The Teflon Mind: How to Let Go of The Past
What doesn’t stick makes you stronger.
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to.” — Lao Tzu
Why can’t I just move on?
Everyone tells you: “let go.” It sounds so simple, right? Yet, you can’t stop holding on to the past. A grudge, a bad experience, or a betrayal — no matter how long ago they happened, sad memories stick with us forever.
Reliving a story is like being hurt twice or thrice — remembering your suffering creates more suffering. So why do we do it?
In some weird way, it’s fulfilling. We construct our heroified version of what happened. Those stories do more than fill the void — they’ve become part of who you are. Memories have adhered to your identity; you can’t remove them no matter how hard you try.
Let’s be honest: letting go is not easy. But you can train yourself to avoid sad memories from getting stuck. You need to develop a Teflon Mind.
Why We Create (More) Suffering
“It is mental slavery to cling to things that have stopped serving its purpose in your life.” — Chinonye J. Chidolue
You can’t change the past, so why continue to perpetuate it?
The more you try to understand what happened, the more harm you cause. Rehashing sad memories adds unnecessary suffering to your suffering.
You feel like a hamster in the wheel — no matter how hard you try, you can’t make any progress.
According to Professor Clifford Nass at Stanford University, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres. Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”
However, blaming everything on our brain could be an easy way out. We cannot change what happened, but we have control of the stories we tell ourselves about what happened.
1. We want to be the hero
We’ve all been hurt. It’s sad and embarrassing — no one wants to look weak. That’s why we construct our version of what happened; one that will make us look good. But blaming others can leave you powerless — you still expect other to repair the pain they caused, but they won’t.
2. We let others define us
The only thing in life under your control is how you behave. What others do (to you) is out of bounds, you can’t do much about it. Focusing on what others did is a distraction — rather than trying to understand other’s behaviors, put your energy on what you can do to move on.
3. We can’t forgive ourselves
All your feelings are legitimate. However, blaming is a two-way street — when we can’t forgive others is because we can’t forgive ourselves too. Others did something wrong but, deep inside, we believe we did something wrong to cause it. When we feel guilty, it becomes harder to move on.
Eckhart Tolle said, “There is a fine balance between honoring the past and losing yourself in it. You can acknowledge and learn from mistakes you made, and then move on. It is called forgiving yourself. “
4. The past becomes who we are
Many people identify their sense of self with the problems they have or think they have. According to Eckhart Tolle, people create and maintain problems because they give them a sense of identity. Our stories are part of our experience but are not who we are. Letting go of a past story makes space for new ones — focus on the here and now.
5. We have dependent relationships
There’s nothing wrong with loving someone and enjoying to be with that person. The problem is when you allow that person to ‘own’ you — you’ve become attached to that relationship. That’s why we can move on when a loved one hurts us — we fear losing that person and all the emotions attached to her/ him.
Becoming more aware of why we create more suffering won’t necessarily make your worries go away. It’s just the beginning — to let go when must understand what we cling to.
The Suffering We Cling to
“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
All our struggles stem from attachment.
We don’t really get attached to the person, but to our shared experiences. We get stuck to the emotions that our relationships stir up in us — happy or sad.
Dalai Lama said, “Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.”
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with forming bonds of love and friendship. The problem is attachment — when we become dependent to clinging on to others.
Attachment is holding on to things that are past their time — we suffer because they are no longer what they used (or what we expected them) to be. We don’t understand that everything is impermanent — change is the only constant in life.
The opposite of attachment is not detachment — the idea is not to stop loving or being compassionate towards others. Non-attachment is the answer — not letting emotions or experiences stick with you.
Non-attachment is freedom from things and people. Everything changes — when you hold on to something, you get stuck in a moment. All things evolve and change over time.
John Daido Loori says that non-attachment should be understood as unity with all things.
The Zen teacher said, “Non-attachment is exactly the opposite of separation. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In non-attachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to.”
You don’t have to detach from the people in your life or from having goals in your career. You can still actively work to create a better tomorrow; it’s simply letting go of fixed expectations. Having professional goals or relationships is okay. The issue is when you let those things own you — getting stuck in expectations is why we can’t move on when things don’t go our way.
Non-attachment is recognizing that everything that you are experiencing is impermanent.
Face the reality that everything ends and that ending becomes the start of something else. Life is like a book — you have to turn the page to start a new chapter.
