girl looking down

As I wrote about in Part 1 of my blog series about M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, Are You Disciplined?, Dr. Peck teaches that the first step to emotional maturity and spiritual enlightenment is the ability to discipline oneself. Part of that discipline requires making peace with loss, because along with every rebirth comes death. As the former Cat Stevens sings, “To be what you must, you must give up what you are.”

Dr. Peck lists some of the deaths every mature adult must mourn:

The state of infancy, in which no external demands need to be responded to
The fantasy of omnipotence
The desire for total (including sexual) possession of one’s parents
The dependency of childhood
Distorted images of one’s parents
The omnipotentiality of adolescence
The “freedom” of uncommitment
The agility of youth
The sexual attractiveness and/or potency of youth
The fantasy of immortality
Authority over one’s children
Various forms of temporal power
The independence of physical health
And, ultimately, the self and life itself

The Things We Must Release

To become a doctor, I had to accept carrying a pager with me much of the time and this meant mourning the loss of my freedom, not to mention my sleep. To become a wife, I had to let go of the possibility of dating other men. To become a mother, I had to let go of the luxury of making decisions solely based on what I wanted, in order to accommodate the needs of my helpless, dependent newborn daughter.  In order to become a professional writer, I had to let go of my identity as a practicing physician. I even chose to let go of my OB/GYN board certification and mourned that loss.

Growing Up

According to Dr. Peck, in order to grow up, we have to let go of reacting to our lives the way we learned how to act as children. We have to transform into mature adults, and that means letting go of patterns that make us comfortable but impede our personal and spiritual growth.

Life is full of suffering, and much of our suffering comes from our resistance to letting go of what we must inevitably lose.  Growing up is all about learning to find peace amidst loss, finding within us an unshakable core that can withstand the traumas of life without leveling us. I believe the secret to navigating this sometimes painful transition is to cultivate a relationship with that part of you I call your “Inner Pilot Light”.  (Sign up here to receive free daily messages from your Inner Pilot Light.)

The Urge To Cling

No matter how grown up we become, it’s still tempting to cling like children hanging onto Mama’s leg to things we fear losing. We cling to our kids because we can’t bear the idea of losing them. We cling to the stability of a job- even a job we don’t like- because we fear change or financial instability.  We cling to lovers and friends and material possessions because we’re afraid of losing what we value.

And yet, as the Buddhists teach, our greatest suffering arises from that to which we attach. The relief from life’s inevitable suffering lies in surrendering to what is, rather than clinging to what was.

A Brian Andreas cartoon that I love depicts a woman riding the wind in an upside down umbrella with her feet kicked up in the air. The caption reads, “”If you hold on to the handle, she said, it’s easier to maintain the illusion of control. But it’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you.”

I Still Cling

I guess I’m not a grown up yet, because I still cling like my life depends on it sometimes, so don’t follow my lead on this!  I try to set goals and release attachment to outcomes, but I still find myself getting attached. In fact, I attach to attaching sometimes. I look at some of the Buddhist monks at the Green Gulch Zen Center where my family attends dharma talks. And they’re just so…zen.

Part of me is jealous, because it seems such a serene, peaceful existence. If something starts to ruffle them, they just go meditate. But then part of me doesn’t want to be that detached. Part of me likes to suffer. It feels real. It feels human. When I love something or someone-and then lose what I love- I feel loss, and that feels sad. And it feels healthy to grieve the loss. I’m an emotional creature- so bite me.

But I am trying to attach less, to trust more, to give myself permission to grieve but also to have faith that I will endure and that the Universe is a friendly place, even when I lose what I love.

I still haven’t completely sorted this out. I guess that’s why I blog sometimes. This is how I process things, and I drag you all along for the ride!

What Do You Think?

Tell us your stories about love, attachment, loss, and growing up in the comments.

Trying to let go of the handle,

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  1. It really is so hard to let go of attachments. I think we instinctively try to keep ourselves safe in our comfort zones. This makes it difficult to accept change, and so we cling in attempt to stay comfortable. But the truth is, change is a part of life- the more we can accept it, the smoother the ride will be. I’m with you on trying to let go and allow myself to grieve rather than attempt to control, but there are times when letting go is just NOT going to happen!

