Michael He

October 30, 2021

Tender Lightness

What makes life worth living? Fortunately, some moments are self-evident answers to that question. For example, right now.

I'm sitting outside the biology department building, looking at the four-way street intersection. The sun is shining a bit extravagantly but the temperature feels just right. IU's 'Ah Puh' is playing in my ears. I'm smiling from head to toes. Literally.

I live for this feeling. I call it tender lightness.

Maybe you know the feeling of lightness, but what does tender lightness mean? Tender is gentle and sensual. It means to be fully immersed, to let everything but your sense of self envelop you.

Tender lightness doesn't come around often in life. Many things have to line up for it to happen, but the feeling is infectiously positive. Once you have experienced it, you can never go back. Chasing this lightness becomes part of life's mission, whether you realize it or not.

Tender lightness is unpredictable. Drinking cold sparkling water on a hot day is wonderful, but it doesn't guarantee tender lightness. Walking in the blistering cold doesn't sound pleasant, but I once felt incredibly light during a walk when Tokyo wind was blasting in my face. 

Tender lightness is a subset but not the same as happiness. When you feel tender lightness, you are happy. But when you are happy, you don't always feel tender lightness.

Sometimes I confuse feeling bubbly with tender lightness. They are very similar except one fundamental difference - bubbles fizz away quickly but lightness stays much longer (usually for the day and sometimes multiple days). I'm making this claim with a sample size of one (i.e. me), but I believe there is something crucial to feeling tender lightness.

You need to feel no weight on your shoulder, literally and figuratively. When I eat cold watermelon on a hot and humid day, I feel great for that moment and the rest of the day. What sustains that feeling is knowing there is no homework, no chores, and no restriction to where I can go and what I can do. I have no conflicts with nobody. I'm very much in the present. No weight about the past and the future is messing with me. And that means I am in a state of flow, feeling unstoppable with whatever I’m doing and savoring every bit of the experience.

I feel light right now because I finally got to let go of some heavy personal baggage last night. You don’t just feel better. You feel great, amazing, fantastic, wonderful, spectacular, marvelous, phenomenal, awesome, and fabulous! This sentence can be much longer if I have a bigger vocabulary.

If I'm taking a temporary break to enjoy the moment, the good feeling disappears as soon as I go back to life's drudgery. In comparison, tender lightness persists throughout the day and people will likely comment on your cheeriness and wonder if something great happened to you.

The difference between world-class musicians and excellent musicians is usually not in the nitty-gritty. I cannot claim Yo-Yo Ma's techniques to be lightyears better than anotehr professional cellist, but Ma's music makes me feel things no cellist can. He performs with a soft, calm, and tender soul, which translates to delicate and precise musical poetry. You cannot practice that in advance. In a way, that light and cheerful energy can channel God's grace. I’m sure Ma feels whimsical when he whips out the happy parts of the cello suite.

You can also see tender lightness in ballet. The best ballerinas jump and spin with such ease, you know they are not thinking about their tax return during the performance.

Or take figure skating for example. Yuzuru Hanyu gives one ephemeral performance after another. The music is different, so the story he tells is also different. In turn, he is different. When he skates, he lets himself become a paintbrush held by a higher being and use the entire ice rink as his blank canvas. We in turn get sucked into the moment, his moment, and see things we will never see and feel things we will never feel on our own. His moment of lightness becomes ours. 

So how do you achieve this state of being? I don't know, but I know it when I feel it and so will you! Just be patient, let go of the invisible weights if possible, and be open to the random moments when the stars align in your favor. You may be anti-romantic, but tender lightness may nudge you toward the romantic camp ever so slightly. 

And this is precisely why I'm writing about tender lightness, so I can look back to this time and remember all the times I feel so nice and light. I hope you can enjoy these beautiful moments in life as well.

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.