Notes on the Art of Letting Go

Notes on the Art of Letting Go

 Nothing is nicer than letting go said the Leaf, when that’s the only thing to do.

 — James Broughton                                

I was in my early twenties before I learned to float.  I could swim but when it came to floating my feet soon sank and I had to start moving again to keep myself up in the water.  I lived at the time in South Georgia way out in the country down two dirt roads.  My house overlooked at big pond and my friends would come over on a sunny Saturday to drink beer and swim.  One Saturday my boss, Tish, was among the revelers.  Tish was a full figured woman and had no difficulty floating.  She asked me if I could float and I said no.  She told me she would show me how.  Maybe it was because the beer had relaxed me I could let go.  Tish supported me in the water as I lay down on my back.  She removed her hands and for the first time I was floating.  That experience inspired this poem that I wrote several years later.

Learning to Float
will support
and drown
the struggler

all we can do
is wait to be carried
to someplace else
there, again
putting foot to ground
to make the path we walk on

water gives
gives solace
to many a madness
and requires for its holding
only that we

When I was nineteen just as I was beginning my sophomore year in college I got a notice from my draft board that I was to be inducted into the army.  The Viet Nam war was raging at the time and this news through me into a panic.  My college had not sent in notice of my registration and when they handled that snafu the draft board renewed my student deferment.  I did not have to move to Canada, as I imagined, but I did have to report for a pre-induction physical.  I dutifully got up before the break of dawn one morning and made my way to the main post office in downtown Macon for the trip up to Ft. McPherson just south of Atlanta.

I had one of my first big lessons in racial justice that morning.  There were probably four hundred young men gathered in the lobby of the post office, half black and half white.  An announcement was made that anyone with a doctor’s note should come to a room down the hall.  Only a handful of white guys, including me, were left with all the black guys.  None of us had a note.

We rode on buses up to Ft. McPherson and were greeted there by uniformed guides who barked at us that we had better cooperate or else.  We were then taken through an area full of bunk beds where a few odd fellows were hanging out and smoking cigarettes.  It was explained that if we were uncooperative we could be detained in this area for up to 72 hours.  It was scary.

Our clothes were taken and we were given plastic bags for our wallets and keys that we could carry as we went from room to room in our underwear, shoes and socks.  We were checked for everything including hemorrhoids (bend over and part your cheeks!) and ended up in a lavatory in front of a large communal urinal where we had to fill a cup with our pee.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t pee.  Not a drop.  I was pee-shy.  My anxiety began to mount.  I didn’t want to be detained with the misfits but I couldn’t pee.  I went back to the lavatory for one more try.  There was only one guy there this time, a tall black guy who was easily filling his cup.  I caught his eye and tentatively held out my cup.  He smiled and filled it.  I have never been so grateful.  Half an hour later I was back on the bus going back to Macon relieved that the ordeal was over.

7% of adults are pee-shy.  The medical term for this is paruresis.  When I was 19 I had no idea I had a medical condition.  Thankfully it went away on its own.  There were no self-help groups for paruresis in those days.  There are lots of reasons offered for why someone might have trouble peeing in public but it all comes down to a simple fact that when you have to go you cannot let go.  Anxiety is the chief culprit when the body can’t let go.  We tighten up and can’t pee, can’t cry, can’t take a shit, can’t have an orgasm.  When we have a bona fide panic attack we can’t breathe in because we can’t breathe out.  In order to inhale we must exhale, in order to breathe in we must let go and breathe out.  A good exhalation is literally a sigh of relief.

There are lots of ways we let go in life.  Breaking up is a form of letting go.  In the musical South Pacific Mary Martin’s character sings about breaking up, “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair and send him on his way.”  Conceding is a form of letting go.  Every election night we wait for the loser to concede.  The 2000 presidential election is an exception.  We waited over two months for Al Gore to concede.  Sometimes it is little personal things we concede on.  A friend recently told me she had given up on ever writing a novel.  She said as she got older she had to let go of unrealistic goals and writing a novel was one of them.

A year ago I let go of my office of thirty years.  I am not ready to retire but there were things about my work I let go of in order to have the energy to continue it and the office, its expense and my commute, were encumbrances.  When I first moved into my office thirty years ago it was a wonderful asset.  It had a spacious waiting room, good parking, easy access and my room was pleasant with a window looking out into woods.  I miss the room with a view and the birds that fluttered by but I had to let go to move on.

The 12 Step programs of Recovery are known for their many well polished sayings.  “Let Go and Let God” is one of the most often repeated.  In my work as a psychotherapist I often see clients who are in the early stages of recovery from addiction.  For those who are not religious the concept of a Higher Power is especially challenging.  How can they let go and let God if they don’t believe in God?  It is often helpful to suggest they let go of the God their previous religion posited for them, the Santa Claus god who rewards and punishes.  Letting go of this archaic god allows the possibility of mystery.  Perhaps God or the Higher Power is beyond our human knowing.  Letting go of “God” may be necessary to Let Go and Let God.

While you can fake an orgasm you can’t make yourself have one.  You can try up to a point but in the end an orgasm is a sublime form of letting go.  The French use the term Le Petit Mort, a little death, to describe the profound state after release that sometimes resembles fainting.  Perhaps the letting go in every orgasm we experience, every little death, helps prepare us for the big letting go when we must finally let go of our body in order to die.