    By the way, great article over on Mind Body Green-It’s really inspiring to see that there is someone trying to heal the healthcare trauma. Keep going, Lissa!

    • Meg, I write and teach that life involves detachment AND attachment. To attempt to live life solely seeking one, and not balancing with the other, is (I believe) folly and only going to end in upset or denial.

      In the following quote, substitute “detachment” where it reads “unity” , and “attachment” where it reads “diversity” and you’ll see my point.

      “There is one hundred percent diversity and one hundred percent unity, both performing their work at the same time. That is the nature of the work of creation—this is true reality. To us, one seems real and the other
      unreal. The reality is that both are real at the same time.” [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi]

      • Good point, Steaphen. I do believe that wellness is about finding balance in all aspects (mental, physical, emotional, etc), so finding peace in both detachment and attachment does makes sense!

      • That is a really helpful share, Steaphen. I have often wondered about the eschewing of attachment. I find comfort in your suggestion of balance.

        • Hi Marta

          Thank you for you kind words.

          From my observation, for many it’s easier to go with either-or thinking (either detachment OR the opposite — attachment to wealth and fame). I think choosing one at the expense of the other is what they call “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

          To embrace both at once (balance attachment with detachment) requires accepting paradox, and going beyond easy either-or answers.

          As others have perhaps more eloquently explained, that’s where the fulfilling, rich aspects of life are to be found.

          “First comes paradox! … A paradox does not make sense to our rational minds. A paradox captivates a surplus of meaning that cannot be contained with the structure of rational discourse. For an adult spirituality of our time this is a crucial issue. Adults today are rarely satisfied with compelling rational explanations; there is a “surplus of meaning” that transcends rationality, yet to mature adults it feels essential in our search for deeper meaning. The ability to embrace paradox is central to this sense of maturity.” [ Diarmuid O’Murchu]

  2. Lissa – thank you for this post. I find myself struggling with exactly the same things at this point in my life – learning not to attach to what I love and value, but also wanting to hold onto the loss, the suffering, because it feels real, and holding onto the suffering is somehow better, and more fulfilling than the emptiness I fear from being unattached. It’s a difficult process, to learn to unattach when we’ve been taught just the opposite our entire lives, but still one worth learning, I think. It’s good to know there are other people, successful people even, working on the same struggles, though they still get attached sometimes. Makes it feel like a more human and less isolating process. And I’m completely with you – at times I want to be emotional that way – so bite me as well. If we completely give up our attachment to what we desire, how do we honestly continue to strive for what we desire?

  3. I just finished reading ‘Mind over medicine’ .. And what A book I must .. It has helped me tremendously in helping me heal my mind in turn helping me get my physical self back. I have recently had lost my twin sons at 24 weeks of pregnancy and getting over that loss and accepting the reality felt close to impossible. That affected my physical self in a way of back spasms which didn’t respond to any amount of investigation and treatment.. only when I started reading your book I understood the mind is powerful that it can actually give physical symptoms.
    Slowly and steadily I have been able to train my mind to accept the loss and have a positive outlook towards life. It is very hard to practice but I am getting there.

  4. When I was just 4 years old my biological father left my sister and I. We never knew why and my mother never gave us any clue, except to let us believe whatever our little imaginations might conjure. It made a huge impact on me. It affected the way I chose men to be in my life, how I dealt with them, and even the way I thought about myself – for decades.

    Once I had my own children I looked at my life in relief to theirs. Would I want one of them to hang on to a hurt, no matter how grave, as long as I had? What if something happened to one of us? And was my hurt spilling over into my relationship with them? There were just too many new balls in the air, too many reasons to let it go. So I did let it go, you might say, almost by attrition.

    Then four years ago, on my daughter’s 5th birthday I got a call from a woman saying she was my father’s wife and they had been looking for us for over 10 years. Because I had so let go of the hurt, and the possibility of ever seeing him again, it took me several minutes to even understand what she was saying. I honestly think that if I had still been holding on to that hurt I would have hung up the phone in anger right then and never met him. I can’t even imagine what it would have stirred up, what turmoil it could have caused if I had still been hanging on. But because I had let go I was able to see him in all his humanness, instead of only seeing my hurt and demanding it be fed. I was able to listen to what had happened with an open mind, and see where things went south, and where even my mother had a part and my extended family – and not be hurt all over again.

