How Can I Let Go When I Don't Know I'm Holding On? by Linda Douty

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How Can I Let Go If I Don't Know I'm Holding On?

Chapter 15: Litmus Tests of Letting Go

Written By Linda Douty

Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within.
—Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now 

Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lai-tsu,the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads.
—Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

You will know them by their fruits.
—Matthew 7:16

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
—Galatians 5:22, 23a

This is not a final exam. This is not a checklist to see if you're passing muster in Letting Go 101. However, it is a kind of behavioral barometer that provides a loose measure of how you're doing. As an interested observer of this process, I've noticed some recurrent signposts along the path among people who are sincerely committed to relinquishing their barriers to growth. They tend to exhibit certain characteristics—slowly, but surely, like plants in a well-tended garden.

This doesn't happen in a flash, of course. Nor does it happen completely. In fact, if you totally embody all the attitudes I'm about to mention, you would be a candidate for sainthood. So I offer them merely as unofficial signals that grace the lives of those who are learning the art of letting go.

I began compiling this random list of attributes following an interesting conversation with a long-time spiritual direction client. For many months, Patricia had been knocking on the door of release, but couldn't quite enter the room. There was resistance that was well justified and firmly entrenched. She had been understandably hesitant to release the reasons for holding on—the yes-buts—after all, they were very real.  But continuing to re-visit them in our spiritual direction sessions had stalled her in a familiar, "stuck" place. The recurrent resistance was being steadily worn down by grace and by her own persistent commitment.

Bit by stubborn bit, she had been chipping away at her behavioral blocks, looking them straight in the face and courageously calling them by name. And it wasn't easy work. Her barriers were wolves in sheep's clothing—things our society would view as good traits—such as a dogged determination to succeed, a vigorous work ethic, commitment to a meaningful cause, and a sense of super-responsibility. These attributes formed the core of her self-esteem, and she was proud of it.Then the shadow sides of those traits began to take their toll. Perfectionism, continual self-criticism, and feelings of competitiveness were making her anxious and stressed out. Her body got into a reactive mode, demanding medical attention. And that got her attention.

Tracking the trail of causes took some time. Stress-producers lurked around every corner. She admitted that scaling the height of her profession was now out of her reach, yet she couldn't let go of the feelings of disappointment. Deeply committed to her ministry and calling, she was often embroiled in the inevitable conflicts and demands of church life, evoking yet more stress. Even in the face of increasing encroachments on her personal time, she still drove herself relentlessly, trying to get it all done.

But Patricia continued to believe that God would lead her to wholeness, if she would do her part faithfully. She began to confront her barriers in earnest, slowly relinquishing her defensiveness about the reasons for her condition. Though an energetic extrovert, she embarked on the practice of centering prayer in an effort to release control in the silence of God. I knew the weeks of daily practice had been very difficult for her, but she continued to trust God even when she detected no results whatever. She made a point of noticing her persistent negative thoughts and behaviors, owning and releasing, owning and releasing. And she kept showing up for her monthly spiritual direction appointment, willing to monitor her deepening relationship with God.

“So, how are things going?" I asked casually as we began our time together. "Is that situation with your colleague still tense? Are you still friends?" (I recalled that months before she had been highly anxious about a particular relationship, still harboring some resentments and wounded feelings.)

“Oh, I don't worry about that much anymore, I guess," she replied offhandedly. "She has a right to her feelings. It's not really about me, anyway; actually, it doesn't feel personal. I just want to love and accept her and our friendship as it is, not as it was.”

I leaned forward and smiled. "Did you just hear yourself?"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"You're letting go without even realizing it," I said eagerly.

Once again I noticed that one of the characteristics of process is that its results tend to sneak up on us—to appear as serendipity, not as the outcome of conscious striving. Patricia had become aware of her need to let go; she had made herself available to all sorts of helpful input; she had acted out in her experience what she was learning in her head; she had allowed God's healing to work—unseen and unevaluated; then she had accepted the situation as it was.

"Is this how I know I'm on the right track?" Patricia inquired. "I felt as if I wasn't getting anywhere, but maybe I am, after all! What are some other signs of progress?"

So I began to ponder her question. I thought about the demeanor and habits of people I knew who seemed most authentically themselves in the best sense of the word, those who exuded safety and acceptance to those around them, those who seemed to have let go of impediments to love of God, self, and others. Not surprisingly, the same traits and tendencies kept showing up.

Letting go isn't a matter of clicking off one switch and flipping on another. Rather it’s a gradual, subtle process where certain attitudes seem to emerge over time as one continues toward freedom of spirit. These attributes cut across lines of gender, age, personality type, and religious affiliation. It's as if God is patiently waiting to grow the fruits of the spirit in us, if we will just release what is blocking the flow of grace.

“You will know them by their fruits," scripture reminds us. Many of us can talk a good game. We can recite the creeds, state unequivocally what we believe (and, by extension, what any "good Christian" ought to believe), and perform worthy works. However, the integration of true growth means that our external acts are the embodiment of what is inside us; there is congruence between inner and outer—no gap between who we are inside and what we project outside— authentic wholeness.

