Clap Your Hands (written 2015)

12/03/2015 09:05

When I was a child in Sunday School, we used to often sing a little “joy making” song. I don't recall all the lines but one that still goes through my mind sometimes when life is just undeniably fine is “When you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!” Just remembering this instruction when I'm curled in a comfy chair by the fire, or rubbing the belly of my silly dog or sitting at the table in comfortable conversation with my family as they enjoy a meal I prepared for them, brings a broader smile to my face. Yet, how many fine moments slip by, I can only imagine, when I don't “know it”?


Mindfulness instructions of any type point out that we should be aware of the moment, not missing out on our life. The Buddha's instructions stress that this awareness should be cultivated, training the mind to notice it all, not just the fine and the happy. We train to be aware of body, of the feeling tone of pleasant or unpleasant or neutral that accompanies sensation and thought, of the condition or state of the mind, and of thoughts or the content of mind. We train to “know it” when the mind moves and not simply to be sucked into its vortex like lint on a carpet when the vacuum comes along. When we “know” what is present in this way, we may truly be moved to clap our hands with the joy that can arise. And if the emotion is not happiness, but sorrow, we are able to bear it, and know it for the passing and changeable state it is. We are able to watch it rise and pass away as all things do, not giving it strength through our own resistance but opening our hands to let it run through, run its course.


Sometimes when we watch a child, bouncing with laughter, energy and excitement one moment, then lamenting a minute later over a dropped cookie, hugging a dear friend and then pushing roughly past some other child to be the first to ride on the merry go round, we think we are seeing an example of someone who is in the moment. With the complexities of adult reflection and interactions, we may even long for such simplicity of emotion and action, what appears as honest expression of feeling. But a child is lint on the carpet. The great rushes of emotion move him or her this way and that. Pulled in by happiness, by anger, by sorrow, by desire. There is no “knowing” of what is at play. Think of the way we will talk to a child lamenting over the loss of a cookie, for instance. We often try to explain, to reason, to interpret the child's actions, looking into what moments of mind may have triggered the behavior. “It was only a cookie. You're tired. What you really need is a nap.” Or we comfort and sooth, “It's alright. Shh.” Or we banish the emotion by promising, “There'll be more cookies tomorrow.”


As adults, we learn a little about doing this for ourselves. Too often, though, we go for the last gambit...promising ourselves we'll fix this, we'll ultimately get what we want later somehow. We want to rush forward to the time it will be OK again. To the time when things go our way. Training ourselves in mindfulness is a bit like re-parenting our inner child. Yes, the cookie is in the dust. It's lost. Even had we been able to hold it safe, we would have eaten it, it would be gone. Or we would have had enough in a few bites and abandoned it on the picnic table forgotten as we rushed off to join a game of tag. Each moment holds sensory input and a feeling charge, each moment is passing and transforming into the next.


What I like about the old Sunday School song is the reminder to allow joy. To notice it. To pay attention. It's OK to be happy. When it comes to lingering and loitering over the bad stuff, we seem to have a natural aptitude as human beings. “When you're sad and you know it, hang your head. When you're angry and you know it, curse out-loud.” The problem is that in doing this we get better at it. Creating an easy path for sorrow and anger from thought to action. We've posted direction signs: This way to suffering. We march self-assuredly on toward our own deeper unhappiness. On the other hand, making some noise about the good stuff, celebrating the things we often don't notice at all, begins to clear the brush in another direction entirely. It's a reliable short cut to more joy. So clap your hands!