Getting Unstuck

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“Trees lose their leaves in order to save themselves,” said our yoga teacher, pointing to the multicolored trees outside. That startled me. Why does something so beautiful require such a sacrifice? She explained that trees have to let their leaves go so their energy won’t be sucked dry. They know when it’s time to prepare for winter.

We could learn a lot from that. I, for one, have trouble letting go of the past—holding on to objects that meant something to me back in the day, and attitudes that seemed like a good point of view at the time. Whether I dwell on the high points of days gone by or negative reactions and sorrows, I’m stuck in the past. Life both outside and inside us is in constant movement—from the flow of oxygen-rich blood that nourishes the body to the flow of impressions that come at each moment to feed the soul. Just like the trees we all need to let go of the vestiges of the past. To lean on habit and comfort, or count on what already works without taking any risks, denies the full experience of our present life..

When we do let go, accepting a wintry time of suspended animation, every spring’s promise of rebirth becomes a reality. But how to allow the dead and dying past to blow away on the winds of change? Thinking of the teacher’s words as I stand on my mat in Mountain pose, looking at the trees outside, I ask myself: “What can help me let go of the past in order to save my life?” The first leaf I want to give up is red with my own blood: the tendency to judge others and myself. “Let it go,” cries a voice from deep inside. In the next few days I notice yellow leaves of self-pity as well as brown ones full of self-justification. What’s more upsetting is that the leaves that are still bright green are full of affirmations from the ego.

The Buddha had it right. It’s the “hankering and the dejection” that keep us holding on, refusing to let go of past and future to enter the unknown present. So maybe a first step to would be to try to put less energy into wanting things. Then there are all those thoughts regretting yesterday or dreaming of tomorrow. Letting past and future go, I could nourish the present moment with today’s life-energy.

Since I’m not very good at doing it, I pray to whatever higher forces might be available “Help me let go.” I’m reminded that Seeing comes first, long before Doing, long before making changes, and while it may be a long way home to my Self, as long as I keep the hankering and the dejection in mind, I’m following the right path. What’s more, I suspect that somewhere in each of us, in a place we seldom trust, grows a whole forest of evergreens.

If you want to share this path with me, here are a few suggestions: Isn’t the first step to letting go of the past seeing how hard you hold onto it? It was for me. Just notice your thoughts and feelings whenever past wounds or successes fill you during the day. Write them down. At the end of the day, fit the individual items on your list into general categories, giving a name or a color to each category. Find your own way to do this, but here are a few of mine: “I wasn’t understood.” “They made me mad.” “Wow, that turned out well!” “I wish I hadn’t said that.” “He has no right!”

Then, with your list in mind, you can gather more examples day by day of how you hold on and hold back. Are last night’s dreams still mesmerizing you? Are you still muttering about the guy who bumped against you in the subway? How did the colleague who stopped talking the minute you came into the ladies’ room make you feel? Place any resentments or reactions into your categories, and add new ones if necessary. It helps to recognize how much they interfere with the possibility of living in the present.

This exercise may feel like gathering a litany of faults, a kind of self-attack, but if you approach it like a scientist making an experiment you’ll realize that the Seeing is what’s important —to find out how and why you store up resentments or bad feelings about yourself or others in a kind of inner refrigerator. Be alert to what offends or disappoints you as you notice the judgments you make all day long about everything. All of us have certain rules or prejudices we cling to for safety, without asking why.

Dig deeper every day. Is there one category that stands out, that repeats itself more than others? Which is more hurtful to you? Do you tend to feel angry more often, or victimized? Which do you hold onto longer, resentments of others or bad feelings about yourself? Write it all down. See if you can figure out what triggers any of these feelings. What’s important is to uncover, at the very moment of the reaction, what in you is holding onto the past and why. Maybe there’s a button others press that never fails to activate your reaction. Once you know that, maybe you can figure out how to deactivate it.

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