Touch is not a luxury; touch is necessary for good health. (Being a massage therapist, I am partial to massage, but touch could be self-massage, giving and receiving genuine hugs, or snuggling with your kitty – it all counts!) Some form of non-sexual touch should be a part of every woman’s maintenance regimen for general well-being. However, beyond maintenance, touch is also a powerful tool to bring about deep healing when we are not in optimal health.
When we talk about health or feeling “healthy”, often we are referring to having a good balance in both body and mind. Not too much or too little of something, but maintaining a nice equilibrium. Dr. Drew Leder, a brilliant philosopher and doctor, has written extensively on bodily experience in health and illness. For him, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, a big part of this balance is feeling a sense of wholeness: connected to our bodies, connected to others and connected to the world which we inhabit. In fact, the etymology of the word “health” is actually the old English word for “whole”. When we fall ill, often this sense of wholeness is disrupted. Our bodies can feel foreign to us, we become isolated from others and the world becomes a threatening rather than inviting place. When I suffered a stress fracture in my foot, I felt as if my body were betraying me. As I was healing, I felt disconnected from my body, unfamiliar with this new hobbling walking pattern and painfully deliberate pace. When I began to run again, I was slow and had to take frequent walk breaks. My body was incomprehensible, uncontrollable, totally alien. I was inwardly yelling at myself: “this is NOT ME!”. I would look at race photos of myself and think “THIS is me.” There was a break in continuity in my sense of self. I also felt disconnected from others. I couldn’t train with my running group, and I chose to perceive this as a loss of community, a lack of unity with others in the world. This is common when we are ailing: to feel that others do not understand what we are going through, making us feel even more lonely and defeated. During the time of my injury, the world itself became menacing.
The sight of my car inspired dread, knowing that I would have to wrestle with my boot to remove it and then struggle with the gas and brake pedals. Out of safety, driving was kept to a minimum which meant my life was only about going to work and coming home (which is no fun!). Stairs loomed like Olympic hurdles. I maintained a positive attitude about it, applauding myself for small victories and creating new outfits around my boot. However, navigating the outside world was still a “me against the world” type of experience. Needless to say, I did not feel a sense of wholeness with myself or my surroundings.
Once the feeling of wholeness is lost, healing then becomes the recovery of an integrated relationship between self, body, others and the world around us. Skilled touch can be a critical part of this process. Dr. Leder finds that touch has the unique ability to immediately establish connection at a pre-linguistic level. Through touch we can reestablish the connection between self and body. My goal for the receiver of my touch is to feel grounded in her body, by bringing gentle awareness to it. I also become her partner in figuring out which movement patterns might not be serving her, so we can come up with a plan for her to be in control of her own healing and learn to inhabit her own body in new ways. This serves the dual purpose of integrating self and world, by shedding light on new possibilities for perceiving and acting in the world. Touch with attention, care and compassion brings about an embodied connection with others, as well, and you don’t have to be a massage therapist to give this type of touch! As I was healing from my injury, a friend gave me gentle leg and foot rubs, which helped me welcome the banished limb back into my life.
The key is that the touch relationship between giver and receiver is a reciprocal one: the receiver is not completely passive. On some level, the receiver is engaged: body, mind and spirit have to be open to the healing. Dr. Leder calls this “engaged surrender”. I see it as learning to develop our “soft gaze” as receivers, allowing ourselves to focus energetically on what is happening on the physical level without allowing the conscious mind to take too much control. As receivers of touch, there is an intuitive knowing when we allow our inner healer to come forward. Generally, my clients do not talk to me during their sessions. Subconsciously I think they understand that I am fully present to facilitate their healing, but the session is not about engaging with me. Once the nervous system is calm, it is the perfect time to allow the doctor within to start acknowledging parts of the body and spirit that have been waiting patiently for attention. When we allow ourselves to receive touch, we begin to feel our own sensations and responses, developing greater proprioceptive awareness. We realize that we influence our own energy flow and can access dynamic healing within ourselves.
Touch is a profound way to reestablish multi-dimensional integration after our sense of being whole has been lost. Of course, professional massage is an excellent medium for this. However, do-it-yourself healing is powerful for in between massages or when professional massage is simply not accessible. We can all benefit from giving and receiving healing touch to ourselves, our partners, our friends or our animal companions. Illness and pain rob us of agency. Touch can give it back.
“The Touch That Heals: The Uses and Meanings of Touch in the Clinical Encounter”, Drew Leder, MD, PhD, Mitchell W, Krucoff, MD, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Volume 14, Number 3, 2008