The Power of Quitting

by Chelsea Doohan

Quitting gets a bad rap.

From childhood onwards there are few things someone can call you that are worse than “quitter”.

But wait a minute, there are also positive connotations to quitting, right? Quitting smoking or another bad habit sure is a positive thing. And. . . well, that’s actually the only thing I can think of that puts quitting in a positive light. Mostly it’s something we are taught NOT to do, at almost any cost.

So I want to stand up for quitting. I want to encourage you to do it, for reasons I’ll get into below.

Sure, there are times when persevering is a better choice than quitting. But we are so flooded with these stories of quitting=failure and persevering=success, I don’t think I need to write about them.

What doesn’t usually get discussed is what a profound purpose that quitting serves for any of us to function and thrive. This can range from the everyday–you quit one task because it’s time to attend to another, you quit eating because you are full–to the more significant decisions like quitting a relationship or a job that isn’t working.

Sometimes persevering works, but there is often a point when persevering just ends up hurting you and quitting is the skillful thing to do. The yoga of quitting is recognizing when that shift happens.

The yoga of quitting also involves awareness of how it feels after you quit something. If you stay alert in that space, you will possibly notice two things. One, there may be some yucky feelings left over from ingrained beliefs about quitting. Two, there are also other feelings, which might, in contrast, be quite pleasurable. I would describe it as a feeling of relief, spaciousness, and ease.

Quitting one thing opens up space for other things.

This is kind of obvious but also worth sitting with.

I remember a period of time when I was a music student and I played both the clarinet and the cello. I was enthusiastic and dedicated to practicing each one. I was getting better at both.

But I was aiming for the Oberin Conservatory, and there came a time when I just knew I would have to step it up if I was going to get in. There weren’t enough hours in the day to do that with both instruments.

I had to face it: I couldn’t do both. Not at the level I wanted. I had to let one go. I quit the clarinet, and it still hurts to write about it! I was heartbroken at first, but looking back, I absolutely did the right thing.

I was then able to focus on the cello, and I did get into Oberlin. What is more, playing only one instrument opened up a world of pleasure that I didn’t have access to before. I felt spacious, and I could really dig into my cello studies. I immersed myself in the music. I didn’t feel so tense all the time, so worried about whether I was going to be able to fit these two different things into my schedule, always feeling behind on both of them because I was trying to do too much and was spread too thin.

This story might apply to you if you are an achiever. If it is your inclination to do a lot of things and say yes to every opportunity, you might find it refreshing to quit something and feel the spaciousness that arises. The quitting opens up the space, so that other things can take root and grow.

When I really look at it, I realize that before almost any positive change can happen, there is first some little or big quitting that precedes it.  This brings me to my final point for today, which is:

Quitting Is Part of Success.

Like my story shows, quitting something doesn’t have to mean failure. It can actually be a crucial part of success.

Here is another example: Say an olympic athlete wins a gold medal. That’s a big success. Behind and underneath that big success are hundreds if not thousands of both little and big quittings that have made it possible. . . . Everything from the macro level, like quitting other sports or activities to focus on just one, or perhaps quitting eating certain foods… to the micro level, like quitting certain techniques or habits that are getting in the athlete’s way, or quitting certain negative thoughts in order to repopulate the mind with more positive ones.

Another way of saying this is that our brains get really crowded when we try to add new behaviors, thoughts, or habits without first clearing some space for them. Fuller success comes from a more spacious place.

I will share a quotation from Herman Hesse:

“Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.”

Indeed. Letting go (quitting) has the dual quality of being scary/painful on the one hand, but so easy and such a relief on the other hand.

Skillful quitting, like anything, takes practice. Meditation is great for this. Here is a short practice if you would like to experience some of that feeling of ease and relief that comes with quitting.

  • Either on your yoga mat or in some other place where you can sit comfortably, sit in an upright position that you can maintain for a few minutes. Sukhasana (crossed legs) elevated on blankets is ideal, but a chair works well too.
  • Turn your attention inward. Observe your thoughts for several minutes.
  • Then, one by one, quit them. Just say “I quit.” Let them go. They will be there when you need them, but right now, you don’t need them. You can just quit them.

If your mind wanders, don’t worry about it, because you are still practicing quitting. You aren’t doing all the other things you do in your life. You have, for the time being, quit doing those things. Even if your thoughts take over and you can’t manage to quit thinking, you are still doing the practice because you have still quit a lot of things just to be there.

Let pleasure guide you with this. Do you get relief from quitting? or is this an uncomfortable space? If you get pleasure from this, it’s okay to trust that. If it’s difficult to be in that space, be gentle with yourself and maybe start with smaller quittings at first.

We always like to hear about your experiences with practice. If you have a comment, leave it here.