Touch 101


by Kevin Smith

We sometimes confuse “skill” with “character traits.” We may think of someone as mean or grumpy by nature, but another explanation is that she hasn’t yet mastered kindness, which is just skill. It comes with practice.

We might think of someone at work as angry by nature, constantly flying off the handle, but it is equally possible he has not yet mastered the skill of stress management, or centering, or even good scheduling and time management.

Very few people are “born” great conversationalists; normally, we achieve skill at conversation by practice. (A good definition of how skill is acquired is “repeated practice in a safe environment.”) Unlike knowledge, or character attributes, skill isn’t “inherited,” but rather, it’s developed through practice.

All interactive touch— from being held all the way up to and including sex— involves skill that benefits from practice, just like interactive conversation does. If you’ve ever experienced a truly awful hug— some stranger comes right up to you, holds you too close, hugs too hard, and holds on for WAY too long— you’ve just met an unskillful hugger! Our reaction after such a hug might be something like, “eeew. I’d like to take a shower now.” It would be similar to someone you’d known all of two minutes, in casual conversation at a cocktail party, asking you, “so, tell me, have you ever been unfaithful to your wife?” Our reaction might be, “I beg your pardon?” That’s a little too deep a little too soon!

We are constantly receiving and sending signals to each other in conversation which either invite the person to go deeper, or indicate that we’re uncomfortable and would like the person to back off a bit. It’s a tricky balance. If each party doesn’t engage enough, the conversation goes nowhere; there’s lots of silence, and things feel awkward. There’s no “grab” and we go away thinking, well, this person doesn’t really interest me.

If, on the other hand, one person pushes too deep too fast, there’s awkwardness of another kind, a defensiveness as we scramble to protect areas which we don’t want probed by this particular person. There’s too much “grab,” and we shy away from this person because they’re “too intense” or “too much” for us.

In the perfect conversation, there’s an ideal level of engagement, mutually satisfying to both parties, enough connection to keep things going and perhaps even move the relationship deeper, but not so much intensity that we become defensive and begin to withdraw and protect our vulnerable places. There’s just the right amount of “grab.”

In yogic practice, this “grab” is often referred to as “edge”— in a stretch, for example, finding just the right amount of “edge” and engaging that edge, with breathing and awareness, is the doorway to some profound experiences. Too much edge and you risk physical injury; not enough edge and you’re not fully engaging the practice.

Interactive touch is very similar to a ‘conversation’ on a physical level. Our bodies are constantly sending signals (“I’d love a hug from you!” or “please don’t stand so close to me!”) and our ability to receive and read those signals, and to choose from a wide variety of possible responses, is a skill which can provide a profound avenue for human connection. When we are skillful at touch, it is possible to have “conversation” using our bodies, simply by holding someone, without words. If boundaries are understood and respected, the physical act of holding and being held can be a powerful exchange which passes beyond the limitations of words. With just the right amount of “edge,” hugging can be a powerful form of compassion practice, where we share each others’ wounds, and offer each other companionship and strength.

If you’re uncomfortable in your body, uncomfortable with being touched— try practicing with a skilled partner in a safe environment, one that helps you define your boundaries, establish an “edge” or “stretch” which is challenging but not harmful, and supports your ability to sit in that place, breathe it in, and begin to establish some comfort there. You will slowly expand your capacity to be touched and your skill for touching others.