Letting Go

Recently I was listening to Pema Chodrun’s lecture on Getting Unstuck. She talked about the very human tendency to seek safety by holding on, by withdrawing and cocooning into what we perceive as a safe place in the world. In fact, she says, the safest and most natural condition for humans is one of unfettered flow. Our true nature is one of constant openness to the present moment.

Suddenly a scene flashed before my mind of an event that took place over 20 years ago on a rafting trip with my best friend from college. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we were participating in a river rafting race in upstate New York. The rafts were created by tying 10-20 inner tubes together with strong ropes. Teams of people would jump on and float down the river. We talked and sang, and laughed. It was great fun.

At one point the river passed under a bridge with huge concrete abutments. Somehow, our raft hit smack in the center of an abutment. Instead of bouncing off and continuing on its way, it collapsed around the abutment in a heap of rubber and rope. Everyone except my friend tumbled off and floated downstream laughing. We were all wearing life jackets.

My friend, however, did not let go. She panicked and instead of floating free, she grabbed onto the ropes and hung on for dear life. Seeing her plight, we swam to the shore and ran back upstream, calling to her. From the shores of the bank, we were only about 10 or 15 yards away from her, but separated by the swirling river.

The current right next to the abutment was powerful and deep. As she held on, the weight of her body in the current started to drag her underwater. Her face was submerging and she was starting to inhale water. She was drowning herself by holding on to the ropes. We were screaming at her to let go. “Let go, Kathy, let go!” In her terror, she either couldn’t hear us, or didn’t believe she would be okay if she let go and floated down the river. (She was also wearing a life jacket, and there were people poised downstream to grab her.)

In one of those surreal moments in life, it dawned on me in horror that I might watch my best friend die in front of me as a result of her own fear.

If I had entered the river, it would have carried me beyond the abutment before I could reach her. It suddenly occurred to me that I could run upstream 100 yards or so, swim into the river, get carried down and hopefully land on the abutment. Then perhaps I could pry her hands free and make her let go. I was just about to do this when she suddenly looked up and realized what we were saying to her. Slowly, she let go of the ropes and floated downstream into the arms of her rescuers.

I have never forgotten this terrible moment and the lesson it taught me. In her fear, my friend was doing exactly the opposite of what would save her. She was holding on to the very thing that was causing her to drown. Safety was in the opposite direction. Safety wasn’t in holding on, but in letting go and trusting that the flow of the river would bring her to shore.

Is there something you are holding on to that is causing you to drown? What would it be like to let go, to trust that the river will carry you safely into friendly arms? What would it be like to trust the flow?

About Karen Caffrey

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy helping people become more fulfilled and resilient, so they can lead better lives.
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