Archives for posts with tag: letting go



When we define some events as good and other events as bad, we instantly qualify them with merit (or demerit) that is really unnecessary and often incorrect. We often find ourselves mired in suffering, sadness and confusion and there’s nothing abnormal about this. It’s very easy to get knocked off-center and to find yourself trying to analyze events in terms of “blessing” or “disaster.”


A blog I read posted a “philosophical musing” the author found on Facebook. I don’t need to tell you that a lot of the material on Facebook is neither “deep” nor “thoughtful,” and the author was moved to write her own response, coming from her unique perspective, about the quote. The original phrase was meant to be uplifting or inspiration, but implies a lot of what Taoism (and Buddhism) avoid to begin with, so I thought I would share it here.


The quote she found:

There are things we don’t want to happen, but have to accept; things we don’t want to know, but have to learn; and people we can’t live without, but have to let go.”


My analytical break-down and  response (edited for space and continuity) from a Taoist perspective:



I feel that the quote shared on Facebook (as with many quotes on Facebook) is meant to be “deep” and thoughtful, but is really neither.

“There are things we don’t want to happen, but have to accept;”

This part of the quote instantly implies  that things we don’t want are negative, thus forcing us to “accept” these “bad” things when they do. Qualifying life events as good or bad tends to disturb the delicate flow and balance of things and is often unnecessary. From a Taoist perspective, we might say, “it may seem bad at first, but how do we know it’s not a good thing in the end?” rendering our subjugation to “acceptance” null.

We don’t need to accept it, because we are not expecting anything. Keeping a neutral, open mind allows us to let things come and go, even situations that cause pain, because we are not declaring them to be “bad” or “good.”

There’s a Taoist story about a farmer and his son who find a horse that describes this sense of neutrality and openness:

Among the people who lived close to the border, there was a man who led a righteous life. Without reason, his horse escaped, and fled into barbarian territory. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said : “what makes you think this is not a good thing?”

Several months later, his horse returned, accompanied by a superb barbarian stallion. Everyone congratulated him. But the old man said: “what makes you think this cannot be a bad thing?”

The family was richer from a good horse, his son enjoyed riding it, but the son fell off the horse and broke his hip. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said: “what makes you think this is not a good thing!”

One year later, a large party of barbarians entered the border. All the healthy men drew their bows and went to battle. From the people living around the border, nine out of ten died. But just because his son was lame, the old man and his son were both spared.”

A different way to start that the original inspirational quote might be–”there are things we wish would go differently, but we cannot always know what is really the best path for things in our lives until we have opened our mind and given things a chance.”

The next part:

“There are things we don’t want to know, but have to learn”

I wonder if they are trying to imply that there are things we don’t want to know ABOUT? Or are they saying that, “yeah, we know you hate taking calculus–but you still have to stick it out and learn it to become an engineer”? It’s unclear, but I will assume they mean that there are times we are forced to learn about something when we’d rather be doing, or learning, something else.

Learning is always healthy, as is knowing when to let learning go and just be natural without preconception.

In Taoism, we can find a lovely paradox that describes how “unlearning” is better than learning, while reading the Tao Teh Ching which is kindly teaching us. It’s one of the more beautiful (and confusing to some) moments in the Tao Teh Ching. How, after all, can learning cloud our mind while we sit here reading a book which allowed us to come to that understanding? Because learning is neither bad nor good. It is natural and healthy–yet should never be used as a replacement for real spiritual practice.

A good example of what I mean is this:

You could read every book in the library on horseback riding. It would be enjoyable and you would indeed learn things, but there is no substitute for getting in the saddle, on the horse, with reigns in hand.

I can’t imagine there being things I don’t want to learn about, even if they seem to be “terrible” things. And, I remember Lao Tzu’s warning about residing only in books and book learning. Learn and also be in the world.

Learning is magic, after all.

Last part:

“and people we can’t live without, but have to let go.”

In Taoism, we concentrate on the center, developing our internal world, our internal sense of balance and connection. It may sound You-centric, but it does not imply superiority, simply that you are you. You have to start with you. Though we are all connected, in this physical form you can really only approach the world from your physical standpoint (which is where meditation comes in, to expand this reach). All answers are already within.

The more centered your internal universe, the easier it is to take things we THINK we can’t live without.

Letting go IS healthy. But it’s not simply because we cannot live without something and, again, must force ourselves to let go. Letting go should come naturally.

From the Tao Teh Ching:

“Things arise and [the master] lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect.” (2)

Buddhism also discusses how unhealthy it is to be attached to other people, objects and places. You can be detached and loving. They are not mutually exclusive. “Detachment” is not negative, either. It is just the realistic centered-ness that comes from focusing on inner balance. You may love them, protect them, wish they could be around forever–(of course!) but you are never forced to let go of them because you never possessed them to begin with.

