Letting Go vs. Softening

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In meditation, the suggestion to ‘let go’ can seem a bit abstract, a little either/or. Softening, on the other hand, is different. You can’t get it wrong.

I’ve noticed something while meditating with others, recently: quite a few people have commented that they find the suggestion to soften their bodies from the inside while meditating more helpful than the more common instruction to ‘let go’ of tension. It’s also quite common in guided relaxation and mindfulness meditations to be asked first to tense your muscles, in order, and then to relax them. The idea is that it’s hard to identify areas which have become tense and stiff — it just seems normal — so after intentionally tightening something you learn how to intentionally stop doing that, and let go. The thing is that doing something on purpose and then stopping doing it is quite a different action from relaxing some part that is simply unresponsive, habitually tense.

During the process of these meditations we can get used to the ritual of clenching and then letting go and associate relaxation with getting tense first. This is pretty much how normal life works, too, so no harm is done really, but we do miss out on the opportunity to learn a completely different move — how to treat ourselves all as one piece, not to worry about identifying or isolating particular areas or particular problems, just softening everything, and then enjoying the general direction. This also seems like a good new way to approach life in general, and starting it on a visceral level means the new way is far more likely to stick — the body gets used to it.

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The command to let go can also seem like a mental challenge, like the application of an abstract concept, particularly as it goes deeper, into the letting go of thoughts or feelings. It also seems like an either/or action: you manage it or you don’t. If you’re hanging on to tension, to any extent at all — then you haven’t let go, you’ve failed. The very prospect of success or failure hanging over the meditation experience seems to prime a really unhelpful way of thinking. A certain degree of ‘am I doing it right?’ is inevitable, but encouraging this is moving in the opposite direction from the meditative state.

Softening is different. You can’t get it wrong. You can always, always soften a bit. It’s an intention, a direction, and as such, it’s a matter of degrees. And the very fact that you can always soften a bit more also means that you have never totally succeeded.

It’s all progress, and palpable too: you actually feel better with each little softening.

The sensual aspect of this, that lack of abstraction, is striking. You can wonder about precisely what is meant by letting go when it comes to muscle tension, because you can be unaware of the process of holding it. That wondering focuses attention in the head, so it’s easy to start an internal discussion or even an argument about it. ‘Have I let go enough? Am I doing as well as other people do? Did I understand the instructions properly? Are my muscles still tense or am I just feeling sore? Is this tension or just drawing attention to the area?’ On and on you can go. It is even more so with letting go of thoughts or feelings — how can we ever say we’ve definitively let go? Is that actually normal or healthy or possible, will it last forever, should it last forever, who would I be without my thoughts and feelings? It’s enough to make you tense.

Whereas when something softens a bit, it softens. You can feel that it has, and that is all that is required. The command to relax can also seem to contain some kind of a judgement, and to be hard to attain, entirely. Soft is a word about the quality of things. It’s very relative, and very real.

Give it a try. Sit how you’re sitting, think what you’re thinking, feel what you’re feeling…just soften everything a little. Soften your insides, the inside walls of your head, chest, belly, arms and legs, or the inside of your face. Let it all be a little softer.

How does that feel?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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