Have you ever been trying to solve a problem for hours, only for the solution to come to you the minute you decide to give up?
Have you ever wanted something so badly, only to have it spontaneously come to you as soon as you stop wanting it?
This is what economist John Kay calls obliquity – achieving goals by aiming away from them.
But why does this happen?
Well for one, while most people think of human beings as things, it’s more accurate to look at us as systems. For example, microorganisms outnumber human cells by 10 to 1 – though they only make up around 1-3 percent of our body weight. Each of these microorganisms has its own goals, as does each human cell, and each system that these cells form. Circulatory, respiratory, digestive, excretory, nervous, reproductive systems and so on, all have one or more drives (and these are only the systems that we’ve discovered, or feel are worth labelling).
Any “thing” that happens in your experience – like letting go – is not an isolated event. It’s just the part of the system that you’re paying attention to. John Donne said, “No man is an Island.” And he was right. Unless of course, that island contains a complex ecosystem with multiple agents and influences.
We can’t let go of our beliefs any more than clouds “let go” of rain. The reality is that if letting go was really something you could do; you’d just let go of your problems right now and wash your hands of them forever.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, your mind clings onto the problem for as long as it can. You believe that you want to let go, and it feels like you’re trying to, but day-after-day you find yourself clinging to the same old problems.
Then finally, out of nowhere, there is a moment of relief – and we call this “letting go.”
Sometimes this relief is a partial realisation which whispers, “well this is way more complicated than I can get my head around, so I should just take a step back and relax.”
Other times it might be an overwhelming realisation which screams “none of this is up to you, there’s nothing you can do.”
But here’s the kicker.
The reason we hold onto habits is that the system of “you” still believes that it’s worth it to do so. Even if you “feel” like you want to let go, and you “try” to let go.
You didn’t come to let go by becoming the best letting-goerer (google it). Letting go was a result of the network of thoughts, perceptions, feelings and beliefs, concluding that letting go (or giving up) was the right option.
As long as that network is still convinced that it is in the best interest of the system, you’ll hold on.
Surrender isn’t something you do, it’s a by-product of seeing that a belief you held is false and harmful. This can take time, physical addictions are examples of situations where we can logically understand that something is harmful, but unconsciously, somatically, neurochemically – there is still an investment in the addiction.
A lot of goals in personal development (and under the guise of spiritual development), are actually a by-product of seeing the falsehood in long-held beliefs.
Compassion, for example, is what naturally results when we see that we’re not as separate as we once believed. Our separation and boundaries are purely conceptual, and an experience of sharing pain or pleasure with someone can make this very clear. Real compassion is spontaneous action that is free from any self-service. Being compassionate so you feel better, or as a form of virtue signalling is not compassion.
Acceptance isn’t taking a deep breath and saying, “I’m ok with this.” Then white-knuckling your way through the day. That’s simply pretending to accept. Real acceptance is the immediate coming to terms with the inescapability what’s happening right now. Whether you’re sick or in pain or just mildly uncomfortable, it’s already happening and it’s already here.
Peace of mind isn’t a result of attempting to force thoughts out of your mind. It’s what happens when the brain-body-mind system sees that thoughts are causing more harm than good, and there is more to be gained by giving thoughts less attention.
Happiness isn’t what happens when you get what you want. It’s what happens when there is an absence of interest or investment in the stories of your suffering which frees up energy that is used to engage in life.
So, where does that leave you?
Well, for one, I would recommend that you don’t beat yourself up for still having thoughts, beliefs and emotions that you would prefer to let go of. Instead, I’d suggest that you recognise that “it is what it is” and there’s nothing we can do about the fact they’re already here. This is clearly easier said than done – particularly with deep attachments.
I would also suggest that you don’t try to force yourself to let go. That will cause frustration. Instead, try and see why it doesn’t make any sense to keep holding on.
Maybe you’re worried about a comment a friend made about you behind your back. Instead of thinking “I wish I could STOP worrying about this.” Try taking a measured, stoic approach and see how it goes. “Why is this silly to keep holding onto?” “What do I get from holding onto this day after day?” “Can I really be sure that this is what they think of me?”
In short, don’t let go. Just see what subtle belief is benefiting from “holding on” – and challenge it relentlessly. Patience is useful because you can’t force yourself to let go of a strong habit overnight. Oftentimes they take a bit more time to unravel.
For more about questioning unhelpful beliefs, check out the following posts: