by Jessica Graham
In self-help books, recovery programs, and spiritual communities there is a lot of talk about “letting go.” We are all urged to let go. But what does letting go really mean? The experience of being with my father’s dying forced me to cope with this question, and my meditation practice helped me enormously.
Letting go means being willing to experience whatever is happening, just the way it is. Allowing. In order for me to allow, I need to acknowledge and accept that whatever is happening is happening. For example, if I’m stressed, but pretending to myself that I’m not, then I’m not allowing that stress to exist just as it is. I’m ignoring, suppressing, and tightening up around it. This tightening up makes it more painful, more stressful, not less. It is the opposite of letting go.
If, on the other hand, I can accept that I am stressed, then I can notice that my heart is beating fast, that my shoulders are tight, and that my stomach is in knots, I can begin to relax around that. I can allow it to be the way that it is. I can then start to explore the physical sensations, separating them from the mental talk. The letting go comes by moving into my experience in a curious, less personal way. If you become accustomed to working though your emotions this way it gets easier to allow yourself and others to be just as they are in the moment.
My dad’s death gave me an amazing opportunity to practice these skills of letting go. Years earlier, when I first started working through my feelings around his alcoholism I realized that I needed to accept that I had no control over him or his drinking. I thought this acceptance would come in the form of a big awakening that transformed me into a shining light of compassion. It didn’t happen that way. I had no idea how to find acceptance within me, how to let go of my judgments. I had spent so many years thinking that if I said or did the right thing he would get better. The idea of giving in, of letting go, seemed impossible and vague.
But his health situation was so intense for me that I had to learn about letting go the hard way. There were moments that felt like big awakenings. These big insights were always preceded by a situation in which I had to allow and let go completely. That’s how my practice seems to work in general. I hit rough terrain, full of tightening up and suffering, and I think I can’t go on. Then I remember to allow all of it, to treat it as an adventure, and the dark clouds part, and I find another layer has peeled back. When this happens my baseline of happiness increases. It’s easy to forget the benefit of going though hell when you are in the worst of it, but I find the remembering happens more quickly each time.
After my dad’s throat was damaged by cancer surgery, he could no longer eat normally and a feeding tube was put in. My sisters and I had to fill his feeding tube bag several times throughout the day, measuring the right amount and keeping all the tubing clean. The food came in a can and was a thick yellow substance with a sour smell. My Dad loved food and having to be fed this muck was really adding injury to insult for him. During a visit from the chaplain he wrote a list of all the food he wished he could eat: Richard’s Famous pork chops, chicken fried steak, extra hot chicken wings, chocolate ice cream, coconut cream pie.
Because his body was slowly shutting down, he couldn’t digest very much at a time. After feeding him a small amount we would need to wait and then check to see if the food was just sitting in his stomach. We did this by connecting a large syringe to his feeding tube. If we could suck back more than one syringe full we had to wait before feeding him anymore.
For a few days his body seemed to be digesting a decent amount, so I set the machine to give him a very slow, but steady flow of food. This didn’t turn out to be the best idea. His stomach became overly full and he threw up. When your throat is damaged and you can’t even swallow, throwing up is terrible. His air passage was clogged and it became very difficult for him to breath. He went through cycles of panic, unable to get a full breath. He was so afraid. He managed to get out the words, “I’m not ready yet.” I called the hospice emergency number and gave him some medications to help with breathing. It was the weekend and we were told that the on-call nurse couldn’t get to us for an hour. All we could do was wait and try to comfort my Dad.
As I watched him repeatedly catch his breath and then start to choke and gasp again, I felt a very strong urge to shut down and ignore my emotions. I began to rush around. I was panicking right along side my Dad. I knew he was going to die soon, but this was so violent and so scary. I didn’t want to accept or allow it. I felt completely helpless. There was really nothing I could do. I was also filled with guilt. I was the one who had caused this by letting the food run continuously. My mind was looping with thoughts about what I should have done differently. I wanted the thoughts to stop, but this desire only made them stronger.
Then my meditation training kicked in. I stopped running around, and instead of shutting down, I directed my attention to what was happening in my body, examining it in detail. My heart was pounding, my head was throbbing, my chest felt like a two hundred pound weight was crushing it, and there was a subtle tremor in my arms and legs. I stopped tightening up around these sensations and allowed them to exist just as they were. I noticed the movement within the sensations. I explored how it actually felt. I acknowledged the guilty thoughts and allowed them arise and pass without contracting around the words. I stopped trying to quiet my mind and let it be what it was in that moment. I let go. I was then able to be present for my dad and for the rest of my family during this stressful and frightening time.
In the midst of big emotions, it’s great when you can find a quiet place, sit down, close your eyes, and meditate. This isn’t always possible. More often than not I find the big emotions come up when I need to be present in a situation with other people. It’s important to be able to use your mindfulness skills in action. It’s one thing to let go when you are sitting, peacefully immersed in your practice. It’s quite another to let go when you’re in the middle of a fight with your partner, or dealing with a challenging boss, or in this case caring for a father who is unable to breathe. Having the ability to use your practice in action not only helps you through tough times, it also turns struggle into insight.
For many years I knew I needed to stop trying to save my dad, but I just couldn’t let go. Bringing mindfulness to this situation did the trick. I had to accept that there was nothing I could say or do or think that would stop his suffering. I couldn’t force his body to take a breath anymore then I could force him to stop drinking or force the earth to stop turning. This is something I had understood intellectually for years, but it was different now. By allowing the emotions to move through my body, without resisting, in the midst of this highly charged experience, I gained true insight. I knew that I couldn’t save my Dad or anyone else. This kind of knowing sticks with you and spreads out into your life.
My Dad didn’t die that day. Eventually he stopped choking and was able to breath normally again. A close friend of mine showed up unexpectedly towards the end of this episode. We went outside and I shared my insight with her, got some hugs and cried. Sharing with someone else is another way that I have learned to let go. I always kept my cards close to my chest, but over the years I have opened up and let others in. The process of allowing and exploring my emotions made it possible to show myself to others.
For me letting go feels like diving in to everything without preference. When all of experience is allowed to construct and deconstruct, without resistance or grasping, the boundaries of good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant begin to merge. There is great freedom in this lack of differentiation. Letting go points me towards vast never-ending space. Everything happening is happening within all that space. When I am aware of that, the big scary things just don’t seem so big or scary.
It’s important to use your mindfulness skills not only on the cushion, but also in your every day life. This is the only way I was able to work with what come up the day my dad couldn’t breathe. Make it a habit to check in with the emotional sensations in your body throughout the day, paying attention to how they actually feel, not what your mind says about them. Work with the thoughts mindfully as well. Allow them to build and vanish without tying to push them down or figure them out. If you practice this, you will be amazed how much easier and more insightful challenging situations can be. You will be able to truly let go and live your life one breath at a time.