Unmake a fist

I will never forget the moment when I found out about chronic physical tension. I had arranged to attend a six-day silent retreat at Garrison Institute with my teacher’s teacher. This kind of adventure is designed to show you what you haven’t been capable of noticing otherwise. Setting aside conversation, media and all the basic “doing” distraction of life means you have a whole lot of time to find out about what’s under your usual radar, including your own habitual ways of operating. This process of noticing is equally valid, by the way, whether you’re inserting 3 minutes into your workday or 3 months into your mid-adulthood. The aim is the same. Yogi Berra put it perfectly for us: You can see a lot just by looking.

One day in the middle of this retreat I found myself sitting in the lunchroom, half-filled plate before me. Nothing special, I was just eating and listening to the percussion symphony of flatware on dish ware and the low moans of heavy chairs being scraped backward. Sitting, chewing, sometimes tasting, mostly listening to the inane monologue silently nattering on inside my head… and then I noticed as I chewed that my hands were in little fists on my lap. I just felt them there, under the table out of sight. How curious; why would they need to be tight like this right now? And then my hands softened. Fine. I returned to the plate, to another mouthful, back to a little tasting, a lot more inane chatter… and again, tight fists. Okay, now this was weird… what is it with the tight fists?

I decided at that point to slow lunch down and really look at this phenomenon. What else did I have to do, after all? On retreat you have all the time in the world! It became a question, an investigation, to find out about tension: to determine what was tense, how much physical tension there was, and to determine the specific location(s) of tension.

Three days later, since lunch turned out to be the merest beginning of this particular investigation, I had the preliminary report. Finding: there was a LOT of physical tension built up in this habit-body of mine, and it extended well past my fists! Physical tension was almost as established a personal way for me as breathing. I would say it was my body’s unquestioned belief system, to be constantly tensed for… well, for what purpose I can’t really say. I have enjoyed a safe, mostly conflict-free existence for the vast majority of my adult life. Nevertheless, there seemed to be some kind of residual armament against an old, long-resolved situation. The origin didn’t even feel particularly interesting to find out about. It was enough to know that I could feel this unnecessary tension, and in the noticing of it, somehow it softened of it’s own accord. Unconscious tensing, awareness of same, responsive release: the physical build-up of unneeded muscle tension started to unwind itself, bit by bit. This process continues as needed, depending on the pace and quality of my days.

Sitting at your desk, waiting at a stop sign, watching the lunchroom microwave count down while last night’s leftovers warm up, these are good opportunities to ask yourself, with friendly curiosity: Is there tension anywhere that’s not needed? You can let the rest take care of itself.



4 thoughts on “Unmake a fist

  1. I have recently noticed now my shoulders crunch up towards my ears and yes, almost any time of day or night if I check, there they are, crunched up like I’m about to get hit. Soften… forget… crunch! Repeat, repeat, repeat. I hope some day my shoulders will hang happily from their sockets, shoulder blades floating on muscle without a care in the world, as their natural state. Unless, I guess, someone really IS about to smack me…

  2. We’ve talked about this phenomenon before – waking up with a headache because the jaw is so tense at night that the teeth would be ground to bits without a mouthguard; waking up with fists clenched so tight it practically takes a prybar to undo the position. And that’s just what’s been pushed down to the sleeping hours; whew boy! I like the moniker assigned to the phenomenon – chronic physical tension – and I’m personally encouraged to learn that one’s practice can provide any degree of relief. Thanks! (There it is again; as you’ve said many times, “pay attention.” Beautiful in its simplicity…and efficacy.)

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