I am left-handed, having been thus since I can remember it’s not unusual for me to do things with my left hand dominant that most folks do right-handed. So when I began learning about Buddhism and sitting Zazen I read about the hand position one is supposed to take when in meditation. It looks like this
and is known as a Mudra (and , embarrassingly this particular one is called the “cosmic mudra”. . .). The position of the fingers is a good way of keeping your mind in the moment, if you start to get to spacey and distracted your thumbs tend to drift apart and if you are too intense and focused you tend to squish our thumbs together. The pose is not arbitrary and I have found that it’s a good, unobtrusive way of keeping your arms in a comfortable position for some time while still being aware of where your mind is. Anyway, I had read about this and done it a few times and without thinking about it much. A couple of years into my sitting I was with a group of folks who were sitting together and one of them pointed out that my mudra was sort of, wrong. I was cupping my right hand in my left instead of the other way around as was traditional. “So what” I thought “I’m a lefty and this feels more natural, it’s not a big thing so whatever.” And for a couple more years I went on that way.
Some years later I was attending some “zazen for beginners” type class and we were all sitting nicely facing the wall. A monk was walking around silently behind us, adjusting a persons shoulders here, correcting a posture there when she got to me she gently reached down and rearranged my hands so that my right hand was cupping my left instead of my typical lefty pose. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I was doing it backwards for years, but I did notice that instead of thinking “It doesn’t matter” I thought “hmmmm I better start doing it right.” And since that day I have.
Now bear in mind that I sit by myself 99% of the time so I’m not worried about being corrected, and I don’t feel that there is something intrinsically better about the right hand under the left position, but I realized that there was a freedom to be had in following this tradition, in doing something I was slightly uncomfortable doing. I keep the correct mudra position for the same reason I sit on a cushion on the floor instead of a chair even though a chair is more comfortable, I do it for the same reason I sit in meditation when my brain would much rather be looking at the internet or playing a video game.
I believe that most of us have a rather mistaken idea of what it means to have “freedom” and I don’t mean in the patriotic sense of the word. We believe freedom means the ability to do anything we want, to live without any sort of rules and to be comfortable all the time , but if we really look at the matter it soon becomes clear that kind of “freedom” is really less free (and more painful) than the alternative. Children who are raised with no boundaries, with no discipline and who are never told “no” or corrected often report feeling unsafe and unloved as children for in later life. Why? as strange as it may seem, setting boundaries and establishing the rules of a society gives a child a sense of order, and a sense of their being important enough to be taught how to function in that society. Take their structure away and you seem to be telling a kid “I don’t care what you do, I’m too busy for you.”
Also we all want freedom from any restriction but until we decide to accept certain ones our desires go nowhere. Dainin Katigiri once used the example of wanting to be a doctor to demonstrate. We want to be doctors, that is our desire, to be free to be a doctor, but to achieve this we have to go to school where they have a LOT of rules we have to follow. If you try to go to medical school by not following the schools rules then you don’t get to be a doctor. They kick you out! You might desire to be a graduate with a medical degree but you are only free to be a janitor til you follow the universities rules! By the same token if you want to sit with a large group of meditators for a long time then you have to follow the rules or you will disturb the other practitioners. You might want to stand up and sing “Pokerface” but your freedom to do that will harm the freedom of everyone else to meditate without hearing your melodious voice. Often these sort of restrictions were put in place for very practical reasons, in a zendo everyone turns the same direction when getting on or off their cushion, this isn’t because some monk got on a power-trip, it is to keep everyone from smashing their legs into each other when they sit down!
In our modern, western world we have a lot of things designed to make us comfortable. Things like air conditioners, cushy chairs, soft clothing, all free us from discomfort. However it only takes a cursory glance around to see how quickly this leads to people feeling entitled to be comfortable all the time. Kids gasp if they are asked to walk 2 blocks to school, people get into a $50,000 luxury car and feel adgitated when the seat heater takes 5 minutes to warm their ass, when my wife, Cara, used to work at a coffee shop I watched open mouthed when people would send drinks back because they ordered their latte to be at 140 degrees and “this one is clearly 145 degrees.” Sometimes I’m amazed that people get tattoos at all, a very small minority of customers do say things like “ugh, can’t you give me a pill so I don’t have to feel this!?”
Our freedom to live in comfort has, ironically trapped us in a world where we are only comfortable at a specific temperature, hearing specific music, wearing specific clothing, surrounded by people who feed our inflated sense of self in a specific way. We are prisoners of our comfortable world, we are imprisoned within our “freedom”. Wouldn’t true freedom mean that we were comfortable in many variable conditions? Shouldn’t true freedom mean that we can function and be happy even when everything was not catered specifically to our particular preferences? If you could be settled and calm when it is too hot or cold, when your are hungry or anxious or tired, if you could remain steady when everyone else was losing their composure, then that would be true freedom. Putting my hands in the correct posture means I can sit zazen peacefully even when conditions are not ideal.
A lot of corporations have gotten rich simply because we can’t stand to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable for even a moment. I believe that 90% of the people on antidepressants are being done more harm than good simply because we are fed the myth that we must be “happy” all the time and that to feel sadness or discomfort is an illness. Why do we want money, fame, power, or all three? Because we believe that it will bring us freedom to do whatever we want, the sad part of this delusion is that if you take a look at anyone with an over abundance of those things they seem far more imprisoned by it than the rest of us. . .