Holding On and Letting Go

August 12th, 2013

cut cord

19th century British author, Havelock Ellis, said

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.

This is to true. Yesterday we sent our oldest son off to College for his second year. We’re experienced at letting him go, but this year is different, seeing as we’re moving back to Australia in December and he’s staying in America.  So it’s an emotional time. I still remember the moment nearly twenty years ago when the Doctor said, “Would you like to cut the cord?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times over the years; his first day of school, his first time driving, every time I found myself being over protective etc. It turns out that cutting the cord is an ongoing process.

As a parent, I find myself in a constant dance between holding on and letting go. No sooner have you taught your kids to drive, and they are using the very same skills to drive off into the sunset, away from you. After teaching kids to budget and plan their lives, they use these same skills to do exactly that and their plans may not involve you. Kids need healthy attachment to their parents to feel secure enough to let go. Parents need a lot of trust, and inner security, to let them go. It’s a healthy cycle of independence.

Whether its parenting or something else, we ALL dance the same two step of holding on and letting go, attachment and non attachment. In relationships, we aim to, in the words of Kahlil Gibran, “stand together but not too near together.” With our plans and goals, we aim to hold the vision and let go of the outcome; keep the passion and be flexible with the path. In our ever evolving sense of self, we celebrate our unique skills and personality and accept that there is nothing solid or unchanging about this self.

This is all healthy stuff and part of the normal give and take of being alive. It’s the tug of war between holding on and letting go that leads to the suffering. When it comes to change, most of us have two left feet. Change is hard, and there’s no blueprint for it. We don’t want to let go, and struggle against it. We hold on too long or too tight and drive people away. I like the idea of reframing the tug of war as a hug of war. It’s an idea I borrowed from Shel Silverstein,

I will not play tug o’ war. I’d rather play hug o’ war. Where everyone hugs instead of tugs, Where everyone giggles and rolls on the rug, Where everyone kisses, and everyone grins, and everyone cuddles, and everyone wins.

When you find the delicate balance between holding on and letting go, everyone wins, especially you. If you can do it as a hug o’ war where you accept everyone’s imperfect attempts, including your own, then it will be a lot less painful.

Both holding on AND letting go, attaching AND non attaching are equally important.

Attachment is good and healthy. If you’re truly alive, you have to be invested. If you’re going to experience ALL you can experience and be all you can be, you have to be passionately and expectantly attached. You have to want great things, plan for great things, make great things happen, and this all takes attachment. If you want to have awesome relationships, you have to be attached to people, care about them, want them, ache when you’re apart, worry about them, and this all takes attachment. You have to feel your kids’ joy and pain as if it’s your own, take responsibility for the world’s sorrows as if they’re your own. All of this demands an investment; of passion and concern.

So on the one hand, attachment is healthy. On the other hand, attachment is the root of so much suffering. It’s like the old joke, “Can a Buddhist monk use email?” “Yes, as long as there are no attachments.” Large attachments can crash your Outlook, and distort your outlook. Attachments give you tunnel vision. You hold on to ancient stories and beliefs without question, whether they’re true or not and whether they’re serving you or not.

The problem with attachment, and the reason it causes so much suffering is because it assumes that nothing changes, when in reality everything is constantly changing. Because things change,  you have to know when to let go; of people, of outcomes, of responsibility. You have to know when to detach, for the good of the other person and for your own health. Maybe hardest of all, you keep seeking a non attached way of attaching, where you can give your all AND be open to things outside of your control. Maybe this is another way of describing healthy attachment, or engaged non attachment.

Two pearls of wisdom related to this come from Steve Maraboli and Byron Katie.

Steve said,

The reason many people in our society are miserable, sick, and highly stressed is because of an unhealthy attachment to things they have no control over.

Byron said,

A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.

Hold on AND let go. Do them both with all you’ve got, AND be prepared to step back and let change happen, often beyond your control.

Somewhere in the balance between attachment and non attachment lies the secret to a fulfilling and peaceful life.

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you!  This is perfect timing for me.  My 30 year old daughter is estranged, all while my first Grandchild, a boy, is due in 6 weeks.   I pushed to hard, too soon, and made it worse.  Now, I must trust.

  2. ian says:

    ah, how sad. Im so sorry. Hang in there, you’ve come to a major awareness very quickly in the scheme of things. A lot can change even in 6 weeks with such profound awareness. Good thoughts and hope to you.

  3. Susan says:

    By mutual agreement, my guy and I just agreed to part. We are not spring chickens, both middle-aged. We have had problems wanting  the same things in life- for the rest of our lives. I miss  his companionship terribly because we started as friends on this journey many years ago, lost touch, then reconnected in the last year. We both had hopes we would end this journey  of life together but it seems  that is not to be. I don’t want to be miserable nor make him miserable and yet- we’re so very attached and invested in each other ‘s life. I know one of us has to be strong right now and break these bad habits that tied us together.I do hope we can remain friends, at least, and in time we’ll each find someone else to make us happy.   I like the idea of healthy attachments and finding a good balance in life between holding on when things are good and letting go when there is much reason to do so. Your blog entry has helped me to start putting things right and more importantly. keeping things in perspective.Thank you for that awareness!

  4. Dennis says:

    Ian wishing you and Meg all the best on your return to Australia. I hope that you will keep Soulseeds  alive and well. Words that  come from the heart and are so profound  seem all too rare these days.  I know this is not closure but an opportunity to say thank you. 

  5. Eileen says:

    “You hold on to ancient beliefs and stories without question, whether they are true or not and whether they are serving you or not.”  It is exactly the Gospel realities that let me partake in the intricate dance of letting go with my children.  We do engage in a hug of war rather than a tug of war.  Scripture enhances my ability to see the gifts of my children and myself and to accept and deal with our weaknesses in the appropriate manner. When one makes a statement like this, it is wise to mention that there do exist great ancient beliefs that enhance life and provide a foundation for future growth towards progress and virtue.

  6. ian says:

    hi Eileen, you’ve jumped to a little conclusion there. I wasn’t talking about those sorts of ancient beliefs. I was talking about ancient in terms of childhood beliefs. Surrender is one of the universal values taught in many ancient wisdom traditions, as you say. Be well Eileen.

  7. ian says:

    thanks Dennis- we will definitely be keeping Soulseeds alive. In fact we will be growing it, letting it loose to become all it can be. Glad to be connected Dennis

  8. ian says:

    Best thoughts Susan- you sound like you are growing in leaps and bounds. Keep growing, keep being YOU.