Can You Let Go?

I have been a philosophical Buddhist for the last 35 years. What I love about Buddhism is its psychology, which can be applied by anyone, no matter his or her beliefs or lack thereof.

There is one area where Buddhism has given me an edge over many people I know. It has cured me of what I call the great Western disease, which afflicts anyone who says or thinks, “I’ll be happy when …” And then fills in the blank: “I have a million dollars in the bank”; “we can move to a bigger house”; “the kids graduate”; or “I retire.”

The list of ways we can fill in the blanks is endless, but it’s an illusion. When we get the million dollars, we’re not satisfied — we want another million. When the kids are finally out of the house, we’re not really free; some other responsibility soon demands our attention.

We believe achieving a goal will somehow make us happy, but the goal line always moves slightly beyond our reach. There’s nothing wrong with that. Without goals we would never achieve anything. The great Western disease is that we fixate on the future at the expense of enjoying the life we’re living now.

For example, on a flight from Zurich to New York, I found myself sitting next to a wealthy investor who had discovered he’d paid too much for a small high-tech firm. He was livid with the founder of the company, who he thought had misled him in the sale. Breakthrough technologies that were promised never materialized. Revenue targets were consistently missed. Deals in negotiation always fell through. The founder himself, after making a powerful initial impression, turned out to be somewhat of a slacker who lacked motivation and consistently missed business commitments.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen behavior like this. We’ve all spent hours reliving how someone was inconsiderate, ungrateful or less than straightforward. It also wasn’t the first time I had seen this behavior in someone who has it all and should be able to put an annoying individual behind him or her. My seatmate was a multimillionaire with a beautiful home and family in Switzerland. He had investments in several standout companies. All these positives should easily have canceled out this one nettlesome person in his life. He should have been happy on that plane, but instead he was making himself miserable.

I suggested maybe he wasn’t as angry at the founder as he was at himself for being a poor judge of character and not conducting adequate due diligence in the purchase.

He admitted the possibility but then began berating himself. “I usually have a great instinct for these deals. How did I screw this up?”

I went on to remind him that despite this one mistake he was still very successful. I suggested he write off this one bad deal as a learning experience that he could apply to his next acquisition. But he not only had to accept the situation, he had to forgive both of the people involved.

“Let me ask you something,” I said. “How much sleep do you think this person is losing over you right now?”

“None,” he groaned.

“So who is being punished here? And who is doing the punishing?” I asked.

“That would be me — twice,” he said.

Then the message got through. Angry as he was, he was also practical. He wanted to stop being consumed by anger. Acceptance, and its follow-up forgiveness, is a direct way to do that.

“What do you suggest?” he asked.

“Well, I’d either fire the founder or sell the company. But before that, I’d work on forgiving myself,” I replied.

When we cannot accept a situation for what it is and refuse to forgive people for causing that situation, we ultimately hurt ourselves. We limit our opportunities to find meaning and happiness. We kill our mojo, that positive spirit that starts on the inside and radiates to the outside.

Acceptance liberates us from toxic emotions. You don’t have to like everyone, agree with them or even respect them. Just accept them for being who they are. When you can do that, you can forgive them for being who they are, forgive yourself for being who you are, change what you can and let go of what you cannot.

Related: Do What You Love, Love What You Do