Touching is for Earthlings, Feeling is for Martians

The First Kiss of Adam and Eve by Salvador Viniegra, 1891

The First Kiss of Adam and Eve by Salvador Viniegra, 1891

There’s a big difference between touching and feeling. When you touch something, you experience it more abstractly and less intimately than if you’re feeling it. Touch is mediated by all sorts of expectations and assumptions. For instance, if you’re touching skin, the experience is mediated by your awareness of what skin is supposed to feel like, and also by how you’re supposed to touch it in order to touch it “well.” There’s nothing wrong with this sort of touch, but it lacks a certain specialness. It lacks what Zen practitioners call beginner’s mind.

Feeling something is very different. It’s like the first time, every time.
You can discover the difference by playing the following game with yourself. First, choose a part of your body and touch it. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Caress it, squeeze it … make contact with it in the ways you normally would.

Now pretend that you’re a Martian and this is your first encounter with an Earthling. You’ve never encountered skin before; your language doesn’t even have a word for it! Now touch this same part yourself. Explore it with the curiosity and innocence you’re bring to a totally (and literally) alien experience.

When you’ve finished, take a few moments to register the difference between touching, which is what you did on the first round, and feeling, which is what your Martian alter ego did. If you wish, jot down some notes.

There is nothing wrong with touching. We do it all the time, and it’s fine. Feeling, however, has a magical sensuous quality that standard-issue touching lacks. When you’re practicing touch (and I’m using it in the generic sense here), make a point of folding feeling into your repertoire.