Patrick Ward words, code, and music

Chinese Handcuffs and the Art of Letting Go

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.
~ from the Zenrin kushu

When I was young, I was given some Chinese Handcuffs. They were tiny, paper finger traps with an ironic method of release. I loved tricking unsuspecting kids with them. I’d snicker with glee as they put their fingers in both ends, only to find they couldn’t pull them back out. They were trapped, and the harder they pulled, the tighter the toy would squeeze.

Of course, the trick was to let go. You had to rest your fingers and push inward on the handcuffs to release them. It required a non-intuitive approach.

I was reminded of that toy recently as I realized the same holds true in life. The more I resist in life, the more complex and chaotic it seems to get; the tighter its grip on me. The opposite is also true: the less I resist the more peaceful I am and the more I get done.

Writing this blog has been a constant in my mind ever since I stopped writing in it. It’s plagued me as I try to figure out what I want to do with it. The harder I try to figure out what my goal is for this blog, the further from an answer I get. Until, I asked myself the other day: Why does there have to be a goal to begin with? Why can’t the goal be realized through the process of doing?

In Zen, there is an idea of no-time, no-effort; that things are just done, one after the other. There is no tomorrow, and there is no past, there is only now. It’s not the attainment of something that elicits enlightenment. Rather, enlightenment is the process itself. It’s not the goal achieved, it’s the act of sitting that matters more than anything else. You just do something, even if that something is not doing anything.

Life moves on, not towards some distant, unknowable future, but one moment after another. Becoming one with the flow of that moment by moment nature of the universe, letting go of your resistance to it, is what matters. It is more important to just do, to be aware of the state of action, than it is to find that perfect answer that will complete your life and set you on some fantasy ride towards a personal nirvana. Perhaps an answer will come, perhaps it won’t. The point is that it doesn’t matter.

That’s not to say that the goal isn’t important. There is value in its motivation. But, goals are not immutable. They change with the shifting tides of experience as you drift along through the currents of your life. By responding to those changing currents, delighting in the adventures they offer, rather than resisting and trying to set them back to the original course, you’ll find that life requires less effort, it becomes in a word: enjoyable.

And when the course changes, it doesn’t mean the goal is unattainable. It just means you have to adjust to the new course in order to realize the goal.

When I started writing earlier in the year, I didn’t have a plan then, either. I just knew I wanted to write 30 posts in 30 days. And I did it. I just started. And that made all the difference. Each day was its own adventure.

Somewhere along that path, I’d forgotten that it was each day’s post that counted, not the attainment of the goal. Just as sitting in a 30 minute meditation isn’t about reaching the end of the 30 minutes. It’s about each second of meditation.

Ironically, it took a return to the practice of meditation to remind me of all this. In fact, the more I meditate, the more efficient I become — my work improves, my writing improves, my motivation improves. I begin to realize that there are no all-encompassing answers that I need to come up with before I begin to engage this life.

The day to day discipline of moving forward is what gets you somewhere. Ruminating incessantly about what to do next won’t get you any closer to realizing anything. In fact, it gets you further away from your destination.

Oddly enough, I stopped riding my motorcycle when I stopped meditating as well. I’d forgotten the trite, but true, adage that all motorcycle enthusiasts realize: “it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.”

As I’ve come back to meditation, and a life built on one task after another, I’ve returned to my writing, reignited my studies in mathematics, become more efficient at work, realized greater gains in the gym, returned to running, found my motorcycle, opened up relationships with others, and found a sense of peace I’d thought was lost.

It’s all leading to a more mindful life. A life where I find that: as I slow down, I tend to make fewer mistakes, which propels me forward at greater speeds. It’s ironic, but as I let go of the things I grasp at, I find them easier to attain. I seem to gain more by focusing on each moment and letting go of the resistance to life itself.

I’ll have much more to say about mindfulness in the future. It’s something I’ve come to realize is key to my own growth. As I become mindful of my daily life, I’m realizing how much of life is truly just a connection from one moment to another, one person to another, one idea to another.

For now, I’ll continue to let go and push inward, no longer trapped by a resistance to life’s version of Chinese Handcuffs.