Touch As A Spiritual Practice


by Kevin Smith

People sometimes ask why I don’t accept money for Touch Practice, or why I don’t “market” it more aggressively. Sometimes men who would like me to hold them will ask me what my “type” is. My reply is “I don’t have a ‘type”. The people who need me, find me. I hold whomever shows up. It’s a part of a spiritual practice.”

I can usually hear the “huh?” even through email. And if the conversation is online, my response usually provokes one of two opposite reactions: the person either wants to meet me immediately—or they block me!

Touch can be many things. It can be a form of violence against others–we can actually touch someone in such a way that it ends their physical life. Touch can be selfish, a way of taking something for ourselves or cheapening another person into an object (“boy I’d like to touch a piece of that!”)

And, touch can also be a way to holiness, and wholeness (same root) that expresses our spiritual practice and values. So it’s important that we’re clear about what, exactly, we intend to do when we set out to touch someone. Setting an intention (compassion, or kindness, or being an agent of healing, to choose just a few possibilities) is a key part of establishing touch as part of a spiritual practice.

One of Jesus’ many radical, anti-establishment compassion practices was to touch people who weren’t getting touched—lepers, for example.  In Mark 1:41 Jesus reaches out and touches someone whom many others would cross to the side of the street to avoid.  And while leprosy is relatively rare in modern-day America, there are a number of organizations who try to carry touch as a form of spiritual care to the “untouchables” of our day.

Amma, the hugging saint, “hugs to spread the idea of motherly love and compassion ‘felt not only towards one’s own children, but all people, animals and plants, rocks and rivers—a love extended to all of nature, all beings.'”

Touching is one of the simplest and most powerful forms of kindness available. Warmly touching someone on the back as a form of greeting can trigger a visible softening and opening in the other person.

A warm, loving handshake can do this between men, but unfortunately the handshake among American men has devolved into a form of competition, a death-grip, a defensive demonstrative/interrogative dance of “I’m not weak—are you?” That’s not what the handshake was designed for.  It was intended to demonstrate that we’re not carrying weapons, that we come unarmed, undefended, vulnerable. It is a way to establish connection, not a style of combat. Complicating matters, most American men tend to sexualize all touch with other men, and so touch is immediately suspect, on a subconscious level, as a sexual prelude when in fact it might not be. A genuinely warm handshake is too risky for many men.

We all have different ideas and definitions of what constitutes genuine spiritual practice. For myself, as I look at the great touchers of history and reflect on what I have learned from the men I have sat with, I would say that touch as spiritual practice embraces these qualities:

  • It endeavors to do no harm either to another person or to self
  • It is humble, not arrogant. It does not presume to know what the other needs or wants, but works constantly to sense, to discern, to ask and to respect with regard to the boundaries and preferences of others
  • It is both self-aware and other-centered. It is virtually impossible to hold someone without being held. Those who touch as spiritual practice acknowledge both what they are giving and what they are getting. They are conscious of their own touch needs and take care of themselves, not just others. In this way they avoid vicariously “giving in order to get.”
  • It is not exclusive. Jesus didn’t care about Body Mass Index and Amma won’t insist “face pic?” before meeting. Touch as spiritual practice encounters others without judgment. It is the practice of sitting with another as they are, and thus an expression of unconditional love.

The next time you’re moving in a group of men, try expressing your spiritual practices and values, whatever they may be, using touch. Perhaps that might be a practice of hospitality, or generosity, or welcome. Shake hands warmly. Notice those who are asking (even desperate) for a hug, and offer what you can. If you’re in a place where it’s appropriate, you can even ask a newcomer, “would you like some touch?” Yes, you might get some perplexed responses (Jesus and Amma no doubt raised some eyebrows; even Leo Buscaglia had to put up with a certain amount of teasing.) Do it anyway. Risk being misunderstood. Be the best brother that you can be to other men, and don’t forget the touch.