The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that people wash their hands thoroughly and regularly, and that they avoid touching their face. Unfortunately, touching our faces with our hands is a deeply ingrained and unconscious habit—studies have shown we do it more than 20 times an hour. Fortunately, heightening our awareness of what we do with our hands can not only help protect us from COVID-19 but also help bring our meditation practice off of the cushion and into our everyday lives.

Meditation Practice #1: Wash Your Hands

Hopefully, we all do this multiple times a day—but how many of us really do it with our full attention? I know I don’t—until now, my routine has been to absent-mindedly splash on a little soap and water, rub my hands together a bit, give a quick rinse, and let that be that. But in today’s world, where washing your hands properly can mean the difference between life and death, absent-mindedly isn’t an option. Interestingly, you don’t need to add much to the CDC’s hand-washing guidelines to make it a meditation practice: just carefully following its steps requires focus, presence and a complete immersion in what you’re doing. The following is their five-step directive, with my own Zen commentary in italics:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. The most interesting part of this step, to me, is turning off the tap. I admit that until now, I usually just let the water run the whole time. But what a waste! (Especially if you’re now going to be scrubbing for 20 seconds). To practice Zen is to be aware. It is exactly to turn off the faucet when running water is not needed.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. I am impressed by the thoroughness of this directive. You are paying attention to lathering every part of your hands—nothing is left out! Getting a good lather going also necessarily involves bubbles, which are not only fun, but bring to mind Buddha’s famous proclamation from the Diamond Sutra: “So should you view this fleeting world … as a bubble on a stream.”
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. You can also sing the alphabet, or two rounds of “Row your Boat.” Let the ridiculousness of singing these children’s songs lend a little lightness to your actions, and remind you that our practice is a joyous one. And so, right now, realizing life is but a dream: merrily, merrily, merrily scrub your hands. 
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. The fact I have clean, running water reminds me that this basic ability to wash my hands is indeed a great luxury. Throughout the whole experience, appreciate this opportunity! Luxuriate in it. Immerse yourself fully in the scent of the soap, the feel of the warm water rushing over your hands. Soak it up.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them. Me, I like to air-dry my hands, although, honestly, what I like to do even more is place my hands on my face and the back of my neck and allow the cool wet to awaken me—though I doubt the CDC would recommend this. My penchant for wanting to put my hands on my face does, however, lead us nicely into our second and third meditation practices.

Meditation Practice #2: Check in With Your Hands

Throughout the day, take a moment to check in with your hands. What are they doing? What have they just touched? Are they reaching for something? Fiddling? Scratching an itch? Are they white-knuckled and tense, or calm and settled? Right now, what are your hands telling you about your state of mind?

I remember from the beginning-instruction class at the Village Zendo in New York City that, along with our breath and our posture, our hands were to be considered a point of awareness—a way of checking in with ourselves and seeing how our practice was going. In seated meditation, we form the “cosmic mudra,” left hand on top of the right, the thumbs circling up to form an oval. The thumb-tips should lightly touch, as if holding a piece of paper between them—connected firmly enough so that the paper would not fall, but not so firmly that the paper would crinkle. Paying attention to this point of contact can let you know what your mind is up to: if your thumbs start to drift apart, your mind, too is probably drifting; if your thumbs are pressing hard against each other, wrestling, struggling, so too is your mind enacting some remembered or invented conflict.

In other words, your hands are a way to pay attention to what you are doing unconsciously, and to bring that unconscious action into the realm of consciousness. This is one of the points of Zen—to become awake to your whole life, your whole self—and to not let even an instant slip by unnoticed. Besides, when you maintain a consistent consciousness of your hands, you’re far less likely to unconsciously touch your face with them and put yourself at risk of getting sick, which brings us to…

Meditation Practice #3: Keep Your Hands in Your Lap

Another lesson I remember from the beginning instruction was simply to sit still. For a half hour, we commit to not moving, even when we really, really want to. In other words, if we feel an itch on our face, we don’t just immediately reach up and scratch it.

Our teacher explained that our whole lives we’ve just been reaching up and scratching that itch, unconsciously, involuntarily, so that in a certain sense we’d never even actually experienced what that itch really felt like, what an itch really was. We learned that the practice here was to not scratch it, to sit with it, to experience it fully and not just swipe it away into oblivion. The teacher went on to explain that even the smallest itch can be excruciating in this situation—that a stray hair tickling your nose can feel like a blade slicing through your flesh—and yet still, if you just sat with it for a moment, the sensation would rise and then fall.

So it is in daily life: just because you feel an itch on your face does not mean you need to scratch it. Instead, experience it fully, and let its sensation keep you present, awake, alive. Notice your desire to solve it, fix it, respond to it—but don’t. Keep your hands settled and calm. Let the itch rise and fall. What’s the worse that can happen if you don’t scratch it? Will that tickle on your nose kill you? No, but apparently, scratching it in the era of COVID-19 might.

Now, of course, none of this is easy. Indeed, I fear this directive to avoid touching your face can somehow make the littlest itch feel even more excruciating, even more impossible not to scratch. (Sitting here writing this on the train, there was one itch on the tip of my nose that just kept getting worse and worse until finally I gave it a good scratch with the sleeve of my sweater—and it was the best thing ever.) The point of Zen is not to simply endure misery. If, while sitting, for instance, your knee is in real pain and you’ve given the pain a chance to rise and fall and it’s just getting worse, you can make a conscious decision to do something about it: and so you do a little bow, shift your position to alleviate the pain, make another small bow, and then recommit to remaining still. Perhaps if you really are going to scratch your face, it should be with similar awareness and intention: make a little bow, do it with a part of your hand that has not touched contaminated surfaces, enjoy it, and then make another commitment to keeping your hands calm, settled and still.