“How much strength does it take to hold a napkin?”
Hong Kong, December 2018.
I’m sitting in a primary school auditorium with a hundred other people, mostly from Hong Kong and mainland China, with a few stragglers from random parts of the US, Australia, Canada, and Europe. This is Day Three of a ten-day Dzogchen meditation retreat.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche is in the center of the stage, sitting on a raised platform. He’s wearing a dark red robe, the color of blood. All around him are gold vases full of flowers.
He picks up a napkin. He looks at us.
“How much strength does it take to hold this napkin?” he asks.
He waits. No one says anything.
This is not a question he wants us to answer out loud. Instead, he wants us to feel the answer.
“How much strength does it take to hold this napkin?” he asks again.
He looks down at his hand, and holds the napkin gently between his pinky finger and thumb. He smiles.
“This.” he says. “This is all the strength you need. So why are we all holding our napkins like this?”
He quickly crumples the napkin up in his fist, and squeezes it so tightly that his arm starts to shake. He brings his clenched fist up to his face and stares at it, with his eyes bugging out of his head.
For the next minute, he treats his closed fist like a snake charmer following the head of a cobra—full eye contact, deadlocked, his neck undulating in step with the fist.
He stops and everyone laughs. He’s a funny dude, after all.
But the lesson is not lost on us:
The napkin is our life. And most of us have a death-grip on it.
What would it feel like to loosen your grip? What would it feel like to slowly… unfurl…. your…. clutched…. fingers?
Loosening your grip does not mean not holding the napkin. Loosening your grip does not mean that you don’t care, or that you stop trying, or that you give up.
It doesn’t mean that you stop growing, or stop learning, or stop confronting your own biases, or stop being touched by the beauty and tragedy in the world. It does not mean that you stop fighting for what is right.
Loosening your grip simply means that you hold the napkin with as much strength as it requires to hold—and not an ounce more.
Loosening your grip means freeing up energy, and allowing it to collect into an ever-deepening reservoir that nourishes you.
A reservoir of energy that you can access at any time, for any reason.
A reservoir of energy you can use to help others.
And right now, we need all the energy we can muster in order to listen to each other openly… to confront the social and racial inequality in our world….to question our assumptions and move past emotions…and to do our part to spread messages of love and understanding, regardless of our views.
But we should also remember to not take ourselves too seriously while doing good and necessary work.
As Rinpoche said at the end of our retreat:
“How miserable must you make yourself in order to live a responsible, beautiful life?”