“The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is as open as the sky.”
(Tao Teh Ching, 12)

Of course we must endure sometimes–but it’s all about perspective.


The other blogger’s response to the quote, from a different spiritual perspective. Some of the parallels are interesting.



Smoke Tree, Year 1, Spring 2006

The cycle of seasons is an everlasting circle.

Our ancestors observed the passages of each–relying on a natural calendar to plant, grow, harvest, and repose. Each season brings its own flora, fauna, weather, and personality. Some even compare the seasons to stages of life and growth–with spring usually seen as the young child, emerging from the death of winter.

I can usually “feel” spring well before the calendar clicks over. It sneaks in. Days are cool, but warm at the edges. There’s a subtle shift in smell–the crispness reveals an almost watery scent, like a fishing pond. The plants in my yard begin to put out leaves and buds.

Smoke Tree, Year 2, Spring 2007

In my fervor to move away from New Mexico–I pause now, wondering what might become of the trees and bushes I’ve planted and cared for while living here. Will the next family who moves in simply cut them down? I’ve seen that so many times before. Or will they also enjoy the tiny green leaf buds of my robust Smoke Tree, now over 8 feet tall (who started out the size of a pencil), or the fresh sappy perfume of the Arizona Cypress’ new growth? Maybe children will play near the Red Leaf Sand Cherry, admiring the white blossoms without having memory of the year the tree nearly died from strong, hot winds… I carefully brought it back from the brink and now it grows near the Smoke Tree, brave in the sandy soil. Every time I see the Sand Cherry, I’m reminded that the worse situations can always be put in perspective.

Two years ago, a tamarisk took root in the worst, sandiest part of our yard. Tamarisk, or Salt Cedar, are considered invasive if they get down into native areas–like along the Rio Grande or in tree preserves. However, trimmed and cared for as single specimens, they are beautiful and unafraid. The little tamarisk teased me its first year. I knew it wasn’t a weed. It had a rough, rooty stalk. It grew straight upright quickly–fearlessly. I trimmed branches to keep it from overgrowing nearby plants and watched it soar. Now, it’s well over 11 feet tall. It will outlive me, if my house’s future family doesn’t cut its life short.

Smoke Tree, Year 3, 2008

Spring brings about a fresh beginning–but it’s also like a family vacation back to the familiar personalities of nature.

What will happen to the family of trees in my yard when I’m gone? Nothing lasts forever.

My smoke tree, chronicled here with three years of photos (I will add more photos, I just need to pull out the files), grew from a tiny pencil purchased from the Arbor Day Foundation, into a tree taller than me, with a thick trunk and fluffy flowers. I had such high hopes for New Mexico. I had high hopes for my yard. I planted 10 trees and only two survived the nasty desert weather. Like my time here in New Mexico, I feel as though the trees were kicked around, struggled… and only the strongest survived.

Again, I wonder–what will happen to the smoke tree when I’m gone? What will happen to the juniper and the chaste tree? I’ll do what I can to help them grow and flourish as long as I’m here, but after that, it flows as it goes.

It’s like letting go of children, I think. At some point, I’ll have to trust them to the rest of the world. And when I let them go, it will be like another spring, starting brand new.

(I will take photos of the smoke tree tomorrow–for a 2010 update.)

Edited to add the newest photo of the Smoke Tree (6/12/2010):

Smoke Tree, May 2010

Wine Jugs, Shikishi Board by Ren Adams, 2009

Daily Musings 3/29/2010 – Don’t Let Things Own You

This is a classic, traditional Taoist tale:

Centuries ago, a decorated and famous warrior-general in the Emperor’s army retired after a long career. He had been hailed for selflessly leading his men into battle and for keeping his soldiers happy, healthy, and well-taken care of through years of hard battles. He was renknowned for being honorable, kind, and devoted and had never been afraid to die, no matter how much other solider may have feared the odds.

He retired with a nice pension and was given a home, land, and money to start “golden years” with.

Settling into his new life, he began to collect ceramics. Vases were his favorite. When he’d served his country as a warrior, he couldn’t really take a collection of large items around the countryside with him, so this new hobby became an obsession. He began buying antiques and display pieces everywhere, and whenever he could.

He collected fragile, beautiful antique vases and his collection began to grow. He paid high prices for them and set them proudly on display in his home. He often took them down to admire his purchases and he showed them to any guest who came over.

One day, while admiring an expensive new acquisition, he sat turning the vase over and over in his hands. How beautiful and rare it was! How expensive it had been! He was so proud to own it and to have it in his prized collection!

As he turned the vase and admired its valuable surface, his fingers suddenly slipped. In an instant, his prized, expensive possession began to spin away from him–through the air. He panicked. He lunged for the vase and his blood pressure went sky high. He barely caught it before it hit the ground and he sat there, holding it, seized in mortal terror. He felt fear and desperation throughout his entire body. His vase had almost shattered!

