The word touch is used in many ways — we are touched by music and the arts, by the beauty of nature, by the joy of a child and the tears of the grieving. The Oxford dictionary defines touch as: to come so close to (an object) as to be or come into contact with it.
The word contact to a Gestaltist implies that we are touched at the same time as being touched, by a person as well as by an object. Science confirms that our brain responds as well as participates with sensory input that reaches out to our receptors continually. All of life reaches for each other, but in our self-focused thoughts, we are surprised into the sense of being touched. Especially in summer it is possible to feel the sun, the wind, caressing us, pushing and pulling us. How often are we sensitive enough to feel our own responses – the way we dance with nature? Touch comes through the skin, it breathes us, and plays us like a guitar string.
When it comes to person-to-person touch, we are not so sensitive to the dance. We all know the studies that prove touch is essential to life, and we long to be touched, but we fear it as well, having had no training in how to be touched. It is this uncertainty that leaves us so exposed to what the law calls boundary violations and abuse. And yet this is the most unhealed aspect of being human, and it cannot be healed by being touched by the “right, most trustworthy person, in the right, most trustworthy way.” That fantasy has led to many a client’s story of betrayal and abuse.
We carry inside us desire for many kinds of skin-to-skin touch – a mother’s hand on our cheek, a teacher’s touch of encouragement, a lover’s touch on our skin. In fact the skin, called the largest organ of the human body, is intended to relay information to us about the quality of touch, its honesty, and its level of health. We have had this ability since we were children. But more basic to this is the touch that comes from the intention of the other and my embodied response to it. This is the touch before the physical touch – the touch of our approach to one another, of the space between us.
You don’t have to have shamanic training to feel the space of emptiness, or sorrow, or irritability that reaches out to us. It is the first touch that every child can read from earliest years. This is what confused most of us – when those closest to us approached us with fear, with aversion, with predation, with their own boundary confusions. This outer skin has always known when touch was tainted before the physical contact, although we were not taught or supported to honor that knowing.
Learning to trust our sense of the approach, the touch of the other’s intention towards us, our own skin setting conditions to be touched, is key to discovering healthy boundaries. Our outer skin is the part of us that is touched by life in all of its forms – before we reach out and touch life back. We see it in animals as they approach one another – the growing excitement of ears turned back, whiskers twitching that feels the other.
This is the first step before the skin of our fingers, hands, arms, lips, cheeks, are ready to explore the physical connection with the other. Without this first step of touching it is always too soon – too soon to evaluate whether the touch is one of full contact, or distracted, or longing, or sexual, or playful. At that stage we can say that our skin “crawls,” or we numb or freeze and this is what we know of the boundary.
When I began my own therapy, the touch of someone’s hand on my cheek felt like a burn. The distance at which I could tolerate another’s approach was marked by when I began to hold my breath and it was at least six feet away. It took me a while to realize the other person had similar fears and often moved too quickly for themselves, or stayed too long with a handshake or an embrace.
So few of us know the limits of our ability to touch or to know if the one beside us can be touched. Our skin knows how long the approach needs to be for us to be touched, and knows where we can be touched, and whether we need to give ourselves permission to go away for a while and come back, permission to yield and withdraw, or how to read the intention of the one who touches us, whether they are feeling our intention. This is intrinsic knowing, and until we reclaim it, rules and laws about touching will continue to be strictly enforced, especially in the helping professions where the presence of authority or kindness brings our longing to the surface, which can blind us to our intrinsic knowing.
I started with self-touch. It is remarkable how long it took me to feel my own hand on my forehead or cheek, my own hand over my heart. I practiced every morning. In time I touched the parts of my own body that I did not love. I spent months touching my feet – which I despised – with tenderness until they felt beautiful. Then I found a friend to practice with.
Jack Schwartz. my old mentor, now gone, called the human hands and arms “jumper cables.” We can practice showing our lovers how to touch us and where. Not only touch with hands is risky but also with our eyes, looking at and away. Many of the cultures in which we were raised were cultures of abuse, in which our natural sensitivity was neither safe nor valued. Out of this came the expression: to develop a thick skin.
The poet Rumi urges us to be the “prey” of life itself. In a quatrain he describes a deer who knows the lion is near and her “haunches tremble.” Our trembling has been silenced, and it is our trembling that signaled to us what was needed next. Someone’s protective arms – safe and transmitting care – or someone’s steady gaze of concern and love – allows our trembling to complete itself. We call this the gestalt cycle of life. Because those arms were not there, we contained our trembling under a chilling stillness of skin, and we still need to tremble back into life.
Relational Gestalt demands that our students and graduates reclaim their sensitivity at the subtlest levels. This is reflected in the growing number of somatic workshops in our catalogue: Lauren Clarke’s Rhythm of the Heart, and Discover Your Soft Spot, Camille Djokoto’s Relational Dance, Mia Sheard’s Sounding Workshop, Fran Khanna’s Sensitivity Training. Often students at the Gestalt Institute say their greatest gain from the program is that they now feel at home in their own skin.
If I trust my own skin, I gain back trust in life itself.
© Jay Tropianskaia, July 2016