Friday, September 03, 2004

Both Hands*

I`ve had an entirely wonderful day, spending the morning in the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art and the afternoon at an out of the way Zen Buddhist temple where I gained astonishing insight into the reason for that infamous phenomenon of "Japanese tourists" -- I feel certain that these camera-toting swarms are merely engaging in ritual vengeance for what Westerners have done to their country. In short, carting a busload of American tourists to a Zen Buddhist temple is like releasing a gaggle of fire-ants into your underwear. ANGRY fire-ants. Think about it.

I may say more about these later. Instead, there`s something I`ve been reflecting on for the past couple of days that has finally ripened to the stage of blog-ability. Whenever one enters a foreign country, one must be prepared to encounter a number of new and peculiar-seeming customs. One of these that provoked more than the usual modicum of thought for me is the Japanese way of giving and receiving thing with both hands at once. I encounter this gesture dozens of times each day -- at the grocery store, the youth hostel, or on the street, Japanese men and women hand me the bill, change, receipt, promotional sample, item I dropped, etc., yes, even the smallest, least significant slip of paper, while holding it in both hands, and similarly receive from me only by holding out both hands towards me.

Being the assimilation-hungry traveller that I am, I immediately tried to emulate this simple custom. I was surprised by how difficult it was for me: It seems that when giving something to another or taking from them, my "free" hand always busies itself -- roaming through my bag, brushing a wayward strand of hair out of my face, steadying myself or merely fidgeting. And yet this problem of "half-handedness" continues to make me feel slightly ashamed, oddly unfocused, and a bit scattered.

The reason for this, of course, is that I *am* all of these things -- my mind and heart are never entirely focused on the exchange at hand (... no pun intended ...) but rush ahead to the next transaction, drift backwards with remorse or longing, or simply wander all over the place without my ever being conscious of it. Moreover, I think this personal half-handedness is symptomatic of a deeper problem within myself and Western society in general. Too rarely are we present in the moment, and even more rarely are we fully present when offering something to another or receiving from them: Our "free" hand, the part of our thoughts that isn`t immdiately engaged are already grasping for something else, something more -- another coin, gift, experience, relationship. Not even for a moment can we keep ourselves "together" -- our hands firmly grasping and unanimously releasing, so that, even for a brief second, we are truly empty-handed, or have sincerely allowed another to fill our hands with their gift or need.

Worst of all, we are that way with God as well: We ask for His blessing, but are too preoccupied or fearful to hold out more than one hand at a time. We implicitly distrust God to fill our hands, our heart, our life with good things, sustaining things -- how will we ever trust Him to fill our hearts with His Spirit? Nor are we ever present enough to make a whole-handed, whole-hearted offer to God. Our forefathers, the Jews, knew how to prepare themselves for such an offering: how to be present before God, how to offer up to Him, and -- that key final step! -- how to let go entirely.

The discipline of both hands isn`t mentioned, to the best of my knowledge, in either Tertullian, Willard, or any one of the "Dummies` Guides to Spiritual Disciplines." Its essence, though -- the presence of self with another and with God -- is one that the scriptures endorse and that the prophets, right down to the greatest prophet of all, Jesus, modeled in their lives and in their teachings. It`s unfortunate that I had to travel to a distant continent to pick up on the matter.

In other news, I think I`m becoming a zen garden universalist. But you knew that was coming :D

*... this concludes the mandatory Ani DiFranco lyric inclusion for the week.

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