What is left when you let go?

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This April, I spent six days with 10 other long-time students of Kim Rosen participating in a retreat on the theme of death. Not simply the Big Death that awaits each of us at the end of life, but also the small ‘living deaths’ we face each day: those inevitable moments of frustration, anxiety, anger and despair when life refuses to march to our drum. Waiting impatiently for the traffic light to turn green. Having a fight with my beloved. Panicking when the Internet goes down. In each case, I struggle against life as it shows up. In each case, there’s an opportunity for me to stop the struggle, tune inward and inquire.

During the retreat, we engaged in powerful experiential exercises that explored fear, loss, and letting go. One of those exercises had a huge impact on me. We were paired up. My partner asked me this question: “What are you afraid of losing?” I let a response bubble up and replied. She then repeated, “What are you afraid of losing?” and again, I sensed within before replying. Each posing of the very same question propelled me deeper into myself, unpeeling yet another layer of fear and loss. After many repetitions, we were asked to pause and close our eyes. I then sensed into one or two things I had named that I was most afraid of losing.

Then Kim instructed, “Feel into how important those things are to you….And now, let them fall away – fall completely away….What is left when what you’re most afraid of losing falls away?”

What I was most afraid of losing was my capacity for joy. And yet, quite a surprise awaited me when I let that precious quality fall away. It felt as if a vast emptiness met me. To my astonishment, there was absolutely no shade of despair nor elation. Simply vast, neutral, calm emptiness.

As it happened, before the exercise, I had pulled a poem card from the basket at the altar in the centre of our circle. On it was an excerpt of a poem by Rumi called What’s not here. The first stanza, “I start out on this road,/ call it love or emptiness,/ I only know what’s not here….” captures my sense of that emptiness. And later, the lines, “I am a universe in a handful of dirt/ Whole when totally demolished” reassures me: when I finally am willing to drop my masks, my defences and my small but strong ego self, a wholeness emerges. This poem accompanied me during and out of the retreat. Even though some of the lines still elude my understanding, the poem feels like important soul medicine as I practise meeting those small deaths in life.

What’s not here

I start out on this road,
call it love or emptiness,
I only know what’s not here.

Resentment seeds, backscratching greed,
worrying about outcome, fear of people.

When a bird gets free,
it does not go for remnants
left on the bottom of the cage.

Close by, I’m rain. Far off,
a cloud of fire. I seem restless,
but am deeply at ease.

Branches tremble. The roots are still.
I am a universe in a handful of dirt,
whole when totally demolished.

Talk about choices does not apply to me.
While intelligence considers options,
I am somewhere lost in the wind.

Rumi, edited by Coleman Barks



  1. janice falls

    April 30, 2017

    I am a universe in a handful of dirt, / whole when totally demolished. This is what we struggle to learn, to turn toward the fear. Thank you for sharing your small deaths Mary Lou. love, Jan

  2. Maureen McGahey

    April 30, 2017

    Thankyou for sharing your experience with this exercise.
    I want to reflect on what I fear losing . I suspect in facing those fears I will have more to work on too…
    In appreciation,
    Maureen xo

  3. Wendy Sarno

    May 1, 2017

    Ah, Mary Lou, how you have captured in words an experience of a kind of spacious emptiness that so many of our great mystics speak of. When we fully face our fear of losing what seems most essential and dear to us, there is no sense of loss, “Simply vast, neutral, calm emptiness.” And I am enthralled again with how a poem came to accompany and hold you in this experience, giving words to the wisdom offered. Thank you, dear friend, for finding the words to share this with us.

    much love,


  4. Sherry Galey

    May 5, 2017

    That is such a profound question — and one that really requires going deeper. For me, inquiring into what are we most afraid of losing is subtly different than what we do not want to lose. Getting in touch with the fear is the key. Thank you Mary Lou for sharing your experience of this exercise and the poem that accompanied you. So valuable!

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