The Touch of the Hands

From the Satipatthana meditation instruction to hold one’s attention around the face, which I used for quite some time when I was a monk in Sri Lanka, I then shifted to placing my attention on the whole front of my body while sitting. That is the instruction I gave to my first beginning student in 1989. When she reported back to me that she was aware of her hands, not so much the front of her whole body, I then tried out her variation on my instruction and found that it accomplished several things I was looking for in a beginning instruction, so I adopted that ever since.

What I added to that instruction, however, was very significant. I saw that people had the tendency to focus on the sensation of the hands resting on their laps or legs. That was not as effective for the overall direction of an open meditation practice that would lead to greater awareness of thoughts and emotions as putting one’s attention on the external contact of the hands touching. I had experimented with meditating on the external contact of my back against the mattress when lying down and with my seat touching the hard cold cement floor when I sat cross-legged in meditation. I found that being aware of the external contact brought my attention to a part of my experience that was essentially neutral and grounded. Because of having practiced body sweeping for two years, I could not be aware of any internal sensations without trying to move them or change them somehow. I could do nothing about the external contact, as I could not move or change the sensation of my left foot touching the cushion when I sat in half lotus (see the statue in the photo above).

So, there it was, the beginning instruction to place your attention on the touch of the hands, or the touch of your rear on the cushion, or your feet touching the ground. Of course, I had heard of meditators using these instructions (except for the touch of the hands), but they were using them for a different purpose. What was common in the East around body-based instructions was to move your attention from one point to another as a kind of exercise, keeping your attention active on the physical sensations. My innovation was to keep your attention passively engaged on the contact points, as they were commonly called, and use it as a base to return to when your mind wandered, which was how the breath was treated.

But the breath was a moving, changing phenomenon, as are thoughts, so I saw that it would be difficult, if not impossible and highly frustrating, to have one’s anchor be moving and not still. The still contact points made more sense, both experientially and theoretically, for developing awareness of the movements of the mind. My first meditation manual, self-published in 1994, was called, “The Moving and the Still.” It contains the instructions and orientation I have presented thus far.

That short manual also has another feature in the instructions related to the Satipatthana sutta. It has to do with meditating with the hindrances to meditation, which has entered my writings on Recollective Awareness Meditation in many ways. In the beginning of creating and refining this approach to meditation, awareness of the hindrances was a way to combine thoughts and emotions into initial themes that could be worked with at the outset of a meditation sitting. I saw this as the most practical way to meditate—to be with the hindrances in a way that they loosened their hold over the mind, and then one could meditate “unhindered.”

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