The early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers taught that the Way of Jesus is a path of subtraction more than addition. They strove mightily to become loving, forgiving, kind, and compassionate, but they also dropped those things that brought them down or served as a distraction from their surrender to God. They knew how to let go.
Thomas a Kempis, in the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, also advocated making a regular practice of letting go: "To sum up, dear friend of Mine, unclench your fists, and let everything fly out of your hands. Clean yourself up nicely and stay faithful to your Creator."
But how does this work out practically? Usually not without a great deal of intention, effort, and patience with yourself.
Letting go of fixed ideas about the way things are or how people are supposed to behave is one step, and it's not easy. Take some cherished idea of yours and try to change it; you will see that the resistance is very strong. The mind likes the security that comes with long-held ideas. But the spiritual life requires us to constantly examine and even revise our ideas. We learn to reframe our views especially about our status and superiority over others.
Letting go of the fantasy that we can control what happens in our lives is another difficult assignment. We have been programmed by the media to believe that we can influence others and even make them love us by what we wear, how we look, and how much money we spend. But in reality, none of these things can effectively change our lives. Letting go means surrendering to the grace of God that makes things happen. In Christianity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, beautifully models this concept as a young unwed girl when she opens to grace. She doesn't know what will happen, but she knows trying to control it is folly. In Buddhism as well, not knowing acknowledges the mystery of life and honors the inexplicable things that come our way as spiritual gifts.
Letting go of hurry and worry in this fast-moving culture is another spiritual challenge. It means relaxing our grip and all the tension that comes with it. Slowing down may be regarded as an act of subversion in the business world where we are pressed to do everything as quickly as possible. Quick thinking is rewarded, and those who can't keep up are penalized. But letting go of speed can lead to new possibilities. "Trees do not force their sap," the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, "nor does the flower push its bloom." With more time, you may hear the voice of your intuition and discern the will of God.
Perhaps the everyday act of letting go that causes the most discomfort involves our possessions. One way to prepare for winter is to clear away some of the clutter that has gathered in the basement, garage, or attic. Because it's so natural to cling to things, every choice about what to keep or discard reflects what matters to us.
Clutter-clearers will tell you that you don't really need anything you haven't touched in a year. But this kind of letting go should not be done mindlessly. As you pack away items for a donation or even as you put them in the trash, you can pause for a few seconds to remember how they have served you. Remember, too, that the less you have, the more you will appreciate what you have and the more attention you can give your things. Here subtraction becomes a catalyst to gratitude.
That is one of the marvels of letting go: it always leads to a deepening and an enrichment of our lives.