The caffeine in coffee was doing me in. I couldn’t sleep at night and my body was restless, unable to lie still while in bed. It took me a while to realize it was the caffeine. I don’t consider myself to be a heavy drinker (of any liquids or spirits, for that matter) so I missed the connection. Three cups of coffee a day and I was lying awake at night? Yup. So, I quit drinking coffee. Now I sleep the whole night through and awaken in the morning much better rested.
That was easy! Direct cause and effect. Easy correlation. Give it up.
But, as many of you know, it’s not that easy. What element of an encounter turns an easy decision into a difficult one? Oftentimes, it’s back-story. The back-story adds context that can make it more difficult to give up something I enjoy and even love. Coffee has back-story for me, although not in the way you might think.
Here’s the first element of back-story for coffee and me.
I’m not a lover of coffee per se, but I am a lover of being seated at a café round with a hot latte to savor and free time to pursue a train of thought or to be in deep conversation with a friend. Soothing, yet evocative, seated with coffee and conversation compels me to stay in that moment for as long as possible.
Ask anyone who smokes cigarettes as to why they smoke and they’ll say that the context for smoking is as compelling as the nicotine. Whether in a bar with a drink, at home after an intimate moment, or in a circle with co-workers outside the office, smoking is pleasurable. The smell of fresh coffee or the swirl of smoke from a lighted cigarette is a setting that creates desire and repetition.
The act of holding an object in the hand and bringing it to our mouth to take that element inside of us becomes a powerful secondary gain. As much as the caffeine and nicotine gives the body a rush, the movements associated with those chemicals becomes something we want and crave.
It’s an emotional event that gets wrapped up in a physical sensation that ties us to the act itself. Our emotional desire and physical repetition compels us to want more.
So what’s the harm? Dissatisfaction enters the picture only when an unwanted emotional element or negative physical reaction comes into play. Drinking coffee leads to being wide-awake at night and inadequate sleep for the next day. Smoking leads to smokers cough, and potential lung cancer. Drinking alcohol leads to a DUI. Over-eating leads to obesity. Substance abuse leads to drug addiction.
Please don’t counter with absolutes here, bare with me. I know everyone who drinks coffee doesn’t lose sleep, as I do. I know friends who can drink all day and nary a moment of shut-eye is lost. I also know friends who get migraines when they go off coffee for two days.
Let’s give my argument more depth than exceptions to the rule. Besides I’m leading up to the second element of back-story. When I realized that caffeine was interrupting my sleep, it wasn’t the first time that realization had hit me. It also wasn’t the first time that I’d sworn off coffee.
What was it that prevented me from no longer drinking coffee for evermore once I saw the connection? If it caused such unrest why didn’t I swear off coffee for the rest of my life when I first realized caffeine kept me supercharged? The only answer I can give for my inconsistency is the crux of a koan I’ve been attempting to write about recently.
“Hold on tightly, let go lightly”.
I recognized coffee was eating up my sleep time and putting me into a state of unrest the following day. I hated that my body would twitch, roll all over the bed, and refuse to lie still for hours at night after drinking coffee during the day. I knew caffeine was the culprit. After holding on tightly to all of the reasons and rationale (which I love so dearly) for drinking coffee, I finally sided with the health reasons and quit drinking it. I let coffee go.
But in the back of my mind, I questioned how long I could sit with my resolve. After all, I’ve let coffee go before. Is the answer to the koan that easy: hold on when you want to and let go when there’s a need to. Is that it?
Koans are simply not that simple, at least in my experience. If it were that simple, it wouldn’t be a koan. Since koans have been a major teacher for me on my journey through life this one was no exception. Working with a koan can take time to decipher and take time in which to have those experiences that appear to be opposed to each other in order to do the deciphering in the first place.
After all, is it realistic to only experience one side of the story and claim to understand the whole of it?
The saying itself came through my oldest daughter, Carla. One day she started quoting the catchy phrase and from then on we quoted it liberally for lots of instances in our lives that impacted us either positively or negatively. It became a handy explanation for action.
A relationship came to an end? “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
Got a job that is perfect? “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
Broke a habit that had you tied up in knots? “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
A pet project gets bombed? “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
Did the koan always mean to let go of something that was no longer significant in my life?
Or, conversely, was I to let go of something or someone lightly that would have been better to hold on to tightly? (I have a friend who wishes dearly that she’d held onto a relationship that two years ago she thought was best to let go of. Oh, why hadn’t she recognized that he was the love of her life?)
Which one is it? Is “letting go” always preferable to “holding on”? Does the value of letting go out weigh the value of holding on, or vice-versa?
It sounds as though I’m trying to decipher between black and white and the preferable position is all of the gray tones in between. But I’ve had the experience of holding on—it feels supportive and reassuring—and I’ve had the experience of letting go—it feels freeing and buoyant. Both holding on and letting go feels pretty darn good.
The meaning of the koan may not be in having the experience of black and white, of certainty, nor grays in between, that of fluidity, but in knowing what action to take at each juncture in life that calls for a decision and then celebrating that action.
That’s why I go back and forth, back and forth: drink coffee, don’t drink coffee. Koans take time to dwell in my psyche for a while before they unfold and reveal their meaning. Right now it’s the back and forth that allows me to sit in both positions until I find the “right” position for me.
It’s not about black or white; it’s not about never drinking coffee again and, instead, switching to tea. It is about being able to do both, holding on and letting go, obviously not at the same time, but at the “right” time called for, and to be clear and comfortable with the difference between the two positions.
For now, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly” means find another hot drink that doesn’t have caffeine. It means enjoy the sleep time that not having caffeine in my system affords me.
Maybe tomorrow morning, coffee at 8:00 a.m. might be exactly what the day and the koan calls for, no more and no less.