In our isolation and self-protection, we have lost contact with one of our most essential needs, the need for touch. Touch is a way of becoming intimate with others, it allows us to give and receive love, and it’s essential for our emotional, psychological and physical health.
All over the world people are touch-hungry and love-hungry; we are longing for the basic need of human contact, closeness and warmth. But when opportunities arise to share affection and love through touch we are often prevented by feelings of shame, or by negative beliefs about what this simple gesture might imply about ourselves – what others may think. As a result, we are lonely and isolated; we are, quite literally, out of touch.
Over the past 32 years, I have had the good fortune to live in several communities where touch is valued and accepted as an easy and natural way to communicate. For this to happen, people need to discard the conventional social idea that touch is something which can be shared only with a special, intimate friend, or while making love. Touch can be shared with many, many people.
How did we lose our natural capacity to be nourished through touch? In the religious conditioning in which we grew up, certain values have been locked in place that give precedence to thought over body and feelings. It’s not a recent phenomenon, but as civilization has progressed, as technological advancement has continued, our education has been channeled less and less through the body, more and more through the mind.
For me, it’s interesting to observe what happens when normal social barriers break down, and it often happens during some disaster, or tragedy, such as the hurricane that flooded New Orleans in the summer of 2005. Television news clips from the city showed people coming together who maybe never knew each other – and for sure never touched each other – and they were hugging, touching, and being physically very supportive. It was an obvious example of an extreme situation occurring when people’s need to be physically connected comes strongly to the fore. Afterwards, when everything has calmed down, a pattern of alienation usually reasserts itself.
One area where men often touch each other is in professional sports, and I am not just talking about contact sports like wrestling. Watch any European soccer game and you will see that, whenever a member of a team scores a goal, the team members jump on him and hug him, and if it is the winning goal of the game then everybody goes crazy – the whole team merges into a single group hug. The same thing happens with American football. All homophobic fears and normal social boundaries are forgotten in the excitement of victory.
What is happening here? Basically, the sheer power of the experience, whether it is tragedy, competition, or victory, is so strong that it overwhelms the cultural programming which determines our daily social habits.
It exposes our natural need for touch and now, in a more general way, people are starting to recognize this. Massage and Bodywork are beginning to break out of its confinement within the alternative cultures and is ‘going mainstream.’ For example, any advertising brochure for a five star hotel or resort is likely to include a picture of somebody being massaged as part of the hotel’s attractions, and worldwide billions of dollars are spent on massage and bodywork each year by a wide range of people.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a great deal of scientific study on the benefits of touch and its potential for keeping people healthy and happy. For example, according to studies conducted by Miami University’s Touch Research Institute, physical touch is extremely effective at reducing stress. This understanding can help cut the nation’s massive health care costs, since it is estimated that 70 - 80 percent of Americans who visit conventional physicians are suffering from stress-related disorders.
So there is a renaissance of touch therapy happening and it’s a positive sign. It’s time to remember that touch is the mother of all our senses. It is the most basic need of the body and the most basic sense of the body, so when we educate the mind and deny the body we inevitably lose touch with this most basic sense.
Seven Ways to Avoid Touch
Following the modern lifestyle, we are, in effect, practicing how not to touch, not to feel and not to open too much. Here are seven ways in which you may be stopping yourself from touching and being touched:
1. Avoid exercise, fresh air and good food so that your body will feel weak, toxic and unworthy of touch.
2. Find a job in which you are overworked and stressed-out, so there is no time for relaxed, intimate relating, or for taking care of your body.
3. Spend as much time in front of the TV and computer as possible.
4. Become part of a social network in which people are pretentious, superficial and physically unaffectionate with one another, or, alternatively, withdraw from social contact and isolate yourself from others.
5. Make a general attempt to deny your feelings and your needs, and avoid feeling the resulting pain by keeping your body numb.
6. Avoid close relationships with people of the same sex. Men, particularly, are afraid to touch each other out of fear that this may be seen as a homosexual tendency. Women touch each other more; they are even willing to sleep with each other as a comforting friend, but still there are barriers that don’t allow touch as much it may be wanted or needed.
7. Be selfish in sexual relationships. Think only of your own needs, be self-centered, or swing to the opposite extreme and be the pleaser, denying your own needs and paying attention exclusively to the needs of your partner.
I haven’t included it as one of my points because it hasn’t really happened yet, but it is envisioned that, in the not too distant future, we will be able to put on lightweight spandex suits, specially wired goggles and gloves, and connect ourselves to a computer system, entering into a virtual sexual reality.
