A few weeks ago, when COVID-19 still seemed much more distant than it does now, I read the first article telling me not to touch my face. As soon as I saw the words on the page, I scratched my nose. That’s just how the brain works.
The first book I ever read about Buddhism was a compendium of foundational texts, something I picked up at the used bookstore in high school. A huge percentage of the book was just lists of things not to do. Don’t sleep on a high bed. Don’t touch money. Don’t indulge in jocularity (followed by examples of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” jokes). Years later I realized I’d been reading from the Vinaya, the monastic rules—which I now really appreciate—but at the time I just thought I’d stumbled on the strictest, most boring religion on earth. I don’t think I read another Buddhist book for two years.
Buddhism isn’t all don’ts. Especially in traditions that developed later, there’s a move toward an emphasis on positive action rather than prohibition. Instead of “Don’t slouch,” it’s “Stand up straight.” Instead of “Don’t desire cheesecake,” it’s “When you eat (or even see) cheesecake, offer it to all beings.” Instead of “Don’t let your mind wander,” it’s “Chant these verses when you do things like brush your teeth or turn on a light.” We take the focus off what we’re not supposed to do, and we give ourselves a project. I like that.
But the fact is, sometimes—and now, with this pandemic, we are in one of those moments—we come across something we just really shouldn’t do, and we have to work with that. Your new practice, whether you’re Buddhist or not, is the Practice of Not Touching Your Face.
How many times a day do you touch your face? Of those, how many do you notice? This sounds on the surface like an exercise in discipline, in restraint, but it’s really a practice of mindfulness. This is paying attention—not just to something we’ve chosen, like the breath, but to an impulse we may not even know we have. It’s trying to catch yourself in the mirror to see what you really look like, in that moment before you stand up straight and wipe that goofy look off your face. It’s like agreeing to be itchy.
If you meditate, of course, you know this is doable. You have the experience of sitting still for twenty, thirty, forty minutes, of wanting to scratch your nose, noticing the impulse, struggling with it, and watching it fall away, replaced by some other distraction. You know that just as it arises, it will fall away. It will. But as agonizing as it can feel to watch that process, it’s also relatively easy—when you’re sitting in that posture, silent, with your hands on your lap and your back straight, scratching that itch feels like a big gesture, like a violation of that stillness. Everything in your body is saying, don’t move.
Right now, though, reading this on your screen, scratching your nose is the most natural thing in the world. So how do we do find that stillness now? I won’t claim there’s any magic way, but I think there are kinds of awareness we can play with:
- Pay attention. Resolve to notice when you want to touch your face. Set that intention. And when you catch yourself after the fact, or when you’re rubbing your eye, pause and notice how you got there. Try to remember what the sensation was before your hand moved.
- Interrogate the itch. When you feel that impulse, make it a question: “What if I don’t?” The answer, in almost every case, will be It will be fine, but it may take a while to find that. See if you can.
- Offer it up. When you feel that desire to scratch your cheek or rub your eyes or touch your ear, realize how many other people in the world are feeling that exact same sensation, fighting that same urge. Offer up your own resolve—May all beings naturally, with ease, not scratch the itch. Weird? Maybe. But what else can you do?
Right now—now even more than usual because I’m writing this—I want to scratch a spot on my temple, just next to my right eye. I feel it calling me. You probably want to touch your face too, and if you don’t, you will, and even if you’ve never framed that impulse in terms of “want” before, you will now because suddenly you’re being told not to. So reframe it. This practice isn’t about saying no to touching your face—it’s about saying yes to this small, significant way you can help. It’s about acknowledging, in concrete terms, that the little things really do matter.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.