If we are caught in unhealthy thought patterns (patterns we may be unaware of), we cannot respond skillfully to whatever life presents us day by day. As we gradually identify unhealthy thought patterns, the antidote is to intentionally acknowledge them and then replace or redirect them.
The first of these redirections is non-clinging or letting go. There is a distinction between rejecting family, friends, material possessions and letting go of the notion that we own that which is in our life. The Buddha realized that giving up all his possessions and becoming an ascetic did not bring the enlightenment (the end of suffering) that he sought. His great realization was that it is attachment and clinging that cause dissatisfaction (the Second Noble Truth), not the objects of attachment which have no inherent existence.
Desire, attachment, and clinging are all aspects of mind and it is there, in meditation, that we become intimately familiar with them. The light of awareness and honest acknowledgment gives us choices for acting more skillfully in relationship to them. Skillful action may take the form of letting go of unhealthy relationships (to people, things, ideas, etc.) or we may simply find that our locus has changed. As P.D. James wrote, “All human perplexities are no more than exercises in spiritual geometry.” As we grow in awareness, we often find that our relationship to others, objects and ourselves changes.
Letting go is embodied in the concept of dana, the Pali word for “gift, alms, donation, generosity.” Dana is a voluntary giving of that which we can freely give. In the West, we have generally interpreted dana as money or material gifts, but it is also energy, time, wisdom or teaching that we give to others or ourselves. We can give dana to our self when we make time to meditate or study the dhamma, when we are gentle and patient with ourselves in practice, and when we give our body what it needs to be healthy. Dana is the first and most important of the six perfections (paramitas) and is considered an essential practice leading to the easing of dissatisfaction with our experience.
I invite you to investigate letting go in your own life by looking at material possessions, ideas and beliefs, mental states. Investigate from the perspective of asking “where am I attached?” Ajahn Chah taught that where there is discomfort, dis-ease, or dissatisfaction, there is attachment. A fruitful practice can be working backwards, taking the discomfort and following the thread backward to its roots. Many suttas talk about “uprooting” unhealthy thought patterns and clinging. This is no more violent than cultivating a garden so that desirable plants have a better chance of growing to fruition. It is an intentional process.