The spiritual practice of letting go. . .yes even with our children
My daughter isn’t dead. . .I simply took her to college. She is a mere 163 miles away from home, but the emptiness in my heart feels like a faint shadow of grief and loss. While in her dorm room, meeting some of her future friends, and looking at the upcoming calendar of events, I was almost jealous. That was a feeling I hadn’t expected. She was truly starting a new adventure, turning the pages of life. She really has it all right now. . . or at least everything she needs to be successful.
Unfortunately life isn’t as easy as all of these clichés. I’m a therapist. I make my living by helping patients let go of things. I have helped hundreds of parents peel their fingers off of their children. I am now willing my own fingers out of their tight grasp.
The spiritual practice of non-attachment can be found in most spiritual practices. In Buddhism it really is the practice – letting go and creating space is Buddhism in a nutshell. The Bible teaches that God cares for us, so we should have faith and not attach ourselves to worry. Reading about non-attachment, having faith, or letting go (whatever you prefer to call it), is easy and causes most of us to go, “Ah-ha – that’s what I need to do to attain peace – that’s it!” Unfortunately reading it isn’t doing it – it isn’t practicing it.
Practicing it is: not calling my daughter every minute to make sure she is doing okay. Practicing it is: feeling my own worry and anxiety escalate and not reacting to it by calling her. Practicing it is: noticing my feelings and realizing they are simply feelings – not at all logical, sound facts. Telling my children how worried I am only transfers my sadness, worry, and faithlessness to them. It teaches them that everything is scary and being in touch with mom all the time is how I feel safe, secure, and protected. What kind of life would that be?
I want to give my children wings – not anchors. Often when parenting according
to my feelings – my actions are only making me feel better, but aren’t’ necessarily
helping my children become self-sufficient, confident adults. In other words, when
my teen begins growing up and having more responsibility like driving, I need to process my feelings without reacting to them. Worry can feel so intense that it feels my heart is going to leap out of my chest unless I completely control the situation and keep my child alive. I tell them to report in each time they arrive alive. The message is: driving is dangerous and scary and something bad could happen at any time. This message increases their own fear and anxiety, and inhibits their own sense of freedom.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t have very serious conversations with my child about driving or going to college. The conversations were about letting someone know where you are at all times. The college talk was about making smart decisions, staying in your right mind (i.e. not getting so drunk that someone else is forced to make decisions for you).
Having this talk made me feel better, but I’m not sure it really mattered. So far my children are following these directions. They aren’t making good choices because of one conversation we had; they are making smart choices because I helped them sit through fears and disappointment and scary situations. I have not always done this, but my intentions were there. I can’t protect them and I never could. Or at least I couldn’t protect them without completely controlling them and breaking their individual spirits and integrity. Let’s be honest, even then I really can’t completely protect anything or anyone. I did attempt to keep them safe until they were able to do this on their own.
It’s been a month now that I haven’t seen my daughter. I sat through the brutal feelings of grief when my daughter left. The first few weeks were an incredibly difficult transition for all involved. There were times I felt I needed to visit, times I felt I needed to cry, times I felt I needed to let her come home. Instead I just let the feelings come and go, asked for help from my own mentors, and texted things like, “I know this is difficult, but what you are describing to me simply sounds like homesickness. It won’t last – you are bigger than these feelings!” And then I would turn to my husband and cry. Reacting to my feelings would have been disastrous! My daughter loves school now, and she is not merely surviving, she is thriving. She was in NYC last week marching for climate change with 4 HUNDRED THOUSAND people! My breath continues to catch when I think of that, but then love takes over and I realize all is well. Life comes at us with all its intensity and mystery. If I practice not getting attached to feelings enough that they control my actions, I can often find some peace in most outcomes.