Why does the very act of touching break down boundaries, give us more understanding of ourselves, align with spirit and with those we care about? How does compassionate touch bring us closer to God, spirit, one another, or however you identify with Love?
Because we are already experts in touch.
We have a relationship with that sense that is as old as our first breath.
Why Touch is Important
I am very fortunate in many ways. I have a daughter that I get to love more than life itself. And the timing of her coming into this world means that I was already ten or so years into my career as a massage teacher and practitioner. It was an incredible gift to see what life is like at the very beginning and see how she made sense of the world in those first few hours, days, and months.
The role that touch played in all of that growing was immediately clear. It is the dominant sense at the start of life, and we would be lost without it. Nowadays, common practice dictates that a baby is put her on her mother’s body—skin-to-skin—when she is born, so she knows she’s in a safe and protected place.
I remember the first time my daughter noticed her thumb and that there was a space between her face and her digits. The way to bridge that gap was to bring her hand to her face. And that, to her, was one of her first revelations, one of her first smiles. It is no accident that in those first couple of years everything is a journey, from first touching something to picking an object up to putting it into the mouth to confirm its reality.
Touch is Innate
By the time we are two years old, we are all experts in touch because we’ve been using this sense to understand everything.
We’ve been using it to create a relationship with the present moment, with our loved ones, and the world that surrounds us. By the time we reach adolescence, most of us may have forgotten its value and power, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge has gone anywhere. We can access it anytime we want.
Through compassionate touch, we are afforded direct access to safety, love, abundance, and connectedness. It brings us into deep communion with each other and with ourselves in the healthiest of ways. Your partner on the receiving end gets to feel their stress and pain melt while you get a direct experience of bliss.
I read an incredible article called “Feel Me: What the Science of Touch Says About Ourselves” by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker magazine in May 2016. He takes us on a journey into how touch has grown in importance in the scientific world and puts us on the forefront of some of those discoveries.
One of the first things he shares comes from neuroscientist David Linden who says, “Our entire skin is a sensing, guessing, logic-seeking organ of perception, a blanket with a brain in every micro-inch.”
Gopnik shares that even in the scientific community, knowledge of the richness and diversity of this sense is relatively new. He says that, “Touch is the unsung sense: the one we depend on most and talk about the least… We see our skins as hides hung around our inner life, when in so many ways they are the inner life pushed outside.”
I love and resonate deeply with that truth. Our ability to find balance, to breathe deeply, to hold onto stress, to be sick, to be well, to have good days and bad, and whatever our deepest thoughts are… it is all expressed on our skin. With our inner life, our stress, our joys, our biology all available at skin level, it shows that touching that skin with love, kindness, and awareness can have dramatic effects on those being touched and those doing the touching.
Lack of Touch is Dangerous
One idea Linden shared that I had never considered before is comparing the lack of touch with the loss of other senses. Many may fear going deaf or blind, and the subsequent struggles that are likely to come with it. At the same time, there are countless stories of people who overcome those challenges to live full, happy, and productive lives. Stevie Wonder is blind and has made some of the most beloved music of modern times. When we lose the use of those senses, our remaining ones become heightened to compensate, but not so with touch. In fact, the whole idea of losing our sense of touch is a foreign concept. Life is not compatible with a loss of touch, and there are no national foundations for the hard-of-touch.
Yet as Gopnik muses, “One strange thing about the unsung sense is that it has no songs. Every other sense has an art to go with it: the eyes have art, the ears have music, the nose and the tongue have perfume and gastronomy, but we don’t train our hands to touch as we train our ears to listen.”
I read that, and I have to laugh. Training in compassionate touch is exactly this. It is about turning touch into an art form.
Add More Physical Contact in Your Life
Combining touch with meditation, a dedication to loving kindness, a willful expression of compassion, and a wish to help one another is the art of touch.
It does not live in a museum, and it is not just available and controlled by the few. It is folk art. The art of the people, by the people, for the people, and accessible to one and all.
Reaching people equals touching people: to touch is to feel.
Dacher Keltner is a psychology professor at Berkeley and the scientific adviser on Pixar’s movie, Inside Out. In the same article, he goes on to say, “Touch is the first system to come online and the foundations of human relationships are all touch. Skin-to-skin, parent to child, touch is the social language of our social life. It lays a basis for embodiment in feeling.”
That doesn’t stop as infants. It is true throughout our lives, even if we don’t realize it. Imagine how much more powerful that would be—how much more powerful we would be—if we did. We could more easily and readily cross the great divide of relationships, empathy, communication, being understood, and being heard.
There’s a reason there is such a cross-over between touch and our deepest feelings. Our language is filled with examples:
- You really touched me.
- That touched my heart.
To deny ourselves the experience, the exploration, the cultivation of touch, the awareness of what we’re doing, is to deny ourselves a direct portal to our heart and those of our brothers, our sisters, our community, and our loved ones. It is keeping us from knowing ourselves to our fullest potential.
Relationships and Touch
We may not realize it, but so much of thriving or lacking in relationships has to do with touch.
When we want to show appreciation, we hug or shake hands. When we want to express our anger, we make a point of not making contact or expressing discomfort with another person when we do decide to touch. Sex—which certainly involves a lot of touch—is one of, if not the most intimate, ways to connect with another person. Keltner so eloquently shares the point that our relationship to touch is at the root of our common humanity. If we want to have healthy relationships with others and with ourselves, it is therefore imperative to know how to touch.
Keltner was also a co-author of a study looking at twelve kinds of celebratory touches among pro-basketball players. Their conclusion was that players who touched one another a lot did better than those players who didn’t. How simple it is to extract that wisdom into our everyday life. Our team is our friends, our families, our coworkers, our communities. We will all do better when we touch and are touched more often. And of course, it’s the kind of touch that is fueled by encouragement, caring, kindness, and at its deepest core, love.
It may be easy to see how the person who receives that kind of touch benefits deeply, but less often do we think about the person giving it and how they benefit. Yet it is just as profound when you know you have crossed that great divide and that your love has been communicated and felt.
Quite possibly the highest evolution of the exchange that elevates touch into an art form is compassionate touch (or massage). It is rich beyond belief.
To skillfully touch and please every inch of that brain which covers us from head to toe. To engage in every part of our body to help accomplish that goal. To continually learn and grow into this mode of expression with its infinite ways of being on the giving and receiving ends of what it means to feel good. Or as Keltner helps to remind us: “Touch lowers stress, builds morale, and produces triumphs.”
Imagine how much better it could be if we were to pay attention to this incredible sense. When we breathe mindfully and focus on how we touch, we connect our mind, body, heart, and feelings. We wake up to the very fabric of creation and to the experience of alive-ness bubbling up in every present moment, call it whatever you will: to Spirit, God, or Love.
That is how we turn touch into an art, and that is what speaks to the true value of giving massage, not to mention receiving it with appreciation. The good news becomes even better news when we realize and accept that, since we are already experts in touch, it is not much of a leap to become an expert in massage or compassionate loving touch.
All the tools we need are readily available in the comfort of our living rooms, and it is certainly as good a place as any to get started.
This post is an excerpt from Shai Plonski’s The Joy of Giving Massage: How to Give a Massage so Good You’ll Want to Do It All the Time. If you would like to learn more about intuitive touch and giving Thai massage, pick up a copy of Shai’s book on Amazon!
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