Tactile audio and visual sensations will be created that will enable us to see, touch and be touched by, a sex object of our choice. We will be able to play out any fantasy that we can imagine and afford. Already, people can have sex on the phone, through chat rooms on the internet, and by visiting web porn sites. And, of course, visual pornography in magazines has been available for a long time. So, even when making love, we can stop touching.
Seven Ways to Bring More Touch into Your Life
1. Book a massage or bodywork session.
2. Sign-up for a therapy group or alternative healing class where touch is part of the method.
3. Hug at least five people in a day.
4. Make a point of touching your children, spouse and close friends more each day.
5. Meditate and learn to become more aware of the needs of your body.
6. Dance for at least 20 minutes each day, as this will bring you more in touch with your senses and your body.
7. Before and after making love, touch your partner sensually in a gentle, slow and nourishing way for at least 15 minutes.
Much of the medical profession has lost connection to touch. Just think for a moment: how long has it been since you felt the soothing, reassuring, healing hand of a physician resting on your body?
When you go to a doctor, or to a hospital, the atmosphere is generally one of sterility; you can smell the alcohol in the air, everything is clean and hygienic, which is fine until the same qualities are extended into human relations. People may be polite and efficient but there is rarely any human warmth - especially through touch. In fact, these days, a male doctor might be afraid to touch a patient of the opposite sex, lest he be sued for sexual harassment.
Recently, I had an experience of having an inguinal hernia. I went to the hospital and for the first time in my life had a surgical operation under general anesthesia. When I came back to consciousness after the operation, I was acutely aware that I could not ‘feel’ anybody around me. I could hear sounds, see blurry impressions of people moving, but there was nobody close to me.
I was still groggy from the knock-out drugs, so what happened next was not a rational, mature, adult feeling. It was very kinesthetic, almost primal in nature, because I was in a very vulnerable and helpless state. It was the thought that somebody should be there, somebody should be paying attention to me, somebody should be holding my hand, touching my arm, comforting me physically, being close and whispering in my ear, “It’s okay, everything went well, you’re going to be fine.” Maybe words weren’t even needed - just a reassuring presence and touch would have been enough.
When I got to meet my girlfriend, who was waiting outside of the operating area, I was in a very child-like state, not thinking what I was saying, and the first words that came out of my mouth were, “They are mean, they are mean.” That’s how it felt. The surgical team had done their job, but had not supported me after a traumatic experience - and any kind of surgery is bound to be traumatic for the body.
In India, Hindu society has created a caste system, with four major social divisions of human beings, and on the very bottom is what they call the “Untouchables” who are the poorest people in Indian culture, doing menial jobs like cleaning toilets, sweeping streets, and living largely in slums.
It’s changing now, as India staggers into the 21st century - at least, it’s changing in the big cities. But it wasn’t long ago, even in the center of a major metropolis like Delhi, when a robed priest would think nothing of squatting and defecating openly in a public square, knowing that an Untouchable will sweep up his droppings.
According to tradition, other castes could not touch these people without defiling themselves - they must immediately take a purifying bath – and if an Untouchable was unlucky enough to accidentally touch someone above his own caste, he would risk being beaten or even killed.
To me, it’s significant that these oppressed people are called ‘Untouchables,’ because touch, or the taboo around it, has in this context been deliberately used to create the maximum degree of condemnation and degradation.
In every culture, there are types of ethnic, racial and class distinctions which generate an attitude that people who are not of the same social group are somehow untouchable. The same basic attitude can be directed at old people, sick people, retarded or handicapped people, street people…the underlying prejudice can be applied to anyone who can be distinguished as different from us and our own social group.
Sometimes, our suppressed attitudes pop out in the most unexpected ways. For example, I was driving through an industrial suburb of San Francisco, approaching a stop sign, when I saw a very young woman, obviously homeless looking decidedly wretched and unhealthy, approach the couple in the car just ahead of me and ask for spare change.
She must have rested her hand on the passenger-side door, where the window was open, because the woman inside practically jumped on top of her male partner in the driving seat in an effort to get away, screaming, “Don’t touch the car!”
Even touching the car was too much!
So there are many different levels in western culture where people are considered ‘untouchable’ by others, even though most of us would rather not publicly admit it. All of us want and need contact, but there are many socially-fabricated walls preventing us from doing so.
Skin: the Oldest Sense
The greatest sense in the body is the sense of touch. It connects us to the world and allows the world in. It tells us where we begin and where we stop. Touch happens, of course, through the skin. Our skin is the oldest and most sensitive of our body’s organs – oldest in the sense that it’s the first to develop from the ectoderm, which is the outermost layer that forms on a baby when it is still a tiny embryo in the mother’s womb, soon after fertilization occurs.
One of the most interesting things about the ectoderm, from my perspective, is that it not only creates skin but also develops the central nervous system and later on the remaining four senses – sight, hearing, smell and taste. So, in a very real, down-to-earth, biological way, touch is the mother of all our senses.
In the womb, the fetus starts to sense through the skin as early as six weeks, when it is only one inch in size. At the same time, nerves are developing from the same tissues, so the body’s nervous system can be seen as the internal part of the skin, registering information from the senses, organizing and relaying this information so we can respond to the outer environment.
When you view the skin in this way, as a deeply inter-connected function of our developing organism, it’s not hard to see how, through professional touch, we are able to work on much more than the muscles. We are also working on the nervous system, on the structure of our thought patterns and feelings. In this way, touch as therapy can reshape the structure and function of our body, mind, emotions, and guide us to discover the truth of who we really are.
Tender Loving Touch
In the first months after birth there is a need for continual loving touch. The baby’s body needs to be held gently but firmly, cuddled, stroked and rocked; in other words, the baby needs to be welcomed into the world through the loving physical presence of the mother or caretaker. It needs to feel wanted, loved and cared for.
If there is a lack of loving touch, the results are dramatic. During the 19th century around 55 percent of infants in their first year of life died from a disease called Marasmus, a term derived from a Greek word which means wasting away. As late as 1920, the death rate for infants under one year of age in orphanages in the United States was nearly a hundred percent.
All were adequately fed, had proper medical care, and the staff and doctors did not know what was the problem. Then somebody finally figured it out: they were not being touched enough.
Now it is recognized as a necessity for the survival and healthy development of every child that he or she is held, carried, caressed and cuddled with a warm and tender loving touch.
The quantity and quality of touch will strongly influence the physical, emotional and psychological health of the child. If the infant is touched only enough to survive, but no more, he will most likely end up in an institution suffering from some form of psychosis, unable to function as a social being.
As for the rest of us, we have all suffered from a prevailing attitude, fashionable for many, many years among child experts in Europe and America, that mothers should not touch their children when they cry; that children should not be physically handled too much, otherwise they will somehow be ‘spoiled.’ Books by these so-called ‘experts’ were republished decade after decade and it became an accepted norm in our culture: frequent touch is not the way to raise children.
The truth is, however, that small children are highly sensitive to the mother’s availability. If the mother is not present, this will make an enormous impact on her child’s need for bonding, and, as adults, such people will experience a desperate need for closeness, or be so numbed and walled-off from the world.
Two of our most basic needs are not met when we suffer from touch deprivation as small children: the need to be welcomed as a new arrival on this planet, and the feeling of being able to express our needs and have those needs met - such as being given attention, being held, being fed, being mirrored in a positive way.
When our needs are not met, we lose trust. We experience abandonment, and for an infant this is a survival issue. It may sound overly dramatic, but to the human infant - the most helpless of all babies in the entire animal kingdom – it is a matter of life and death. Left alone and helpless, the child freezes in terror, panic and shock. He loses touch with his body, which thereafter operates at a reduced level of sensitivity.
In practicing bodywork, I’ve worked with many individuals who have suffered from touch deprivation as children and have witnessed how deeply it impacts the mind and body. Fortunately, I’ve also seen how the power of loving, skillful touch can heal these primal wounds.
Healing can happen at all levels, bringing back the natural intelligence of the body, restoring our trust in life that our needs can be fulfilled; reawakening the feeling that life can be an enjoyable, nourishing and relaxed phenomenon.
Abuse: the Wrong Type of Touch
In order to understand touch and the basic need for it, with the intention of bringing the quality of loving touch into our lives, we have to confront the fact of physical abuse. To me, one of the saddest things about abuse is that it is so entrenched in our culture that it is considered normal, and even beneficial in raising children.
Parents physically abuse their children by spanking, beating, pulling, pushing, pinching, and with verbal threats to hit them if they do not behave. In addition, the father may beat the mother in front of the children, or the wife may verbally abuse the husband, both of which have an impact on the child that is virtually the same as direct personal abuse.
Physical abuse is touch that is aggressive with intent to hurt, and in many families it is passed on from one generation to the next. Most of the time there is not even a question whether it’s okay or not; it is simply accepted as the norm but covered with a layer of denial - denial of the impact it has on the child who is being abused, and also a kind of collective, group denial in which the family refuses to acknowledge that it is even happening. It’s hushed up as a family secret that is never divulged to neighbors or social colleagues.
I’m not saying that there are no circumstances in which a child should be hit or slapped. Even a loving, caring parent may need to administer a sharp lesson in situations where otherwise the child’s safety or well-being would suffer, or where the child is pushing the limits of extreme behavior and cannot be stopped in any other way.