    After I got off the phone with him that day a knot inside of me unraveled. It left a hole that has been filled with compassion and understanding, and yes even some love for the father I hadn’t seen in 39 years. I never would have been able to invite him to be a part of my life if I had been holding on to that hurt.

    • Daniela, what a wonderful story. I am so glad you reconnected. Thanks for sharing.

    • Daniela, thank you for sharing. I think every time one of us lets go, and particularly shares it, that it can help the rest of us let go. Thank you for being a role model.

  5. Attachment….without knowing that it would happen it is the counselor who led me down a new path that I am having the hardest time letting go . I shared more with her than anyone else in my life. That is a powerful bond. We are finished with our sessions now and I am clinging to our time together. I agreed that it was time to end. It was a warm and nurturing place and i miss our time together immensely. Work in progress.

  6. Wonderful post, Lissa.

    I think Peck was headed towards a SOS (self-organizing system) view of life (cultures self-organize, obviously and everyone plays their part in the resulting ‘system’).

    Hence the need to let go childhood idealizations

    “Religion … was for most of human history, always childlike and by definition
    authoritarian. It was, to be specific, a primary activity of the childhood of our humanity as a species.” [ John Shelby Spong, “Eternal Life: A New Vision; Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell”,]

  7. I’m in the process of leaving a job that I have been in for 22 years because of life issues that require me to have less available time away from home. After grieving for several weeks (not pretty), I am now embracing what the universe may bring me – this is my opportunity and sign to move forward with my idea of starting a coaching business for families who have kids with chronic illness. My heart is sad over the loss yet open and exicted for the future. The journey is what it is all about…

  8. I invest deeply in others as well as myself. Like you, when I lose someone or even lose myself (in societal expectations and day to day minutiae ) I grieve in the most human and emotional way. Perhaps this is how we detach? We have to move through the pain in order to let go? Even if this is so, I am still practicing surrendering to what is rather than what was. Difficult. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  9. Oh Lissa this resonates with me so closely at the moment having gone through a break up in the last couple of months and grieving this loss. What I’m learning through my grief is that rather than “detach” in the way that we interpret it as “not feeling/not caring/not investing our vulnerabilities”, rather than doing that, just be present to what is. Like you say “surrendering to what is”, this doesnt have to mean shutting down or not feeling, but being present with the grief. Really feeling it. Observing it. Allowing it. Not resisting it. I’m guessing that’s what the Buddhist Monks are doing under their orange cloaks, feeling and observing all their feelings. Not that they’re not having them, they’ve just lost their resistance to them. And then maybe if we can be with “what is”, whatever the outcome, whether it be loss or pain, we are not afraid. We know we can be with it. Having this skill, unafraid of whatever is, would free us up to love fully without fear of the loss. We don’t attach to wanting “no loss”. We just be present to whatever we are feeling, without resistance ……. maybe? 😉 I’d love you to keep exploring this topic Lissa as I do in my own life xx thank you

    • Love this, Mish! I’ve come to the same conclusion recently to “surrender to what is.” I find that the more I allow myself to feel pain rather than push it away, the greater happiness I feel on the other end, as well! I wish you courage with your breakup!

    • Mish, I think you pointed out something important for me. It’s not about NOT having the feelings, but not resisting them. Thank you.

  10. I thought I had learned to live with loss. I lost my health, lost my career, lost my ability to be self-sufficient financially. And I let go. I lost the memory of living without nerve pain. And I let go. Then without ever telling me why, my sister — my closest friend and confidant for 40 years — stopped speaking to me in the months before our mother died. That was five years ago. Our other sister says only that it’s my fault and irreversible. My adult children have lost their cherished aunt. I’ve lost contact with my only niece. And it has not stopped hurting. The loss is overwhelming. Still. I cannot find a way past the anger and pain and betrayal. I am waiting for the day when that pain is not still raw and fresh, when I can breathe past the hurt. That day hasn’t come and I don’t know if it ever will.

  11. Dearest Lissa, you said, “But then part of me doesn’t want to be that detached. Part of me likes to suffer. It feels real. It feels human. When I love something or
    someone-and then lose what I love- I feel loss, and that feels sad. And it feels healthy to grieve the loss.”

