Practically Letting Go – What Zen and Children Tell Us about Recovery

photo by Molly Ahrens
photo by Molly Ahrens


There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs, when a number of people are confronted with disaster; children often pull through ahead of adults. Author and survival expert, Laurence Gonzales, has read hundreds of accident reports and writes in his book, Deep Survival, of such instances when an experienced hunter gets lost in the woods and perishes in one night while a four-year-old survives. The underlying principle, he says, applies not only to wilderness survival but to getting through any demanding situation, be it divorce, loosing one’s job, or surviving illness. The question is: what do children do that we as adults fail to do? What does a child have to teach us about navigating through trauma, and what does this mean for our approach to recovery?

The key to a child’s resilience will not be found in some obscure methodology, nor does it have anything to do with their young physiology. It’s much simpler than that: children rest when they feel tired; they stop when they feel pain; they listen to their bodies.

Intuitive as this may seem, it comes in direct conflict with everything we as adults have been conditionally taught. So before we can learn to employ our own child-survival-tactics, we first need to do a fair bit of unlearning. Where we’ve come to understand recovery as a product of perseverance, children allow for recovery as the outgrowth of a natural process. Where we feel compelled to push against our symptoms (and, in doing so, often run ourselves further aground), children seem to surrender themselves to symptoms and recognize them as the warning signs they are.

As adults we have a hard time allowing our actions to be dictated by something other than our own will. When the recovery time for a persistent debilitating condition draws out, we naturally become impatient and frustrated with our apparent loss of control. Then what? We simply refuse to “give in” any longer. We attempt to regain command, yelling at ourselves, “I’ll tell YOU when it’s time to lie down!” All the while, we betray our instincts. This is a dangerous route to travel. In the midst of recovery, the worst mistake one can make is to lose faith in the process. Recovery takes place on a level often imperceivable to us, but this doesn’t mean that healing isn’t in motion. By failing to recognize this, and abandoning the work we’ve done until this point, we could be committing a fatal error, condemning ourselves to a lengthened recovery period or worse.

When it comes to long term healing, our most valuable resources are not trend-diets nor pills, but Trust and Patience. The question now becomes: how does one trust a process that can’t be seen, and how does one remain patient throughout an event that has no foreseeable end? The answer lies in resurrecting an old ability once inherent in all of us – an ability we’ve conditioned away since childhood. That is, the ability to let go…

It’s not in our power to rid our bodies of a chronic illness in one day or two, just as it’s not in our power to make someone fall in love.  We’ve come to praise ourselves, even marvel at our believed ability to fully control our environment. Society has long taught us that we have this power: that wealth, love, vitality, and good health are all in our hands, and it is up to us and us alone to attain them. Sure, we can affect some change in these areas of our lives, but to think that we are the sole authors of destiny is really a fairytale we choose to believe.

I used to believe this. It sounds like a nice idea. After losing my health in my twenties, falling out of jobs and relationships, I now see there is a greater truth to which I’ve been awakened. It’s paradoxical that loss is required to gain such awareness. The fact of the matter is none of us is immune to loss and the trauma it can inflict. Sooner or later we all have moments of epiphany. For me the catalyst started with a tick bite; your story may be quite different. Regardless of how you arrived at your turning point, know that there is great value in that you arrived.

If I could share only one bit of knowledge that I’ve gained throughout my experience and my life, it’s that nothing is permanent – and that needn’t be taken as a bad thing. Just as all things (objects, relationships, health, wealth, etc.) can be lost, everything and more can also be regained. If we accept the commonly misplaced notion that we are in control, we inevitably set ourselves up to fail. When we accept impermanence and trust in our abilities, we not only eliminate failure, but we remove all limitations on success!

Amazing things are possible in both recovery and in life. So, how does this paradigm-shift translate into action? Rather then appointing yourself as the master architect of your road to health, Ajahn Chah, who wrote, Being Dharma, would have you think of yourself as the farmer. Your job is to plant the seeds, provide them with the best environment, maintain the land, and water the plants. That’s it! It’s not your job to make them grow, nor is it in your power to do so.

It’s been wisely stated that recovery is not linear – there are no direct routs. What matters most is not how quickly we cross the finish line, but the manner in which we run the race. No matter what condition you’re in, and how you may feel at this moment, you have not lost your ability to learn and teach, to love and be loved, and to live your life. Think this to yourself; know it to be true. Allow yourself to be as you are in this moment.

– “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.” ~Winston Churchill


  1. Sheri says:

    I posted this on my facebook page. I LOVED IT!!! Thank you so much for this. You actually have no idea how much this helped me.

  2. Lisa Reman says:

    Always love to read article like this one because self confidence is one of the best things to live a beautiful life. You did a great job. Thanks.

  3. […] Finding it difficult to take that first leap? Read this post on the practical application and power of letting go  […]

  4. Sean Gallagher says:

    Incredible Ben! Thanks so much Brother. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *