In mindfulness practice both "on the cushion" and in the rest of our lives, how can we find a balance between the extremes of too earnestly concentrating on (or even getting stuck in) our experience and too casually letting things go? It is valuable and important to learn both how to touch into our experience and also how to let it go again. Learning how to apply the technique of "touch and go" can be a useful way to explore both of those aspects of our mindfulness practice.
First let's look at two common mistakes, neither of which is "touch and go." I like to call the first one "touch and grab." We are practicing "touch and grab" when we notice something in our experience and hang on to it. For example, perhaps we notice a feeling of anger when we are practicing on the meditation cushion. In "touch and grab" we would keep that feeling going by coming up with narratives that support and even justify our feeling of anger. "How could so and so think he could get away with that? He was totally in the wrong . . . ." And off we go.
Or, we could be looking forward to a weekend out of town. Instead of coming back to our breath while we practice, we could entertain a fantasy about how wonderful it will be once we're away. We might imagine how we'll spend our time, what we will eat, even what we'll say to those we go away with. Or, worse, we could have some unpleasant memory that we keep running over and over in our mind. Somehow, we can't drop it. That can be extremely painful. If you practice meditation long enough, you will probably see this pattern of "touch and grab" occurring in your mind at some point.
The second common mistake I call "go and go." In "go and go," we don't allow ourselves to actually feel our experience. Instead, we just barely notice it and distract ourselves with something else. It is a very common error that some meditation practitioners make. They believe that while they practice they shouldn't have thoughts or feelings, and so they push them away. They distract themselves by rushing back to the breath.
Here's an exercise you can do to help clarify these two mistakes. If you can, do this with a partner. When I teach this in my Naropa classes, the whole class of does it together as a group. You could also do it in your imagination. Begin by starting a number of feet apart from another person, and then go toward each other. When you meet, reach out and shake hands. To practice "touch and grab" hang on just a moment or two longer than you would in a normal handshake. Then, go on past. Turn around and go toward each other again and repeat "touch and grab," as you did before: shaking hands a little too long and then moving on. Now, notice how you feel. Does "touch and grab" feel familiar? Is it comfortable for you? Pleasant? Unpleasant? Just notice. If you like you can repeat it and exaggerate it even more: touch and hang on. Gaze into the other person's eyes. Again, notice how you feel.
Now, once again, start apart and move toward each other. This time, practice "go and go" by reaching out to shake hands but touching only briefly before moving on past the other person. Again, turn around and repeat "go and go." Notice how you feel this time. If you like, you can exaggerate this one, too. Hardly touch at all before moving on. Notice your experience.
Finally, practice "touch and go" by once again greeting the other person with a handshake. Go ahead and actually shake hands, make contact, but then let go and move on. Turn around, and repeat "touch and go."
Many people report that one of the mistaken versions (or both!) feels familiar. Many say they feel uncomfortable, a bit claustaphobic, holding on too long. Others report that they feel dismissed or disrespected by "go and go." Most people find "touch and go" to feel balanced and comfortable.
Okay, now let's bring this into mindfulness meditation practice. Sit down on your usual meditation seat, whether it's a chair or a cushion. Take a few moments to establish your upright posture with your eyes open and your gaze softly resting about 4 to 6 feet in front of you. Let your attention come to your breathing. Once you feel a bit settled, begin to play with "touch and grab." Whatever arises in your mind, be it a thought, a feeling, or a physical sensation, keep it going. Some people are quite gifted at this. They not only "touch and grab," they "touch and wallow." Do this for just a few minutes-maybe three. Then drop it.
Next, practice "go and go." This time, whatever arises, do not get into it. Just let it go. I often think of this as being like the water bugs that skim on the surface tension of the water and don't seem to get their feet wet. Don't let your mind "get wet" with your thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations. Come quickly back to your breath or space out. Again, do this for about three minutes and then drop it.
Finally, play with "touch and go." When a thought, feeling, or physical sensation arises, touch it definitely and then allow it to go. Let the next experience arise, touch it and let it go. Again, try this for about three minutes and then drop it.
Notice, for yourself, whether any of these variations feel familiar. Notice which feel balanced or "natural" to you. Many people, including experienced meditators, find that they have been falling into one or another extreme. If we remember that our mindfulness meditation practice is about seeing who and what we are already, not about changing ourselves into some preconceived notion of ourselves, then being able to be present with our experience without distorting it is the point. Both "touch and grab" and "go and go" distort our experience.
Some questions that often come up about "touch and go" include the following:
1. How long should I touch before letting go? I suggest that you touch as long as it would take to recognize your favorite food if someone popped it into your mouth when you had your eyes closed. It doesn't take very long. Still, touching, like tasting, is not instantaneous either.
2. How do I let go? This is a tough one for lots of us. I used to struggle with this one a good deal. You might try what I find helpful. Simple be willing to experience the next moment, whatever it is. If you open to the next moment, you will have automatically let go of the last one. Another helpful hint is to think of it as "let it go along." Let this moment go along, let it change. It is already changing, so let it, allow it.
3. What if I felt more balanced with "touch and grab" or "go and go"? I have found that when I've introduced these practices to people over the years, there are always one or two people who discover that they have been falling into one of the extremes to such an extent that the other extreme brings them back to balance. If you're someone who's been "going and going," you might find that "touching and grabbing" is a good antidote. The opposite could be true for someone else.
In general, touch and go is a technique that it is good to cultivate in our mindfulness practice and then apply also in the rest of our lives. Once we are familiar with it, we can use it to work with emotions and thoughts anytime. I have found it to be one of the most useful techniques that I ever learned. Perhaps, you will find it so, as well.