Digging in: seeds, jam and a trap

This article first appeared in Elephant Journal, “Seeds, jam and a sticky, messy trap: a lesson in non-attachment” on December 19, 2018.


The room is hot, dry. I am sitting with my back against the mirrored wall, head pressed back, in half lotus. Half lotus is about all the flexibility I can muster in yoga tonight. The lights are down and my eyes are closed. My hands are in my lap, left over right, palms up, ready to receive.

The lesson for the week is non-attachment, Maryline tells us in her low, accented voice.

In Maryline’s yin class, we hold poses for seven minutes. It’s simultaneously excruciating and divine. Tonight, we hold our pose as she tells the story about how monkeys are hunted in Africa.

Seeds, made into sweet and sticky clumps with jam and fruit, are stuffed into small holes dug into termite hills. The monkeys are unable to resist the sweet promise of satisfying hunger, of delivering sweetness, of instant, short term gratification. And so, the monkeys reach into the side of the termite hill to grab the tacky treat. However, the holes are not large enough for the monkey to pull out the ball of seeds and jam when his hand is wrapped around it. But they can smell and feel the treat, and they desire it so badly, they do not let go.

As they cling, the “hunters” simply walk by and sweep them up into their arms.

The monkeys can see them coming. They can see danger is approaching. But they want that promise of sweetness. They want that need fulfilled, despite the obvious near and present danger. So, they don’t let go. They don’t opt for their freedom and flee. They don’t consider the consequences of holding on. They cling to their desire – and then they are caught.

Perhaps if the monkey was more evolved, had more self-awareness, he would choose to run. He would forego the temporary sweetness of the seeds and fruit for his free life, for the potential to have future treats with no strings attached.

But the monkey is attached to that idea, that image of a glob of sticky sweetness. And so he is trapped.

My mind is whirling as she finishes, and I am trying to focus on my breath. But the clarity Maryline has offered overwhelms my mind and it’s hard to find the usual calm and space I feel in this yin class.

Because I’ve been holding on to a sticky glob of a mess myself.

I have been caught in the trap.

And the universe has slapped me in the face again, I think, as I pull my back flat against the wall and exhale deeply.

I think a lot of us hold on to these sticky treats that promise sweetness and satisfaction. We make judgments and decisions based on them. We shape our lives according to the promise we see in them.

Because the treat is filled with goodness, isn’t it? It’s the vision for the future. Our desires for happiness and joy, health and well-being, security and safety. The vision for how life is going to play out – relationships, career, personal growth, success.  It’s anticipation – future tense.  It’s not the reality of the present.

dirty handsIn the past few months, my sweet treat of promise was ripped out of my hands, leaving my hands sticky, dirty and sore from all the effort I spent trying to free it from the termite hill. All those dreams, those ideas… They didn’t evaporate into some ethereal smoke. They were toyed with, poked at, and then smashed into the dirt and swarmed by black, biting ants. And while the past few months were the most brutal, I had actually grabbed hold of that sticky mess of a promise a long time ago. And it was the moment I clutched it, that tearing and wounding began.

I just didn’t see the trap.

I didn’t want to. I was so focused on the perceived reward.

And now, in the process of healing and tending to these open wounds, I am closely looking that ball of promise. What was real? What was my own hope, my own fabrication? Why did I cling to it all, even after it was clear the monkey hunters were coming, when they had their hands on me and were pulling me away into a life I didn’t want and yet… why did I hold on to that damn sticky mess?

Am I not smarter than the monkeys?

Apparently not.

I was clinging to what I thought I needed to make my vision real. There’s nothing wrong with a vision, after all. And there’s nothing wrong with making a plan to realize it. We are all familiar with SMART plans. We have been trained to develop those measurable, actionable goals that keep us accountable for making progress.

And by God, I was moving forward with my vision. And the sweet, sticky mass, and all it held, was critical to my success.

Or was it?

And thus, the lesson of non-attachment.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean you can’t have goals. It doesn’t mean you aren’t supposed to want something. We’re human. Wanting is in our nature.

But non-attachment suggests that you stay fluid and open… that you consider the possibility that your goals may change. That you entertain the idea that no matter how SMART your plan is, there is always an alternative route. And alternative destinations that might achieve the same outcome.

Non-attachment is about giving yourself permission to first recognize what isn’t serving you. Is that relationship providing the safety and love you desire? Is that job fulfilling your career ambitions? Is that decision supporting or breaching your boundaries?

Ironically, perhaps, the concept of non-attachment supports the very thing we DO need to stay attached to – our core values.

Values are the principles we live by. They are the foundations for the boundaries we set for ourselves, and for others whom we allow in our lives. Our values come in two flavors: fear-based and conscious-based.

Our fear-based value are the ones we feel we *must* have, and the action they drive us towards is to avoid something – avoid a difficult situation, avoid an uncomfortable interaction or a sensitive conversation. These values feel like, “I have to or else…” there’s a potential negative consequence.

Our conscious-based values are those we choose and lead us to positive action, to action that builds and grows who we are, allowing us to be who we want to be. These are the values we actively want to be part of ourselves and our lives.

Getting clear on your values, what they are and how they motivate you, is key to understanding just how hard you’re holding on to that lump of seeds and jam. And what’s in the lump that has you stuck. Understanding our values allows us to step back and see a bigger picture, to recognize what elements in our current moment are and are not serving us.

Remembering your values – because often, when we’re tightly gripping that treat, we forget what they are – allows you to reconnect with what’s important to you, at your core.

As we continue to dig deeper this holiday season, I invite to consider the lump of seeds and jam in your hand. Take a moment to yourself to think through the top five values you hold dear – perhaps you value loyalty, spirituality, communication, or family… perhaps your top five includes adventure, passion or health. What are the top drivers in your life, in your decision-making process, and ask yourself these questions:

  • What does this value mean to me? Describe it and what it means to your life
  • When I am happy, what do I value?
  • When I am angry, what value is being violated?
  • When do I compromise my values? Why do I do that?
  • Is this value serving me? Is it helping me create my life? Is it helping me avoid a difficulty?

These questions are not easy to answer. Once you dig deep into identifying your values and why they are there, you are faced with your choices. Are you living a fear-based or conscious-based life?

And that is where the power lies. The power to drop the clump of seeds and jam, and take control of your life. We can choose to honor those values that better serve us for where we are in our journey today, and where we want to go.

And in choosing to honor those values, we can release the grip on those empty promises that trap but do not deliver.

Today, I am looking at my scraped, hurting hands with some awe. How lost I got. How willingly I allowed myself to ignore my values, to let boundaries be crossed all because of a sticky, messy promise that never was, and would be, fulfilled.

If you’re looking at your own bruised hands, then join me in digging a little deeper.  With this clarity of understanding, I know that I chose to hold on to the clump of seeds and jam, and that is my responsibility. I also know that going forward, I will be more mindful of such traps. By digging a little deeper, we can stay aligned to the values that we know serve the person we are, and the person we choose to be.


Natalie Hahn is a principal at Dirty Girls Consulting, focused on helping men and women tackle the challenges of communication and life transitions. We explore breaking free of traditional standards, how we communicate between the sexes and redefine the “midlife crisis” to accomplish professional and personal goals, creating an authentic, fully loved life. Read more Dirty Girl Consulting blogs here.

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