A couple months ago I traveled to Spain for a work trip. Nestled in the Girona mountains to the west, with the open coastal waters of the Balearic Sea to the east, this was one work trip I knew I'd never forget.
Actually, "work trip" is a bit of a misnomer. It was more of a "retreat," as I found myself amongst a motley crew of global leadership experts, scientists, executives, life-long mindfulness practitioners, and Buddhists, all together to ponder the eternal question: How does the mind create great leadership?
The whole thing started with two days of silence. And I mean silence. No talking at all. Not even during meals. And no phones or any other digital devices. Just you and your mind.
Let It Go, or Let It Be?
The first little bit was tough, to say the least. With the busyness of our modern lives and the constant distraction of phones, laptops, and iPads at our disposal, the mind is not accustomed to this type of empty silence.
In the type of practice we were doing, called "open awareness," the objective (without really being an objective per se) is to observe and notice thoughts, sensations, and emotions as they arise. The idea is to try to stay away from narrating, analyzing, and figuring out your experiences and instead to see your experience as it really is.
On Day 3, when we could begin talking again, one coaching session prompted a question from the group: "During those moments of meditative silence, what do you say to yourself when the loud/critical/doubting voice inside your head conjures negative thoughts or emotions?"
The experts in the room had two go-to phrases: "Let it go" and "Let it be."
On the surface, both seem like very reasonable personal mantras to help unhook you from recurring thoughts/emotions and provide a much-needed space between experience and the ego.
But I had a hypothesis.
My intuition was that the tiny difference in a single word -- "go" versus "be" -- would produce a differential calming effect on the mind.
So, what's your guess? Which do you think would be better at calming the mind? Which would be your go-to mantra?
Elsa Versus Paul McCartney: An Experiment
In the Disney blockbuster Frozen, Queen Elsa has a go-to line to help alleviate her icy anxiety, as she belts out "Let it go!" from the top of her snow mountain palace. Half a century earlier, Paul McCartney and the Beatles mollified the world with their soothing piano ballad, finding their own words of wisdom: "Let it be."
The battle of Elsa versus Paul ensued. Who would win? I ran an experiment to see which phrase was the more potent anxiolytic.
The experiment worked as follows. Five hundred individuals were put through an emotional experience. They were prompted to "think back to a difficult time in the last two years when you felt really stressed." Right after, I asked their emotional baseline. They were then told to "sit with the emotion for three minutes, reflecting on how you felt then and how it makes you feel now."
A third of the participants weren't given any instructions other than the above (the control condition). The other third of participants were instructed to "Let it go" and to repeat the mantra over the duration of the three minutes as they reflected back and sat with their emotions (the Elsa condition). The final third of participants had the same mantra instructions but were told to repeat "Let it be" instead (the McCartney condition).
Finally, once the three minutes elapsed, all 500 participants answered the same emotions questions as they did moments earlier. Our question: Which condition produced the greatest decrease in anxiety from before the emotional induction to after?
Lennon for the Win
Not surprising, the people in the control condition showed a very slight 4 percent decrease. The passing of time had a small impact on their anxiety, but not much. The participants repeating the "Let it go" mantra had a 24 percent drop in anxiety. A significant reduction to be sure.
The clear winner, however, was "Let it be," with a 45 percent drop in anxiety from before to after.
The reason? Those told to repeat "Let it be" felt the experience was less effortful. In other words, when you let something be, it just is. You don't have to do anything to it or to yourself. When you let something go, however, there's a part of the process that's asking you to actively do something: let go of a feeling or thought. That requires some "doing" and therefore is less effective than just letting things be.
The next time you're feeling stressed, do your best to channel your inner McCartney, but maybe leave the singing to the pop stars and Disney princesses.