When the Spirit Moves Me: The Mudra of My Way of Life and Death

In devising Mr. Spock’s famous Vulcan salute (“Live long and prosper”), Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy was inspired by the Priestly Blessing performed by Jewish Kohanim. This benedictory gesture represents the Hebrew letter Shin (ש), the three upward strokes of the letter being similar to the position of the thumb and fingers in the gesture.

The ritual practice of symbolic gestures is common to many esoteric disciplines and religions. In Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism they are referred to as mudra. I learned a number of both classical and innovative mudra during the 1980s, when I was informally apprenticed to a master of Indonesian dance/drama named Liong Xi.

I don’t believe in literal magic but I have a deep respect for poetic symbolism. In that spirit and in honor of this tradition, I’ve devised a secular mudra representing the memento mori ergo carpe diem concept. This gesture has evolved over a long period of time and may well continue to evolve in the future; in the meantime, for those who are interested, here are the details.

Memento Mori …

The first aspect of this mudra represents impermanence and is formed by raising either or both hands with the two middle fingers held together while the index finger, little finger and thumb are slightly spread, accompanied by an exhalation. It was inspired by the shape of a tree with spreading branches, by a hand gesture performed by revenants in medieval European danse macabre artwork and by this moment in the 1981 counter-culture movie Knightriders, in which Merlin (played by the late storyteller Brother Blue) farewells King Billy at Billy’s funeral:

Having formed the mudra with your hand, look first at the hand itself, then exhale deeply as you shift focus to look past it. The perspective-shifting was inspired by an Australian Aboriginal tradition known as Shadow Dancing, which I learned many years ago from an elder and teacher named Wirrunga Dunggir. Allow your lungs to empty, take a moment to reflect that breath is life and that we’re all one heartbeat away from oblivion, and then …

… Ergo Carpe Diem

The second aspect of the mudra represents the principle of seizing life. As you take a deep in-breath, shift focus back to your hand, then close the spread fingers into a fist as you draw your fist inward so that it touches your chest in the vicinity of your heart (and your totenpass amulet, if you happen to be wearing one). It’s good to be alive. Make the most of it.

Like the Hawaiian aloha and the Hebrew shalom, this mudra can mean both “hello” and “goodbye” (and sometimes means both at once). I perform it when the spirit moves me. In recent years, I’ve used it in wishing well upon strangers being loaded into ambulances, lightly touching escape artistry props once used by the great Harry Houdini, saluting a vernacular shrine for a young Hasidic man who was murdered while walking in a local park, standing in front of a tapu taonga (sacred treasure) carving in the Museum of New Zealand and encountering the body of a family friend who had died in his home, among other circumstances.

The mudra can be performed subtly or – in exuberance – elaborated into a double-handed, full-bodied dance/kata action that draws the universe into my heart. It serves as a symbolic “seal”, imprinting moments in memory, demonstrating respect, reminding me that all things pass and that I am here, now, breathing. It both calms and energizes. It is mindfulness in motion.

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