Letting Go of Emotions vs. Thoughts
January 08, 2017
A while back, I wrote about letting go of blame and judgment, following an enlightening "Zen with Len" retreat I attended last January. While the retreat helped me release others from anger I was feeling about perceived betrayals or other wrongs, I was still left with my feelings of pain, sadness and fear in response to those experiences. Letting go of pain has been an evolving process for me, and I wanted to share a few resources and practices that I have found useful on this part of the journey.
David Hawkins literally wrote the book on "Letting Go" (subtitle: "The Pathway of Surrender"), in which he argues for the primacy of emotions over thoughts, and proposes that by letting go of emotions, we can let go of the thoughts that emanate from those emotions.
Thoughts are merely rationalizations of the mind trying to explain the presence of the feeling... The thoughts associated with even one feeling may literally run into the thousands. The understanding of the underlying emotion and its correct handling is, therefore, more rewarding and less time-consuming than dealing with one's thoughts.
I tend to focus most of my time, energy and attention on thinking rather than feeling, and have always believed that thoughts give rise to feelings, but Hawkins suggests it is the other way around:
The mind is .. a survival mechanism, and its method of survival is primarily the use of emotions. Thoughts are engendered by the emotions and, eventually, emotions become shorthand for thoughts .. Reason is the tool the mind uses to achieve its emotional ends.
I initially found this description and the prescription for the "correct handling" of emotions counter-intuitive and unsettling. In my efforts to let go of the lingering pain, I had been devoting some of my meditations to focusing on troubling - and sometimes traumatic - thoughts, and sitting with the thoughts in an effort to let go of the emotions they give rise to. Hawkins suggests switching that around, and focusing directly on the emotion:
Letting go involves being aware of a feeling, letting it come up, staying with it, and letting it run its course without wanting to make it different or do anything about it. It means simply to let the feeling be there and to focus on letting out the energy behind it .. It is resistance that keeps the feeling going .. A feeling that is not resisted will disappear as the energy behind it dissipates... The feeling can .. be worked with by first accepting that it is there, without resisting it or condemning it. And then one begins to empty out the energy of the feeling directly by letting it be what it is until it runs out.
He acknowledges that some emotions are simply too overwhelming, and may require multiple letting go "sessions" of sitting with the emotions to release their power. It may also be helpful to deeply traumatic emotion into subcomponents, and let go of different elements incrementally over time.
Hawkins observes that suppressing emotions can increase stress, and that increased stress can lead to disease, and describes various ways that the mind and body are connected, much of which is consistent with my own experience, and with other teachings I've encountered (e.g., Gabor Mate's book, "When the Body Says 'No'"). He also covers several themes I wrote about in my last post, about attachment, dependency and possessiveness in relationships, so I won't go further down that path here, except to note here that I found one of his predictions about the potential outcomes of attachment especially poignant:
The other person, now feeling pressured by our energy of dependency and possessiveness, has an inner impulse to run for freedom, to withdraw, to detach and do the very thing that we fear the most.
One of the themes in the book I find most difficult to accept is the prescription to let go of desire, which echoes ideas I've encountered in [other] new age teachings:
wanting blocks receiving it [what is wanted] and results in a fear of not getting it. The energy of desire is, in essence, a denial that what we want is ours for the asking.. We surrender the emotion of desire and, instead, merely choose the goal, picture it lovingly, and allow it to happen because we see that is already ours.
Perhaps I'm not yet sufficiently evolved, but I personally don't see how wanting and desire - which are to be let go - are different from asking for something or setting goals - which are to be embraced - so I've decided to let go of this aspect of the teachings, at least for now.
There are a number of other aspects of the book that I find more difficult to accept. Hawkins was a proponent of using applied kinesiology to test muscle strength in the arm while a subject repeats a statement to "objectively" assess a subject's level of consciousness. His enumeration, ordering and descriptions of these levels - shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, desire, anger, pride, courage, neutrality, willingness, acceptance, reason, love, joy and peace - make intuitive sense to me, but associating frequency measurements with them, and estimating what proportion of the population has achieved these levels, do not. An essay on The Emperor's New Clothes: David Hawkins' Absolute Calibration of Truth offers a deeper investigation into some of Hawkins' questionable claims, and some of the ways he and his associates have actively sought to eliminate criticism from Wikipedia and other web sites.
As unsettling as I find some of these aspects of his teaching and behavior, I often find it useful to apply the slogan "take what you like and leave the rest", and continue to find resonance in his ideas about the primacy of emotions and the practices of letting go of the negative emotions ... although I will admit I initially found these unsettling as well.
One of the initially disturbing - but eventually resonant - aspects of Hawkins' views is that disturbances are beneficial:
Every life crisis carries within it the kernels of a reversal, a renewal, an expansion, a leap in consciousness, and a letting go of the old and a birth of the new .. a hidden lesson... Carl Jung [concluded that] there is an inborn drive in the unconscious toward wholeness, completeness, and realization of the Self, and that the unconscious will devise ways and means of bringing this about even if they are traumatic to the conscious mind...
One benefit of a crisis is that it often brings us into familiarity with our shadow .. Once the shadow has been acknowledged, it loses its power... Passing through a life crisis, then, makes us more human, more compassionate, more accepting and understanding of ourselves and others. We no longer have to indulge in making others wrong or making ourselves wrong.
... One major loss can awaken us to the nature of all attachments, and all relationships.
Indeed, I am hoping this journey through unresolved grief I started over a year ago is serving to awaken me to a higher state of enlightenment. The theme of crises and breakdowns facilitating growth has played a significant role in this awakening, and is a concept into which I plan to delve more deeply in a future post.
For now, I'll conclude with two other sources of inspiration for letting go that I revisit regularly. One is a brief passage by Tilopa shared in a guided meditation by Tara Brach - who regularly encourages attending to feelings in the body and letting go of thoughts in the mind - on Relaxing Open.
Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.
The other is a poem by Danna Faulds, from her book, Go In and In: Poems from the Heart of Yoga, which I read nearly every day.
Let go of the ways you thought life
would unfold; the holding of plans
or dreams or expectations – Let it
all go. Save your strength to swim
with the tide. The choice to fight
what is here before you now will
only result in struggle, fear, and
desperate attempts to flee from the
very energy you long for. Let go.
Let it all go and flow with the grace
that washes through your days whether
you receive it gently or with all your
quills raised to defend against invaders.
Take this on faith; the mind may never
find the explanations that it seeks, but
you will move forward nonetheless.
Let go, and the wave’s crest will carry
you to unknown shores, beyond your
wildest dreams or destinations. Let it
all go and find the place of rest and
peace, and certain transformation.
I continue to find it hard to accept that "the mind may never find the explanations that it seeks", but perhaps I'm moving forward, nonetheless.