Loving Touch: An extract from “How to Train a Wild Elephant”
The following extract from Jan Chozen Bays’ How to Train a Wild Elephant is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Shambhala Publications, Inc.
The Exercise: Use loving hands and a loving touch, even with inanimate objects.
Put something unusual on a finger of your dominant hand. Some possibilities include a different ring, a Band-aid, a dot of nail polish on one nail, or a small mark made with a colored pen. Each time you notice the marker, remember to use loving hands, loving touch.
When we do this practice, we soon become aware of when we or others are not using loving hands. We notice how groceries are thrown into the shopping cart, luggage is hurled onto a conveyor belt at the airport, and silverware is tossed into a bin.
We hear metal bowls singing out when stacked carelessly and doors slamming when we rush.
a particular dilemma arose at our monastery for people who were weeding the garden. how can we practice loving hands when we are pulling a living plant out of the ground by its roots? Can we keep our heart open to it, placing it in the compost with a prayer that its life (and ours) will benefit others?
As a medical student, I worked with a number of surgeons who were known for their “surgical temperament.” If any difficulty arose during an operation, they would act like two-year-olds, throwing expensive instruments and cursing at nurses. I noticed that one surgeon was different. he remained calm under stress, but more importantly, he handled the tissue of each unconscious patient as if it were precious. I resolved that if I needed surgery, I would insist he do it.
As we do this practice, mindfulness of loving touch expands to include awareness not just of how we touch things, but awareness also of how we are touched. This includes not just how we are touched by human hands, but also how we are touched by our clothing, the wind, the food and drink in our mouth, the floor under our feet, and many other things.
We know how to use loving hands and touch. We touch babies, faithful dogs, crying children, and lovers with tenderness and care. Why don’t we use loving touch all the time? This is the essential question of mindfulness. Why can’t I live like this all the time? Once we discover how much richer our life is when we are more present, why do we fall back into our old habits and space out?
We are being touched all the time, but we are largely unaware of it. Touch usually only enters our awareness when it is uncomfortable (a rock in my sandal) or associated with intense desire (when she or he kisses me for the first time). When we begin to open our awareness to all the touch sensations, both inside and outside of our bodies, we might feel frightened. It can be overwhelming.
Ordinarily we are more aware of using loving touch with people than with objects. however, when we are in a hurry or upset with someone, we turn him or her into an object. We rush out of the house without saying good-bye to someone we love, we ignore a coworker’s greeting because of a disagreement the day before.This is how other people become objectified, a nuisance, an obstacle, and ultimately, an enemy.
In Japan objects are often personified. Many things are honored and treated with loving care, things we would consider inanimate and therefore not deserving of respect, let alone love. Money is handed to cashiers with two hands, tea whisks are given personal names, broken sewing needles are given a funeral and laid to rest in a soft block of tofu, the honorific “o-” is attached to mundane things such as water (o-kane), water (o-mizu), tea (o-cha), and even chopsticks (o-hashi). This may come from the Shinto tradition of honoring the kami or spirits that reside in waterfalls, large trees, and mountains. If water, wood, and stone are seen as holy, then all things that arise from them are also holy.
My Zen teachers taught me, through example, how to handle all things as if they were alive. Zen master Maezumi Roshi opened envelopes, even junk mail, using a letter opener in order to make a clean cut, and removed the contents with careful attention. he became upset when people used their feet to drag meditation cushions around the floor or banged their plates down on the table. “I can feel it in my body,” he once said. While most modern priests use clothes hangers, Zen master harada Roshi takes time to fold his monk’s robes each night, and to “press” them under his mattress or suitcase. his everyday robe is always crisp. There are robes hundreds of years old in his care. he treats each robe as the robe of the Buddha.
Can we imagine the touch-awareness of enlightened beings? how sensitive and how wide might their field of awareness be? Jesus became immediately aware of when a sick woman had touched the hem of his garment and had been healed.
Final Words: “When you handle rice, water, or anything else, have the affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child.” —Zen master Dogen