“Repression” and “Letting Go” are two — essentially opposite — ways of dealing with the things in life that make you go “oh crap.”
Repression is the path of judging, denying, ignoring, and running away.
Letting Go is the path of being aware, accepting, going with the flow, and moving on.
Judgement & Denial vs. Awareness & Acceptance
Repression starts with judgement & denial. Something happens, and you judge it to be “a bad thing.” Emotions arise in response to the event. Because you’ve labeled the event as “bad,” the emotions are painful, so you push them away and try not to experience them. Those painful emotions get stirred up whenever you think about the event, so you go into denial and pretend it didn’t happen. You try to “not think about it,” but that only makes you think about it more. As Freud so elegantly put it, “What you resist, persists.”
Letting Go, on the other hand, starts with awareness & acceptance. Something happens, and you are simply aware of it. Instead of judging it to be “a good thing” or “a bad thing,” you just see it as “a thing.” Emotions arise in response to the event, but you don’t judge them as good or bad either. Instead, you are simply aware of them, as sensations in your body. You accept the event as “something that happened,” you accept the emotion as “something that’s happening,” and you let the emotions flow through your body.
Once the emotions have run their course, and you’ve experienced the full extent of their power, they subside. Your body can’t maintain a state of full-on, raging firey anger, for example, or pure, unadulterated sobbing grief, for very long. These emotions require a large supply of physical bodily energy. Once that runs out, your body goes back to its relaxed, resting state, and you are able to move on and do whatever (if anything) needs to be done.
Ignoring & Running Away vs. Going With The Flow & Moving On
On the path of “repression,” you find yourself constantly ignoring and running away from “scary” thoughts and emotions.
Since you have never allowed yourself to fully experience the event, you’ve never been able to release the emotional energy that it created in your mind and body. Memories of the event continue to pop up, almost imperceptibly, all day long, for the rest of your life. You continue to repress them by pushing them down, ignoring them, and pretending you didn’t notice them.
This, in turn, becomes a constant source of distraction, sapping your brainpower and attention, and taking you away from the things in life you really want to focus on.
Worse yet, the emotions continue to arise in response to the thoughts! These thoughts and emotions blend together to create a background of tension and discomfort that permeates your daily life (even when you’re trying to do something else). It’s kind of like adding an annoying, distracting, disturbing soundtrack to an otherwise enjoyable movie.
This combination of (1) distracting thoughts, and (2) unpleasant emotional existential background, can make your life extremely uncomfortable. It can also make you unsuccessful in your pursuits (because of sapped brainpower), disconnected in relationships (because of distracted attention), and unhappy in life (because of disturbing and unpleasant emotional background). A great many people suffering from the effects of repression find themselves desperately seeking escape from the pain, living at the bottom of liquor bottles, or mindlessly addicted to other painkillers like TV, heroin, pills, etc.
The path of “letting go” is markedly easier and happier than that. You don’t need to go through all the craziness of repression as described above, so there’s almost nothing that needs to be said.
Since you never resisted the event and its subsequent emotions in the first place, you were able to have a complete experience right there on the spot.
When you go with the flow of life, and let it carry you where it may, the current takes you to one place, and then it carries you onward. There is no effort in moving on; it happens naturally.
Instead of standing and holding out against the river current for your whole life, struggling against the flow and going nowhere at all, you let go. You let the river carry you down to the peaceful lake. From there, you have no trouble climbing out, drying yourself off, and walking away to explore the beautiful forest around you.
It’s a very powerful way to live. When you accept life as it comes, without judgement, you don’t waste your energy in a foolish struggle against the flow. Instead, you let it carry you to new places, new things, new experiences… and then you get up, brush yourself off, and move on in whatever direction you want to go!
As you walk off on your exciting new adventure, you look back at the river upstream, and see the crazy man standing in the same spot, struggling to walk forward against the current. “Just let go,” you call out to the man, but he continues his stubborn struggle. You sigh, and move on, to new horizons.
Freud in the West vs. Siddhartha in the East
Both great psychologists, Sigmund Freud and Siddhartha Guatama recognized that many people are walking around with huge burdens of repressed thoughts and emotions on their shoulders. They both wanted to find a way to “cure” the suffering of “repression sickness” as described above, and they came at it from very different angles.
Freud saw the human mind as a deep well, while Siddhartha (aka The Buddha) saw it as a big open field.
In Freud’s model, in order to release repressed thoughts and emotions, you need to climb down into the well to explore the depths of your psyche. Down there, buried in the deep dark recesses of your unconscious mind, are hidden memories — festering, rotting, and messing up your physical, mental, and behavioral health. Freud’s theory was that, by climbing down and shining a light on these memories, they would stop festering, and eventually they would disappear from the well altogether.
In The Buddha’s model, on the other hand, all you need to do is sit in the middle of the field and maintain a state of relaxed alertness. By bringing your attention into the here and now, you finally begin to notice that there are other beings in the field as well. Butterflies are floating around you, bees are buzzing, bugs are walking all over the place.
At first, you may become scared and uncomfortable. Oh no! An ant is crawling on my arm!
But as you continue to maintain a state of relaxed, non-judgmental awareness, you come to realize that these beings aren’t really hurting you at all. They’re just there, and that’s all there is to it. You lift your hand in front of your face and look closely at this little ant walking along your finger. He’s just a tiny little ant! He couldn’t hurt you. And why would he want to anyway? A butterfly wanders by through the air in front of you, and you realize that she, and the ant, and you, are all simply beings, existing, and sharing the field together. They are your companions, fellow travelers in this strange thing called existence.
In more practical, less poetic terms (for the western reader), the Buddha’s theory was that you can approach and dissolve repressed memories simply by being aware of what arises in the mind here and now, when the mind is quiet and resting. You don’t need to go digging to find the things that are disturbing you. In fact, those things are already coming up in your mind on a constant basis, all day, every day! You just have to settle down, stop distracting yourself, and begin to notice them.
At first, you may be startled, scared, or even disturbed by what you see has been there all along.
But, if you approach your thoughts and emotions with the non-judgmental attitude of curiosity, awareness, and acceptance, you will soon realize that your thoughts and emotions are simply there, and that’s all there is to it. They’re just little tiny fleeting sensations! They can’t hurt you. And why would they want to anyway? A thought wanders through your mind, and you realize that it, and your emotions, and even “you” (your consciousness itself) are all simply processes of nature, existing, and sharing this universe together.