Opposites Attract

November 02, 2019

Have you ever seen or played with the toy called Chinese handcuffs?

A Chinese handcuff, or finger trap, is a small, bamboo tube about five inches long. The idea is that you put an index finger in each end of the tube. Then the game begins. It’s based on instinct. What do we do? We instinctively try to pull our fingers apart. What happens next is that we can’t. The bamboo stretches and tightens when we try to pull our fingers apart, locking us in. A small paper toy has us trapped.

The harder we pull, the tighter it traps us.

Most people begin to panic then. Instead of thinking about what we’re doing, we continue to do what our instincts led us to do in the first place—we keep trying to pull our fingers apart, then keep pulling harder—even though that doesn’t work.

The Chinese handcuffs don’t hold us hostage. We trap ourselves. Then emotions and the survival instinct keep us stuck until we unlock our brain and choose something else.

Just relaxing and letting go isn’t enough to set us free. We’ve got to take action—do the opposite of what our baser instincts tell us to do. We’ve got to push our index fingers back toward the center, then gently, without pulling or forcing, ease out our fingers until we’re free.

Once we learn the trick, it’s no longer a trap. We bypass our instincts, panic, and emotions and make the right choice.

Whenever I get trapped by my reactions to life, my friend Michael helps me break free with this simple idea: “Just remember the old Chinese handcuffs trick. Relax and do the opposite of what you think.”

Wutai Shan, holy mountain number three, was a circle of five peaks surrounding the monastic village of Taihuai.

“We could stay here for a month or so. Hike to each peak,” Joe said. “Climb them all?”

I shook my head.

“Nope. Let’s get a Jeep. Sometimes it’s good to go the hard way. But it’s okay to take advantage of technology, too,” I said. We had a brief discussion. Then we traveled by Jeep to the top of each mountain.Atop the peaks, it was thirty below. The wind chill cut through our clothing. The blizzard made it nearly impossible to see. I was hypoxic—light-headed, exhilarated, breathless—from the altitude of these peaks. The temples were beautiful, but the novelty of monasteries was wearing thin. How many had we visited? Ten, twenty, maybe more?

To visit every monastery in the area, a person would have to be either a sincerely devout Buddhist or temple-crazed, the guidebook suggested. I didn’t consider myself either.

“I’m getting templed out,” I said to Joe.

He agreed.

Instead of visiting any more monasteries, we spent a day outside—walking, strolling, taking in the beauty of the terrain. I watched an old man harvesting wheat in a field. Then I took off my shoes and waded through a stream.

I was surprised at how I immediately came back into balance. The diminishing feeling of spirituality I was getting from the temple visits felt restored by being outside and absorbing nature. I felt the presence of God there.

That’s it, I thought. It’s the yin yang circle. The circle of life (dark on one side, light on the other) keeps spilling from side to side. If you do anything too much—to excess—you’ll wear it out. You’ll be pushed into the other side until balance is achieved.

“I have a problem with dualities,” a friend said to me one day. “It’s like, the second I feel happy, I feel scared because I know the happiness isn’t going to last.”

I wanted to explain to her what I had learned. I didn’t. It’s a complicated thing, and I’m not an expert on the mysteries of life. Besides, I don’t like lecturing people. I enjoy watching them learn things for themselves. But this is part of what makes sense to me. Day and night are opposites, but they’re part of the same thing—one twenty-four-hour cycle of life. It takes one to define the other, to give the other meaning, shape, and form.

Years ago, a woman pulled me aside. “You’re going to learn about joy,” she said. “I can feel it in my bones. It’s time.” I felt so excited, mentally calculating all the wonderful goodies that were coming my way. Did that mean a great love, a wonderful romance? Unbridled success? Relief from family tensions? A lot of good-hair days?

One week later, my son, Shane, died. I was heartbroken, devastated, all messed up, deep into my grief. I was furious about what this woman had said. What a cruel thing to do—a mean, nasty little trick by the universe. Have someone come into my life, someone I trusted, who looked into my eyes and told me I was going to learn about joy. What a setup, I thought. The setup before the fall.

On the eleventh anniversary of Shane’s death, I recalled this conversation. I wasn’t angry anymore about what this woman said. I laughed. She was right. The lessons usually don’t come the way we think. The universe often hands us the opposite of what we’re going to learn.

It sends us a situation where we want to attach ourselves and hold on tightly to learn about letting go and nonattachment. It may send us a situation of betrayal, one that hurts and enrages us, to teach us to forgive. The yin yang circle is a pretty good way to teach us things, once we learn how it works. Once we get the hang of it, it’s not nearly as complicated as it appears.

The circle works with our behaviors, too. If we work too much, we’re going to burn out, need to rest and play. If we give to others too much, we’ll need to give to ourselves and learn to receive. It’s a technique we can apply to remedy difficult situations. If someone is angry and upset, our natural reaction is to get angry, too. That usually doesn’t remedy the situation, though. It keeps both people in the dark, angry side of life. What calms things is us moving the circle ourselves by bringing gentleness into play.

The purpose of the yin yang circle isn’t to have us floundering around in either extreme, although that’s frequently where many of us need to go. A friend explained it this way, after listening to her minister give a sermon at church:

“Sometimes if a piece of metal is bent way over to one side, you need to bend it way back in the other direction in order to get it to stand up straight.”

The Middle Way—balance, moderation—is the goal.

Either we can wait until the circle dumps us—forces us—into the other side. Or we can achieve balance by deliberately moving there on our own.

Before we left Taihuai, Joe and I climbed a flight of steps that led to a temple in the middle of the village, in the middle of the circle of peaks. A tiny nun bowed to me, hands folded in front of her heart.

“Say amitofa,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

She smiled and scurried away.

I asked every English-speaking person I met and many non-English-speaking people in China and Tibet about the meaning of that word. People recognized it. They liked it. “Oh, Yes. Amitofa,” they happily said. But no one could explain it to me. For months after I came home, I searched for the meaning of the word. I finally met on-line, on the World Wide Web, a man who used and recognized the word. He had taught martial arts in Ireland and the United Kingdom and had spent years in China developing his skills.

“The closest meanings we have in English are “blessings” and “endless light.”

That’s it, I thought. Amitofa means “by the Grace of God.” 

Sometimes we can find balance and the Middle Way on our own. Sometimes to do that we need a little—or a lot—of help.

There’s an old saying floating around. Some say it originated with Earnie Larsen in the Midwest: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. That’s true, but for many of us it runs deeper than that. Insanity is feeling like we can’t choose, or can’t choose anything but the one thing that doesn’t work.

In this section, we’ll look at some situations where using the Chinese handcuffs trick helped people achieve balance—the Middle Way—in their lives. The secret is learning to substitute another word for happiness.

That word is peace.

From the book: Choices: Taking Control of Your Life and Making It Matter

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