One of the highlights of Tai Chi Alchemy in Sedona 2018 was Maria Barrett’s presentation of “Touching and Feeling.” It is an important distinction and was illuminating to many. Discerning the difference is a key to understanding and cultivating ting (“listening”) jin.
Ting jin is the ability to accurately and acutely sense the energy and physicality of another person. It requires, as well as develops, superconscious awareness. (See SuperConscious! Seeing With Three Eyes.)
As you develop confidence sensing things at a substantial level, you gradually expand your awareness to sense things that are more insubstantial. Over time you learn to reliably perceive with Three Eyes (Eye of Flesh, Eye of Mind, Eye of Spirit) and become acutely aware of changes in energy, intention, and state of consciousness, in yourself and others.
Ting jin is important for martial arts, healing, and interpersonal relations. Most of us have some ability already, like when you sense someone has something on their mind or a child is upset about school. Taijiquan practitioners develop it through push hands and energy healers by engaging with their touch. At the highest levels no physical contact is necessary and it can be quite spooky.
Touching vs. Feeling
First, let’s get the semantic thing out of the way. There are definitions and usages that conflate the terms touching and feeling, but here we want to emphasize their differences. There are two different processes happening and it is useful to have recognizable terms we can use to talk about that.
For our purposes, “touching” means “reaching to contact someone or something physically.”
“Reach” in this case implies intentionality. In other words, I am extending a hand or body part so as to make contact. “I am touching the horse’s mane with my hand.” Touching is an intentional extension outward.
“Feeling” (as we are using it here) means “being aware of something through physical contact.” (“Feeling” can also mean “experiencing an emotion or sensation”: “I felt angry.” “I feel like I’m going to puke.” But that takes us down a different road.) The “feeling” we’re talking about is awareness of sensation PRIOR TO IDENTIFYING IT AND MAKING SENSE OF IT.
There is a moment just before our brains start to concoct a narrative about what is happening. It may be milliseconds, it may be longer, before the conscious mind (Eye of Mind) starts to churn out a story. It is here that we are using the vast resources of the preconscious mind (Eye of Flesh) to make preliminary assessments of what is going on BEFORE it becomes muddied by our expectations born of prior experience. In that moment, we resonate with what is being sensed BEFORE we separate out from it to make an “experience.” (Experience: The direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge.)
If touching is an extension outward, then feeling brings the sensation back. (In physiology, touching would be efferent, and feeling would be afferent. Efferent (motor) neurons send signals out. Afferent neurons (sensory) relay information from the periphery to the central nervous system. (For extra credit you can read: “What is the Difference Between Afferent and Efferent Neurons.” I only include this factoid to illustrate that there is a structural as well as functional difference between touching and feeling. It won’t be on the exam.)
Meeting: The Magic Ingredient
When we reach to touch something, a subject is acting on an object. The “Me” is attempting to physically contact the “not-Me.” The “not-Me” is an “It,” something that has been objectified in the mind, either known or not-known, but something that the “Me” is aware of as an object of thought. “I touch the vase.” “I am touching something slimy and don’t know what it is.” I-It. Eye of Mind. Object-based consciousness. Narrative.
Feeling, by contrast, is “Meeting.” We resonate with the thing being felt, and during that time we dissolve the mind’s tendency to make it into an experience. We are in relation for the moment, and to some degree it becomes an I-You, and the degree we commit to feeling shifts us into proportional non-objective awareness. Superconsciousness.
The I-You in Meeting is not absolute. There is always some object-based consciousness there to provide context. But the volume gets turned way down for the moment. In that time we are just resonating with What-is, allowing the preconscious mind to gather sensory data and confident that the rational mind will return soon enough to analyze what just happened and fit it into our story.
The Meeting need not be so brief. As a polarity therapist I am required to Meet for long periods, sitting quietly in non-objective awareness, intermittently punctuated by objective thoughts. For example, I may engage a client’s sphenoid bone by lightly touching her temples and carrying on a non-verbal “conversation” for fifteen minutes or longer. I initiate the process by “touching” with my fingers (motor activity), then “feel” the delicate movements of this butterfly-shaped cranial bone as well as the effects this adjustment has on the rest of the body. My thoughts return for a moment to adjust slightly, then back into resonance with that magical bone.
You can try this with your own body. This video will walk you through it. Basically, you touch your knee with your hand and then feel your hand with your knee. Then you touch your hand with your knee, and feel your knee with your hand. By doing this, you consciously disentangle your nervous system, motor and sensory, and generate whole-brain coherence, thereby integrating the Three Eyes.
And that opens the door to superpowers.(Or so I hear.)