Thich Nhat Hanh: The Art of Letting Go

By Christina Sarich on Sunday May 20th, 2018

Love More, Not Less

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist master, has some interesting advice about what it means to truly let go. Many people mistake detachment or non-clinging to be a form of aloofness or emotional disconnect from others, but as Hanh explains, truly letting go often means loving someone more than you have ever loved them before.

The Buddha taught that detachment, one of the disciplines on the Noble Path, also called ariyasaavaka, is not a physical act of withdrawal or even a form of austerity. Though the Buddha teaches of a ‘non-action which is an integral part of the Right Way,’ if it is taken out of context it can give the impression that we should develop a lack of concern for others, and that we should live without truly feeling or expressing our emotions–cutting ourselves off from life.

These type of misinterpretations are sadly common since there are not always direct translations from the Paali language into English.

This form of detachment is an erroneous understanding of the Buddha’s message. Master Hanh states that to truly let go we must learn to love more completely. Non-attachment only happens when our love for another extends beyond our own personal expectations of gain, or our anticipation of a specific, desired outcome.

Hanh describes four forms of complete detachment, which surprisingly, aren’t about holing yourself up in a cave and ignoring everyone who has broken your heart, or ignoring your lust or desire for a romantic interest. This is not detachment. Letting go means diving in.

Love more completelyTo truly let go we must learn to love more completely.

Maitri (Not the Love You Know)

Hanh describes the importance of Maitri, not love as we normally understand in a Westernized use of the word. He states:

The first aspect of true love is maitri (metta, in Pali), the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In other words, your detachment may come in accepting that certain things you would normally do to make another person feel loved and appreciated may not be what the person you are actively loving now, needs. Instead of forcing that behavior on another person, with an egoic intent to ‘please’ them, you simply detach from that need in yourself and truly observe what makes another person feel comfortable, safe, and happy.

He further explains:

We have to use language more carefully. ‘Love’ is a beautiful word; we have to restore its meaning. The word ‘maitri’ has roots in the word mitra which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

Love and friendshipIn Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

Karuna (Compassion)

The next form of true detachment is compassion. When we let go, we don’t stop offering a compassionate touch, word, or deed to help someone who is in pain. We also don’t expect to take their hurt or pain away. Compassion contains deep concern, though. It is not aloofness. It is not isolation from others.

The Buddha smiles because he understands why pain and suffering exist and because he also knows how to transform it. You become more deeply involved in life when you become detached from the outcome, but this does not mean you don’t participate fully–even in others’ pain.

Gratitude and Joy

In truly letting go you practice gratitude. Mudita, or joy, arises when we are overcome with gratitude for all that we have, such that we no longer cling to some other longed-for result. The Buddha’s definition of joy is more like ‘unselfish joy.’ It means that we don’t only find happiness when something good happens to us, but when others find happiness.

If you’ve ever had to say goodbye to a love or friend so that they could continue on their life’s path–one that may not have continued to intertwine with your own–you may have felt pain when they found someone new to love, or made a new friend that seemed to take your place. This is not true detachment. Joy arises when you find happiness even when others find joy–and it has little or nothing to do with you.

Joy arises when you find happiness for othersIn truly letting go you practice gratitude.

Upeksha (Equanimity)

Master Hanh describes the final quality of true love which sheds inordinate light on the true process of letting go. He states:

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, non-attachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa means ‘over,’ and iksha means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love.

People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indifferent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.

Hanh explains that without this quality our love tends to become possessive–a stomping ground of the ego. We try to put our beloved in our pocket and carry them with us when they are more like the wind, or a butterfly, or a stream, needing to move and flow, or risk dying. This is not love, this is destruction.

For love to be true love, it must have elements of compassion, joy, and equanimity–and this is truly letting go.

The Art of Letting Go is Artless

The real secret is that letting go is not an art, it is an allowing, a being. A non-attached relationship is healthy, strong and filled with effortless love, kindness, and compassion. It is completely selfless because your sense of ‘self’ is no longer asserted in every situation. If you want to truly let go, you’ve got to love more, not less. This is the most common misunderstanding about this priceless teaching of the Buddha.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.




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36 Responses to Thich Nhat Hanh: The Art of Letting Go

  1. Thich Nhat Hanh is referred to as “Thay” by those who are familiar with his teachings. The author should have used this term instead of “Hanh,” etc.

