Exercise: Grab a medium-sized object—water bottle, cell phone, book—and grip it tightly, making your hand into a fist around it. Then, without opening your fist, use that same hand to try to pick up another object. What happens? When I tried this exercise, my fist knocked uselessly against the second object and I couldn’t pick it up without opening my hand and letting go of the first object.
Now imagine that the bottle, cell phone or whatever item you grabbed is an objective, a relationship, an opportunity, or an imagined life path. And that the second object is a different objective, another kind of relationship or opportunity, or a different life path.
What’s the moral of the exercise?
The moral is that strong attachment to our circumstances and failure to let go when the time is right can prevent us from benefiting from other options and opportunities. Of course we all have feelings, experiences, and relationships that we enjoy and don’t want to lose–but when we hold on too strongly or for too long, we can get stuck and we can miss out on other things. Think about the time you didn’t enjoy your vacation because you couldn’t let go of your idea of how it should be, the interesting relationship you rejected because you were clinging to an old relationship, or the neat job opportunity you didn’t take because it didn’t fit with your idea of what your career would be.
In mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) courses, we introduce letting go (aka non-attachment) as one of the foundational skills or attitudes for mindfulness. There’s a story we tell from a book by MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn: In India, a clever way of catching a monkey is to attach a coconut to a tree, cut a hole in it, and place a banana inside. A passing monkey will spot the banana and put his hand through the hole to grab it. Unfortunately for the monkey, the hole in the coconut is large enough for him to put his hand through to grab the banana, but too small for him to remove his fist holding it. To be free, all the monkey has to do is to let go of the banana, but most don’t, remaining stuck to the tree.
Recently, I was telling the monkey story to my sister, illustrating my point with the exercise described in the first paragraph. After waving around her clenched fist and trying in vain to pick up another object, she said “There’s so much more you can do with an open hand.”
I love that! Consider the benefits of an open hand: First, it allows us to let go of things that aren’t working for us. Second, having an open hand means we can pick up other things. Third—and importantly—when our hand is open, we can actually see what we’re holding; in contrast, when we hold on really tightly to an idea, person, or situation, it’s hard to see clearly and to assess whether or not that person or situation is still what we want or need. Finally, clench your hand and notice what happens to your arm, shoulder, and the rest of your body. When our hands are squeezed shut around something, we’re stiff and rigid rather than relaxed and flexible.
When we practice mindfulness, we practice holding with a loose grip. We know that change is inevitable, and we’re prepared to let go. Does this mean we should never try to keep the people and things that are important for us? No—it just means recognizing when we’re stuck and considering what we could do with an open hand.
Sarah Roberts is a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher at the MindSpace Clinic.