First published on Huffington Post, 2011-02-26
A dear friend of mine cannot seem to let go of an old hurt. His marriage ended in the 1970s, and she passed away a few years ago, but thoughts of his ex-wife are still very fresh in his mind. We will be having a conversation, and something unrelated will trigger a memory. Attempts to steer him in another direction usually fail. He is simply unable to let it go.
Stories from our past, unforgiveness and regret distract us from living fully in the present. But how do we let things go and move on?
We all hold on to hurts from time to time. I realized recently I was holding on to a project that had not gone as I had hoped. I wasted way too much energy stewing over what had happened and why. I replayed the project in my mind many times — somewhat compulsively. Nothing could be done about it now; the project was over. I needed to learn from it and let it go, trusting that next time, I would do better.
So how can we let go when we feel compelled to hold on?
Compulsive thinking contaminates our present reality. When I realized I had been stewing over the project, I asked myself a simple question: Where am I right now? The question snapped me back into present moment awareness. My mind had been in one place while I was in another. We all do this. We may be lying in bed at night, taking a shower or driving to work, but our minds are distracted, or engaged in one-sided arguments, or trying to fix someone or something. Asking ourselves, “Where am I right now?” gives us a chance to step outside the internal dialogue for a moment of peace. Look around you, take a deep breath and notice what you see, hear and feel. Present moment awareness is the point of power and choice. It frees us from our compulsive thoughts.
So often we simply don’t want to accept what has happened. When mistakes are made, we tend to resist, telling ourselves that things should have gone another way. Resistance causes inner turmoil, robbing us of peace in our day-to-day lives. Acceptance brings peace. Learning from past experience is important, of course, but replaying things over and over again just binds us to old hurt, guilt and anger. With awareness and acceptance, we find that the hurtful situation loses its hold on us, and we are free to move on.
Forgiveness is a common stumbling block. We don’t want to let others off the hook for hurt or pain we feel they caused us. But forgiveness begins and ends in our own consciousness. We forgive in order to free <em>ourselves</em> from the bondage of judgment and anger. In Daily Word each month since 1924 we have included a message about forgiveness. I went back into the archives to find this from 1941:
As long as we hold harsh or unforgiving thoughts, we cannot be an open channel for the receptivity of good. They who are unforgiving harm themselves rather than the object of their condemnation, for the hate generated operates only within themselves and leaves its effect solely upon them.
We suffer when we hold on to the past. Do the forgiveness work, let it go and get some relief.
This quote from Kahlil Gibran is profound:
I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers.
It’s so true. We learn from the irritants in our lives. At the very least, we learn how not to be. But how often are we actually grateful for the lessons?
Once we become aware of our thoughts, accept the situation as it is and release it through forgiveness, we can then move on to being grateful for it. We can look back and find some aspect of the situation that has had a positive effect on us. Maybe we learned something. Maybe the trouble ultimately resulted in positive changes in our life. We may not be in control of everything that happens to us, but we are absolutely in control of our perception. Stepping into gratefulness for all that life brings is extremely freeing and empowering.
What kind of strategies have you developed to let go of old grudges or compulsive thinking?