    YES!!! Oh, I cheered when I read this. I *still* tend to cling compulsively, to dig my heels in against changes (when they aren’t the ones I *want*!) despite sixty-five years of experience that should have taught me decades ago that digging in my heels just gives me sore heels, without stopping the changes.

    Lately, though, it’s begun to sink in somehow that we DON’T, really, lose things. I think of a friend, dead now many years at her own hand, and realize that I still have that friendship when it was sweet and real and joyous, before the bitterness and pain set in as she pushed me away. But that woman that I loved as a friend, that sometimes impish sprite who introduced me to jacuzzis and my barely-of-age daughter to strawberry daqueries, I STILL HAVE as my friend, in my memory. She was/is as a reality in time, as one strand of the web of creation, still valid and *real* despite the years and loss. And if she is still there, why then, so are the long-since-“developed” woods of my childhood, and the infant I once held in my arms. Said infant now holds her own infant in her arms, and I love and cherish her more than ever, but her childhood is *not* “lost.” I have it still.

    Mind you, it’s easy to realize this when reading and commenting late at night. Remembering it during the day….. eh. Still digging those heels in. But I’m working on it, I’m *working* on it! 🙂

    Thanks so much for all, Lissa.

    Note that I said it’s b

  12. I’m learning I cannot confine the river of relationship in the palm of my hand. But it’s hard to take that deep breath sometimes and know that when I blink, I shut away the view, and that it is all still going to exist, just in a new way when I open my eyes.

    I so often find myself wanting to ‘have’ someone for myself, just a little more, yet they are no longer flowing through life as themselves when I lift the glass bottle and look inside. The only way I can have them is to appreciate who they are, as close or distant as they may be, interacting with the world and me.

    • Beautifully stated, Karen. Poetic.

      AND, I can relate.

  13. So much wisdom here Lissa, both in your post and in the comments. If there is sacred space on the web, this is one of those places 🙂

    The most comforting parts of this post for me were you admitting you still cling and, “I still haven’t completely sorted this out.” Big sigh of relief reading that one.

    A little over a year ago I “broke up” with a close friend and business associate. She made a move that I consider unethical or at a minimum, careless and thoughtless to our relationship. She did not see it that way. After a series of unfortunate events we are no longer friends or do business together.

    I think about it regularly, mourning that we couldn’t hear each other truly, and work it out. She made mistakes and I made mistakes for which I am sincerely sorry, but it doesn’t really change that I still choose that we are no longer close.

    For a long time I would find myself thinking that if I could just explain the situation well enough that she would see my point of view and sincerely apologize. I realized recently that I am still justifying TO MYSELF, what I chose to take issue with. The first ah-ha is that I am entitled to not like what someone did and take action on it even if the rest of the world thinks I’m over-reacting. I had to face that *I* might think I’m over-reacting… (oh what conditioning does to us).

    But the bigger ah-ha is facing making peace with the fact that yes, she might have committed an *offense* I believe we cannot recover from but it is MY choice that we are no longer friends, based on MY interpretation of events. It doesn’t seem fair. (Peck: who said life is fair…) It feels like I’ll be living with this unresolved, dangle-y thing out there indefinitely. I’m clinging to my idea that this should never have happened, or it should have been resolved better.

    Your comment that you haven’t got it all figured out yet helps me to give myself permission to feel my feelings, grieve, and be sad (a side note: I don’t know about other people, but sadness is one of the most difficult feelings for me to allow myself), and then see where that takes me. Just recognizing this is a loss to be grieved and that it’s complicated and messy, involving imperfect human beings, helps.

  14. I am still searching for peace. I think I’m doing pretty well considering the last 2 years of my life. I was diagnosed with breast cancer October 6, 2011 after finding a lump during my pregnancy with my youngest son. I unexpectedly lost my husband on November 29, 2011. I had to uproot my two boys and myself to move closer to family so I had help raising my two very young kids. I lost myself, my womanhood, and my husband all with in a couple of months. Even during frustrating times all I have to do is look at my boys and remember that they were gifted to me by something much bigger than myself. I’m still trying to find peace with everything I’ve lost but I have found some peace in the things I already have. That keeps me going even when I feel all alone in this great big ugly world.


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