Sometimes the best meditation practice is simply to surrender.
This post is about how to let go. For many years, I took my meditation practice very seriously. I dedicated a significant portion of my life to daily sitting and occasionally going on long retreats, which over time proved to be very helpful. This dedication to putting in the time really paid off by improving my experience of life.
Try this meditation script for letting go
But another part of my dedication turned out to not be so useful: trying really hard. My concept of spiritual practice at the time was very masculine and heroic—the fierce lone yogi in a cave, battling the forces of illusion to gain the prize of enlightenment. Although it seems somewhat naive to me now, back then I was completely serious about giving everything—blood, sweat, tears—I had towards that goal. This image is, after all, exactly how the quests Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, as well as that of countless saints and other spiritual masters are depicted.
It wasn’t that I was unaware of the paradox—striving towards a goal that eliminates all goals and striving; an ego attempting to overcome and ego. That 101-level realization was well known to me. You cannot overcome the ego by force of ego.
But I knew that over the millennia two different ways to cope with that paradox had been formulated. One was very straightforward: give up the quest. In this model—popular in some forms of Zen, Dzogchen, Advaita Vedanta, etc.—you let go of all striving completely. While still doing quite a bit of meditation, you allow the mind to settle on its own. The doer, or the sense of the agent who’s making the meditation happen, is sort of starved of its juice over time.
The second method uses, as the classic formula puts it, “a thorn to remove a thorn.” That is, it takes tremendous effort of will and tireless work to gain any insight into yourself, even if in the end that self is seen to be illusory. In other words, you use the force of the ego to uproot everything you can, and then at the very end you uproot the ego itself, by letting go.
I landed firmly in the second camp, so I applied myself with great intensity to my meditation practice.
“Let go of your soul. Let go until there is nothing left. Last of all, let go of letting go.”
Today, however, I see the aspect of effort in meditation quite differently. I still recognize the value of making all efforts to take time to meditate, to practice in life, and to go on retreats. That is all very important. That is the “thorn to remove the thorn.” But during the meditation practice itself, when you’re actually on the cushion, all of that effort must be relinquished. The moment your butt hits the cushion, let go of any striving, any pushing, any sense of force.
Instead, the only thing you have to do is to let go. Practice a complete surrender meditation. Surrender all effort, surrender all sweating and striving, surrender all sense of doing anything at all. There is nothing that you need to do. Let go of all fears. Let go of all concerns. Let go of all your responsibilities. Let go of all your needs. Let go of everything that’s so important. Let go of anything you’re obsessing about. Let go of your story. Let go of your ideas about who you are. Let go of trying to get anything out of the meditation. Especially let go of the sense that there’s anything wrong with you, or that meditation is going to fix you in some way.
Let go of the content of any sensory experience. That is, whatever you’re thinking or feeling is fine, don’t try to change it in any way. The content or meaning is irrelevant. Let go of that.
Completely and utterly surrender yourself without holding anything back. There is no part of yourself that is outside of this surrender, somehow watching it, controlling it, or seeing “how it’s going.” Surrender your feelings, surrender keeping your shit together, surrender your mind. Let go of your soul. Let go until there is nothing left. Last of all, let go of letting go.
Allow yourself to effortlessly swim in the ocean of your internal experience. It will buoy you up every time. There is nothing at all that you need to do or be. In this place of total surrender, there is only love and support, only peace and clarity. These do not exist as their normal emotional forms—that is merely content—instead they exist as something like the nature of reality. They simply are.
Give Up All Striving
It is impossible to really touch this level of love and peace while you are still striving. It is not until you give up all self-striving that the source of love and peace will scoop you up and hold you. So let go, right now. Just let go. Everything is all right. You are perfect and fine.
There is nothing in this moment to change. Surrender into the reality of the now. It will take care of all your needs, and you will feel love, freedom, and peace. It only asks that you give up one thing: everything.
Here is a meditation script for letting go, called Let It Be. This letting go meditation script is very popular surrender meditation.
Looking to let go in order to go to sleep? Try this guided meditation for sleep.
Some Things to Not Let Go Of
Is there anything to not let go of? Well this is kind of an interesting question, because the answer is “it depends.”