    • I noticed that too. I wonder if Thay would think the author should refer to him has “teacher”. I doubt it. Is that not being attached to words or concepts?

  2. So Much Touching Deeply – Wisdom …… How to begin a much needed practice in life ? ………. How to Be this Love towards All ?……………..

    • when we start the question with ‘how’ , it shows we are not serious at all . It is never a matter of How !!
      if the heart is loving enough , not conditioned and free from the mind , it will love .

  3. Some modern people refer to this kind of non-attachment love between couples as having an open relationship (open specifically means 100% honest and not controlling when it comes to sexual partners). Also it is called in the Western Christian philosophies as unconditional love. Some people refer to it as free love. I feel like it is the most natural form of love that we can sometimes see in little children under the age of eight. The little children do not know how to judge – they simply love for no reason. Loving the present moment without expectations is also something we can observe in dogs – creatures who can love also uncoditionally by their nature.
    So, we are born to love unconditionally. But through time, we are taught to evaluate and judge ourselves and others until it becomes natural. Then, we become unable to just love and instead we love with expectations not just from a person, but expectations about how a relationship should be and how long it should last. Then we get miserable as our expectations do not work out. So, we need to relearn how to love freely again.
    There is a beautiful quote that shows an example of such love:
    “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it was meant to be.
    If it does not come back to you, at least you are free.”

    • “If you love someone set them free.
      If you hate someone, set them free.
      well, set everyone free. Get a cat. People are stupid..”

      This changed version explains a lot about expectations…
      but the cat can be a very freedomloving animal… as well as an attached one. its like Roulette… you have to take what comes.
      Its just the same in the end…

      But people are not used to see people as cats… 😉 (naturally)
      or not naturally..

  4. I find the information to be very interesting. Sort of an ideal way to live but I’m not sure how to apply this concept to living one’s life

  5. Este artículo, es enriquecedor de nuestro espíritu,y nos aclara porque muchas veces confundimos el amor verdadero con el enamoramiento.

  6. I enjoy the words that Hanh uses to explain Love. I have never really enjoyed the word love as it appears to be practised in North America. I feel it is often used to hurt others though they may not realize it at the time. To say that love is offering joy and happiness is freeing for me.

  7. It summarises the letting go, in deeper terms. Without confusing or over thinking the ‘detaching’ into a negative act or thought..
    Simply love and let go… Without hurt to ourselves or others..

  8. I liked the picture of the two people, each touching the heart of the other. Unconditional love for all beings is the ultimate ‘letting go’ of attachment to your selfish, personal interests

  9. I really love these teachings but find it so difficult to practice. Do couples really share this kind of love? Doesn’t there have to be some kind of attachment for a healthy relationship to move forward?

    • als ich Erich Fromm las……… ” Über die Liebe”

      was eine moderne Diskussion über elterliche Liebe, Selbstliebe, erotische Liebe und Liebe zu jedem und im Allgemeinen ist, was bedeutet, dass vor der Liebe zu den Armen, Hungernden, Obdachlosen, Feinden, Hilflosen, Kranken, Unsicheren usw…..

      Ich weiß, dass die Kunst des Liebens in unserer Gesellschaft selten ist, und ich hatte immer das Gefühl, dass sie selten ist.
      Ich habe immer verstanden, dass der Kapitalismus der Feind der Liebe ist, aber dass wir ihr nicht verfallen dürfen.

      Wir können uns immer noch dafür entscheiden, zu lieben.
      Wir können uns dafür entscheiden, zu fühlen, zu betonen, zu atmen, uns zuzuwenden, zu geben, zu pflegen, zu handeln, wo es nötig ist, real, wahr, authentisch, treu in einem größeren Geist und im rationalen Geist des eigenen zu sein.
      Wir können wählen, ob wir produktiv, intellektuell und emotional sein wollen. Wie ein Wissenschaftler eine anmaßende Hypothese, dann eine Adäquathypothese und dann eine umfassendere, ganzheitlichere Theorie macht.
      Wir können uns dafür entscheiden, in Visionen von Zielen zu leben, die mit Sinn und Wert erfüllt sind, nach denen wir streben können.
      Wir können an die eigene Erfahrung glauben, wir können auf die eigenen Denkfähigkeiten, auf eigene Bewertungen und auf eigene Urteile vertrauen.

