Engaging Challenge


by Kevin Smith

Touch Practice is essentially a yogic practice. We encounter each other in a way that creates a stretch (also called “edge” in yoga) and we sit with that stretch, breathing into it together, until it softens and takes us somewhere new, unexpected, and often, revelatory.

“Stretch” does not always manifest in the physical body; stretch can be emotional, spiritual, or psychological as well. It happens to American men making eye contact with each other on the street–we often feel the edge, immediately. There might even be discomfort there, a sense of “this is a stretch. I have to break this off.”

Now I’m not suggesting you simply go out and stare people down as a form of practice. But if you’ve ever intentionally made eye contact with someone for several minutes, breathing into that edge and sitting with it together, allowing it to be, staying with it, you know that this can lead to some amazing places. (If you’ve never done this, go find a willing partner, right now, and give it a try!)

Skillful use of “edge” in yoga is something people usually explore fairly quickly. If we take a stretch too far, it can cause pain or damage, but if we don’t engage the edge enough, there’s not as much benefit to the practice. We don’t want to get hurt doing yoga, but we do want to mindfully explore the challenging positions.

As in all bodywork, the key is grounding, which in yoga relies heavily on the breath. We try to stay aware of the breath, and we direct the breath into the area of stretch, much as we might shine a flashlight into a dark attic. And we wait. In certain kinds of practices such as yin style yoga, the practice can be mostly waiting–more waiting than moving.

Sitting mindfully with the stretch marks a departure from the habitual way most of us live. Our instinct is to avoid situations that make us uncomfortable. What happens if, instead, we face them head on, breathe into them, stay with them and wait, exploring our experience? Once we start looking for examples of edge or stretch in our lives, I believe we encounter them dozens of times each day. Consider these examples:

  • A co-worker has a characteristic which annoys us deeply. After staying with it, opening to our experience of that co-worker and meditating on this characteristic, we realize it reminds us of a piece of our own personality. (There’s an old saying, “the thing in your neighbor that annoys you most is the part of yourself that you can’t stand.”)
  • Relationships sometimes begin to deepen and become more meaningful and real at the same time that they become more difficult. Encountering the “edge” in a lover, a roommate or a co-worker can be the beginning of richer interaction, but it’s also the point at which many people decide to bail out, disengaging the stretch.
  • Returning from work at the end of a day to an empty home can produce an edge of emotion–fatigue, loneliness, boredom, other feelings. It’s an uncomfortable place. Do we sit with that edge (meditating, perhaps, or taking a few minutes to just sit with it) or do we ease the discomfort by tearing open a bag of potato chips, mixing up a favorite drink, going online to look for sex or turning on a mindless TV show?

Suppose, in life, we stopped avoiding the edge–that difficult, uncomfortable place where we feel stretched, but not harmed–and, instead, started seeking it out, the way we do in yoga? What if we stay with it, breathe into it? Sitting into the stretch creates a life where we are less sure of where we are going, but more sure of how we are getting there. We plan and control less, but are more conscious, awake and aware. We engage what is right in front of us, rather than worrying about what hasn’t yet happened or regretting things which no longer exist.

Our habitual instinct is to minimize stretch. Democrats hang out with Democrats; Republicans party with Republicans; Fundamentalist Christians fellowship with other FC’s, and Liberal Atheists seek out other LA’s. But what if we deliberately engaged stretch by intentionally seeding our lives with others who are different from us?

And suppose, in our lives as men with other men, we allowed for edge, the stretch, the unknown?

  • What if we didn’t automatically sort each other into bins of “gay man” and “straight man?”
  • What if there were more functions, retreats and projects for “men of all flavors” and we didn’t wear badges identifying which party we belonged to?
  • What if eye contact, touch, forms of greeting and forms of connection all had to be individually negotiated, one at a time, by sitting in the stretch and responding to another person, rather than simply responding to another person’s category?
  • What if there were a world where some “straight” men enjoyed being hugged and kissed as a greeting (some do) and some “gay” men preferred a simple handshake (I’ve met them…)

What if every encounter, with every person, was an unlimited source of stretch around gender, orientation, sexuality, spiritual practice, relational orientation, political beliefs? What if we engaged each other as the truly infinite, brilliantly multi-colored beings that we actually are?