiest ways of doing that involves three simple steps. First, notice when you're pushing and struggling to make some situation work out right. Second, stop for a moment and realize that this inner struggle is tiresome and uncomfortable, and probably isn't necessary to achieve your goal. And third, make a conscious choice to let go of straining for control. In making this choice, allow yourself to feel easy and light. It would be ironic to struggle to let go of struggle! Release only a little bit of stress, just for now. Use less effort than you think you need to.

If you're like me, you'll need to repeat this three-step sequence many, many times, but it's a straightforward approach and it does work: Notice when you're straining to make life turn out right, stop and realize that straining isn't necessary, and make a choice to let go and do your best. There is no need for struggle. All we need is action and awareness.

Between now and the retreat, let's notice the times when we start to push and brace and strain and struggle. And let's make a little beginning at learning to release those burdens. We have far more inner freedom than we know. Let's start to savor that freedom, day by day.

Books about letting go and related topics:

Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response
Patricia Carrington, Releasing
Hale Dwoskin, The Sedona Method
Ken and Penny Keyes, Gathering Power through Insight and Love
Chris Schriner, Feel Better Now: 30 Ways to Handle Frustration in 3 Minutes or Less

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