“What’s this?” I asked my dad as I held up my prize.
It was the spring of my fourth-grade year, and my school was hosting our annual spring fair. My school’s cafeteria, now a boardwalk of homemade carnival games, smelled of popcorn, cotton candy, and sweat. I had just tossed a ping-pong ball into a cup and won this contraption.
“That,” My dad said, “is a Chinese finger-trap!” He smiled as if he had a secret.
“How’s it work?” I asked. “Stick your index fingers in it, one on each side,” my dad replied. I placed my fingers inside the cylinder of woven bamboo. “Now try to get out of it,” he smiled.
As I pulled, my fingers were indeed trapped. The harder I pulled, the tighter the checkered device became. My dad looked more than amused as I struggled for a good couple of minutes until I felt like my little digits were about to pop out of their joints.
Seeing my frustration, my dad said, “Don’t pull. Just relax. Now push in.” As I did, the trap loosened. Low and behold I was able to free myself.
“Where’s my little brother!” I said, scanning the crowd with a devious grin.
Some days, I feel like I am that nine-year-old, stuck all over again. Only this time I’m snared in my day to day struggles: traffic is bad, taxes are due, cars breakdown, deadlines loom, and people get cranky. I don’t mean to be negative, but the little boy in me wants to scream “Give me a flippin break! Why can’t things just be easy for once?” I know, “First World” problems, right? Nevertheless, I get angry, frustrated, anxious, and sad—along with a myriad of other painful feelings when things don’t go my way.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way. In fact, for centuries, every school of religion, philosophy, and psychology has attempted to answer the question of human suffering. While they disagree on many things, they all tend to agree on this: Life, like the Chinese finger trap, is a paradox. The more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to see that what I learned that day at the school fair applies well to life: Release control, and press into “what is” to find my way through.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I identified a few areas where releasing control and “pressing into” might make my life less complicated.
Pressing into the uncertainty of the outcome.
All too often, I have already determined the “desired outcome.” I want things to work on my terms. However, what I want and what I get are often mutually exclusive. When I have an expectation that goes unmet, it typically manifests into a resentment. Resentments cut the soul with the blade of disappointment, leaving the scars of discouragement and discontent. Yet, when I release control and press into the uncertainty of the outcome, I free myself to explore other possibilities. The magic, then, is that I find the peace of mind I was looking for in the first place.
Pressing into the unpredictability of others’ behaviors.
Oh, this is a bitter pill to swallow! Why can’t others just do what I want them to do or not do the things I don’t want them to do? After all, I only want what’s best for everyone…right? Truth be told, even under my most altruistic desire lays ego gratification.
When I try to control others, I am in their business, and I ultimately suffer—and so do my relationships. Byron Katie puts it this way:
“If you are living your life and I am mentally living your life, who is here living mine? We’re both over there. Being mentally in your business keeps me from being present in my own. I am separate from myself, wondering why my life doesn’t work. To think that I know what’s best for anyone else is to be out of my business.”
I’ve found when I stay in “my business” I’m no longer stuck obsessively controlling others, which leads to greater satisfaction and enjoyment in my relationships.
Pressing into the uncontrollability of circumstance.
My argument is that if I give in and let everything happen, I become a victim of circumstances. I mean, do I just accept injustices? Do I allow poverty, disease, global warming, homophobia, and bigotry to go on while I grab my banjo and sing a folk song before I go and bury my head in the sand? And yet the ugly truth is that I cannot change the circumstances of the world.
Then I remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
I unlock freedom when I press into the knowledge that I can only choose to control and change myself, and I become the change I want to see in the world.
All in all, I’m learning that there is a flow to life. Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them—that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Life is like a stream that runs a course, and I’ve often thought there are but two choices: Go with the flow, or swim against it. The rebel in me wants to go against it. But pressing in has taught me there is a third option: I can get in the flow and use self-control as my rudder, steering out of the way of suffering.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find my nephew and show him my Chinese finger trap.
Author: Chuck Chapman
Image: Flickr/Mike Mozart
Editor: Travis May