"Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go."
This is, as Thich Nhat Hanh frequently observes, the "essential discipline"--the seed of all practice, from which everything else grows. The rest--all the rest--is commentary.
Breathe. Observe. Let go.
Breathing in, observe letting go.
Breathing out, observe letting go.
We breathe in order to observe, we observe in order to let go, and we let go in order to breathe. And we repeat as often as necessary.
That is the essential discipline. So let's observe it a bit more deeply.
As Lao Tzu puts it,
"Empty yourself of everything; let the mind rest at peace.
The Ten Thousand Things rise and fall, while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish, and then return to stillness, which is the way of nature..."
Our breath, that is, is our home base. The minute we directly observe our breath, we reconnect body and mind, and re-enter the present moment. This is deeply healing, no matter what is going on in our inner or outer world; this is why rescue workers, dealing with frazzled and hysterical accident victims, routinely tell them to "Take three deep breaths." They recognize instinctively that the simple act of breathing restores equanimity.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire body of Dharma teachings and insights grows directly out of this simple, testable fact: breathing restores equanimity when our minds are agitated.
Breathing consciously--that is, "I am aware that I am breathing"--leads quite naturally and effortlessly to observing. What do we observe? First, the fact that we are breathing. Then, anything else, either in our minds or in our surroundings that happens to draw our attention. The strong foundation of our breath gives us a solid platform from which we can simply observe any sights, sounds, words, thoughts, perceptions, or feelings that draw our attention, rather than getting caught up in them--that is, obsessing about them, or wishing they were otherwise. With the equanimity that is the natural consequence of conscious breathing, we gain the ability, gradually, to observe whatever arises in our heads or in the world around us, without getting frazzled or hung up.
There are, in general, three things we can do with any afflictive emotion, such as anger, jealousy, despair, sloth, frustration, fear, resentment, or whatever.
The first is simply to indulge it--to let it control us. This generally makes everything worse.
The second is to repress it--to tell ourselves "you shouldn't think that (or feel that, or want to do that)" with our stern, parental inner voice. This can work for a short while, but repressed thoughts and feelings fester, and will re-emerge, often in unpredictable and highly unpleasant ways.
Most people believe that these are our only two options for dealing with afflictive emotions, but the Buddha (along with other enlightened beings throughout all space-time) offers us a third option:
Observe it. Just keep breathing, and acknowledge the existence of whatever bad stuff has just come up, whether within or outside of you. Take note of it and name it. Watch it, as if you were watching a movie. Investigate it with curiosity--"Where is this coming from?" "What might it lead to?" And then--but only when you are ready to do so--
3. Let Go. It is easy for us to dupe ourselves into thinking we have let go of something when we're still hanging on to it. That is another form of repression and self-deception. So how do we know when we have really let go?
Thich Nhat Hanh often alludes to the iconic half-smile of the Buddha in this regard. And it is true: when you have really let go of something, you can smile quite naturally. Not a big, toothy smile--that is just another form of self-deception. But rather, a relaxation of the lips and jaw, a softening of the muscles around the eyes, a smile that arises as naturally as a flowerbud opens in the Spring.
And here is the remarkable thing: it is reciprocal. We smile naturally as a consequence of actually letting go, but we can also deliberately smile (but only with authenticity--not deceptively) in order to let go. So we smile by letting go, and let go by smiling.
Here is a good exercise to try in this regard. Note how much your facial expressions and your emotional states give rise to each other reciprocally. When we are angry or threatened, we frown and tighten our eye muscles, which normally makes us even angrier and more frightened or inclined to violence. But conversely, when we deliberately soften the muscles around our eyes and relax into a half-smile, we feel calmer and gentler. One way of testing this is to imagine that you have just seen an adorable newborn child--your own, or someone else's. Quite naturally, a gentle, loving, sympathetic smile will bloom on your mouth and your eyes will soften.
Congratulations: you have just learned to let go.
The rest--ALL the rest--is practice. So to paraphrase that wonderful man in Hampton who posted the signs saying "No matter what, trust God" all over town, my closing advice is this:
No matter what, breathe, observe, and let go. It all--always--comes back to that. If you don't believe me, ask the Buddha. Or better still--just try it.