Letting Go, Letting Be
Jan 15 2022
To mark the turning of the years, I started 2022 on my meditation cushion in the company of over a hundred people, scattered across the globe. I’d signed up for an online meditation retreat, led by one of my favourite teachers, Martin Aylward and assisted by Milla Gregory. For four days, we gathered on Zoom to explore presence, letting go and opening up, through guided meditations, dharma talks, breakout discussions and invitations for solo investigations.
I had a number of lightbulb moments about how to let go which I’d like to share with you, as well as some meditations for you to try. But first I’d like to give you a little context to help you accompany me on my journey towards understanding more about the power of surrender.
Trigger warning: this blog contains thoughts on grief, heartbreak and miscarriage (no graphic descriptions of pregnancy loss)
Living With Grief
I’ve been living with a highly unpredictable friend called Grief for a while now. Nearly 5 years ago, I moved into a lovely house with a lovely man called Joe. We made a colourful, cosy home together and set out trying to make a baby so we’d have something to laugh at besides each other (not that we were lacking in the funny department, we just thought it would even more hilarious if there were three of us). I got pregnant four times, but the babies didn’t stick around. We went for tests, I had surgery to remove a cluster of squatting polyps in my womb, I took pills and potions, conducted rituals and cast magic spells, but nothing would entice the little ones to stay.
In August 2021, after four and a half years of trying to get pregnant, being pregnant or getting over pregnancy loss (the last one in March 2021), my lovely man said, “That’s enough now, I’m off!” (Of course it’s much more complicated than this, but that’s enough detail for this blog.)
For the last six months, I’ve been tumbling through the grief cycle, trying to find ways to let go of Joe, the babies and the dream of us being a family. I’ve cried an ocean of tears, bent my body into awkward shapes on the yoga mat and shaken it about in various online dance classes, I’ve read self-help books, watched countless TED talks and listened to umpteen podcasts, I’ve filled a stack of note books with words, talked the ears off various friends and professionals, made ritualistic works of art, immersed myself in nature and entrusted myself to the tender care of several meditation and self-development retreat facilitators. You could say I’ve been fairly pro-active in my grief process!
As New Year loomed, I found myself alone in the house that would have been our family home if all had gone to plan. With no work to distract me, I felt a tidal wave of grief heading my way. I was terrified of being engulfed by it, but I had the sense that in order to move on, I needed to welcome it with open arms and sit with it. To do that safely, I needed support, so I checked myself into an online retreat.
The following writing contains some of Martin’s words from the retreat, which I’ve put in quotation marks. There are some other quotes from other sources, which I have referenced in the text. If the quote hasn’t got a reference, assume that it’s Martin Aylward.
For the first day of the retreat, Martin invited us to explore presence as “inhabiting experience as it’s happening,” rather than striving for a special state of calm or bliss or total absorption. I’ve found when I’m looking to achieve these states in meditation, I’ll judge my natural experiences of distraction, boredom, longing, festering resentment, pain, discomfort or whatever. This judgment brings pressure and tension into my practice, the opposite of the calm, blissful states I’m hoping to find!
Martin laid out the game of meditation; to meet our experiences just as they are, “from the inside.” To explore this in a simple way, he invited us to tune into our physical sensory experiences and notice what was happening in our bodies.
Here’s my version of a sensory meditation taken from The Mindful Play Inquiry, if you’d like to try it out:
- Take a moment now to feel your connection with the ground. Which parts of your body are connected with the chair or the floor?
- Would you like to make any adjustments to your posture to get more contact with the ground / the chair? Go ahead and notice how that feels.
- Feel your body breathing in and out. You might want to close your eyes and lengthen your breath for this part. Notice where your clothes make contact with your skin. Does that change as you breathe in and out?
- Can you feel the air coming in and out of your nostrils or mouth?
- Can you feel the air in your lungs as they fill up and release?
- Can you feel the breath coming in and out of your belly? You might want to put a hand on your belly for this part.
- Touch a few different surfaces with your fingertips, notice the different textures and temperatures.
- Now let your hands rest and sense inside your body, are there any sensations you are aware of? ie Tension, pressure, gurgling, fizzing, throbbing, shaking, pain or pleasure?
- Is it possible to meet these sensations with curious attention like you did with the touch exploration? Rather than getting hung up on the stories behind the sensations or looking for solutions, can you simply observe the qualities of the sensations with fascination?
- Pick one body sensation and dive inside it. What’s it like in there? Is it hot or cold? Big or small? Does it have a colour or a smell or a sound or a movement? Does it change as you give it your attention or does it stay the same?
- When you’re ready, come back to your connection with the ground, feel the whole of your body breathing in and out.
- Notice the temperature of your skin, notice the sounds.
