Excerpt from TRAINING YOUR BRAIN by © Rick Hanson, PhD and Rick Mendius, MD
Letting go is an action of the mind – just like letting go of a tissue into a trash can is an action of the hand. It is completely natural. For example, in terms of the body, you let go every time your exhale or use the bathroom. Fundamentally, letting go is the opposite of the clinging that leads to suffering. And thus very in line with mindfulness and meditation.
As we think about letting go of things, it is natural to consider the element of aversion, which means disliking, resisting, hating, or fearing something. In the brain, aversion is the result of deep, evolution-driven brain structures that kept our ancestors alive and enabled them to pass along their genes. That information is being continually evaluated by different regions and circuits within your brain in terms of three fundamental dimensions: helpful to survival, harmful to survival, irrelevant to survival. By “survival,” we mean both life and death stuff and intermediate proxies, such as hunger and satiation, pleasure and pain, anxiety and confidence, frustration and satisfaction, etc.
Because survival programming in the brains of animals, including humans, is more a matter of avoiding the bad than enjoying the good, these evaluating regions and circuits are genetically primed to perceive and react to negative information, which then trains them further to perceive and react to negative information. This inherent “negativity bias” in your brain is why it is so important to deliberately intensify and savor and “take in the good” of positive experiences. That’s how you compensate for the brain’s natural tendency to hold onto and showcase negative experiences and to let positive ones glide right by.
Mother Nature gave us aversive reactions to help us survive and have grandchildren.
Aversion causes us to suffer in many ways:
• In itself it is an unpleasant experience.
• It activates the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system, sending a cascade of stress hormones throughout your body and pulling resources away from long-term projects like digestion or maintaining a strong immune system.
• Aversion often triggers the expression of negative emotions which have harmful effects on others and thus on oneself.
• It often leads us to act in impulsive, harsh, and exaggerated ways that harm ourselves and others.
• In a deep way, aversion divides us from the world by setting us against it or apart from it. This creates a painful inherent tension between “I” and world and adds to the sense of self which is itself a source of suffering.
In contrast to aversion, letting go in the sense we mean it here does not include aversion – though some may be arising in the mind at the same time, which is often the case this side of enlightenment!
Letting go without aversion means, primarily:
• Simply setting down and walking away. Releasing. Abandoning. Saying goodbye without anger. Exhaling. Taking out the garbage. Renouncing. Turning away from the bad.
• Turning toward the good. Planting flowers. Moving on.
More broadly, healthy letting go could also mean:
• Not attaching in the first place. Not taking the other person’s problem as your own. Not presuming that you are implicated. Setting a boundary between you and it.
• Firmly – though without aversion – pushing away, cutting off, or refusing that which is unwholesome.
Letting go does not mean being lackadaisical, irresponsible, or uncaring. You can care deeply about important things, and be inspired and motivated by heartfelt aspirations, without holding onto the results of your wise efforts.