A guest post by Steve Waller.
Take a deep breath and try to hold it for as long as you can.
Go on… do it now.
The longer you go, the harder it becomes. Not only does it begin to hurt physically, you have to fight against your natural urge to release the breath; to let go.
A single breath, when held for too long, symbolizes one of the biggest psychological and spiritual challenges we face as beings of consciousness. It captures the desire almost all of us have to cling on to something for fear of losing it, even when it is to our own detriment.
In Buddhism, it’s known as upādāna which literally translates as fuel. This clinging is the fuel for dukkha, another Buddhist term that means suffering. So the more you cling to things, the more you fuel your own suffering.
With this in mind, here are 12 such things that you might currently be clinging to. If you can release them as you would your held breath, you’ll enjoy the same sense of relief that it brings.
If you grip life too tightly, you stifle and restrict it. Yes, keep active, eat healthily, avoid negative habits and addictions – do things that keep your body and mind working as best they can, but don’t resist the passing of time and the inevitability of your physical death.
If you fear death, you fear life. You become gripped by anxiety, worry, and despair. Faced with the prospect of your flame one day burning out, you ask, “Am I living a worthwhile life? Am I fulfilling my potential? Could I be doing more/better?”
These questions of meaning and existence steal the present moment away; they form a breeding ground for doubt and cast your mind into a frenzy of overly critical thinking and rumination. Life passes in the blink of an eye; either accept this fact or face the prospect of spending much of it wracked by fear.
Like life, everything must come to an end. If you cling to the belief that what you have now will last forever, you are destined to suffer repeated heartache.
Everything you base your life around is but a fleeting ripple in the ultimate reality. Things come and things go, and the best you can do is to accept this impermanence. If you don’t, every inevitable loss will come as a shock to your system and convince you of your bad luck, poor judgment, or ill fate.
If you can attune to this natural rhythm, this cycle of ceaseless birth and death, then you can learn to fully immerse yourself in the joy of the moment without fearing for its end.
When an unwelcome event befalls you, remember that it too will end. Don’t let yourself be deceived into believing that the suffering you endure will continue ad infinitum – it won’t.
3. The Past
In case you needed proof that all things are impermanent, just consider your past. Only… don’t consider it. For the past is another of those things that we humans like to cling to until our knuckles turn white.
You can think back to days gone by and smile, so long as you don’t use this as a form of escapism. You can find comfort in memories without pining for them – because as soon as you pine for them, any comfort quickly dissolves.
Yesterday is gone, never to return. Don’t mourn its passing and wish yourself back there because no genie can ever grant such a wish. Know that it was glorious and be thankful that it happened.
And as for past events that caused you pain, looks for lessons, but relinquish the hold they have over you. If you continue to cling to them, so the pain they cause will linger in your heart. Say goodbye to regret, remorse, and guilt; they will not serve you in the present nor the future.
As with the joy or pain of the past, so all feelings should be considered transient. Positive, negative, or neutral – it doesn’t matter how you categorize them – feelings are nothing but a temporary mental state.
Like particles at a quantum scale, they spontaneously appear and disappear in a never-ending cycle. Like a musical note, they oscillate between peaks and troughs.
Feelings generally have causes, and it is these causes that we try to cling to in order to extend the resultant feeling. The problem is that the more you have to force these causes, the less likely they are to lead to the desired feeling. Much like the first mouthful of a delicious cake brings utter bliss, by the time you get to the third slice, your enjoyment turns to displeasure.
Similarly, when the feelings are undesirable, we cling to the thought of what caused them almost to the point of obsession. We add fuel to our own anger or sadness by letting events replay over in our minds.
We humans have a capacity to think and plan forward in time that no other creature comes close to. We dream, we wish, we hypothesize, we expect. Unfortunately, the future has a knack of surprising us. No matter how much we like to think something will happen one way, it invariable takes another turn and heads in a different direction.
When this happens, the mental picture of the future we imagined is shattered and we are left facing a reality that is unknown and sometimes unwelcome. We ask how this could possibly happen; how did we get it so wrong?
If, instead, we loosened our grip on future events – if our expectations were reigned in with realism and an acceptance of uncertainty – we would greet each new event with a more open and tolerant eye. We wouldn’t be left fighting against an outcome we hadn’t planned for.
Another type of expectation we would do well to relinquish is those we have of other people. We might wish someone would act in a particular way, but we must realize that our control over events is limited, particularly where other minds and egos are involved. If you get upset every time a person does or says something you don’t like, you’ll live your life defined by others and suffer accordingly.
You are you, right? At least, you think you are. But are you really?
Most people in the West will readily and enthusiastically identify with their “I” in the sense that they are who they are and they know it because they think, see, and hear independently to any other. Therefore, they must be themselves, for no one else can be them and they can’t be the other.
But who are you? Are you your body? Your mind? Your thoughts and feelings? Are you the stories you tell yourself or those you tell others? Are you the sum total of your experiences thus far?
No, you are none of these things. There is no real self for you to cling on to because all that you are is a state of flux. When you say “I am angry,” you aren’t defining yourself. Instead, the truth is more along the lines of “anger is present.” Remember, feelings are not permanent; they flow in and they flow out.
The only true way to define yourself is through negation. You can only say what you are not: “I am not my body for it changes,” and, “I am not my past because it no longer exists.”
You are not weak, you are not strong; you are not happy, you are not sad; you are not your work, your flaws, your abilities, or your doubts. You just are. And by cutting the strings that bind you to your identity as a “self,” you can be free from the burden of being some “one” and enjoy the reality of just being.
