Zen teachings: letting go

This is a well-worn out advice: if you want to be free, you need to let go of grudges, grievances, stale emotions, grief but also all the positive things. All have their place in time but that’s it.  

Letting go – much advice is given but this is one of the hardest things to do. Old problems are rarely clear cut; for example, forgetting a grudge is linked to forgiving, oneself as well as the offender. Depending on the magnitude of the offense, letting go may seem to be an impossible task. Hence rather than tackling the whole big problem, it helps initially to look at its elements. Practical book ‘Letting go of nothing’ by Peter Russell is inspirational, as it breaks letting go into several small, concrete steps. The power of his advice lies in a combination of general approach and practical tasks. It is not bound to any particular religion or psychotherapy, and is very useful in our Zen practice.

Let’s have a closer look at three main steps – these are letting in, letting be, and letting go.

Letting in is an essential first step: we need to acknowledge that there is something that makes us uneasy, bound or dragging heavy baggage. Once we open up to it, we let it sit and play out whatever it is. Only then we’d be able to say goodbye, maybe kick it out or perhaps wave it off gently. It does not really matter, how; it’s getting rid of it that’s important.

How does it relate to Zen practice?

Let’s look at the practice of presence – Shikantaza or just sitting. This practice has no anchor, we just sit and allow thoughts, feelings, emotions to come and pass; without judgement. Sometimes the practitioner is compared to a mirror, in which all objects are reflected without judgement, recognised for what they are, and being intangible, allowed to pass. Note but not follow what will arise; allow it to stay with you for a while. It’s very important that we don’t follow the train of thought – action comes when we get out of zazen.

That’s when letting go truly takes off – we can try to clarify matters with an ‘offender’ orally or in writing, write down the grudge and burn the paper, use the paper shredder for any paperwork, make a ritual fire etc. To use a well-worn comparison, we’re leaving some baggage behind and travel lighter. 

Let’s have a closer look at deconstructing an emotion and letting go of feelings in turn.

Deconstructing an emotion needs to be done not just mentally, but in the body as in Zen’s bodymind approach. What is it that makes you unsettled, unhappy, or fearful? Maybe giving this unease a label is helpful or maybe it’s too early. Searching, searching…

An example would be ‘my work stresses me’. That’s too general – tell me, whether it is your boss, your colleagues or just the volume of work? If the latter, what exactly – a new project, an old report or being stuck in a problem? As an saying goes a formulation of a problem is half of solution. Hence you can ask yourself what is the outcome that you want: recognition, pay rise, more free time, help etc. Listening and noting how the body reacts – is the tension gone, a warm feeling in the heart or the gut, clearing a headache etc.

This process may take some time and several iterations, and you may need to step back for a while if the going is too heavy.

How to let go of feelings?

Going deeper into Zen practice let’s have a look at a koan from Hekiganroku (Blue Cliff Record) collection. Most koans have a threefold structure: an introduction by Engo, the main case and a comment in verse by Setcho.

Case 87 Ummon’s ‘Medicine and sickness cure each other’.

The first two sentences from Engo’s introduction set up the scene: ‘The clear-eyed man knows no restrictions. At one time he stands on top of the mountain, with the weeds thick about him.’

Meaning: he’s in absolute samadhi, so holding fast on nothing – and the weeds refer to letting go as he cannot hold fast on weeds. In absolute samadhi there is no time, no space, no thought, no feeling. No falling into delusions.

Main subject: Ummon said to his disciples ‘Medicine and sickness mutually heal. The entire universe is medicine. Where is the self?’

Medicine and sickness are both complementary (if you’re sick, you need medicine) and opposite (if you’re healthy, you don’t need medicine). When you achieve deep healing through Zen practice, you can discard the medicine. Buddhist theory is often compared to a medicine – once you’re healthy, you need to leave behind idle deliberations, and live a simple life. Otherwise the medicine becomes a poison, named sometimes as Zen sickness.

Picture the travel as on a spiritual path as going up the mountain through the thick growth. It is necessary to keep hacking the passage until one reaches the top of the mountain, with clear view. Hence we can imagine letting go as an essential part of the process to be in samadhi state, with no hindrance. Another allegory are the first two stages of Ten Oxherding Pictures, with the practitioner searching for the ox in the thick growth.

It would be wonderful if the weeding process would sort us out once and forever. Alas weeds have a tendency to crop up again. So we need a resolve to be mindful, and don’t allow them to overshadow the top of the mountain.

Let’s remember Great Vows for All – Shiguseigan – and in particular this one:

…bo no mu jin sei gan dan…

…However inexhaustible our delusions are,

We vow to extinguish them all…


Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax Your Mind and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature, An Eckhardt Tolle Edition, New World Library 2021.

Katsuki Sekida (translator) Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, Ed. A.V. Grimstone, Weatherhill, New York and Tokyo, 1977