- Softly open your eyes and notice the light, colours and shapes in the space you’re in.
How easy was it to be present during the sensory exploration? Was your mind trying to tug you away to the past or the future? Or was it more interested in some other sensation in the present - perhaps a sound or a smell? What was the atmosphere of your exploration? Was there a sense of stress, judgement, distraction, curiosity?
If the aim of the game in meditation is greet our full experience as it is, with unconditional fascination, then this includes all of the levels of experiencing; the sensory experience, the emotional response to the sensory experience and the thought patterns that get triggered by the emotional responses. If you’d like to explore what that might be like, feel free to try a segment of the sensory meditation again. But this time open up your attention to include it all, the sensory, the emotional and the flavour of the thought patterns. This is your present moment, this is the practice.
Getting To Know Your Mind’s Habits
The conditions are rarely perfect for meditation. Some years ago, when I took a retreat with Martin at the idyllic Devonshire countryside retreat centre, Gaia House, I remember Martin telling the cautionary tale of a retreatant who had complained about the distracting sounds of the birds in the trees outside the meditation hall. Martin said something like; “If we got rid of all the birds, there’d still be a squeaky chair in the dharma hall to get pissed off about.”
On the New Year retreat, Martin explained that; “Meditation shows us the habits of our minds.” He explained how, if left unsupervised, our minds will either trudge down their familiar favourite pathways on autopilot or they’ll get pulled this way and that by intensity. Minds love seeking out intense sensory experiences (ie the sounds of the birds outside the meditation hall) and/or cooking up drama (ie making the birds the enemy of the people), it gives them something to chew on.
Meditation gives us opportunities to watch the mind at play with kindness and compassion, without getting whipped up into the drama. My 17 years of meditation experience have shown me that offering gentle curiosity and acceptance to my crazy, wild, drama-obsessed, catastrophising, mithering mind, has naturally helped me learn to relax my mind. This has helped me to (more often than not) make different choices to the extreme, dramatic, chaotic ones that used to create my reality.
“Too Much Is Too Much!”
Becoming more present has its benefits; we become more able to fully engage with beauty, joy and tenderness. But there’s also the flip side of presence, as Martin says: “To be present is to make space for all the things we haven’t been present with.” I’m sure you know from your own experiences - it’s bloody hard to sit with the big feelings like grief, fear, anger and pain. We all have in-built safety mechanisms that allow us to shut these feelings out if they become too much.
At many points through the last 6 months, the grief has felt so overwhelming, that I pulled the emergency escape lever: I numbed with Netflix, dulled with carbohydrates, distracted with social media and took on so much work, that by Christmas I managed to find my way back to my old familiar haunt: burn out! Ah burn out, the ultimate escape hatch! Like an old decrepit spa with peeling paint and mushrooms growing in damp corners, where there’s absolutely nothing you can do apart from shake, cry and sleep.
I feel compassionate towards the parts of me that made the decisions to sit me in front of the telly, buy massive bags of crisps, scroll social media and say yes to all the work. The grief felt too much, so I found ways to make myself safe. Even at the time, I had an awareness that there were healthier ways to do this, but I let myself do what needed to be done and I didn’t beat myself up about it. Now this is a huge achievement in the history of Holly! This kindly acceptance of all my inner parts is something that’s come about through developing my inner compassionate witness in meditation and therapy.
Throughout the meditation sittings, Martin regularly reminded us to back off if it was feeling too much. He invited us in these instances to find something that feels nourishing, eg the sensations of breathing, tuning into the sounds, feeling the contact with the earth, or feeling the cool air on your hands.
He spoke about ‘titration’ - a term borrowed from chemistry, meaning: “a method of finding exactly how much of a substance there is in a solution by gradually adding measured amounts of another substance that reacts to it in a known way, for example by causing a colour change.” [Cambridge Dictionary online]. This translates to meditation as a technique of moving in and out of contact with difficult sensations, emotions and thoughts. Rather than braving it out and risking getting flooded or overwhelmed, Martin’s invitation was to see if it was possible to make room for 5% of whatever was feeling too much. If the idea of that elicited a big NO, then he asked us if we could we make room for the very outer layer of the no? We could always return to the nourishing sensation if it became too much.
Titration / Pendulation Exploration
I offer a simple titration exploration on my Mindful Play Inquiry course. Up until now I’ve been calling it ‘penulation,’ (I can’t remember which meditation teacher I first heard using this term, sorry) like a pendulum swinging back and forth:
- Take a moment to ground yourself (you could repeat the connection with the ground and breath explorations from above).
- Feel into your body.
- Notice a sensation that feels safe and / or nourishing. Maybe the connection with the ground, the breath coming in and out, the cool air on your hands, or you could gently hold your own thumb (a suggestion from Franki Anderson).