What follows is a partial list of signposts—reliable indications that healing is taking place. Try to resist evaluating them as "all or nothing." The question is not, "Have I perfected these qualities, every day in every way?" Rather, ask yourself, "Do I seem to be moving in this direction—just a little more this month than last month? Do I see signs of subtle change in my thoughts and responses?”


Less worry.  
The differences between responsible concern and needless fretting will become clearer. You will begin to see worry as something that usurps your energy and serves no useful purpose. Fear will lose its motivating force and will produce fewer fear-based reactions.

Less striving
This means more patience with everything—from waiting in traffic to waiting on your own life to unfold. To return to St. Teresa's metaphor, you will experience less hauling water in buckets and more standing in the rain! Striving to make things happen will slowly give way to allowing things to happen without manipulation or control on your part.

Less judgment.
You may become less interested in interpreting or directing the actions of others, allowing them to be responsible for their own lives. You will give others the benefit of the doubt, giving them the same acceptance that you desire for yourself.

Less guilt.
You will become more sensitive to the difference between meaningful guilt (a failure to be true to your best self that invites change) and senseless guilt (a feeling of inadequacy based on the opinions and expectations of others.) The words ought, should, must, and supposed to will virtually disappear from your vocabulary—replaced by I will, I choose, and I want.

Less self-consciousness
There will be fewer and fewer internal questions such as: How should I behave?  What image do I wish to present? How am I coming across? You will be more comfortable in your own skin. In stressful situations, you will not always assume that you did something wrong or said something offensive. You will cease to take things personally.

More response-ability.
There will be a growing awareness that you have a choice in how you respond in any situation. There may be a time-delay in knee-jerk reactions to things that used to set you off, for you will no longer be at the mercy of volatile emotions. You will become increasingly able to respond rather than react.

More soul-connection, less ego-connection.
This means you are becoming more independent of criticism as well as flattery. The opinions of others may delight, instruct, or disappoint you, but they won't tell you who you are.

More cooperation. 
You will have a greater capacity to give others accolades, allow them to be in the limelight. Feelings of competition will tend increasingly toward cooperation.

More ego-transcendence.
Your capacity to feel pleasure in the pleasure of others will grow, as well as a capacity for concern about events not directly related to your self-interest. You will be willing to invest yourself in tomorrow's world, even thought you may not be around to see it.

More appreciation of beauty.
From sunsets to symphonies, beauty in sight and sound will delight and inspire you, giving you a sense of connection with all of life.

More comfort with Mystery.
Paradox, uncertainty, and ambivalence will cease to feel like enemies. Your anxiety will be replaced with awe.

More connection to body.
You will begin to appreciate your body as a wondrous, multi-faceted creation of God, one through which God guides you.  You will learn to identify feelings of resonance (consolation) and resistance (desolation) as internal messages.

More acceptance of self and others. 
As you are able to truly receive the unconditional love of God, you will accept yourself as okay—warts and all. You will make fewer self-deprecating statements about yourself. By extension, you will have an increased capacity to accept others as they are, even if you don't approve of what they do. You will value diversity, for it will no longer threaten you.

More simplicity
You will find as much delight in a bright red geranium as in a bright red sports car. Too much "stuff" in your life may begin to weigh you down, as you become more aware of the difference between permanent values and transitory values.

More ability to live in the moment
You will act more spontaneously, be more attentive and present to others, and feel less scattered and out of focus.

More forgiving attitude
You will feel increasingly imprisoned by unforgiveness and resentment, as you become more sensitive to their toxic qualities. You will understand that you can forgive people without condoning behavior.

More aliveness
You will feel both pain and pleasure more vividly. Since the Spirit does not give protection from sorrow, you may feel it more keenly than before, yet with more peace.

More creativity.
Creative energy will expand and show itself in unexpected ways, not just as paint on a canvas, but as fresh business ideas, lively ways to entertain the grandchildren, new ways to make ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.

More gratitude
Gratitude will grow to be a lens through which you view life, rather than a list of blessings.

More capacity to listen.
You can be totally present to others without trying to fix them. You can develop your capacity to listen to God as well.

More generosity.
You may want to give with no strings attached, without control or recognition.  It will emerge from a deep desire to share.

More kindness.
Your actions will come from a reservoir of goodwill. You will be less dependent on how others receive your kindness or how they respond to it.  You will sense the difference between pity and true kindness.  It will become less what you do and more who you are.

More compassion
You won't simply feel sorry for people; you will share their suffering in a visceral way. Your desire to be of service will come from not from a feeling of guilt, but from a genuine need to share the love of God. This may lead you to put "legs" on your compassion by a growing interest in justice issues. You will act from choice rather than duty.

More trust.
There will be a growing confidence in a benevolent universe created by a loving God, a blessed assurance that you are never abandoned, that the Spirit cares for you. You will trust this Love, without having to know the future.

More freedom.
You will act more spontaneously, take more risks, love more lavishly. By letting go of impediments to love, you will be increasingly free to living out of the principle of love.


From HOW CAN I LET GO IF I DON'T KNOW I'M HOLDING ON by Linda Douty. Copyright ©2005 by Linda Douty. Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc.

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