But this is very different from the all-too prevalent attitude that parents ‘own’ their children and feel entitled to regularly abuse them in order to break their will and make them slavishly conformist and obedient. This kind of abuse goes deep into the victims, filling them with shame, giving them a sense of low self esteem.
As a child, we cannot see our parents as wrong, so we turn the abuse against ourselves and believe at a very deep level that we are unworthy, stupid, ugly; something is basically wrong with us. Sadly, in later life there is a tendency to repeat the cycle by seeking out abusive partners and passing on the syndrome to our children.
The Healing Power of Touch
The body has six places where it meets the environment. Our two feet meet the earth and give us grounding; our hands reach out and touch in a variety of different ways; our face makes contact through the eyes, nose, mouth and ears; our genitals make sexual contact.
When we are afraid, or trying to defend or protect ourselves, our energy withdraws from these six places. You may have noticed that when you are frightened your hands and feet feel cold, or you may find yourself suddenly breaking out in what is called a ‘cold sweat.’ All warmth has suddenly disappeared. If you want to reach out to somebody but, for one reason or another are afraid to do so - maybe you feel lonely and needy, maybe you fear rejection - then you may find yourself touching with a cold hand and then it’s difficult to connect.
Most of us are, to some degree, dissociated from the body due to deprivation of touch; we are ‘out of the body’ and the best way to heal such wounds is to reverse the process and get ourselves back ‘into the body,’ reconnecting with our natural physical ease and energy flow.
It’s a good feeling when you are ‘in your body,’ and it shows. People who are energetically connected to their bodies have a certain charisma, they have presence. When we meet them, we feel impressed and pay more attention to what they are saying or doing. They are alive, vital, attractive, involved.
Through bodywork, we help people come back to their senses and allow energy that has been held in the center of their body to expand out to the six places where it meets the environment, so the natural flow is restored and it is again possible to make real contact with other people.
How to Cultivate Your Touch
Practice touch in your life. Take risks, touch more people and allow more people to touch you, so that you start to activate this basic sense – not just in professional settings but generally in your life.
If you are a professional, it helps to receive sessions from other body workers. In my experience, professionals rarely receive sessions from their peers and this is a mistake, because when I get a session from another body worker it reminds me of the power of touch therapy from the receiver’s point of view, not just as the giver.
Also, I can learn many things from other body workers by the way they touch me and by the techniques they use, so I encourage my students to continually learn from a variety of disciplines, to keep learning new forms of bodywork and introduce new elements into their own sessions.
If you do deep bodywork, it is helpful to learn joint release or holistic massage, and if you practice holistic massage it’s helpful to learn the deeper techniques.
There is so much to learn and an ongoing education will continually expand your understanding of your craft. For example, palpation is a form of diagnosis through touch where you can feel the degree of muscle tension in a client’s body, just by learning the knack of being receptive and sensitive through your finger tips. So, even before starting the massage, you know the client’s condition and needs.
Meditate and learn to be more present in your work, focusing your attention in your hands and channeling your energy through them. The attention you put into your fingertips, elbows and hands when you work is one of the main ways is to improve the quality of your touch and the effectiveness of your work.
Your intention is also very important when you are touching somebody. Are you in a loving, caring mood? Are you irritated, impatient, bored? It all gets passed on to the client, whether you realize it or not, and to illustrate this in my trainings I invite participants to deliberately put different moods and intentions into their touch. I explain the different options, such as anger, sexuality, love, impatience, fix-it-quick, cold and distant, and then invite them to randomly select such moods.
For example, they may explore giving a massage while feeling anger, touching with anger, without increasing the depth or their work or doing anything differently. It’s surprising how accurately the person receiving the massage can assess and pick up the mood that is being generated by the one who is giving it.
Another thing professionals can do to improve the quality of touch is to learn how to use their own body more skillfully while giving sessions. This is necessary, because often when professionals come to my trainings I see they have acquired bad habits in their body mechanics, such as working entirely from their shoulders, instead of bringing the power of their strokes from the ‘hara’ point, located in the lower belly, or from their feet and legs.
Such body workers carry a lot of tension in their arms and shoulders, and this is inevitably passed on to their clients through sharper, more painful strokes. When body workers make a stroke that is pushed all the way from their feet, their touch has the same power but is more sensitive and relaxed. I will say more about this in the chapter on giving a session.
What I wish to convey here, in a more general way, is that good bodywork isn’t just about learning a certain technique and practicing it. It’s an ongoing journey of learning, exploring and self-discovery that should always remain interesting, open-ended and enjoyable.