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Mahasati hand meditation is a practice that can be particularly useful during times of excessive stress or emotional upheaval, or when our minds just won’t shut the f__k up no matter how much yogic breathing or how many rounds of mantras we’ve done. And yeah, I speak from experience.
I learned this practice at my most rock bottom of rock bottoms. I was at a rehab facility, three days into a seven-day stay in detox from alcohol. My body was still squeamish, my brain still racing, my hope nonexistent, and my self-loathing at an all-time high. As I lay in bed aware of the physical battle going on between withdrawal and the benzodiazepines I’d been given to help relax me and keep me from having a seizure, my thoughts raced—I’d just lost my job, my car was about to be repossessed, I had a court date and jail time awaiting me, and last but (definitely) not least, I was going to miss my brother’s wedding, the one where I was supposed to be his best man. Yeah, I was in rough shape.
Later that morning I stumbled into our group session, where a young, prayer-bead-wearing, bald-headed man announced we were going to practice meditation. Grunts and grumbles filled the room, and the corner I’d staked out as my own was no exception. I’d been meditating for several years already and knew that I was in no place mentally or emotionally to sit quietly and let my mind cause me even more trouble than it already was.
In all fairness, yes, those are often the times when meditation can be extremely beneficial. I’m all about gently and compassionately leaning into the pain and allowing it to teach us what it can, but I also believe that there are times in life when the pain is too great and it’s counterproductive to lean into it. There’s no such thing as a spiritual superhero; no trophies are awarded to those who can endure the heaviest shit, so please, honor what you can and can’t do in the moment and go from there. Only you can know for sure, so be honest with yourself.
That being said, I find a nice side effect of meditation is that we become much more in harmony with our intuition, so you shouldn’t have much of a problem knowing what’s right for you in the moment. I love the Buddhist example of a musician tuning the strings on her instrument. If the strings are too tight, they’ll break; if they’re too loose, no sound will come out. Our meditation practice should be like those strings: not too tight, not too loose, and right in the middle. What I like about Mahasati hand meditation is that it’s an excellent middle ground between states of excessive mental and emotional pain and fostering attention and compassion. So that’s where this young, bald-headed Buddhist counselor at the detox came into play.
After the objections quieted down, he said he’d be teaching us a fifteen-part hand meditation. Admittedly, my curiosity was piqued— I’d never encountered a hand meditation in my years of practice. The counselor went on to tell us how he’d learned this technique while studying with a monk who had lived in a cave in Laos for many years, and that it was one of the root practices they had worked with. He had my attention.
Knowing that many of us were in bad shape in that detox, he went easy and had us practice for only five minutes, but once those five minutes were up, I knew that this was something I’d carry with me for a long time. The beauty of the experience was that as he led us through the fifteen hand movements (described in detail below), we were forced to pay attention to what we were doing (well, those of us who participated, anyway). While you are doing Mahasati, a core part of the practice beyond just the gestures themselves is focusing on the slow and rhythmic pattern of your hands and arms as they move, which was exactly what I needed to help me get out of my head, if only for five minutes. After I had the order of movements down, a process that takes about a minute, I could bring my full awareness to the practice. I wasn’t thinking about my hands or arms, nor was I thinking about all the other shit that had been bouncing around in my head. I was simply there, aware of my arms and hands, though that’s not even quite accurate. The experience was more of a knowledge of motion; my hands and arms weren’t even mine anymore. Just movement and awareness, awareness and movement, and it was beautiful . . . though brief.
The next day we did Mahasati hand meditation for ten minutes, and I had another powerful experience. But the times between sessions were still terribly rough. I would periodically do the practice on my own in my room, and it helped, but it was hard to keep myself sitting upright for very long. The sedatives I was being given were powerful and left me in a groggy state, one in which I was just awake enough to be cognizant of my incessant thoughts about the total nightmare my life had once again become. Despite everything, I finished my time in detox, then finished my time in rehab, and life got better. Much better. In part, I believe, because of this practice, which I still use frequently and hold dear.
The intentional practice of the hand movements described below helps facilitate that awareness in our daily lives. What follows is the formal version, but the practice can be engaged in any time we’re aware of what we’re doing or simply present in the moment.
Here are a few things to know before starting:
First, rest your hands palm down on your thighs.
Turn your right hand onto its side, with the awareness of what you’re doing. Make the movement mindfully and slowly, then pause. Do not think about turning your hand but rather be aware of the movement as it happens
Mindfully raise your right hand up. Pause.
Lower your right hand down to your abdomen, allowing it to rest. Pause.
Turn your left hand onto its side. Pause.
Raise your left hand up. Pause.
Lower your left hand down on top of your right hand, which is resting on your abdomen. Pause.
Move your right hand up to your chest. Pause.
Move your right hand out. Pause.
Lower your right hand onto its side on your thigh. Pause.
Turn your right palm down. Pause.
Move your left hand up to your chest. Pause.
Move your left hand out. Pause.
Lower your left hand onto its side on your thigh. Pause.
Turn your left palm down. Pause.
Take a breath. Check in with yourself. How do you feel?