Letting Go

(c) Andrew Safer 2014

“Meditation is about taking what comes, giving it appropriate reverence, and learning to let it go, to lose attachment to it. So that’s the practice.” You would expect to hear this from a Buddhist monk or meditation teacher, but this was Mark Bertolini, the Chairman and CEO of Aetna, Inc., the global health insurer. He was speaking on “Yoga, Mindfulness, and Leadership” at Wisdom 2.0 Business. “It may depend on what your day is,” he continued. “You may be going in to work for a very stressful situation, and that’s going to come into your head. Give it what it’s due, and let it go.”

When Arianna Huffington (founder of The Huffington Post) interviewed him on CNBC’s Squawk Box in March 2013, Bertolini explained that he began to practice meditation and yoga as part of his recovery process following a skiing accident in which he had suffered a broken neck. Daily meditation and yoga practice help him cope with neuropathic pain, without drugs. On his initiative, Aetna piloted a mindfulness meditation and yoga program that showed strong outcomes. The program has since been delivered to more than 13,000 employees.

The letting go that Bertolini mentioned is key to resilience, which is defined as “recoiling, springing back, resuming its original shape after bending, stretching, compression, etc.; (of a person) readily recovering from shock, depression, etc.” When something unexpected occurs and catches us off guard (a bill we weren’t expecting arrives, a project we’re working on gets delayed, a valued contributor in our workgroup suddenly disappears), does it throw us off our game, or can we “give it appropriate reverence, and let it go”? In the practice of meditation, we acknowledge our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and perceptions, and instead of dwelling on them, giving them further life, we come back to the realities of posture, breath, and the immediate environment. Mindfulness practice trains us to stay grounded, and the awareness component of the practice helps us to not lose sight of the big picture.

The ability to both weather the ups and downs that life throws at us and keep our perspective, requires that we “lose attachment”, as Bertolini advised. In his poem, “Eternity”, the 19th Century poet William Blake wrote about this in a different vein:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

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