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Pretend we're kids again.
Playtime! I reach for my favourite toy, but something unexpected messes with me. Some other kid's hand suddenly appears from the side and nudges mine, fudging my movement. I adapt and continue—I really want my toy. Maybe I get it. Sometimes the other kid does.
Similar incidents repeat several times over a few days of preschool. Later, an adult watches from across the room. She notices that whenever the other kid is around, I tense up a little, and my movements are a little more jerky, furtive.
Have you ever played with one of these? Then you'd know their trick: once you put your fingers in, you can't simply pull them out. But that's probably what you'd try, your first time playing with one. It makes sense. Pulling is effective for many cases of trapped fingers—the usual situations you'd seen before. You pull, and the trap tightens as it lengthens. It grips your fingers harder. They won't come out! Frustration!
Now here's the interesting part: just like you had an action (pull) ready to exploit when your fingers were trapped, you also have a "meta-action" ready when you encounter frustration: try harder. You pull even harder.
Eventually, you learn that the only way out is to relax. To fall apart. To see and act anew.
Have you ever watched for just how long someone can be stuck?
One recent summer afternoon, I visited some parents with a young child of about 4 years. We were eating and talking on the deck behind their house, with a few other friends. At first, mom and daughter were away. They returned after a couple of hours.
Daughter was terrified to come into the backyard and up onto the deck—social anxiety. Mom, who is one of the most understanding and gentle people I've met, carries daughter up onto the deck and sits with her for a while. The entire time, she's burying her face and half-crying, begging to be carried inside. Mom says she's free to go in—but she won't be carried. Mom reminds her that the rest of us are harmless. She doesn't seem to believe it.
Eventually she gets tired and goes in. For a time, she sneaks glances at us from the window. Before long, she comes back out and plays on the trampoline with her older brother, apparently unworried.
Near the beginning of the pandemic and my PhD, I consumed a neuroscience paper that lingered in my stomach. Before long, I was ruminating on philosophy. Plenty of time for that in 2020.
On the surface, the paper asked how humans can move effectively when under the influence of unpredictable forces. But the results nudged me toward at a deeper principle—something I'd noticed in myself, and sensed in everyone. Not just the obvious movements of our bodies, but also the movements of our minds, our attention.
At first, the principle was nameless. I couldn’t speak of it. Chewing for a while on visions of muscles contracting, I decided on a word, a metaphor: clenching.
I wasn't quite the first. Also in 2020, someone writing in public about a seemingly different topic—but pointing in the direction of the same principle—mentioned "clench" in passing. I learned of this in early July 2023, and for a moment I felt disturbed. Frustrated. When I recovered, I started rewriting this for the last time.
Just a few days later, someone else published a theory that carried that author’s reasoning further. They proposed that the metaphor might be more than a metaphor. I had suspected as much, yet could not have said how. Once more I was frustrated, disturbed.
I reached for my favourite toy, but the other kid had already grabbed it.
I'd wanted to write about these things myself! In frustration I questioned whether I should write at all. Some part of me wants to control, to own the act of explaining. To be original. To be the first to say.
As we'll see, that's clenchy. A trap of my own. A piece caught by itself.
No longer. Time to go back outside—maybe even jump on the trampoline.
Let's explore something wild and old. But new to your thoughts, perhaps. Still new enough to mine.
What does reaching for an apple have to do with philosophy? What is attention? Can I be intelligent, but fail to learn? Why can't some of us stop thinking painful, hopeless thoughts? What is mental illness, and addiction? What is tyranny, and prejudice? What happens if I let go? What's practical about Buddhism?
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