      Wir können aneinander glauben.

      “Ich glaube, dass du in deinem Kern ein guter Mensch bist, du bist nicht veränderbar, du bist zuverlässig!

      Deine Grundhaltung ist konsequent.
      Du schätzt das Leben und respektierst die Menschenwürde. Dies ist ein Teil deines höheren Selbst, deines inneren Du, deines Kerns!”

      Und wir können an uns selbst glauben. “Ich weiß, dass ich einen menschlichen Kern der Persönlichkeit in mir habe, der mein ganzes Leben lang konsistent ist, egal wie sich die äußere Welt verändert.
      Vielleicht ändere ich von Zeit zu Zeit meine Meinung oder meine Gefühle unterscheiden sich hin und wieder, aber schließlich habe ich ein grundlegendes Verständnis meiner Identität.
      Daraus kann ich treu sein.
      Ich kann dir treu sein, weil ich weiß, wer ich bin.
      Daraus kann ich dir etwas versprechen.”

      Was auch immer es ist.
      Vielleicht ist es das Vertrauen in meine Fähigkeit zu lieben, das mich sicher macht, dass ich dir das versprechen kann.
      Vielleicht ist es das Vertrauen in meine Fähigkeit, die Liebe in dir zu wecken, das mich in der Liebe treu werden lässt.

      Ich glaube an deine Möglichkeiten, ich glaube an deine Qualitäten, ich glaube daran, dass du es tun kannst, was auch immer es ist, ich sehe dein Potenzial.

      • Wenn du mein Lehrer sein und mich als deinen akzeptieren willst, können wir uns gegenseitig erziehen, was aus dem Lateinischen “e – ducere” kommt und aus etwas herausführt, wie im 9. Grad des Schützen in den sabischen Symbolen. ” Eine Mutter führt ihr kleines Kind die Treppe hinauf.”
        Das ist vor der goldhaarigen Göttin der Möglichkeiten. Und nach der Tiefe in der Erde bildeten sich neue Elemente.
        Das beweist also wieder einmal, dass Streben ein Prozess in der Kindheit ist, aber auch in unserem ganzen Leben.
        Aber potenziell ist schon alles da, was es wert ist, e- du catet zu sein. Von der Erde in den Himmel.
        die Treppe hinauf zu Gott.

        Wenn eine Mutter nicht in der Lage ist, ihr Kind so zu lieben, dass es in die Unabhängigkeit und das eigene Bewusstsein führt, dann benutzt sie das Kind und manipuliert das Kind. Sie oder ein anderer Erzieher denkt dann, dass es notwendig ist, das Kind zu beeindrucken, etwas in seinen Geist einzuprägen. Dass man nur das hervorheben will, was man will, und alles Unerwünschte unterdrückt. Es besteht also keine Notwendigkeit mehr, an das Kind zu glauben, denn es wird zu einem Roboter gemacht. Es gibt kein Leben in dem Kind.
        Ich erinnere mich, als ich 12 Jahre alt war, sagte ich meinem Vater, dass ich ein Roboter bin. Sagte er: Du bist kein Roboter.
        Er dachte nicht einmal darüber nach, was es bedeuten könnte.

        Wenn wir aneinander, an andere glauben, dann verstärken wir diesen Glauben an den Glauben an die Menschheit.
        Das ist in der westlichen Welt das jüdisch-christliche Glaubenssystem. Aber in den weltlicheren Bereichen ist es mehr der Ausdruck in den humanitär orientierten politischen und gesellschaftlichen Ideen der letzten 180 Jahre. Seit Anfang der 1830er Jahre.

        Wie der Glaube an ein Kind basiert er auf der Idee, dass die Chancen der Menschen so sind, dass sie eine Gesellschaft aufbauen können, die auf Gleichheit, Gerechtigkeit und Liebe basiert.
        Dieser Glaube ist nicht nur Wunschdenken, sondern auch rational. Es basiert auf Erfahrung, denn der Mensch hat in der Geschichte der Menschheit in der Vergangenheit viel erreicht. Und jeder von uns!!!!!!!!!
        jeder von uns hat in sich selbst in seinem eigenen Herzen die Fähigkeit, vernünftig und liebevoll zu sein.

    • when I read Erich Fromm ……… “About love”

      what is a modern discussion about parental love, self-love, erotic love and love for everyone and in general, which means that before love for the poor, hungry, homeless, enemies, helpless, sick, insecure etc … ..

