The Practice Of Touch PDF Print E-mail
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Written by James N. Powell   

Embracing Community Through Contact

IS IT POSSIBLE FOR LOVERS, FAMILIES and entire communities to experience the same luminous and peaceful transcendence that yogis and contemplatives enjoy in deep meditation? The electroencephalograph (brain wave) literature informs us that the coherent EEG patterns of meditators are the same as those of breast-feeding infants when tenderly cradled by and in full-body skin-to-skin contact with their mothers. This may be why the great Spanish mystic and saint Teresa of Avila compared the experience of the deepest level of absorption in prayer to a baby feeding effortlessly on the sweet milk of their mother’s breast.

Yet, why is it that saints and yogis can enjoy such a blissful state only after years of practice, whereas nursing infants enjoy it spontaneously within the most fundamental family relationship? Why do most children lose this most simple and beautiful state of consciousness as they grow older? Why do they not regain it when they mature and again enter into other forms of skin-to-skin contact? Most important, is there anything we can do to begin to regain that simple and beautiful state of awareness?

The Practice Of Touch: Hands
The Practice Of Touch: Hands
Our conscious relationship to our all-important sense of touch is determined largely by our culture. In the realm of touch, we can learn much from cultures situated nearest the tropics, where many groups of people lived their lives relatively naked, until the advent of European customs and religion. Prior to European contact, the peoples of most Polynesian cultures lived their daily lives relatively unclothed. Yet, parading around in their birthday suits did not automatically make these people peace-loving. Some Polynesian societies were, after all, quite warlike even before European contact. However, the Tikopians, among other Polynesians, not only went about more or less au natural, but lavished considerable amounts of affection on their children. When mothers went about their daily chores, their children were strapped to their backs, held on their hips or cradled by older siblings or other members of the tribe. Before the missionaries’ arrival, infants slept in the same space with their parents, making it possible for them to breastfeed the moment they felt hunger. Infants raised in touch-intensive societies signaled through subtle physical nuances their desires to be held, cuddled, changed or nursed. Caregivers responded quickly to these signals, allowing infants to feel they were worthy of love. Because of this constant, full-body, diffuse communion with others, fed through the sense of touch, such children experienced a sense of union and deep peace, allowing them to mature into adults who knew what it feels like to be deeply tranquil.

On the other hand, in so-called civilized societies there is often a traumatic separation of mother and child at birth. Infants are whisked off to maternity wards, clothed, placed in cribs, subjected to medical exams and, for boys, circumcised. In these situations, children may cry themselves to sleep, lonely and isolated in cribs. They are frequently nursed according to a set schedule and often not breast-fed. Caregivers may inadvertently ignore the child’s needs, simply because they are not in close proximity or aware of their child’s subtle forms of communication. According to Jean Leidloff, author of The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost, this civilized childrearing leaves out the “in-arms” phase of child development, which forms a continuum of warmth and touch beginning in the womb and – with proper parenting – extending throughout childhood. Through this process children are trained to become tactile caregivers for other children.

Humans are born into the world hungry for touch. Pleasurable touching increases the thickness of the brain’s cortex in children and enhances their learning abilities, IQ, language acquisition skills, reading achievement, memory and immunity. Touch-seeking is a powerful drive – even more so than seeking food. In a famous demonstration, baby monkeys deprived of touch will cling to a terry cloth dummy mother rather than seeking out the wire “mother” that would provide them with a baby bottle full of milk. Frequency of touch affects group or societal behavior. According to developmental neuropsychologist James W. Prescott’s research in the 1970’s, which examined 400 societies, people raised in touch-deprived cultures tend to be more violent. This study was first published in 1975 as “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence,” in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. According to Prescott and other researchers, touchdeprived individuals are more anxious and less capable of engaging in relaxed, mutually satisfying social and sexual relations. They also found that individuals in touch-deprived cultures may exploit abusive sexual behavior and the sprint to orgasm as an attempt to quickly and often violently solve their habitual sense of tactile isolation. Such sex is often fueled by pornographic images.

On the other hand, according to Prescott, touch-intensive cultures tend to be low-violence societies. The touching repertoire of children raised in such touch-intensive environments spills over into their love lives as they grow into sexual maturity. Because they are physically relaxed before beginning sexual encounters, their motivation for romance is not based on the touch-deprivation anxiety that stimulates an urgent need simply to be touched or to escape tension through orgasm. Rather, lovers who have developed in touch-intensive environments begin embracing from a profound level of relaxed union. For them, the sight of or contact with a nude body – which has been part of a lifelong habit – is not automatically an occasion for sexual arousal, but merely a natural return to the familiar, full-body and heartfelt warmth of physical intimacy they have always known. After all, in such societies the “nude” body is no more considered nude than is a “nude” dolphin or a “nude” mango. Early European explorers, the painter Paul Gauguin and several anthropologists have commented on the blasé attitude of the Polynesian Tahitians (for example) toward nudity. As Camille Paglia wryly remarked, there is nothing less erotic than a nudist colony, which after all tends to desensitize what we may be socialized to think is forbidden about the human body and make it more familiar.

Many Polynesian teachings on lovemaking esteem this type of prolonged, motionless, skin-to-skin contact between lovers, especially on nights when a couple is not actively making love. This ease-filled contact creates a deep sense of tranquility and relaxation. One of the most powerful gifts these lovers give to one another is that of sleeping together most nights, without indulging in sexual stimulation. This relaxed, full-body contact creates a resonant, etheric field between the two lovers, an ocean of being that forms the basis for their waves of love play.

Many raised in more northern climes, with layers of clothes or ideas about modesty, did not experience a continuum of touch from womb into adulthood. You can, however, recover from the effects of such an upbringing by finding modern ways to apply this ancient wisdom. First, make massage, self-massage and nonsexual touching a more frequent part of your family life. If you have an infant, nourish your child with daily massage and use a sling to cuddle your baby close to your body, rather than always resorting to a stroller. Second, learn the ways of South Seas sensuality, which can also cure you of the touch deprivation you may have grown up experiencing – not even knowing you were deprived. In embracing natural forms of touching, we are really returning to the all-powerful stream of our evolutionary behavior. After all, we may have been civilized for 4,000 years, but we were touch-intensive humans for 40,000 years, and touch-intensive primates for four million years before that. When we lavish genuinely loving touch on our children and mates, we can begin to feel the sense of luminous peace that comes from reuniting with that primordial power.

James N. Powell, who resides in Santa Barbara, holds Master’s degrees in tribal religions and in English literature. His latest book is Slow Love: A Polynesian Pillow Book, which describes the teachings of the oceanic joy of touching:


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