In Letting Go of Nothing, Peter Russell laments that humans primarily differ from all other species not because of intelligence, language, or our diametrically opposed thumbs — it’s our constant misery that sets us apart.
Russell describes “natural mind,” a state in which we are at ease. There are no immediate threats, our needs are taken care of, and we’re not worrying about the future. Of course, discomforts, problems, complaints, desires, and anxieties inevitably arise. That’s normal. But once those inconveniences pass, we should return to natural mind. It is in this return that we most commonly fail, Russell claims, holding on to suffering long after its root cause has passed.
“A dog with nothing to do will sit and watch the world go by, pricking its ears at a sound of potential interest. Then, if everything is OK, it will relax again,” he writes. But humans? When a potential challenge arises, we imagine all the ways it could go wrong for us. When we’ve survived an ordeal, we worry about how long the peace will last. And even when there’s absolutely no reason to be anxious, we find one.
“One would think that we humans — with all our understanding of the world and the many technologies we’ve invented to change it — would have taken care of our needs and banished most potential threats,” Russell asserts. “We should be even more contented than our pets. Where did we go wrong?”
Part of the challenge is that, unlike our faunal friends, we view relaxing as yet another task on our list instead of something that simply, naturally happens when we let go. “But we can’t ‘do’ letting go,” Russell explains, “however hard we try. To let go, we have to cease the ‘doing’ of holding on. And that requires a quite different approach.”
The word “relax” goes back to the Latin “re,” indicating a return, and “laxus,” the state of being loose. Think of shaking your limbs after a stretching session. That’s “re-laxing” — and that’s what we need to do with our minds, Russell explains. He uses the analogy of holding up a stone to show why our usual attempts don’t work: Tension in your muscles is what keeps the stone in the air. You can’t release it by sending even more tension through your arm and hand. You have to stop being tense. Re-lax the muscles, and let go.
“Holding on takes effort,” and only once we drop that effort, “we cease holding on, and letting go happens.” Whether the grip is a physical one or a mental one doesn’t matter. The underlying principle is the same. We stop tensing up about “some attitude, belief, expectation, or judgment,” and letting go naturally happens. The inconvenience fades from our mind, and we return to a state of peace.
“Letting go” sounds proactive. That is misleading. When you think about letting go as “stopping to hold on,” unwinding your mind becomes easier. Letting go is “not trying in any way,” Russell says. We are simply “un-doing the holding on.” We are “developing the internal conditions that help the mind relax, allowing the letting go to happen.” Once we’ve mastered those conditions, be it through meditation, art, or any other practice, who knows? We might be even more contented than our pets — no earth-shattering technology required.