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: 

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

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2 comments

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  • Hi Ben.
    I had to write this, because i think it is plain wrong and might confuse people.

    First of all I don’t like the header “Why “Let Go” Is Terrible Advice (& what you should do instead)”.

    Letting go is the most natural thing in the world and one of the most important abilities as a human being, if you want to be able to end the self-created suffering within that many people creates. If it was not for our clinging, labels, etc. people would become enlightened and free immediately.

    You say: “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. ”
    Of course we can. There are multiple ways to doing this. The simples way acutally allowing what that belief creates within us and let it go. Other ways are reprogramming the subconscious in different ways.
    If you tell people they cannot let go, you take away them “owning” their responsibility for freedom and that is one of the most terrible thing one can do.

    Henrik

    • Hi Henrik,

      I appreciate that you’re trying to protect people from bad advice. However, I think you have not fully understood the message in the article.

      The point is that the metaphor “letting go” is describing a physical process and isn’t a very useful analogy to describe how psychological or psychosomatic processes work. If you pick up a tennis ball and I tell you to let go, it will fall to the ground. Tomorrow you will not wake up with that tennis ball in your hand. Though if I tell you to let go of an attachment, and you think that the attachment has disappeared just by feeling that you have wanted it to do so – well, that leads to denial and all sort of other problems.

      “Letting go” is what some Buddhists call a near enemy of the truth. It’s a description of an involuntary process that happens as a side effect of more complex processes happening the background (over which we may or may not have some control, assuming you’re presupposing free will).

      The sense of volition to let go arises independently in the brain from the various decision-making processes and does so after the fact.

      I would say that any real, long-term letting go that has happened in my own nervous system has occurred spontaneously and when I least expected it.

      Importantly, I’m still advocating practice and responsibility – just not the practice of tricking yourself into thinking that you are letting go.

      You said you can let go by “Simply allowing what the belief creates within us and let it go” and “reprogramming the subconscious in different ways.”

      I would argue that these kinds of oversimplifications of complex phenomena are more of a danger, and they can actually be quite cruel to those who are experiencing chronic physical or emotional suffering. “Just be with it and let it go” is the kind of advice they’ll sell you for a $7000 week-long retreat in Arizona to keep you coming back next year. Some people that offer this advice are surely well-intentioned, just misinformed. They are offering a misunderstanding of both spiritual practices/principles and the workings of the brain.

      I’m not saying letting go can’t happen, I’m just saying the most likely way to achieve it is actually indirectly.

      Ben