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Carnival Games

When I was a kid, I won one of those finger traps as a prize at a carnival. It was a tube made of woven raffia, and you’d put a finger in each end, and then try to pull your fingers apart; the harder you pulled, the tighter the tube became, and it was impossible to pull your fingers out. The only way to free your fingers was to move them closer together, relax, and let the tension go.


I was fascinated by this contraption, the simple but genius construction of it, for sure. But mostly I was baffled that I could not pull my fingers free no matter how hard I tried – and I tried, endlessly. I had this belief that if I just pulled hard enough, was strong enough, forced it enough, concentrated enough, I would win and the finger trap would fail. I was convinced effort would ensure success. Instead, I was frustrated and stuck, unable to do anything else while so determined to break free. It never worked. I never conquered the finger trap.

In an arcade recently, I saw a small child playing with a finger trap. When I was a young, the toy was only about physical strength, but watching the child, I was struck how symbolic it was for the many ways dualistic thinking keeps us stuck. Right/left, in/out, up/down, night/day - and especially good and bad  – our brain loves to sort things into dualities.


Dualism can create such indecision, stagnation and confusion between thoughts, beliefs and desires. It can take so many forms. If we use the finger trap analogy: one finger represents the “should” voice and the other finger represents the “want” voice. I should go to sleep but I want to watch this video. I should finish this work but I’d rather talk to my co-worker. I want to be alone but I owe my friend a visit. We are always weighing our dueling priorities: feeling good right now or feeling good about ourselves long-term. The tension, the pull that keeps us trapped, is often indecision layered with guilt or doubt that keeps looping and building.


This tension can look like wanting to take a risk but needing to be sure of the outcome. Like: I want to put my name in for open mike night, but what if I bomb?


It can look like this: I don't want to think about this memory or this person anymore, and yet I her I am ruminating.

Or, I do not want to do this action, or indulge in this behavior anymore, and yet I still do it.  Feelings of guilt and shame surge and ebb.


Duality is a shapeshifter, just when you think you’ve got balance in one area of your psyche, it pops up in another. Like another carnival game, whack-a-mole.


What we deem good or bad is feuding within our ego, and trying to pull them apart is making the stakes higher and higher each time we fail. I am determined to do the right thing, the good thing, we tell ourselves. I will make myself stop. And the more effort and determination, the more tension and the further we disappoint ourselves.


We can effort to let go of painful thoughts and impulses, but in my experience, they let go of you. Like leaves falling from the trees in autumn when they stop getting nourishment and die off. They have served their purpose and are no longer needed; we stop feeding them, and they float away. Sometimes it is just a matter of seasons passing for painful dualities to dissolve. But we can help the process along by asking for a broader perspective. So, instead of chastising myself for feeding thoughts I don’t love, I remind myself that I have access to broader consciousness than my ego. There is a vast sea of infinite understanding available to us, resources without judgement, expectation, tension or dualism. How easily we forget this. I have learned, finally, to ask: What is my barrier to contentment right now? Not forever, just right now.

I breathe down into my heart, and imagine rising up, floating above this situation, this predicament, looking down at the carnival of life from the top of the ferris wheel, if you will. Perspective shifts and I marvel at the sights. Eventually, my ego exhausts the junk answers, and relaxes, then my essential self whispers, Oh, honey, it’s just that pesky old fear again.


The finger trap drops. For a moment, there is a space. It is up to me to fill it with a thought I love. I can choose to play a new game.

 "You can walk on water or drown in sand," as The Band song goes. I begin again.

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