I just returned from the Third International Conference on Existential Psychology held in Guangzhou China from June 13–15th. As always, it was very rewarding and inspirational. At the same time, it is also during these conferences that I run myself ragged and reach the limits of my endurance and patience. Living near such limits reveals my shadow side to me as I find myself losing patience and becoming short and in some ways more “real” with people—a sort of authenticity that I’m uncomfortable with.
This past conference taught me deep lessons about letting go. Ironically, letting go was a prominent theme in one of my presentations in which I discussed the development of an existential therapist. I shared with my audience that one of the first things that I encourage all of my supervisees to do when they first practice psychotherapy is to let go. There is much to let go of. The list includes our necessary preparation, techniques learned in class, our desire to cure, our own anxiety, and our own expectations. I was sharing and teaching on this important topic but I did not expect to be living out this very topic during the conference.
I was “responsible” for putting the conference together and in charge of many of the details. All of these little details combined to keep me up at night even though physically I was exhausted. I begin to realize that though my body needed rest, my spirit was unwilling because it held on to too much responsibility. Intellectually, I knew that I was overly responsible and needed to let some of it go. But I had difficulty willing myself to do so. Like many truths in life, letting go, detaching, is simple and yet so difficult. I guess I had to reach my limit before I was ready to let go.
My roommate and colleague Michael Moats witnessed my physical and emotional state of exhaustion and challenged me to “stop taking care of everyone.” I was immediately defensive, thinking to myself, “I’m not a caretaker. I’m merely being responsible.” I began attacking him in my mind for being so insensitive. I was not willing to let go of my pride, my need for control, and my sense of competence.
Yet, his caring words stayed with me because they stung and because they were true. The very gift and skills that helped me to plan and manage the conference were the very skills that were also hurting me. I could not turn it off. I could not detach even when I wanted to despite my body sending me increasingly clear messages that I needed to detach, stop, and rest.
I finally reached my limit and with the help of Michael’s permissive words, decided to skip out on an afternoon workshop (how irresponsible!) and return to my hotel room to take a nap. However, despite being fatigued, I was unable to fall asleep! What the Hell! What am I to do? I looked out the window and found my solution. Take your sleepy body down for a swim. Yeah, why not go and get some good exercise even though you’re fatigued. That made a lot of sense in a perverse kind of way. Thankfully, I brought along a pair of swim trunks, which is one of the benefits of being a detailed minded manger.
Arriving at the deep end of the pool, I jumped in thinking that most Asian pools were not very deep. Being overly assumptive, I was rewarded by the admonition of the lifeguard to swim only in the shallow end of the pool when he saw me awkwardly swimming to reach for the edge of the pool. Another blow to my pride and lesson of letting go. Enough already! Through the lifeguard’s admonition, I was immediately confronted with another limitation, one that I had not visited in a long time. The truth was, like many Asians, I am not a very good swimmer, which the life guard correctly profiled/identified me to be. Even while taking a break from that confrontation of my limits, my ego and pride could not escape “embarrassment.” With my wounded pride in tow, I waded over to the shallow end of the pool.
My goal was to paradoxically relax and tire myself to the point of more exhaustion so I could finally take in that nap. I saw people doing laps so I decided to be a good collectivist and follow the crowd. Once again, I was confronted with my limited ability to swim. As I was splashing my way across the water, I imagined the lifeguard’s mocking gaze upon me. I was nearly certain that he was thinking, “You call that swimming? Good thing I saved this Asian elephant from drowning! Why do people always throw themselves into the deep end of the pool?” To be fair, I did not jump into the “deep end” of the conference. I was merely paddling furiously along and then all of a sudden found myself in deep over my head.
Desperate to salvage my pride and quiet that inner mockery, the completion of a few laps became my immediate goal. Yes, I would swim laps both above and underwater. No, I am not an elephant. Instead, I’ll settle for an elephant seal for they may look ungainly on land, but transform into graceful creatures in their aquatic environment. That is who I am, an Elephant Seal, not an Elephant! Huh! I’ll glide along being one with the water. Yes, the Tao of an Aquatic Elephant! And it was here that the same lesson returned to me again. If I wanted to glide, I must let go and trust. I must relax and trust the strokes rather than merely paddle along. If I wanted to complete the lap underwater, I must relax and slow everything down so that I can make it all the way across. The lessons that I was presenting on became lived experience for me in the refreshing and nourishing waters of the pool. I never did take in that nap that afternoon. However, I did feel more refreshed physically, emotionally and spiritually after that swim. I even took a few more workshops off to finally allow myself to let go and catch up on some much needed sleep throughout the remainder of the conference.
And now, the conference is in the past. C.S. Lewis’ words (from the movie Shadowlands) rings ever true in my mind: “The pain now is part of the joy then. That is the deal.” Otto Rank also taught me that we must be willing to pay the debt of death if we are to take on the loan of life. There was so much life and connections shared at the three day conference. I’m glad that I found the deeper waters of the River of Life and decided to plop in for a swim. And now, having crossed that stream, I must let it go as well.
Finally, I leave you with two of my favorite tales of Letting Go:
The Parable of the Raft
A man going on a journey sees ahead of him a vast stretch of water. There is no boat within sight, and no bridge. To escape from the dangers of this side of the bank, he builds a raft for himself out of grass, sticks, and braches. When he crosses over, he realizes how useful the raft has been to him and wonders if he should not lift it on his shoulders and take it away with him. If he did this, would he be doing what he should do?”
Or, when he has crossed over to safety, should he keep it back for someone else to use, and leave it, therefore on dry and high ground? This is the way I have taught Dhamma (teachings) for crossing, not for keeping. Cast aside even right states of mind, monks, let alone wrong ones, and remember to leave the raft behind.” — The Dhammapada, trans. by P. Lal
Beauty and the Monk
Two monks were travelling together in a heavy downpour when they came upon a beautiful woman in a silk kimono who was having trouble crossing a muddy intersection. “Come on,” said the first monk to the woman, and he carried her in his arms to a dry spot. The second monk didn’t say anything until much later. Then he couldn’t contain himself anymore. “We monks don’t go near females,” he said. “Why did you do that?”
“I left the woman back there,” the first monk replied. “Are you still carrying her?”
— Mark Yang