- Rest your attention with that sensation for a few cycles of breath. Allow yourself to really take in that safety / nourishment.
- Now open your attention up again and see if you can notice a sensation, emotion or thought that feels difficult, uncomfortable, painful or irritating.
- Rest your attention with that for a few rounds of breath.
- Now come back to the safe / nourishing place in your body.
- Move your attention between the two points and notice what happens. You can stop at any time if this gets too much.
- Finish with the safe / nourishing sensation before gently coming back to your room.
How was that? What did you notice about your relationship with the difficult, uncomfortable, painful or irritating thing? Did it change? Did it stay the same?
During the retreat, Martin’s explicit permission to come in and out of contact with grief helped me to self-regulate and allowed me to connect deeper with the grief than I have in months.
Contracting and Softening
As we moved deeper into the retreat, we began to explore the art of letting go. Martin flagged up a common misconception of ‘letting go,’ as pushing things out of consciousness. I feel like I’ve had a good go at that strategy in the last few months, with my Netflix, crisps, scrolling and over-working regime. These activities have temporarily soothed me and allowed time to pass, but they haven’t really helped me process or let go of the grief.
Martin proposed that; “We don’t really let go of anything - it’s formed you. Everything we’ve lived through is here - it leaves a residue.” He suggested, instead of trying to let go, why don’t we explore “letting be, letting in, letting move”? Martin explained that by giving the residue our care and attention, the original experience naturally gets digested and let’s go of it’s own accord. Radical, huh?
I’ve written about my attempts at surrender a few times on this here blog. It’s not a natural pathway for me, I’m a big fan of effort and elbow grease, thanks to my circus upbringing, but I’ve been learning to soften and surrender all my adult life. The thing I found most powerful about Martin’s explorations of letting go through letting be, was that we were rooting our investigations in the body, rather than just dealing with thoughts. We were invited to notice when we were contracting and to explore what might happen if we were to soften around the contraction.
Martin explained that, “Contraction is an attempt to control - to feel solid and safe.” However, he warned that the more tight you are, the less space there is for “gratitude, wonder, appreciation, clarity, peace and responsiveness.”
Contracting and Softening Exploration
Here is a physical exploration of contacting and softening for you to inquire through your own body:
- Tense up all your muscles in your body.
- Hold it. Hold it.
- Notice how you feel in your body.
- How does that impact your mood?
- What’s the flavour of your thoughts right now?
- Now allow your body to soften and relax.
- Extend your out-breath, to help the tension disolve.
- How does that feel in your body, heart and mind?
Contractions can happen physically in the body like we just explored, emotionally in the heart or mentally in the mind. The three are intricately linked. If we’re holding tension in one area, we’re inevitably holding tension in all three. For instance, when I’m writing, I’ll notice my jaw is tense (physical tension), before I’ve clocked that I’m anxious (tension in the heart) or that my Inner Critic is shouting at me about how crap my writing is (tension in the mind). How does tension show up for you? Where do you first become aware of it?
The Dangers Of Softening
It can feel physically painful to relax if the body is used to being tense. I remember during an improvisation in my Fooling teacher, Franki Anderson’s studio in Cornwall, I’d gathered all the chairs and blankets and shoes in my arms and was trying to entertain the audience, to keep them laughing, despite my heavy burden. To begin with, the laughter came in waves, as I attempted to dance a merry jig with my arms full of clutter.
After about 10 minutes of watching me increasingly suffer, the audience begged me to put the objects down, but I refused. The audience became more uncomfortable as my arms shook and pulsated. Eventually I had no option but to drop the objects. When I did, the pain in my arms was excruciating as my muscles relaxed.
Sometimes the pain of letting go can feel so huge, that holding on can feel like the easier option, even if that’s causing a great deal of pain and suffering. If the heart is used to holding tight like a fist, it can feel vulnerable to relax it and as Martin put it, if the mind is used to protecting itself with “blame, suspicion [or] defending… softening can feel dangerous.”
Beware The Backdraft
In her book, ‘Fierce Self-Compassion’, Kristin Neff describes a similar flooding phenomenon that can happen when people first start to offer themselves self-compassion. Kristin uses the firefighting term “backdraft,” which she borrowed from her clinical psychologist colleague Chris Germer:
“When a fire has been raging in a closed or poorly ventilated room, firefighters are careful about opening the doors to combat the blaze within. If the oxygen inside has been used up by the fire and the doors are suddenly opened, fresh oxygen rushes in, igniting the fire even further. It can be dangerous and explosive. The same thing can sometimes happen with self-compassion. If we had to tightly shut the doors of our hearts to deal with early childhood pain, when we start to open our hearts the “fresh air” of love comes in, bringing awareness to the suffering trapped inside. This can sometimes burst out in disturbing ways and become overwhelming.” (Kristin Neff, Fierce Self-Compassion p.29)
I love this vivid explanation, it feels similar to what’s been happening for me throughout the last 6 months when I’ve attempted to compassionately open to my grief, alone. In a similar way to Martin’s titration invitations, Kristin offers simple sensory and grounding meditations throughout her book, to help the reader ground themselves if it gets too much.
