“This is Devil’s snare. You have to relax.”
Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
I love old movies and always have. Even as a kid, I watched black and white films, including the old Tarzan movies. Tarzan would do his king of the jungle yodel as he faced off against invading explorers or other threats.
One threat that always gave me the absolute creeps was the quicksand. Quicksand didn’t appear in all of the Tarzan movies, but it was a fairly regular motif. Usually, the bad guy stumbled into quicksand toward the end of the movie. He would slowly sink under as the other characters gave looks indicating that this was both tragedy and justice.
That quicksand really bothered me. It was such a horrible thing to happen, even to an obvious villain. To be pulled under—helpless, unable to breathe, absolutely stuck—seemed a terrible fate.
Fast forward to Dora the Explorer. My daughter loved Dora to the point of obsession as a young girl. She’d been given a Dora bathing suit for her third birthday and would put it on as daily clothing on a regular basis. If offered the chance for an outing to the library, she’d eagerly agree—until told she had to put on actual clothes. We’d stay home. She’d wear her Dora bathing suit.
When the movie version came out in 2019, she was well beyond Dora obsession, but we went for the sake of the good old days.
And there was a quicksand scene. Here I was, an adult with a child old enough for Dora to be nostalgic, still made uncomfortable by quicksand.
The scene opens with a lot of fart jokes. In my family, we appreciate a good fart joke, really any fart joke, but I recognized quicksand before the characters, and I was on edge.
When the characters realize their dilemma, Dora offers advice: “Rule number one of quicksand is don’t panic. You’ll only get sucked in further.” She tells her friends to lie down, relax, and then backstroke their way out of the quicksand. It works, and they don’t get sucked under.
There’s a similar scene in the first Harry Potter book and movie.
When Ron, Harry, and Hermione go searching for the sorcerer’s stone, the first obstacle that they meet is Devil’s Snare, which wraps around their limbs and could potentially strangle them. It’s not exactly quicksand, but the premise is the same. Hermione, as usual, saves the day.
In the movie, her advice is to relax completely. Even as the Devil’s Snare threatens, the solution is to let go. It works. Once the kids completely give in, the Devil’s Snare releases them, and they are no longer caught.
In the book, it’s the same premise, but Hermione remembers that Devil’s Snare dies when exposed to light.
Our emotions work pretty much the same way. In a dharma talk offered at a retreat by Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastics, we learned to sit and allow thoughts to arise without censorship to see which ones caught our attention. As predicted, I discovered that the thoughts that arose and kept my attention were sticky. that is connected to some emotion, the kind of thing that could pull me under just like Devil’s Snare or quicksand.
Thinking “I need to clean my house” doesn’t catch me. Thinking “my house is so filthy, which means I’m incapable, incompetent, and overwhelmed” does.
I don’t get caught by my to-do list. I get caught by the emotional resonance of my to-do list, the one telling me that I will never learn to say no, that I always overestimate my abilities to complete tasks, and that I never finish so will fail.
Sticky thoughts are sticky because of the emotions attached to them.
We don’t need to be without emotion. We can’t be. However, when we are caught in quicksand or Devil’s Snare, we can relax. We can lie back and backstroke our way out or fall right through the tangling vines meant to choke us. We can shed light on those emotions so that they no longer overpower us.
Life contains quicksand and Devil’s Snare. Sometimes, the Devil’s Snare even looks attractive. We can be like Ron who proclaims, “Lucky this plant-thing is here, really.” We often don’t recognize the dangers at first. We feel relieved. We make fart jokes.
When we eventually realize the danger, we can fight it and struggle, but that only increases the danger and sucks us deeper.
Instead, we relax, even though as Dora’s friend says, “This feels super wrong.” For it is in the relaxing that we let go and come unstuck.