It depends on whether you are actually meditating right now or not. If you are meditating, then it’s important to remain awake, alert, and present. Don’t just let yourself fall asleep or get all distracted and mushy. If that happens, it’s not the end of the world or a big issue. Simply forgive yourself, feel love for the practice of letting go, and gently raise your energy level a bit, bring yourself back into the active letting go in the moment. Don’t let it get all sleepy.
If you’re not in the process of meditating right now, then there is quite a lot you can still “hang onto.” It’s important to keep up the practice of meditation. So, don’t kid yourself into saying that you’re going to let go by letting go of even practicing at all, and then never sitting down to meditate again. This is a total fail. Instead, it’s totally appropriate to have a schedule and to have a goal to sit and meditate.
Once you sit down on the cushion, however, JUST LET GO.
flowers photo by Rennett Stowe
girl photo by Greg Westfall
My question is always, who is the one that “let go” things?
Maybe it doesen´t matter, or maybe as you say is “let go of letting go”
I address that question, as you noticed, by saying “let go of letting go.”
great, thank you!
Michael, Vipassana meditation is with eyes closed, right?
Open or closed: either is completely fine.
This “feels” right, but how exactly does one “do” this letting go?
Letting go isn’t a doing, it’s a stopping of doing.
If one is (inadvertedly) constantly trying too hard and therefore striving, what advice would you give to change that “pattern”?
Not to be glib, Bruno, but the solution is to stop trying so hard. Remember that striving is an action that is metaphorically like tensing a muscle. It is doing something. The answer is not to do a second thing to counteract it, but to just stop doing the first thing – i.e. stop “tensing the muscle.” In practice, relax more, take more time between noting, breathe deep, contact relaxed sensations and enjoy them.
Thank you for the answer. Just to clarify, i’m not doing vipassana, but samatha meditation. I am trying to get to jhana as once before been able to… (hence the striving and trying too hard…) I haven’t been “sucessful” at it for a long time and search the internet often looking for new ways of “seeing” it. Your text was very insightfull and I believe sums it up very well: “letting and stop striving” seem to actually be the “keys” if there are any. Relaxing also seems to be a (or the) major factor. I will keep on practicing and hopefully stop trying and just relax more as you said. Kind regards.
Love this article. Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂
You’re welcome. Glad you like it!
I can’t immediately find a reference for the “thorn to remove a thorn” formulation being from the Buddha. Do you have a source for that?
Not immediately. It’s a standard trope in Indian spirituality regarding meditation. I’ve heard it attributed to the Buddha, but do not have a reference. Here it is being used by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn:
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, author, and poet describes this method in The Miracle of Being Awake when he states:
“The sadness or anxiety, hatred, or passion, under the gaze of our concentration and meditation, reveals its own nature. That revelation leads naturally to healing and emancipation. The sadness, or whatever, having been the cause of pain, can be used as a means of liberation from torment and suffering. We call this using a thorn to remove a thorn. We should treat our anxiety, our pain, our hatred and passion gently, respectfully, not resisting it, but living with it, making peace with it, penetrating into its nature by the meditation on interdependence.”
Would it not be prudent, then, to begin with the end in mind?
This letting go of ALL relates directly to what I was just reading and sort of experiencing and that’s the apophatic approach that anything to be said about God (and I guess this could maybe include “presence” and “awareness” and to “I am”) is that which God is not.
Apophatic Christianity was very powerful.
I love your comment “Letting go isn’t a doing, it’s a stopping of doing.” So clear. Thank you! Young
YES!! This was a turning word for me, great article. It’s a little scary to let go, but what I fear losing is only whatever I’ve constructed in my mind with desire. I’m meditating and training precisely because those constructs fail me, I could choose anything and decide it is “meaningful” and invest time and energy into it. Thanks Michael.
I think I have read ‘the thorn’ metaphor in Nisargadatta. Here it is: The outer self and the inner both are imagined. The obsession of being an ‘I’ needs another obsession with a ‘super-l’ to get cured, as one needs another thorn to remove a thorn, or another poison to neutralise a poison. All assertion calls for a denial, but this is the first step only. The next is to go beyond both. (From I Am That)