HumanSpirit Radio Network

The Difference between Holding On and Letting Go

Posted on: March 6, 2013


Teotihuacán, Mexico. Photo by Allan Hardman

~ by Jessica McKay

My mother and I were having breakfast when she said abruptly, “I hate to talk about this… but just in case anything happens to me, I have a living will on the dresser in my bedroom.” I froze and stared at her. She shrugged off her serious comment and finished eating. I shrugged it off, too, and went about my business, but alone in bed that night, I could not ignore the uneasiness of what I knew to be true: that there is no way out of evolution, deterioration, entropy or death.

I became afraid. Suddenly I was eight years-old again, crying on my dad’s 40th birthday because 40 seemed unbelievably old to me then. Even now, the prospect of loss on such a gigantic scale is still too terrifying to confront during daylight hours. And so my nights are spent trying to comfort the inner eight year-old that is so terrified of loss.

I closed my eyes on one of these nights as I tried to sleep, and was instantly transported to Teotihuacán, Mexico, a place I have journeyed many times to make peace with forces I can’t control — other people’s opinions, world events, change and loss. I found myself on one side of the river waiting to confront the Angel of Death. In Toltec mythology, the Angel of Death owns everything we think we own — our relationships, jobs, cars, homes, health, youth, and of course, our life itself. She loans them to us until she’s ready to take them back.

On the group journeys I have participated in, each person faces the Angel of Death in his or her own way to express gratitude for the loan, and to surrender the belief that he or she has control over the coming and going of anything in life. It is scary but liberating, because once you acknowledge that you have no control, it is easier to stay present and enjoy what’s in front of you. You enjoy your life and the people you love. You do not think ahead and fantasize about sorrowful endings.

This time I was facing the Angel of Death in my mind as I shivered under the covers at home, and yet I saw everything clearly. I was not nearly as stoic as I had been with my fellow travelers in the past. I found myself standing in front of her, and bargaining for things in my world to stay the same. She was like a towering stone statue, unmoved by fear, grief, desperation or sincerity. I glimpsed behind her and saw a Mexican man standing on the other side of the river. To my bewilderment, his face was full of joy. He waved at me like an old friend and I felt myself moving towards him. He took my hand and said very gently, “You don’t have to suffer like this. Loss is not painful. It’s holding on that’s painful. Holding on is what hurts. When you breathe, you don’t hold your breath. You just let it go.” I saw that his side of the river was free of pain — there was no fear and all I felt was the sweetness of the love I saw reflected in his eyes.

I realized that the side of the river where I started from signifies the illusion of separation with the people we love and the pain that results from that separation. It also symbolizes the time before we realize the difference between pain and suffering, between holding on and letting go. The man told me about a time when he almost died and was lying unconscious. His family visited him in his dreams and their suffering was visible. He told them he felt fine, that there was nothing he needed. He told me that if I had a chance to communicate with the people around me, they would say the same thing. He told his family to enjoy life. “Enjoy your life,” he said to me.

I thought that was pretty good advice. Enjoy your life. Now.

There is pain in life. There is loss and grief. But just like joy and happiness, they are not ours to control. The feelings come, and then they pass away. No matter how deep or intense the pain we feel, it is not forever. Take a deep breath now, see if you can cross from one side of the river — from holding on and suffering — to the other side — acceptance and letting go. You might also call those who have died in front of you. Ask them if they are OK, and listen for their answer. Tell them you are enjoying your life.


Copyright © 2009-2013 Jessica McKay. All Rights Reserved.

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