Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Out of Touch

Touching Other Body-Minds

The six-year-old girl was smothering the poor puppy with the weight of her body and the intensity of her petting.  Couldn't she see the puppy was suffering?  Underneath the suffering, there was an element of joy, though.  Was this the puppy's only avenue to receiving love?  Violent in its deafness, it was still somewhat loving in intention.  I wasn't sure whether I should say something, since her mother was sitting right there, completely oblivious.  Maybe this was the only way the girl was used to receiving love from her mother?  She was creating in the puppy a model of herself - a love object who's preferences are ignored, discouraged, and muted.  I imagined she might spend the next few decades discovering her voice in love and touch.

Touching Language
As babies, we negotiate the world through touch.  Our legs are less developed, our eyes less discerning, but we can feel our mother through our skin.  Hungry, we are fed.  Sad, we are consoled.  But there is always a danger of too much touch.  Our mother can get uncomfortable holding our weight.  We might have gotten enough for the moment, and be ready to explore again.  While our mother's support is essential to us, so is our ability to control it.  Together we must learn to signal when we want more, and when we want less.  As infants without words, we co-create a language with our mothers using our voice and body.

When this language of coregulation develops naturally, there is a fulfilling conversation.  Our mother is not just a walking milk bottle, but a caring being that is responding to our needs.  We develop confidence in feeling and expressing our sensations, which might be called self-confidence.  Securely attached to mom, we believe the world is fundamentally good.  We feel boundless love, boundarylessness, and a nirvana which we long to return to.

When this language does not develop properly, conversation is blocked.  Our mother is overbearing or uncaring.  We are insecurely attached to mother, and thereby unsafe in the world.  We repress our sensations since they are constantly frustrating or even dangerous.  We develop a vocabulary of desperation, begging for touch, tensely resisting being held even though we want it, or passively freezing when we get it.  We feigned self-reliance when our cultures isolated us from our mothers in London hospitals or rural China.  Perhaps for the rest of our life, love and desire are muddled with anxiety, frustration, aggression, and masochism.  And this picture only scratches the surface of physical or sexual trauma, far more common in our histories than we imagine.

In practice, our mother is neither consistently a perfect listener nor completely deaf, so we learn to alternate rapidly between connection and disconnection.  We create a variety of coping mechanisms to engage various caregivers.  Our early childhood gives us a few languages that stay with us for life, languages exercised again in teenage romance.

Undesired Ritual
Baseball is America's national pastime, and getting on base is the only language hetero teenagers have for intimate touch.  On the one hand "first base" or "third base" provides a mechanical description of what touch is exchanged, supposedly correlated to the depth of a relationship.  The guy is supposed to "get as far as he can" to prove his manliness, and brag (or lie) about it afterwards. The girl is supposed "make him work for it", often stalling if she thinks he has potential.  While we sometimes enjoy playing this game, lots of us get hurt, too.  This base ritual gives us a woefully incomplete exercise of voice and desire in love.

Let's examine a prototypical boy and girl making out, realizing these patterns transcend genders and orientations.  For the boy, a premium is placed on insensitivity.  He must be insensitive to his own fear, unresponsive to the moment, and push past his partner's tolerance.  He is instructed to take as much as he can get, whether he's emotionally ready for it or not.  He measures progress by what base he got to.  The girl, on the other hand, is objectified into a collection of body parts.  Each part has a 'label'  of how intimate it is -- that may or may not equate to her experience.  She feebly holds a stop sign to allow or disallow progress, possibly freezing under his touch.  While the boy expresses his desire for her body, her desire is less important.  If she touches him, he assumes she is about to quench his desire, not about to exercise her own.

In the extreme, there is no conversation, no sincere contact, only role playing.  Some courage and ritual is necessary, perhaps, to catalyze action where neither boy nor girl have yet developed voice.  But there is another courage in being sensitive that may not be developed for a lifetime.  Stuck between loneliness and discomfort, we feel helpless.  Looking for love in an unpredictable but ritualized touch, we learn to mute our sensitivity and our body, and put our desire in a square box.  We drink to make compromise easier.

Losing Touch
As adults still weighed down by Victorian (in)sensibility, we struggle to find or describe the touch we need.  On the one hand, we know touch is good for us - research is starting to show massage's benefits in reducing stress hormones, inflammation, asthma, arthritis, and immunodeficiency.  We feel the trust, contentment, and connection of oxytocin coursing through us.  Rarely we form cuddle puddles where loving touch is shared without obligation.  On the other hand, we are skeptical.  Our doctors prefer reading test results to touching us.  We suffered from our caregivers, and we didn't get what we wanted from our string of lovers.  We reserve intimacy for romantic partners, avoiding visual, let alone physical, contact with strangers.  Massage is thereby sexualized, as touch only happens behind closed doors and drunken minds.  Healing is forsaken as body language is ignored.

Learning massage at Esalen, we consciously entered the dangerous territory of touch.  We sought to create an analogue of the sensitive mother, responding intuitively to a client's body, healing by listening.  Our hands searched for muscle tension, but found underlying emotional patterns.  At times I thought I felt a deep, dark secret that maybe my client didn't even know about.  Sometimes a client would moan in pleasure, other times shake unexpectedly, still other times be frozen as an ice cube.  Over time I learned how and when to respond to these body signals.  Practicing massage on each other for a month, my classmates and I surfaced our own hidden feelings.  Processing these emotions through dance, meditation, and talking, we could stay balanced and engaged.  Each of us also gradually understood the quality and quantity of touch we desired.  We learned to express directly, realizing that respecting our body was respecting the other.  With some our awakened voice granted our desired touch, and with others, we just couldn't converse.
Massage is needed in the world because love has disappeared. Once the very touch of lovers was enough. A mother touched the child, played with his body, and it was massage. The husband played with the body of his woman and it was massage; it was enough, more than enough. It was deep relaxation and part of love. But that has disappeared from the world. By and by we have forgotten where to touch, how to touch, how deep to touch. In fact touch is one of the most forgotten languages.  --Osho Teaching
Finding Voice
My lover stopped kissing me and looked directly in my eyes.  On one hand, she wanted to honor her fear.  On the other hand, she feared her mind would lead her down the path of the baseball ritual, or the countless other ways we objectify each other.  I have been slowing down a lot myself, to be more present when touching or being touched, whether romantically or not.  It struck me later that touching intentionally is yet another form of non-violence.  We humans seek love that bridges vastly different backgrounds.  While we must courageously contact on blind faith, we can do it slowly and consciously.  We can sense if our touch is welcome to the other, and if it's embodied in our own intuition.  Does it feel right?  We can make a world full of sincere conversation if we have enough courage to listen to our body.  Finally I suggested, "Maybe we should pause, and not think."

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