Your sense of self is also responsible for another of the myths we tell ourselves: that we are separate from the rest of the universe. We like to cling to this idea because we fear what it means to be one part of the infinite whole. We are unable to identify with the reality that we are the very opposite of separate.
When you think logically, the concept of a separate, independent being is nonsense. We are defined by our relationship to the environment around us. We are not in this environment, but rather of it. We live through it and we cannot be defined apart from it. When we sit, we are in unison with the chair; we cannot sit without it or some other form of support.
When we see a sight or hear a sound, it is only because of our environment. If it weren’t for everything around us, we would be floating in a vacuum of cold, dark nothingness. “We” as expressions of energy simply would not exist.
When you accept that there is no barrier between you and everything else, you can begin to appreciate things for what they truly are. Fear subsides and you stop fighting against what’s “outside” because you know that outside and inside are meaningless concepts.
One of the things people find most difficult to let go of is their set of beliefs, opinions and values. Again, this comes back to our sense of identity and the understanding that we are a unique and distinct person who is defined, in part, by those beliefs.
The arguments against this point of view should be familiar by now. Firstly, “you” are always changing, and if a belief really were a part of you, then it would not change. And yet our beliefs change all the time as we are influenced by the people and events around us.
This is precisely why the previous point about separation is relevant here too. Your beliefs are not some innate product of your being; they are shaped by your environment. Your parents, your teachers, that time you fell off the swing as a child; they all have a part to play in the things you think now.
When you realize that your beliefs and values are not really yours, you can detach from them. When you detach from them, you are able to view the reality around you and not some augmented version of it that is colored and tainted by your memories, expectations, and prejudices.
So much of our lives are defined by the people around us: the ways we interact and communicate with one another, the feelings we have for each other, and the thoughts about them that swirl around in our heads.
People are important, yes, but our attachment to them can be detrimental to our wellbeing. The risk is that we define ourselves through the people in our lives; we make them a part of us, a piece of our puzzle.
Of course, as soon as you do this, when a person leaves you – through death, conflict, or just drifting apart – you feel a sense of loss and emptiness because they take that piece of you with them. Suddenly, you are no longer whole.
They say “If you love someone, let them go,” and these are wise words indeed. It doesn’t mean they cannot be a part of your life; it means that you should be prepared for a time when they are not. It means that you should let go of your dependency on them to make you feel complete.
10. Material Possessions
We are surrounded by things, by stuff, by our possessions and personal artifacts. Rarely are we apart from them, and their influence on our lives seems to grow by the year.
Too many of us define our success and happiness by the quantity and quality of the things we buy. We post photos of/with them on social media, we brag about them to our friends, we use them as a yardstick against which we measure our worth.
Alas, when we lose something or when we are unable to purchase the shiny new object we want, we get angry or upset. Clinging to the idea that material possessions can somehow lead to the kind of soul-deep comfort we yearn for means we are never satisfied with what we have, because if we could buy our way to contentment, we would have already.
No personal belonging is worth the kind of charged emotional energy we pour into it. If we should lose everything we have, we are no less of a person than we ever were before.
What do you want to achieve by the time you are 30? 40? 65? Where do you see yourself in 5 years time? These are the types of question we often ask ourselves and are asked by others. Society expects us all to have a crystal clear plan for our future and a timetable to go with it.
Yet it’s rarely ever that simple.
We may hope to be in a certain position – in our careers, our love life, our financial situations – at various points in our future, but this wish is merely an extension of the expectations mentioned above.
We cannot lay claim to our fate in its entirety. Sure, you may help shape your fortunes one way or another; you may improve the chances of particular outcomes, but to have faith in a timetable you have set, or has been set for you, is a recipe for emotional disaster.
Things will not always go to plan. Sometimes they will, but most of the time you’ll be faced with a different result to the one you foretold. If you cling too tightly to the future you envisaged, you’ll be unable to enjoy and make the most of the present you have found yourself in.
Doris Day got it right when she sang, “Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see.”
Perhaps the thing we cling to most of all – and something that ties many of the previous 11 points together – is security. We want to feel safe, we want stability, and we want to know that when we wake up tomorrow we’ll have the means to enjoy our existence.
We cling to the security of ourselves, our jobs, our homes, our finances, our loved ones, and our freedom. We fear change because it puts our security in jeopardy; or we think it does. We don’t want to lose any of the things we already have: our life, our health, our wealth, our expectations of the future, our things, our family and friends, our sense of self.
If we could, we’d lock our lives up in a large safe, to which only we have the keys. Instead, we have to remain hyper-vigilant to any threat to those things we hold dear. We suspect anyone and anything that is unfamiliar; we shy away from risk; we close ourselves off to the possibilities present at every turn.
Yet by living a life dominated by a sense of scarcity, we overlook the sheer abundance that exists all around us. By fearing loss, we miss out on many gains.
So there you have it, 12 things we try to cling to that only serve to block any chance we have at inner peace. Knowing this, we can begin to dismantle these misconceptions and learn to relinquish our hold. By doing so, our pain will ease and our experience of life will improve.
It is always the false that makes you suffer, the false desires and fears, the false values and ideas, the false relationships between people. Abandon the false and you are free of pain; truth makes happy, truth liberates.” – Nisargadatta Maharaj
Is clinging blocking your inner peace? In which of these 12 areas do you especially feel this to be the case? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Steve Waller is the creator of A Conscious Rethink – a website dedicated to assisting people in their personal development. With articles ranging from psychology and philosophy to relationship advice and life hacks, it covers the most pressing matters each of us faces.