“I didn’t know you were a Christian.”
Said my tablemate, just after 5 a.m. at Starbucks, between sips of coffee. Her comment took me aback for a moment, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. I always take a moment to “gassho” (hands together, head bowed) before eating or drinking. I guess she assumed I was praying. Actually, it’s just my way of noticing I’m alive. I forget easily (I didn’t even notice I was until I was 30) and the act of stopping everything for a few seconds evokes a momentary sense of wonder: “Holy shit! Here I am! Against all odds! How did that happen?!”
Of course, for all I know, these are the sort of thoughts that come unbidden during a Christian grace — perhaps substituting “Holy Jesus” for “Holy shit” — so I don’t think there’s anything special or, for that matter, holy, in my ritual. And sometimes it’s more rote than heartfelt. No matter, it’s a worthy threshold into savoring that first sip. So much pain, anxiety, fear in the world — starting right outside, in Starbuck’s sheltering alcove — and here I am, inside, safe, warm and dry. Thank you.
I tried to explain all this to M, who is a Christian. We got into a discussion about “gassho.” It’s used at the drop of the hat in the Zen tradition (if you were in the forces, think “salute”), but it’s also common in many cultures, especially in the East, to express greeting, gratitude, reverence and prayer. I think I first realized how universal it was when I saw people gassho as they passed each other on remote trails in Nepal back in the ‘70s. There, it means “namaste” to friends and strangers alike: the spirit within me acknowledges the spirit within you.
It has slowly become an everyday part of my life. I didn’t consciously cultivate the practice, but I’m glad I subconsciously developed the habit. I believe the physical demonstration of my feelings deepens the message — both to the other person and to myself. For instance, Louisa and I gassho before eating, taking a moment to appreciate our food. (Typically in a Zen community, one might chant, “Seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us.”) We also gassho after an argument or tension, a way of saying, “We’re good.”
If I’m particularly grateful to someone, my gassho is a way of expressing my sincerity. And if I have the need to apologize (can you believe?), I instinctively gassho while saying something. Before meditating, my gesture reminds me I’m part of a long lineage of meditators stretching back thousands of years. Gratitude, again.
Now, I don’t know how I ever managed without it.
Barry Evans gave the best years of his life to civil engineering, and what thanks did he get? In his dotage, he travels, kayaks, meditates and writes for the Journal and the Humboldt Historian. He sucks at 8 Ball. Buy his Field Notes anthologies at any local bookstore. Please.