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Letting Go — It Never Worked

on September 13th, 2011 by Fabrice

Letting GoJapanese Zen master, Tanzan, who lived in the late 19th century, tells this famous story of traveling with fellow monk, Ekido, down a road to a muddy river crossing. Reaching the river bank, they encountered a lovely young woman in her beautiful silk kimono, unable to cross without ruining her clothes. Without hesitation, Tanzan graciously lifted the woman into his arms and carried her across the muddy river, then carefully placed her onto dry ground. Ekido remained silent, until hours later when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself: “Surely, what you did back there is against the rules,” he told Tanzan, “we monks are not allowed to go near a female. This violates monastic protocol! How could you have done that?…” Tanzan listened patiently until Ekido was finished with his accusations. Finally: “I put the girl down by the river bank,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

This story illustrate the difference between going through the motions of letting go—as Ekido did, who maintained an irreproachable behavior, yet kept his mind busy with thoughts of the young woman—and the actual letting go—as demonstrated by Tanzan, who was not attached to any thought about her.

Attachment is always about both the past and the future, comparing what was to what will be. It could be the memory of a loved one who will no longer be with me, or the experience of a life of poverty while I dream of becoming a millionaire, or fearing to leave the relative safety of a limiting but familiar situation for a potentially expansive but unknown one… In all cases, whether I want to hold on to what I have or whether I want to get something I don’t have, I am attached to a belief that sounds like “I need…” or “I want…” Buddhism’s second noble truth teaches us that attachment and craving are sources of suffering. Yet, we find it difficult to let go of our beliefs and free ourselves. I often come across writings by people who exhort me to “let go and let God,” yet these authors do not offer a true way to do it. The problem is that as long as I believe thoughts like “I need to keep her love” or “I want him to change” I will continue to infuse them with mental energy, and try as I may to push them away, they will come back in force. Carl Jung allegedly said that “What you resist persists.” This is why just willing oneself to let go never really worked. Only when I question the reality of my beliefs do I have a chance to see that they are without substance, and stop reinforcing them, at last. Byron Katie (2002) wrote

No one has ever been able to control his thinking, although people may tell the story of how they have. I don’t let go of my thoughts—I meet them with understanding. Then they let go of me. (p. 5)

Let’s take for example the case of a woman whose boyfriend is threatening to leave the relationship. She may be going into anguish when attaching to the belief “I need him to stay with me.” Let’s examine from her perspective the truthfulness of that belief. If she were to really ask herself the question and let her wise mind answer, she may discover that she does not really need that. She could find out that his separating from her not only will not impair her life but, quite the contrary, give her more freedom. Meanwhile, as she dreads that separation, she lives in a self-inflicted hell and ends up creating what she fears most, because while she pushes away the experience and refuses to acknowledge her boyfriend’s desires, she mentally separates herself from him before he even does so physically. Turning the belief around would look like “I don’t need him to stay with me.” Indeed, I don’t need that to lead a healthy and productive life. Only a confused mind would make me believe otherwise. Another turnaround would be “I need me to stay with him.” When I resist him, I close my mind to his needs and I am not kind. I escape into a fantasy that denies reality and separate from him; no wonder he wants to go away! If instead I am willing to stay with him and listen, I may finally hear what could possibly be driving him away and allow him to feel heard and loved. Turning the belief around to the self, “I need me to stay with me.” This is the greatest love of all. In our confusion, we seek to manipulate the world and others to give us something that has always been with us.

Once I see that turnarounds are much truer than the belief I first attached to, then, letting go happens by itself.

And don’t forget to be mindful and inquire.


  1. The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, by Tashi Tsering. Wisdom Publications, 2005.
  2. Zen Buddhism: An Introduction to Zen with Stories, Parables, and Koan Riddles Told by the Zen Masters. Peter Pauper Press, 1959.
  3. Loving What Is, by Byron Katie. Harmony Books, 2002.

Posted in Blog Posts, Inquiry, Letting Go

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