What is the sound of one hand clapping?
This is a classic Zen meditation question, a koan exercise or contemplation of a question to which there is no answer. Its purpose is to leave the “logical” mind behind and go beyond thinking to enlightenment.
So, it is not about thinking anything, especially not puzzling it out as if there is an answer, i.e. Sarcastic “the same as the sound of two hands,” clever “fingers popping against the palm of your hand,” or oppositional “whatever you want it to sound like.” It’s about knowing or experiencing.
While I am not at all a Zen expert, I have studied meditation. My answer is simple, but something that has deeply changed me. It is to let go of the question… to open my death grip on all my questions and problems and reach my hand out to the holy, to the universe, to let my spirit…my hand, rejoice with the hand of God and clap together in joy over my life and the life of the world. It is to feel at one with the Spirit until clapping fills my soul and echoes back to the world.
I don’t know if a Zen master would approve. I don’t know it you all will think I’ve gone round the bend and lost a firm footing in reality.
I do know, at my best, when I pray and meditate, the world with all its problems drops away, stress drains from my body, and energy and joy fill my heart. I am at peace. It both feels mindless (not fixated on self, problems, mind) and mindful (very aware, but with an awareness focused outward.)
Zen practitioners believe enlightenment cannot be taught. In my belief context, faith cannot be. It is a profound experience, a “knowing” that for me is a knowing of God, (or Christ, or karma, or the universe, or higher self…or whatever works for you), a sense that God is there within me and without, that I am surrounded by grace.
And while as an experience of going beyond self, it perhaps can’t be taught, it nonetheless can be shared.
I have taught meditation techniques. I have given simple exercises to students for test taking anxiety. I have taught breath counting as stress reduction. I have shared visualization techniques. And I have used it successfully with clients suffering from anxiety and PTSD. I teach the science of it to skeptics, as we know from tests on Buddhist priests, it can lower blood pressure and heart rate, (simply deepening and slowing breathing can do that), and change brain wave patterns to almost look like sleep patterns. Usually, teaching is accompanied by a practice of the experience. I will use my voice, sometimes soft music, to provide a focus for a more meditative state and lead “students” through a meditation.
The last step, doing this for yourself, I obviously can’t do. But a focus, or focal point tool can help. That’s not quite doing it entirely on your own….but can help get there by moving focus outward. Some people can watch a candle flame or stroke a smooth stone. Some chant a word to keep other words out of their mind (which really doesn’t work for me.) For some of my anxious clients, I have even given recordings of my voice to help use as an anchor to a previously relaxing meditation I have done with them.
I remember a retreat I once led where I was paired with a woman who had MS. When we discussed meditation, she said it didn’t work for her. She couldn’t “shut off her mind” or close off thoughts or worries or fears that popped into her consciousness when she tried it. I said my mind did that to me, too, but I stuck with my breathing, deepened and slowed it. Then, almost like I was a separate being from my brain, I could think, “Oh, ok,I need to remember to do that report at work tomorrow” and let that thought go…along with any other interruption bubbling up into my brain, “Yes, and Johnny needs me to sign his permission slip.” I imagine those thoughts drifting away from me, the ‘person’ breathing in the chair, as if a gentle stream flowed past me taking those thoughts away. I am aware of them, but let them recede from me.
Then, when there is finally only me, only silence, only breath, I can pour my spirit outward and let God’s spirit pour in. It is a moment of infinity in the finite.
So, this is a reminder for me, and an invitation for you, to let stress go, to embrace that which is greater than ourselves, to let go and let God. It is an opportunity to be half with me, one hand yours, one hand mine, clapping out the universe’s celebration of who we are.
Will you let go of all that hurts and holds you? Will you clap with me? A standing ovation can’t be far behind.
A link to a YouTube talk if you are interested: Zen Master explains koan meditation