Monday, December 7, 2009

The Grasp Reflex

In the teachings of the Dharma, and in particular, the Four Noble Truths, there is a lot of airtime given to the releasing of attachment, and opening the tight fist of grasping. The Buddha knew, somehow, that this tendency to hold tight to things is an inherent part of being human. In fact, it is called the "grasp reflex," and we are born with it.

If you put an object across an infant's palm, they will often grab hold of it with their tiny fingers. A newborn's grip can be so strong, they can even support their own weight for brief periods. Studies have shown that, when infants hold onto their mothers, the infant's heartbeat tends to slow down. This implies that we must get a lot of soothing and a sense of security from holding in this way.

From the standpoint of evolution, the grasp reflex would be a necessary survival trait in primates, both for clinging to the mother, but also for moving through the trees from branch to branch at the earliest age possible. Obviously, then, clinging in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

Where we get into trouble is when we cling to things that are impermanent. This kind of clinging results in what Joseph Goldstein calls "rope burn" as the thing we are clinging to slides through our hands. Clinging to a sense pleasure, to a world view or belief, or to a sense of self, can all result in this rope burn.

So how do we manage this existential human predicament? Letting go of clinging appears to be a very counter-intuitive move, which could result in a fatal plunge from a great height. (Carl Sagan wrote that fear of falling is one of the only fears that we are actually born with.)

If you remember the stories of the monkey traps from the November 16 and 17 blogs, you will know the answer. Releasing the grip on something does not mean that we have to let go of it completely and lose it. It means that we can still have whatever is in our hand, but we hold it with more space, making it easier to deal with its comings and goings.

This holds true for unpleasant experiences, as well. When we relax the tight fist, we give the unpleasant experience more space in which to move. By giving the thing more space, we actually decrease the size of the unpleasant experience by increasing the size of the space around it.

Here's a metaphor that may help with this concept. If you take a tablespoon of salt, and stir it into a small cup of water, the water will taste salty. If you take that same amount of salt and mix it in a bucket full of water, the water is much less salty tasting. Put that tablespoon of salt in a bathtub of water, and the taste would be hardly noticeable, if at all. Put it in a lake, and... well you can see where this is going. The size of the object that we are clinging to does not change, but the space around it expands, and therefore the unpleasant thing is much easier to manage.

I am told that one of my grandteachers, the Venerable Ajahn Chah Subhaddo, used to sidle up next to the monks at his monastary during walking meditation and ask them, "Are you suffering today?" If they said yes, he would reply, "Hmm... Must be very attached!" and then he would just kind of chuckle and walk away, leaving the monk to contemplate this teaching. Here is what Ajahn Chah said about letting go of the tight fist:
If you let go a little, you'll have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you'll have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you'll have complete peace.

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