He sat back down, stunned. For decades he had fought fearlessly, never once thinking of himself. Always living life to the fullest and striving to be an honest person–without worry or greed. Without fear. Without trepidation.

Yet suddenly, here as a retired soldier–perfectly safe in his own private home, he felt sheer terror. He had never felt it on the battlefield but he was now alone and mortally afraid. He had felt so sick, frightened and terrified that his prized vase might break, that he felt he had almost died from the intense panic and despair.

After a moment of silence, he slowly sat back and smiled. He looked at the vase again. Had he become so attached to owning these prized possessions that they filled him with fear and mortal terror?

As he gazed at the priceless antique, he opened his hands. The vase fell to the floor and shattered.

Ever known someone who wouldn’t let you sit on the furniture, but made you plant your butt on a plastic slip cover instead? The couch would last a hundred years, delicately protected–but no one would have enjoyed it. Ever known someone who hoarded their collection of widgets and would have a panic attack if one was moved slightly out of place? They’d die if the widgets were stolen, crushed, or lost. You know who I’m talking about.

Some of you may even be attached to things with a level of ferocity. Cars, electronics, wardrobes. I understand. I’ve been there.

And I think the story speaks for itself.

I used to be neurotic about my books. I would keep them in closed book cases, super clean. I would dust them and keep them smelling fresh and nice, make sure there was no damage to the covers, no creases on the spines. I know, kinda OCD. A lot of people get this way with books and I’ve met a few who do the “turn the page, wash your hands,” thing.

I suppose it’s partly about treasuring the value of their contents–while losing sight of the fact that a torn cover or stale pages doesn’t mark the end of life as we know it, or the end of usefulness for the book.

I wouldn’t lend them to anyone, for fear of how they might be mistreated or damaged. To make a long story short, I realized one day that it was all just silly. It just clicked with me–I think after reading about an apartment fire nearby. If there were a fire or flood–something truly momentous or serious, the books would be destroyed. And, in that instant of evacuating something truly dangerous and serious (not the perceived seriousness of french fry grease or grubby kids), what would I grab? The cats. Living things. Not my prized, hermetically sealed collection of replaceable books.

Replaceable. Not as important as the living things around me. Replaceable. That was key. And even for rare books, signed books–maybe not so easily replaceable, but still not important for daily life and existence.

We are not what we own.

A weight was lifted off me. It was an instant cure for a semi-OCD thing that had been going on through college. I lent books out, lost some when they weren’t returned. I eagerly bought used books, damaged books, beat-up books. Collecting and enjoying, but staying respectfully detached.

I merrily read while eating, heaped them in piles on the floor, tossed and traded them. Still treasuring the inside, but remembering that they are vehicles of knowledge and should be respected–not psychotically hoarded.

After the first break-in at our house last year, I was glad to find that my priorities lay in making sure my fellow living things were alive and well–I didn’t even realize things had been stolen for several hours (or care). The things that were stolen? Inconvenient. Mysterious. Slightly maddening in afterthought, but nothing compared to the joy of knowing living things were safe.

It’s OK to collect things and to enjoy the little things that make life fun. Just don’t get so attached to them that they fill your life with terror. Don’t ever let it get that far. If you become so attached to a car that the thought of it getting into an accident fills you with horror–step back a bit. Nothing is permanent and all things will come and go at some point. Even your grandma’s perfect couch.

My Tao and Zen students know how I often draw parallels from the Tao to Fight Club. You’ll enjoy this one. 🙂

It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. –Tyler Durden, Fight Club

If you want to be given everything, you must first give everything up. –Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

Letting go isn’t easy.

Whether it’s hanging on to a loved one, a deeply ingrained ideal, or even a favorite sweater–human beings have a hard time just letting things come and go as they will. It’s hard to step back, change our course, and let ourselves go the way we’re meant to go, especially when we have emotion, time, or money deeply invested in a particular event, plan, idea, or concept.

The more we’ve put into something, the harder it is to let the currents flow naturally.

Letting things take their natural course and flow is one of the cornerstones of Taoist thought. The more we try to force things to go as we believe they should, the more chaotic the situation becomes. The more chaotic, the more unbalanced. Since balance and internal harmony are key, it stands to reason that the more you try to control, the more out of whack and unable to find inner peace you become.

The more we go against that gut instinct that tells us something isn’t right, the more the whole thing blows up in your face. The more we lay rules down on top of the natural course of events, the more things spin out of control.

One of my Tao and Zen students, a teacher of great insight, called this ability to let go at the right time and hold on at the right time, “The Joy of Letting Go.”

“The master lets things come and go
as they will,
thus she is completely present
and can welcome all things,”

–Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu

Have a fantastic day.