I was reminded of the power of mindfulness recently while visiting my sick grandfather in the hospital.
As we talked, a nurse walked into his room and began to remove a breathing tube taped behind his ears.
“What are you doing?” he yelled. “You’re hurting me. Idiot!”
My grandfather is the quintessential angry old man, quiet, cynical, and mean. These days, we have a concept for that behavior: toxic masculinity.
But I’d never seen him take it out on someone outside of the family. The nurse, a young woman of color, was being gentle, yet confident. I wanted so bad to tell him to shut the hell up.
I decided to let the situation play out, see what happens. I began to watch what thoughts and emotions were coming up inside of me. I felt anger — a sharp burn in the center of my chest — but I also realized how lonely and afraid he must feel, having been plugged into machines for days.
I also began to admire the nurse. She stayed calm through what must’ve been a two or even three-minute temper tantrum. I pulled her aside as she left the room to apologize for his behavior.
“No problem,” she said, with a smile on her face. “I’m used to it.”
We think of mindfulness as the ability to pay attention and stay present, but it’s also the ability to let go, over and over again.
Before we can bring our mind back to what’s happening right here, right now, we have to let go of what we were distracted by.
This letting go is so powerful and potentially life-changing because the mind tends to do the opposite: hold on, cling, grasp.
Buddhist meditation teacher Pema Chödrön calls this tendency, “being hooked.” She writes, “It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down.”
As my grandfather had gotten more and more angry, I had begun to tense up with anger. Then, my mind tried to put out the fire by flooding with judgments: why can’t he just calm down? He’s such a dick. I’m weak for not defending the nurse.
“That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy, and other emotions,” writes Chödrön, “which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”
Poison is right. Telling my grandfather to shut up would’ve just added more fuel to the fire. We might’ve gotten in an argument. I might’ve left the hospital feeling horrible for yelling at an old, feeble man. The nurse might’ve felt that I was questioning her professional ability.
Instead, I chose not to bite the hook. I let the judgments and emotions pass, which allowed deeper, more skillful thoughts and emotions to come up, thoughts and emotions more aligned with who I really want to be.
It sounds counterintuitive, but meditation strengthens our muscle for letting go.
It’s a workout for the mind. We see our mind grab on to passing thoughts by remembering something that’s related, and then something else that’s related, and then… We notice when we get swept away into the past or future, missing much of what’s happening in the moment. We watch our mind cling on to things by judging in a split second — I’m not a good meditator.
Then we let go, over and over again.
After 5, 10, 20 minutes of watching and letting go, we’re all of a sudden more mindful. We sense a gap between what’s happening and how our mind responds to it. We have space to respond rather than react.
This gap, this space, is the starting point for deeper work. It’s the first step towards changing our long-term patterns and habits.
Once we have a strong letting-go muscle, we can apply other skills to the thoughts and emotions that come up.
We can go to therapy to learn where our particular judgments and patterns came from, and then how to heal the trauma that caused them.
We can learn about injustice in society to better understand why the conditions around us cause so much pain.
We can learn about how we’ve internalized these conditions through behaviors like toxic masculinity.
We can learn about politics and building community to change those conditions.
Letting go, over and over again, can help us do all of this with a little more choice and from our deepest intentions.
Ajahn Sumedho, one of the first Americans to become a Buddhist monk, writes:
“For minds obsessed by compulsive thinking and grasping, you simplify your meditation practices to just two words — ‘let go’ — rather than try to develop this practice, and then develop that, achieve this, and go into that. Instead of becoming the world’s expert on Buddhism and being invited to great international conferences, why not just ‘let go, let go, let go?’ For years I did nothing but this in my practice. Every time I tried to understand or figure things out, I’d say ‘let go, let go, let go’ until my desire would fade out. So, I’m making it very simple for you, to save you from getting caught in an incredible amount of suffering. There’s nothing more sorrowful than having to attend international Buddhist conferences.”