• J Felix

Movement & Touch

What I appreciate most about mindfulness practice is that awareness can be applied anywhere, anytime. Whether ironing or cooking, eating or walking, we bring our full attention to our activities. In doing so, mundane chores can become opportunities to maintain mindfulness. So, we have the formal practice of sitting and the informal practices of folding laundry, washing dishes, sweeping, scrubbing toilets, peeling potatoes, and so on. In monasteries, monks and nuns are trained to apply their full attention and continue with their mindfulness practice even as they are engaged in practical, daily activities. 

I type. The wrist pitches and yaws. The delicate muscles of the hand contract and extend. My fingers press the keys that will print out the letters that will make the words that I’ll string into paragraphs to express the gratitude in my heart. The fingers are nimble and press lightly. I can sense the smoothness of the keys through my fingertips. Lots of nerve endings there. In one square inch of hand, we have nine feet of blood vessels, 600 pain sensors, 9000 nerve endings, 36 heat sensors and 75 pressure sensors.

The hands are wondrous.  A disproportionate share of the brain’s motor cortex is dedicated to the muscles of the hand. With our hands, we draw, build, push, paint, pull, wipe, cook, carry, catch, throw, tear, fold, grab, brush… scroll down. 

Human skin contains 45 miles of nerves. The body contains about 500,000 touch detectors. Sensors in the skin called mechanoreceptors detect touch, pressure, vibration, and stretching of the skin. Mechanoreceptors relay information to the brain, where they are interpreted as touch. Most mechanoreceptors are clustered along the palmside skin of the fingertips and hand.

Researchers have identified four types of mechanoreceptors:

1. Meissner's corpuscle are found mostly in the fingertips. They are sensitive to light touch, vibration, and texture.

2. Merkel's disk senses pressure, shape, edges, and rough textures.

3. Pacinian corpuscle is sensitive to vibration and deep pressure

4. Ruffini's corpuscle senses pressure, vibration, and skin stretching.

In meditation, the hands can be cupped one on top of the other, in a mudra (e.g. index fingers touching thumbs, or resting on the lap. However the hands are positioned, we can notice a lot of different touch sensations finger to finger from the pulsing of the heartbeat to the texture of the clothing if we are resting them in the lap or on covered knees.

Nerve fibers called CT afferents clustered in the arms and back can make people feel pleasant sensations when those areas are brushed or stroked. In the Bon tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, there is a yogic technique called tsa lung. In one of the exercises, a practitioner rubs hands together, then rubs the face, arms, back, and legs. In traditional Chinese energy healing, there is a similar practice called the qigong massage. The practitioner massages their arms, back and body. Today, science helps us make sense of these ancient practices.

As you sit and read, you may notice the touch sensation of the atmosphere brushing against the skin of your arms or the touch sensation of clothing on your back. You can bring awareness to the body's contact points: the weight of the body in the chair, the feet on the floor, the touch sensation of clothing, the pull on the waistband as you breath in and out.

In quiet observation, I bring my attention to my hands throughout the day.

As I do, I reorient my attention. If I am ruminating, worrying, or feeding thoughts that disturb my peace in any way, I can let go and check in. If under stress, the hands may be cold or sweaty. If nervous, I may be fidgety. But now, I am aware that I am experiencing stress or nervousness and I can attend to myself. 

This morning, for example, I began to brood as I was getting ready for work. Lost in thought, I went about preparing mindlessly (default mode network). I could not hear the birds singing. I could not see the sun rising. I could not experience the cold touch of the wood on the soles of my feet. Aware that I was unaware, aware that I was ruminating and that the thoughts were agitating my mind and disturbing my peace (salience network), I returned my attention to what I was about to do (executive network). Ironing was my meditation practice. I brought my full attention to the task- could feel the handle in my hands, the heat rising from the iron to tickle my arms, the back and forth motion of my shoulders.   

By bringing my attention to my hands, I celebrate the simple things. I brush my teeth, the toothbrush twirls between nimble fingers and thumb. I dress, the fingers clasp and position the buttons through the button holes. I slip on my shoes and marvel at the complexity of tying shoelaces. I gesture to catch someone’s attention. I signal directions. I speak with palms open. I play piano, each finger working the keys. I cut open a loaf of bread. I clap along to a song.  I caress my daughter's cheek. And like this throughout the day, I remain mindful of all I can express and create with my hands.

Bringing attention to the feet is also a technique many practitioners use when they are stuck in their heads. Our feet become the object of focus. 

Throughout the day, I'm on my feet, walking from one location to the next. Walking meditation is a practice onto itself. 

Cultivating the ability to remain equanimous no matter what happens is a gift we give ourselves.

Peace of mind is in your hands. 

Updated Aug 28, 2022

First published April 25, 2020

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