      I know that the art of loving is rare in our society and I have always felt that it is rare.
      I have always understood that capitalism is the enemy of love, but that we must not forfeit it.

      We can still choose to love.
      We can choose to feel, to emphasize, to breathe, to turn to, to give, to nurture, to act where necessary, to be real, true, authentic, faithful in a larger mind and in the rational mind of one’s own his.
      We can choose if we want to be productive, intellectual and emotional. As a scientist makes a presumptuous hypothesis, then an adequacy hypothesis and then a more comprehensive, more holistic theory.
      We can choose to live in visions of goals that are filled with meaning and value that we can strive for.
      We can believe in our own experience, we can rely on our own thinking skills, on our own assessments and on our own judgments.

      We can believe in each other.

      “I believe that at heart you are a good person, you are not changeable, you are reliable!

      Your attitude is consistent.
      You value life and respect human dignity. This is part of your higher self, your inner you, your core! ”

      And we can believe in ourselves. “I know that I have a human core of personality in me that is consistent throughout my life, no matter how the outer world changes.
      Maybe from time to time I change my mind or my feelings from time to time, but finally I have a basic understanding of my identity.
      I can be faithful to that.
      I can be true to you because I know who I am.
      I can promise you something from that. ”

      Whatever it is.
      Maybe it’s the confidence in my ability to love that makes me sure I can promise you that.
      Maybe it is the confidence in my ability to awaken the love within you that makes me faithful in love.

      I believe in your possibilities, I believe in your qualities, I believe that you can do it, whatever it is, I see your potential.

      • If you want to be my teacher and accept me as yours, we can educate each other, which comes from the Latin “e – ducere” and leads out of something, as in Sagittarius 9th degree in the Sabian symbols. “A mother leads her little child up the stairs.”
        This is before “the golden-haired goddess of possibilities”. And after “in the depth in the earth, new elements formed”.
        This proves once again that aspiration is a process in childhood, but also throughout our lives.
        But, potentially, everything is already there that is worthy of being e- du-catet. From the earth to the sky.
        up the stairs to God.

        If a mother is unable to love her child to the point of independence and self-awareness, she uses the child and manipulates the child. You or another educator then thinks that it is necessary to impress the child, to memorize something in his mind. That one only wants to emphasize what one wants and suppresses all undesirable ones. So there is no need to believe in the child, because it becomes a robot. There is no life in the child.
        I remember when I was 12 years old, I told my dad that I’m a robot. He said: You are not a robot.
        He did not even think about what it might mean.

        When we believe in one another, in others, we strengthen that belief in believing in humanity.
        This is the Jewish-Christian belief system in the Western world ( beside all scandals and misinterpretations ). But in more secular areas it is more the expression in the humanitarian political and social ideas of the last 180 years. Since the beginning of the 1830s.

        Like the belief in a child, it is based on the idea that people’s chances are that they can build a society based on equality, justice, and love.
        This belief is not just wishful thinking, but also rational. It is based on experience, because man has achieved much in the history of humankind in the past. And each of us !!!!!!!!!
        each one of us has the ability to be reasonable and loving in our own hearts.

  10. Maitri, Karuna, Upeksha these words come from Sanskrit and now also very often used in Hindi language. Buddhism evolved from vedic knowledge and has more or less same teaching.

  11. This is an accurate detailed explanation of what I grew up understanding as “Big Love”, consistently refreed to by my grandfather in many a casual and serious conversations.?❤️

    • This is how I love. I used to think I was emotionally defective, because it is not how others love. I do not try to hold the love. I let it be. I let the other person be. When it is time to interact, I interact. I don’t try to interact; I let it happen, when it happens. My whole being loves my daughter, but I do not try to hold her close to me. I do not try to be a part of her life. I am a part of her life, but I do not try to be. I let it happen. Sometimes I see her and sometimes I don’t. She travels the world and sometimes comes home. Wherever she is, I am happy: home or away, I feel her essence. I love her. She loves me. Is there more? I don’t think so. This Is perfect. I feel the same about everybody in my life. I used my daughter as an example.

      • thanks Leesa for that timely reminder of how love stays, even when our loved one isn’t physically present. As a mother, I sometimes struggle with holding on too tightly, and will keep this inspiration close when I notice that happening.

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