Every day, we go through thousands of movements unconsciously. Yet, how often do we pause and reflect on how our body as a whole, and its parts in particular, is expressing our spiritual intentions?
When we talk about spiritual practice, almost invariably the word that pops into conversation is "meditation." In many respects, it has come to symbolize the spirituality movement that has grown steadily since the 1970s. But perhaps we have got stuck thinking that that's all spirituality is. Knowing what we're doing with our body is one way to complement sitting in silence and stillness.
Religious traditions around the world ascribe meaning to and create rituals with the most versatile members of the human body--the hands. Take a moment to look at yours. Hold them out in front of you. Turn them around. Clasp them. Cup them. Raise them high. Bring them to your heart. Rest them in your lap.
Think of the many kinds of gestures you make with your hands to manifest qualities you consider spiritual or religious. How do you use them to worship on your path? Do you put your palms together to bow down in honor of the Buddha? Do you cross yourself with your fingers to imitate the crucifixion of Jesus? Do you beat your chest with your right hand in contrition on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement? Do you wash your hands to purify yourself before praying to Allah? Do you lift them wide to welcome the energy of the Moon Goddess? Do you slowly finger the beads of a mala or rosary in devotion? Do your hands set a Tibetan prayer wheel spinning?
Whether we embrace the Dharma, the Tao, a creator God, the Great Spirit, the Great Mother, Confucius, or Brahma, we can all take to heart what 16th-century Kabbalist Moses Cordovero recommended: "Imitate your creator. Then you will enter the mystery of the supernal form, the divine image in which you were created." In other words, the way we can become reflections of God, the Goddess, or the Buddha is by imitating their gestures.
We see Michelangelo's painting of God sending energy to Adam as each extends a hand toward the other on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We can lend a hand and give a boost to a friend who's ill and weak. We can help a stranger on the street or guide an elderly person through a dangerous intersection.
In the New Testament, we read that Jesus healed people with his touch. Our hands can massage our babies, parents, partners, and animal companions to soothe distress or pain.
Seated under the bodhi tree, the Buddha placed his hand on the ground, witness to his unshakeable resolve to reach enlightenment. We can place our hands on the earth vowing to save it from toxic substances. We can help green the planet by planting trees, shrubs, bulbs, or seeds.
Consider what you might do with your hands to embody attributes of the enlightened or divine beings you honor. How do you move your hands to demonstrate caring, respect, awe, and kindness? How "open-handed" or generous are you? When you brush or comb your child's hair, is it a chore or an opportunity to gently handle her head with love?
Or you can try the mudra known as semui-in in Japanese (shih-wu-wei-yin in Chinese, abhayamudra in Sanskrit), which is supposed to convey tranquility and absence of fear to all beings. You raise the right hand, palm open and facing outward, fingers vertical, at the level of the shoulder.
Among Christians, there are variations on how to maintain the hands in prayer. Protestants hold the palms together with fingers interlocked, as did ancient Sumerians. Roman Catholics generally prefer to place the palms together with fingers pointing upward, as in Hindu and Buddhist expressions of piety. Romans and Greeks prayed to the deities of the underworld with hands pointed downward. It is said that ancient Christians in the catacombs prayed with arms and hands stretched out to the sides in imitation of the crucifixion. When Muslims engage in prayers of petition, du'a', they hold their hands out in front of the body, palms upward. After they recite the words, they rub their palms across the face.
However you use your hands, there's no end to the gratitude you can express with them as you honor the deity or path you believe in. As the Jewish liturgical poem Nishmat kol hai ("The soul of all living"") teaches, we are to use all of ourselves--every limb, every fiber of our being--to praise the holy.
Were our mouths filled with song as the sea,
Our tongues with melody as the multitude of its waves,
Our lips with praise as the expanse of the heavens,
Our eyes bright as the sun and the moon,
Our hands spread out as the eagles of heaven,
Our feet as swift as the deer,
We would still be unable to adequately acknowledge You and bless Your name....