Letting go: the decluttering obsession moves into the mind | Health & wellbeing

In the early 2010s, mindfulness was the wellness trend to complement the times. It had a self-optimising, corporate vibe that promised if you did enough colouring books, or had a meditation app, life would be easier to deal with.

Now – in times of deep chaos, mindfulness is being replaced by something more radical: letting go.

Problems with a project or your work? Do what you can do, and stop ruminating. Upset you still have to shield while others are spending nights maskless in pubs? Well, you can’t do anything about it, so just let it go. The guy you like not calling you back? His loss, move on. The idea that there exists a “best self”, and you can be it? Absolutely let that go.

All through 2020 and 2021’s lockdowns, a book published in 2012 kept being recommended to me. Letting Go by David Hawkins was pretty new age – but its seemingly simple message resonated: I could always let something painful go, not let it get to me, and move on with my life. It may sound like a small, obvious thing, but when we are trained to strive, we can sometimes forget we have that option.

“We hang on to pain. It certainly satisfies our unconscious need for the alleviation of guilt through punishment. We get to feel miserable and rotten,” Hawkins wrote. “The question then arises, ‘But for how long?’”

In recent years, the letting go message has begun cutting through to the mainstream. Burnt out and traumatised by years of seemingly ever-accelerating crises – people are looking for a new way to cope.

There are courses, podcasts, journals and more books post-Hawkins (Let Go, the Power of Letting Go, Let That Shit Go, the Little Book of Letting Go, the Language of Letting Go), all teaching us how to relinquish the things that are causing us pain or stress. Letting go started with objects, but now decluttering has moved on to the mind. The message in all of these self-help texts: surrender is the surest route to total fulfilment.

Hawkins’ book had a ripple effect on my life. I was suddenly a lot more relaxed about things not working out. Instead of being caught up in a spiral of trying to control an outcome, I let go and moved onto the next thing. Sometimes I had to cut my losses, sometimes I felt real grief, some things I tried to let go of proved stubbornly resistant. But I made a start.

In this technique was an echo of Stoic philosophy, including Epictetus’s maxim: “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen. This is the path to peace.”

It also aligns with Buddhist non-attachment theory, which is how Melbourne researcher and psychotherapist Dr Richard Whitehead came to the concept.

For his doctoral thesis, he attempted to quantify the power of letting go, work that has since fed into a series of journal publications.

He measured 1,100 people using a wellbeing scale, then interviewed those with the highest and lowest scores. “I … asked them about their life and how they got to that point of being able to let go of things,” says Whitehead.

He found people who are older tend to let go easier, as do people who have a strong meditation practice.

But “the most interesting finding of the whole paper was that suffering was the main catalyst for most people in terms of letting go. These people live their life without fixating on things. Eleven or 12 people who scored very high on the wellbeing scale talked about deep moments in their lives of pain and suffering. They also used some form of self reflective practice – such as journalling – when it came to letting stuff go.”

The people that scored low on the wellbeing scale were “clinging” says Whitehead. “They had a lot of suffering but they were suffering from the negative effect of the event – they were still trying to control the event and the outcomes. They could not let go.”

Letting go is counterintuitive in many ways. We are encouraged and taught from a young age to succeed, to push through, to have goals and let nothing get in the way. Half the battle is fighting your own deeply ingrained notions of how success works.

Hugh van Cuylenburg knows a lot about success. His first book, The Resilience Project was a breakout bestseller, and he joined the speaking circuit – spreading the resilience message to schools across Australia and to professional sports clubs such as Essendon Football Club and Port Adelaide.

But despite this, van Cuylenburg was caught in seemingly intractable problems. An inbuilt perfectionist streak and a desire to please others meant that he’d beat himself up every time he went to a party in a low mood.

“I had an expectation of perfectionism and a belief that I had to light up every room. Letting go of this behaviour was about adopting a way of life that is much more sustainable,” he says.

He lit upon the idea of letting go when he was feeling at a low ebb, burnt out after too many work commitments and travel.

“I was addressing players [at Port Adelaide football club] at a pre-season and I was burnt out. On the way there, on the car radio my favourite song was playing and when I heard the lyrics ‘let go let go – there’s beauty in the breakdown’ it really resonated with me.” When he got to the club, he realised he could let go of the idea of giving the perfect presentation and be authentic about how grim he felt. The talk was a success because he was able to be honest.

Since that night, letting go proved to be the key in overcoming problems that had dogged van Cuylenburg for decades. Now when his psychologist suggests that he let go, “I can feel the tension leave my body. We just don’t even stop and realise how much shit we are carrying.”

Van Cuylenburg, whose latest book is called Let Go, singled out shame and perfectionism as an emotion that many people, including himself, need to let go of. “At a basic level we feel like we are not enough as we are,” he says.

“We’re not smart enough, funny enough, good looking enough, rich enough. We are desperately trying to make up for this – look at the amount of money people spend trying to look better. From a young age we need to tell people we are worthy enough, we can belong.”

Sydney-based meditation teacher Matt Ringrose, says that, in a decade of practice, “how do I let go?” was “the most common question I was asked”.

Last year, he attempted to give people an answer, in the form of an online course, which he says was greatly inspired by Hawkins’ book.

“Website traffic quadrupled since we put up the course,” says Ringrose. “People are searching for the term ‘letting go’. It’s gone through the roof. People are wanting to let go of the past – guilt, resentment, regrets, or they want to let go of anxiety about the future and achieving certain outcomes.”

Ringrose believes that typically, letting go comes at an acute pain point, when holding on hurts more than moving on.

It is something he experienced personally, at the end of his marriage.

Previously Ringrose tried to overcome issues by “trying harder to control something”.

“I would try to … bend the world to my will, whether it’s a relationship or business. I was quite good at manipulating the world. Then, I reached a certain point in life where it absolutely refused to be controlled. And the more I tried to control it – the more I found I was suffering.”

There is a technique to letting go, says Ringrose, one that is bolstered through meditation. The other steps he teaches are “getting better at feeling feelings. Letting go is just feeling feelings – it’s allowing the feelings to be felt. It’s a lot easier than you think.”

“Correcting mistaken beliefs” is also key. “You need to unpick the knots that are causing you to hold on – i.e. staying in this relationship will keep me happy, and so I need to hang on. When you realise you can’t control something – acceptance comes in.”

“People think that letting go hurts too much but it doesn’t,” he says. “It’s the resistance to letting go … that’s the thing that hurts.”

For Hugh van Cuylenburg, letting go “is a lifetime practice. I thought when I finished the book that I don’t need to do it anymore. Then at Christmas I had anxiety around making people happy – and it was a reminder that this stuff is ongoing. It’s hard but I need to keep remembering that I’m trying to undo four decades of programming.”

Richard Whitehead believes learning to let go is a realistic way of coping with what the world might throw at you. “Mindfulness gets used to make things feel good,” he says. But letting go is “not clinging to the good times … not pushing away the bad things”.

“It’s about feeling really down and low and embracing the bad things as well. They will pass if you let them go.”