Mariachi music tickled the air around us as she pushed the slightly warm, deliciously oily and salty basket of corn chips aside and beckoned for my hand.
Shoving my fingers into a loose fist, she wrapped hers around mine, squeezing it until it asphyxiated my bones and I wanted to pull my hand back and hide it inside my pocket.
“I can squeeze your hand like this,” she said, “And it’s really uncomfortable. It’s too much pressure, right?” I nodded.
She relaxed the tension in her hands without loosening her grip at all. Instantly, my hand no longer felt smothered, but secure, safe and warm, held in a supportive grasp backed by sureness and confidence.
“Or I can hold on like this. It’s not any looser, right? I’m still using the same amount of pressure.”
The effect was startling. I could no more wiggle my fingers than I’d been able to a moment before, but the sensation was paradoxical.
So, what was the difference?
In the first instance, my teacher was leveraging the Vulcan death grip. Her focus was one hundred percent in holding onto my hand, to the exclusion of all other sensations. Her whole body was taught, every muscle involved in wringing my hand.
In the second, she was using what I call appropriate tension – just enough to hold my hand in place but no more. Her body was relaxed, her breath easy.
And, as I mentioned, it made a whale of a difference on the receiving end.
I notice this a lot in life, that we hold on too tightly. I mean this physically, of course. Our hard body obsessed fitness culture has us fixated on tight muscles (which might look all hot and toned and stuff, but strong muscles need to be able to relax or they can’t contract, which is what generates force, otherwise known as strength).
It shows up in little ways – seizing a pen with a tenacity that rivals the power of Krazy Glue, holding onto your water bottle as though it might run away, clutching a doorknob with enough force to melt the damn thing.
But because the way you move your body is also how you move through life, being a reflection of your neural synapses and all, all this needless force shows up in bigger ways too – clinging to a relationship, a job, an identity as though the loss of such a thing would cause the sun to implode into a black hole that sucks you over the event horizon never to be seen or heard from again.
There is a danger in holding on too tightly. While wrenching a doorknob or slamming your heels down when you walk might only damage your muscles and tendons and ligaments, clinging rigidly to your relationship – be that to your own self identity or to another person, say a spouse, parent, friend or even a child – can smother.
When I was first learning to ride horses, my instructor (after giving me seventeen things to remember and shouting at me to turn right when I was pretty sure I was turning right, although since she kept saying it, maybe I was going left after all, and was I supposed to be holding with my right leg and bumping with my left or the other way around?) would reach up and grab my hand, saying, “See? Look how tight you are. You know what this feels like inside the horse’s mouth? A huge ball of fire.”
Imagine someone was leading you by the arm but they kept yanking you this way and that. All you need is subtle pressure in the direction they’d like to go, right? With repetition, all that jerking around is going to make you pull back, fold your arms across your chest and stubbornly refuse to move.
Don’t jerk your life around. Back up a little. Give it room to breathe.
Seriously. With all of us drinking from the fire hose of motivation to get up, get out there and make life work for us, to carpe the fuck out our diems and lasso our dreams, chasing them down and hogtying them into submission, we’re all just getting a little too wound up about things.
If you’ve been nose to nose with a task, a problem, an issue, I invite you to just take a deep breath. Relax your whole body. Back off the intensity.
How much of your effort does this thing really require (and don’t answer all of it, that’s ludicrous – if it took all of your life force, you’d have nothing left to keep your heart beating or digest your food).
How much of it is actually within your control? Focus on that. Do that. And then step back, let it go.