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What I Learned This Week: Don't Strangle the Bottle

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
4 min read

There wasn’t much time for reading this week — it’s been a 6:30 am alarm clock and a 1 am “off duty” each day while I’ve been at Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City.  So, no new resources for you this week, but in the absence of great articles to read, here’s an alternative update.

One of the delights of this week’s Outdoor Retailer show was an invitation from the apparel brand, Prana, to attend a one-hour “mindfulness session” on Saturday afternoon of the show.  The session was led by author and meditation teacher Mark Coleman.

After a one-minute silent meditation and discussion, we did a longer guided meditation and then discussed our individual experiences.  At one point in the conversation, Mark reached for a water bottle to illustrate a point he was making, and gently picked it up with one hand.

“You can pick up the water bottle,” he said, “or you can strangle the water bottle,” he added, tightening his grip around the bottle until the plastic crackled and the bottle was crushed inside his grip.

I am a total bottle strangler.

One of my greatest challenges is figuring out how to exert just the right amount of effort.  Take this week, for example.  I was supposed to work Wednesday through Friday, then take the weekend off to ski.  Instead, I worked past midnight every night this week (and that includes both days of the weekend).  And even while I was doing it, I thought to myself, “Why?”

WHY do I work so hard?  It’s not external pressure — I could have stopped work at 5pm on Friday and skied all weekend, and nobody would have noticed.  The painful flip side to that is the knowledge that nobody but me is going to notice that I worked all weekend!  I strangled the shit out of OR (like I always do), and I’d like to learn how not to do that.

I learned — after much effort — how to not strangle law school.  I felt intense pressure and anxiety during law school.  I felt like if I didn’t study every minute, I’d flunk out.  So I overcompensated, and performed above the level I needed to during my first two years of school.  It wasn’t until my last semester of law school that I actually achieved my goal of “picking up” law school instead of “strangling” it, and was delighted by my first straight B’s report card.  Those straight B’s meant that I passed all my classes, but they also meant that I’d taken care of more than just my schoolwork that semester.  I’d climbed, I’d spent time with friends outside of school and family, I’d taken care of myself.  Instead of an A in school and a D in living, I was stoked to score straight B’s across the board.

So now, I am home, and it’s a day where my deadline is not yet met, I am at the place of tired where I feel as if my eyes are going to water.  Today will roll into tomorrow, which was full to a convex meniscus even before I roll today’s missed deadline into tomorrow morning’s workload.

And it’s unmistakable that I do this to myself.  I overpromise.  I set expectations too high (for myself, and when communicating expectations to others).  I put accommodating other peoples’ timelines ahead of taking care of myself (or honoring my own boundaries) and try to juggle more balls than I have the skill or temperament to juggle.

So what do I do to loosen my stranglehold on these facets of my life?  I did it once — during law school — and I can do it again, right?

What I learned then was to take time to climb; to make a schedule and stick to it even when the work wasn’t “done;” and to make a point of spending time with friends that weren’t a part of my “work” life, with whom I could talk about anything but law school.  Now, in the years that have passed, I’ve learned about meditation and flow and — a concept that I’ve spent precious little time indulging in lately, and which probably deserves more of my effort — lightness.  In times of stress, I actually close my eyes and think of a feather.  It’s white, like the one in Forest Gump.  It hangs in midair, floating gently from side to side.

When I feel serious, I feel heavy.  Attached to the ground.  I feel the gravity of being pulled down; the inertia of not moving; I feel anchored.  When I think of a feather, I’m reminded that lightness enables movement.  Lightness leads to flow.

I learned this same lesson through climbing.  If you overgrip — if you hang on harder than the minimum amount of effort that it takes to keep yourself on the wall, you pump out, your endurance fails, and you can’t hold on anymore.  Worst case scenario, you feel your fingers actually peel one by one off the grip you were holding; the force on the remaining straining fingers increased because of the additional weight they now have to bear because of the failures that have occurred, this process repeating until you fall. That lesson is so familiar to my cells, that just typing those words made my hands sweat.

And I’ve learned strategies through meditation.  If I gently return my attention again and again to what is here before me, rather than spinning off about consequences or what happens next, then I can be more present.  What is the purpose, in this context, for strangling the shit out of a bottle (or a writing project, or a proposal, or a speaking engagement, or a rock climb)?  If I’m present, and mindful, then I can pick up the bottle deliberately, with just the necessary amount of effort to achieve the goal.

This is one area where I’m in the awareness stage, not the “I have the answers” stage.  How about you?  What are your tips and strategies for lightening the stranglehold on life and work and exerting only the necessary amount of force?

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.