Notes on a Buddhist path

What will you do with your hands?

June 30, 2011 By | 2 Comments

Over lunch the other day with a good friend, our conversation meandered its way to dating and men. Not an uncommon path for two women to embark upon, but after casting about the slings and arrows of outrageous dating misfortunes, and smiling fondly at remembrances of past loves, we ultimately came to the place where we talked about what we really wanted in a relationship. Neither of us are much for lists or quizzes , treasure maps or paying for dinner. After discussing the advice of spiritual and sexual guru, David Deida, the best online dating sites, which zodiac sign would make the best partner for each of us and the dilemma of having one’s Venus in Scorpio, we found our wants for a relationship to be pretty simple.  To be seen, to be heard, to be respected,  to be touched.

Touch. It’s a basic human need. In her article, The Healing Power of Touch, Madeleine Castellanos, MD, goes so far as to say it is a vital part of our survival. Sexual and non-sexual touch with a loving partner, a relaxing massage, hugging a friend, petting your cat, even grooming ourselves. All are powerful and healing, necessary and seemingly in very short supply in our western culture.

There’s a man I occasionally see on my way home from work who stands on a busy downtown street corner with a hand-written sign held over his heart. The sign doesn’t ask for money or beer or tickets to a sold-out concert. His sign says “Free Hugs.” He gets odd looks from many people, but there’s always someone ready to accept his gift. After one particularly hard day at work, a day when my aloneness keened for some human attention, I took him up on his offer. Feeling his sincere hands wrapped around my back and mine around his, I felt at that moment that this hug, this touch, was one of the deepest connections of my life. Perhaps it was because in some primal way his hands mended a part of me that had fallen apart. His hands re-membered me.

Which brings me to hands.

When Stephen Jenkinson, the subject of the National Film Board of Canada documentary, Griefwalker, was in Victoria earlier this month, he told a culture hungry audience of men and women that we had lost a part of ourselves when a college education became more valued than a blue collar trade. Craftmaking and reclaiming forgotten hand skills are a centrepiece to Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom School. The tanning of a hide, the throwing of a clay seed bowl, the hewing of wood to make a canoe, the slow hand drilling with a sliver of flint to pierce a shell and make a bead. For so many of us our hands have become slaves to the machine, be it the automobile, the factory, the cubicle, the internet, the computer keyboard, texting and otherwise tapping away on our i-Appendages.

Those who step away from the virtual arcade may find their hobbies are entwined with their hands. Knitting, cooking, woodworking, photography, gardening, painting. Tinkering on a classic car, shuffling a deck of cards, piecing together a puzzle on a kitchen table, creating the perfect flying fishing lure.

If touching another human being or a dear pet can bring emotional and physical healing, perhaps the same effect can be experienced through working with our hands. In the hours away from our day-to-day labours we choose to do what makes us feel good, whole and happy. These are the same attributes healing touch can give. And when we share what we love to do with others the effects are exponentially even more profound. When we are moved deeply by the act of another we say we are touched. Touched can also mean slightly insane. Kind of like the man giving out free hugs. Touched isn’t so bad.

There’s a Buddhist story that poses the  unlikely circumstance of a blind turtle finding a floating log in the vast ocean with a hole in it just big enough to put his head through. The rarity of this circumstance is said to be as rare as a human being coming into existence. In his latest book, The Book of Awakening, poet Mark Nepo uses this story as a means to shine a light on our rare opportunity to be fully human in this life. He asks “(s)o what will you do today, knowing that you are one of the rarest forms of life to ever walk the earth? How will you carry yourself? What will you do with your hands?”

Who did you touch today? Who touched you? What will you do with those wonderful hands?

My thanks to Rachelle Lamb for guiding me to the articles The Healing Power of Touch by Dr. Madeleine Castellanos and Six Reasons You Need To Be Touched by Tracy O’Connor.

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  1. I too miss the touch that a craft will give me. Living on Galiano Island for 21 years, I used to bake (for 6 years running) sourdough bread and take it for sale at the Mayne Island market. I’d bake for 3 days, almost around the clock as is required of slow-fermentation, then bake in 2 side-by-side household ovens, then take 50-or-so loaves which sold out in less than an hour. Net proceeds went to island food banks. What a wonderful practice. Stirring, kneading, shaping, scoring sliding, tapping, holding — then handing over to hungry eyes and stomachs. And then feed again by way of monetary donation. I continued to bake while working at Hospice, taking a loaf on every shift. Staff counted on it for their meal breaks and visitors (burdened by grief and fear) found solace in the hearty slices. All done by hand. Nourishing in multiple ways.

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