Practice the 4 Nons of Awareness to Hold Life Like Water In the Palm of Your Hand

Practice the 4 Nons of Awareness to Hold Life Like Water In the Palm of Your Hand

Many years ago, before the Internet, I stumbled across a Chinese proverb, hold life like water in the palm of our hand. I quoted this guiding life principle for many years. Imagine my surprise, when two years ago, I could find no reference for it!

There is a trueness found in holding life like water in our palm. Through it, we enter into a new way of being present to the joys and challenges of life. Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, reminds us, “If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.” Instead of being battered by challenges, when we move within life’s current, we better learn our life lessons. Living in awareness, we naturally flow in ways that enable to live fully and intentionally.

The 4 Nons of Awareness

When we are aware, we are present in the moment. Practicing the 4 Nons of Awareness—nonattachment, nonjudgmental, non-defensiveness, and nonviolence—roots us in the moment. As an objective observer we integrate the 4 nons and consciously choose whether we react to our distractions or respond with compassion. With each response we hold life like water in the palm of our hand.

Awareness occurs in each moment during which our attention is focused on the Sacred. The Sacred may manifest as a deity, the extraordinary, or those things that we hold in great reverence. Through our connection to the Sacred we are better able to navigate life challenges. This navigation is possible when we are awake, alert, and alive.

Thomas Merton reminds us, “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.” Being awake, alert, and alive, shifts the way we perceive the world. Each morning we wake, but being fully awake involves more than opening our eyes. Fully awake, we are conscious of the extraordinary being revealed to us.

When we peer into the extraordinary with all of our senses, we are rooted in the present. No time to ruminate on the past or worry for the future, we recognize and release distractions. This alertness is, in essence, an attitude of vigilance. With vigilance, our responses are compassionate.

Being alive is the end result of being awake and alert. Each breath we take does more than physically sustain us. Each gives us the energy to act when we are awake to the possibilities and alert in our choice of response or reactions. Our actions are responses.

The 4 Nons of Awareness in Action

Awareness provides the power of choice: whether we respond or react. When we objectively observe, we craft our responses by using the 4 Nons. In moment of nonattachment, we are fully aware of our judgments and propensity to defend our words and actions (nonjudgmental). We feel, on a deeply visceral level, how our thoughts, words, and actions may impact us violently. And, we minimize the impact of our judgments, defensiveness, and violence (non-defensiveness and nonviolence).

Practicing nonattachment, we don’t cling to or shove something away; rather, we observe what is occurring. We are better able to identify what is truth and what is judgment (nonjudgmental). With this identification, we may want to defend our position, but choose not to (non-defensiveness). As we notice the many ways we seek to perpetrate acts of violence, we rescript our thoughts while recognizing that violence begins in our mind. This reframing shifts our words and actions (nonviolence).

Practicing the 4 Nons of Awareness provides opportunities to respond to the ongoing revelation of the extraordinary. Choosing to hold life like water in the palm of our hand allows us to take life not as mundane but filled with possibilities of the extraordinary. Life is an adventure of riding the rapids and flowing around challenge. Through this perspective our life becomes fluid and responsive.

Water is fluid, impermanent, and responsive. It does not come from us nor will it remain with us. This is the essence of a life filled with dynamic response. No longer do we make judgments of good or bad. Rather, by being fully awake, fully alert, and fully alive we transform by responding to the extraordinary.

Try This: Engaging like water in the palm of your hand

Take a couple of breaths…notice the cadence…look at your hand…the back side…turn your hand over…look at the etchings on your palm…relax your hand into a slight bend…drop water into your palm.

Move into the 4nons: without attachment, notice as the water begins to drip out of your hand… as it drips, affirm you have no control over the water…the only control you have in your life is the choice of response or reaction…

Return to your thoughts…what are you saying about your ability to hold the water? …rescript any judgments…acknowledge the water goes wherever it wants…

Again, return to your thoughts…maybe you are thinking the water is too cold, or you put too much water in the palm of your hand…rescript your thoughts to nondefensive ones…remember water goes wherever it wants…

Pay attention to your entire being… acknowledge and let go of any violence…

Notice how the water drips out of your hand…know that this is your well of compassion …pooling in your hand, it is self compassion soothing you…as it drips off your hand, it is compassion going out into the world.


[1] Zi, Lao, Gia-fu Feng, and Jane English. Tao Te Ching. London: Wildwood House, 1973.

[2] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York, NY: New Directions, 1972.


Vanessa Hurst
Vanessa Hurst

Vanessa Hurst is author of the book Engaging Compassion Through Intent & Action. She is a member of the Coordinating Circle for the Partnership for a Compassionate Louisville and coordinates its awareness campaign. A practicing contemplative for over 21 years, the natural rhythm of her life is to intentionally share compassion with herself, others, and all of creation. Vanessa holds a master’s degree in Natural Health. In her practice as an intuitive healer and spiritual mentor, Vanessa understands living contemplatively and compassionately as the roots of healing. For her, compassion is a lived experience, one she hopes will touch all her relationships but most profoundly her relationship with her son, Merlin. She hopes to inspire many to engage compassion through intent and action. Her new book, "A Constellation of Connections: Contemplative Relationships," is now available on Amazon.