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The Practice of Letting Go of Mental Constructs
Category: Zen Living Written by Leo Babauta
Everything we believe about ourselves and others is an idea, an image constructed in our heads. And these mental constructs can be some of our biggest obstacles and struggles.
Letting go of our mental constructs — our ideas about ourselves and others — can be one of the most liberating things possible.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to have mental constructs — we can’t help it, it’s human and often necessary for whatever we’re doing. But sometimes it’s an obstacle and cause of pain.
So, let’s look at what it would be like to let go of these mental constructs, and then how to practice.
Some Concrete Examples
Mental constructs are ideas we have about something. For example, if you look at your phone, you might have the idea that it’s a “phone.” But that’s an idea — in fact, it’s a clump of matter that is only arbitrarily separated by our minds from any of the other matter around it. The clump of matter we call a phone isn’t even static — it’s constantly changing.
But you can see that it’s necessary to think of it as a phone, and even useful. Thinking of everything as a dynamic field of matter and energy makes it hard to get the laundry done or have a conversation. We need concepts and mental constructs.
That said … let’s look at what happens if we can let go of them (we’ll talk about how to do that in a bit):
- You’re stressed about an upcoming meeting or social event. You have all kinds of worries, like, “What if I look stupid and people judge me?” Very reasonable worries, but it can cause a lot of anguish. If we realize that the idea of looking stupid and being judged are just ideas in our heads, and not reality … we can let go of them. We can return to the present moment and relax. Or be with the sensation of fear that’s in our bodies, becoming present to our experience in the moment.
- You’re frustrated because someone has complained about you. You get caught up in thoughts about why they’re wrong, how they’re always complaining, about how you can never do anything right, about how you should just leave this job and be done with all of this bullsh*t. There’s nothing wrong with these thoughts … but maybe you can see that it’s a set of thoughts that are made up in your head. They’re not objective reality. In reality, you’re just feeling an emotion, a set of sensations in the body. You can become present to them, and your body, and be freed of all of the extra narrative that’s causing so much resentment.
- You’re feeling resistance to a task and wanting to procrastinate, distract, avoid. There’s some kind of idea in your mind about how hard this will be, how overwhelming it feels, how it’s too much right now. From this feeling and set of thoughts, you decide to do it later. But the feeling of difficulty and overwhelm won’t go away then, and in fact things might only be worse then. So what if we let go of the ideas about how it’s too hard … and simply got present to the sensations of resistance, fear and overwhelm that are occurring in the moment. Getting present to these sensations, we develop the capacity to be with our experience, and learn that it’s not too difficult (that’s an idea) … in fact, it’s beautiful. And then we can turn towards the task and take a small action.
These are a few examples, but you can see that letting go of ideas can be freeing.
We start to realize that we can access a wider view of each moment, instead of narrow and tight. We can access an open, fresh perspective in the midst of any struggle. We start to have a more relaxed way of being with life, and can access freedom, peace and presence in any moment.
How to Practice
So how do we practice?
First … start by noticing what ideas you have about the world, yourself and other people in various moments. What are your ideas about the person who is annoying you? What ideas do you have about yourself in whatever situation you’re in? How is everything you believe about someone or a situation just a set of ideas or mental constructs?
That doesn’t mean it’s bad to have ideas but recognizing that they’re ideas we’ve created is a powerful step.
Second … what would this moment be if you were free of these ideas? Imagine that the blackboard of your mind were wiped clean of your narrative, mental constructs, ideas about everything you’re thinking about?
Imagine a moment that’s free of these ideas. Feel the wider perspective of the moment, the openness that becomes accessible when you let go of the ideas. Feel how freeing, how open, how lovely.
Third … once you’ve accessed this, you might let yourself become present to sensations in your body, of tightness, of fears or resistance or overwhelm, of emotions. Not the ideas about these sensations, but the experience of the sensations. What does it feel like? Could you relax with the sensations in the present moment, even feel the freedom of being in the midst of the experience?
And finally … you could take a small action. Wash a dish. Write a sentence in that email you’ve been avoiding. Speak to the person in front of you, with an open heart. You don’t need to do anything — experiencing the freedom of the present moment is enough. But freed of your ideas, there might be something you feel called to do, a single step that would be a beneficial action. This action will be based on a mental construct … but that’s OK.
Are you up for practicing letting go of ideas and experiencing the freedom available in each moment?
Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness. My name is Leo Babauta. I live in Davis, California with my wife and six kids, where I eat vegan food, write, run, and read. Source
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