Grief is a form of letting go.  We are biologically geared for grief and not just us humans.  Elephants grieve as do many other species.  The pain of losing a loved one is simply too much to bear all at once.  We let go in waves, some big waves and some almost imperceptible.  My college counselor, Sally Hooper, once told me that grief is like throwing a stone into a still pond.  There is a big splash and then the ripple of waves in circles.  The first circles are pronounced and close together.  The circles that follow are further apart and smaller and smaller until we don’t experience them anymore.  Grief lets us let go and still go on living even if we wish we too would die.

We practice letting go in lots of different ways.  Any time we drop something and it breaks we are practicing letting go.  Forgetting is a form of letting go.  We are designed to forget our most difficult moments.  Psychotherapy is designed to help in this process.  We call it closure.  Once something is understood it can fade into the background.  As we get older we become wary of forgetting wondering at times if we are losing our minds.  We are, at least a little, losing what we no longer need.  I reassure myself that I haven’t forgotten anything important that I can remember.

We practice letting go when we learn to trust.  When we learn to trust ourselves, others, the universe and life’s challenges become easier to cope with.  I may not always know what is right but I trust I can find out what is best by trusting my intuition, getting support from trusted friends or as the folks in Recovery say, “Let Go and Let God,” trusting that in time I will know the next right thing to do.

My friend Professor Wendelin Kupers is a German philosopher whose field of study is wisdom.  I asked Wendelin about some of the attributes of wisdom that one can inculcate in one’s own life practice.  He told me about Gelassenheit which he describes as “engaged letting go.”  Engaged letting go is not just the casual throwing away of an old pair of sneakers, it is being aware of the process, the choice, the grief and relief, and the space that engaged letting go facilitates.  In group therapy there is an engaged letting go practice that is applied during termination.  When a client decides to leave group she or he is asked to come back three times for the termination process.  The first session deals with resentments, anything the client, group members or therapists have left over to talk about with each other.  The next session deals with regrets and the final session with appreciations.  Through talking about resentments, regrets and appreciations the client, the group and the therapists come to closure. 

My mentor Naunie Batchelder shared a story with me that a Tibetan monk once shared with her.  As with all stories that are shared they are modified each time they are told.  If you ever share this story with someone else it will be slightly different and when they share it again it won’t be exactly the same as the story they heard.  So here is the story as I remember it:

   Life is a series of expansions and contractions.  How could it not be so?  If our hearts only expanded or only contracted we would be dead.  Whenever life begins to contract you notice that things are becoming uncomfortable.  Spaces are tighter, time presses down, it is harder and harder to catch your breath and be at ease.  This means you are in a period of contraction and soon will be at the opening of a tunnel that you must pass through in order to enter the next period of expansion.  At the entrance to the tunnel is a magical being that might resemble a dragon or a sphinx or a troll.  The being is silent but you must surrender something to them.  The being will not tell you what they want so you proceed with trial and error until you give them the right thing.  It could be a habit, a way of looking at things, it could be a thing or a relationship, a job or a dwelling, whatever it is until you make the right offering you are stuck in the narrows and can’t go through the tunnel.  When you do surrender the right tribute to the being you can pass through.  On the other side of the tunnel is another magical being that has a gift for you to use in this new period of expansion but sooner or later, life being a series of expansions and contractions you will meet another being at another tunnel that may require you to surrender the gift the last one gave you.  It is all practice for the big surrender.  Sooner or later we meet a magical being who will not let us pass into the realm of spirit unless we surrender our physical body.

Every time we exhale we let go.  We practice for our final exhalation all our lives. We practice when we let go and fall asleep.  We practice when we let go and have an orgasm.  We practice when we grieve, when we forget, when we break up, move on, concede.  We practice when we let go of our creativity, our art, our songs, our poems and send them out into the world.  We let go when the dance dances through us, when we are amazed by the moon or delighted by the flight of birds. All of the little letting go’s both

unconscious and engaged prepare us for the big letting go we all must do on our appointed day.  When that day comes, our time to fly away, may we be ready and may our letting go come with grace “when breath becomes air.”*


the only thing life owes us
is our first breath
and it takes that back
in our last sigh

you have to be a psycho pomp
or a nincompoop to risk
explaining the in-between

why are some born rich
and some die poor
why is beauty inequitably
even high intellect
is no guarantee of happiness
fair is only
an idea
one person’s valley
is another’s mountain
one person’s hill
is another’s vale

karma like the universe
has no edge
or middle
our lucky stars
die just like us

if you knew your next breath
was your last breath
you would sip it slowly
like a marvelous elixir
if your next sigh
was your last exhalation
you would let it go
ever so slowly
like that time of rapture
on the beach
when the clouds
were a perfect hallelujah
when the orb of the sun
dipped below the waters

everything we feel
is a gift
everything we hold
is a gift
everything we set free
is a gift

it is all so precious
it is all so precious
it is all so precious

Franklin Abbott
12 January 2016


From my notes for my talk at the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta on January 3, 2016.  The first poem is from my collection Mortal Love and the closing poem is from my collection Pink Zinnia.  The quotation at the end of the last sentence of the last paragraph * comes from the book When Breath Becomes Air, a posthumously published memoir by Dr. Paul Kalanithi.


Franklin Abbott
10 January 2016


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