I’ve become very good at letting go of almost anything over time. I changed jobs and career when I was at the top. I moved many many times and had to start all over again. I threw away many possessions and habits — what were once luxuries quickly became a burden.
Letting go is both liberating and exciting!
I’m still myself in spite of all the changes I made. Recognizing life’s impermanence creates a state of joyfulness — that’s the basis for developing a Teflon Mind.
What Doesn’t Stick Makes You Stronger
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” — Tao Te Ching
The first time I heard the term ‘Teflon Mind’ was in this humorous and inspirational talk by Ajahn Brahm. The acclaimed British-Australian Buddhist monk shares his insights humanly and straightforwardly — you don’t need to understand (or even like) Buddhism to benefit from his wisdom.
He offers advice on how to train your mind to let go, to be peaceful and happy. Ajahn reflects upon why we find it so hard to let go of our hurts and how we can benefit from having a Teflon Mind.
1. Travel Light
“Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” — Jack Kornfield
Grab a rock or a heavy book. Hold it for a couple of minutes and then let it go. How do you feel now? Things are only heavy when you hold onto them — when you let things go, they don’t feel heavy any longer.
Your mind is like a backpack — if you fill it with heavy rocks, it will make your journey more difficult. Ajahn tells us to throw all the load away (the grudges, the sadness, the complaints, the past, the expectations, etc.). Only keep one thing: the present moment.
That’s the paradox of life — the more time or space we have, the more we want to fill it with things. Either we plan for new distractions or get bust rehashing memories.
Do you feel exhausted? Maybe your backpack is too heavy. What can you throw away? Let go not just of past emotions — empty your life of things that are meaningless and useless. Look around — you can get rid of everything you see without losing your identity.
You are not what you have; throw your emotional dependence away.
2. Want to Be Here
“Holding on is believing that there’s only a past; letting go is knowing that there’s a future.” — Daphne Rose Kingma
Freedom is not a status, but a mindset as I wrote here. There are many prisons in life. Any place you don’t want to be is your prison, as Ajahn Brahm explains. If you are in a relationship which you don’t like, your relationship is your prison. If you are in a job that doesn’t give you satisfaction, you feel imprisoned.
However, the solution doesn’t always mean escaping from where you are; we carry our prisons wherever we go. You need to change your mindset — decide and enjoy being here (wherever or whatever that means to you). Contentment — a state of satisfaction with what you have — is the second way of letting go.
When you want to be here, you are free.
3. Expect Nothing in Return
“You can only lose what you cling to.”
Are you giving and expecting something in return? That’s the root of everyday frustrations — nothing ever happens as we want it to be. It can be better or worse or even similar, but it’s always different.
As I started writing this piece, my expectations were zero. I don’t expect you to like it, share it, or write back. I’m writing it because I choose to be here — I’m enjoying the time researching, writing, and editing the piece. If it helps people, that would be great, and I will enjoy it. If not, I will be alright. Whatever must happen, will happen.
When you enter a relationship without expectations, you are leaving space for things to happen. That’s why we love surprises.
4. Develop a Non-Stick Mind
‘When the weather is hot, keep a cool mind. When the weather is cold, keep a warm heart” — Ajahn Brahm
Don’t let moments — sad or happy — adhere to you. Enjoy things while they last. Nostalgia can be as harmful as ruminating sad experiences. Don’t let sadness, or the pain that someone caused, stick to you.
If you are having a beautiful moment, enjoy it. Don’t compare it to others (past or future)moments. A Teflon Mind is not about not caring, but avoiding attachment — a non-stick pan lets you cook one thing after another because none adheres to its surface. The stories we create are like glue — they make things stick rather than come and go.
Have a Teflon Mind — let your emotions, experiences, and thoughts slip right out.
You can attend to painful thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they should get stuck. Learn to observe your emotions and feelings without becoming their prisoner — let them go, and you will be free.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment.”
Having a Teflon Mind is learning not to judge. Awful, Perfect, The best, the most painful, the worst, the most terrible — when we categorize our experiences, we make them stick.
Letting go is one of the most challenging things in life. But it’s a skill worth developing. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty. I have never envied a human being who led an easy life.”
Remember, when there’s nothing to attach to, there’s nothing to let go of. That’s the beauty of building a non-stick mind.
The purpose of your life is the journey, not reaching a destination. Nothing lasts forever.