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Article  •  30 November 2021


An exercise in letting go

Get ready to put pen to paper with this activity from Hugh van Cuylenburg's book Let Go.

In 2019, Hugh van Cuylenburg released The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness through Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness. His book of key steps to leading a happier, more contented and fulfilling life has since gone on to become a national bestseller.

In 2021, Hugh surprised himself during a national radio interview when he admitted he was feeling 'utterly broken' as a result of ongoing lockdowns. Like millions of others around the world, Hugh was forced to reassess life during the pandemic. After taking the time to address his own feelings, Hugh recognised he was being hamstrung by the same powerful issues that affect the lives of many: shame, expectation, ego, fear of failure, the quest for perfection and control, and our addiction to social media.

In Hugh's latest book, Let Go, he combines powerful insight with research and his own candid storytelling to show how it is possible to create authentic connections, cope better during challenging times and rediscover joy. 

In the excerpt below from the pages of the book Hugh takes us through an exercise in surrendering and letting go of the things we can't control. 

Doggedly trying to exert control affects all aspects of our lives; whether we’re fretting about a medical condition and trying to project a certain image, or worrying about death. The most recent example of my attempt to control the uncontrollable arose thanks to COVID-19. It took nineteen months and six lockdowns before I stopped stressing out over the impact the pandemic was having on me and my loved ones. I had grown so frustrated and anxious about the world that I was forced to question exactly what it was that I feared. It was fairly simple: I was scared things would never go back to the way they were. I’d decided my kids were going to endure lockdown for years. They were going to struggle socially. They were going to grow up in a world of masked, isolated people.
Ultimately, by doing the following exercise, I realised the virus was going to do whatever it wanted: history would take its course irrespective of my hand-wringing. I recognised that I needed to let go of the anxiety and accept reality: in other words, I had to surrender control. The second I did this, I felt better. The word ‘surrender’ quite literally means ‘to stop fighting’ and the very thought of no longer fighting COVID-19 filled me with an instant sense of calm.
  • Write down all the things that cause you ongoing stress, worry and anxiety.
  • Put a line through the things on the list that are out of your control.
  • Circle the items you do have control over.
  • Devote your energy and concentration to solving the problems in the circles.
  • The problems with lines through them are still on the page – they don’t go away – but there is nothing you can do to make them change so you just have to let them go.
If any of the remaining problems prove too hard to let go of in that moment, it is worth subjecting them to a four-question process American writer and speaker Byron Katie calls ‘doing the work’.1 In my case, the fear was that COVID-19 had changed the world forever and my children’s lives would be adversely and permanently affected. So I ‘did the work’ and asked myself the following:
  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you know absolutely that it is true?
  3. What happens when you react to this thought?
  4. Who would you be without this thought?
My answers:
  1. Maybe.
  2. Not really.
  3. I feel anxious, sad and hopeless.
  4. I’d feel like myself again: calm, joyful and full of hope.
I am only too aware that life sometimes hands us circumstances that seem too big or too painful to simply let go of; that no amount of vulnerability or the ceding of control can change. Life’s lottery means many people may never feel ‘calm, joyful and full of hope’. But I have seen that even in the depths of immense human suffering, letting go of control can alleviate pain. So why not give it a go?

1. Katie, Bryon, with Stephen Mitchell, A Mind at Home With Itself: How asking four questions can free your mind, open your heart, and turn your world around, HarperCollins, New York, 2017

Feature Title

Let Go
From the bestselling author of THE RESILIENCE PROJECT comes this deeply personal book about the importance of letting go.
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