The Power of Ritual
Ritual has played a very important part of my healing journey through the last 5 years of multiple miscarriages, hope and loss. I’ve found myself being drawn to ritualistically held spaces like The Journey at Embercombe and The Woodland Retreat at Sharpham and various therapeutic spaces, as well as creating impromptu rituals of my own. Ritual can offer containment for the big feelings.
On New Year’s eve, we were led through a ritual of summoning to mind the living and dead to accompany us over the threshold, into the new year.
Opening To The New
As we signed off from Zoom at midnight, I followed my intuition to continue my New Year ritual alone, making an altar of photographs, cards, flowers and candles (photo at the top of this blog) and tuning in to my heart. After days on the meditation cushion, exploring letting go through softening to what is, I found a well of gratitude in my aching heart, I was finally able to feel thankful for Joe, the relationship and the lost babies. I felt a physical releasing in my heart.
We finished the retreat on New Year’s day with a contemplation on opening. I walked out into the fresh new day with two missions; to find flowing water under a bridge and buy a big pile of magazines to make a collage. I stomped my way to the sanctuary of Snuff Mills - a positively prehistoric, vibrant green seem running along the fast-flowing foamy, river Frome.
New Year Ritual
Martin described a New Year ritual that a friend had passed on to him. It goes a bit like this (I didn’t write accurate notes of this bit). I reckon you could do it any time of year, when you’re looking to make a change:
- Find a bridge over flowing water
- Stand on the bridge facing downstream
- As you watch the water flow away, imagine that it the previous year.
- Now turn around and look upstream
- As you watch the water flowing towards you, imagine this is the year to come.
The Power of Connection
After finishing my river ritual, I popped into the shop to buy a stack of magazines. The plan was to find images and words to help my mind, heart and soul find clarity and direction for the year ahead. A couple of the magazines I bought were aimed at the “Mindfulness market”. They contained some wonderful pictures and powerful words to include on my collage, but when I started looking for words such as Connection, Community, Collaboration, Togetherness and Sharing, I couldn’t find any!
I find it sad and shortsighted that the emphasis of modern mindfulness seems to be self-care and self-development, as if it’s everyone’s individual duty to sort themselves out on their own. From my recent roller-coaster experience of the last 6 months, I’d say it’s not possible to do it alone. Connection is vital to healing. Our stories need to be told and heard with compassion in order for them to move through us. Receiving compassionate witnessing helps us develop our own inner compassionate witness.
Martin and Milla’s tender care, along with the kindness of the fellow retreat participants, allowed me to face my fear of engulfment and greet my grief with gratitude. Even with 17 years meditation experience, there is no way I could have done this on my own!
If you're living with big feelings like grief, anger, despair and fear, please keep reaching out for connection with your friends and family, or look for a support group, a therapist or a guide. There's often a sense of shame that accompanies these feelings, preventing us from asking for support. No matter what your shame says to you, we need each other to get through this life!
It would be bonkers to think that I’ve come to the end of my grieving period, as grief is so complex and multi-layered. But at the time of writing, two weeks after the retreat, I’m feeling softer and clearer and ready for the next chapter, whatever that may bring. I’m coming to terms with living a life without birthing my own children - this is a process that may take some time, but I’m willing to give my attention to the grieving mother within, to witness her suffering and tune into her wisdom.
I’m keeping my work simple (mostly doing Creative Consultancy and running a few courses) and leaving space for me and my grief. I’m allowing myself the odd night of telly, occasional scrolls of facebook and a few little packets of crisps AND I’m booking in time with friends and concocting a plan to return to living in community.
I brought all these insights back to my own research - integrating meditation, play, insight and writing, on my New Year artists’ retreat at Hawkwood college, which you can read about here.
In the meantime, I’m eager to share my continuously developing research with a group of online adventurers, by rebooting The Mindful Play Inquiry, a 5-week online course I developed last year which combines meditation, play and reflection to explore the themes of resilience, play, flow, spontaneity and connection. The Mindful Play Inquiry starts on February 9th 2022 and there's a space for you if you'd like to jump aboard! Details and booking here.
Martin Aylward lives in France at the Moulin De Chaves retreat centre. You can find out more about him and his teaching here.
Martin regularly teaches online via his Sangha Live platform, which you can find here.
Kristin Neff’s new book, Fierce Self-Compassion is out now, you can find out about her work here.