Last evening, I was part of a remarkable conversation about hugs.
I’ve written before about my hunger for touch and the shame that goes with it. A longing for touch is always with me to some degree, ebbing and flowing with my social context, but I hide it and rarely speak of my need. Keeping it secret is, of course, self-protective. I’m ashamed of my need and what others will think of it, but we also live in a culture that distorts much of our rightful and healthy sexuality and sensual expression. A woman who craves physical affection and reassurance is exceedingly vulnerable and very likely to be misunderstood.
I’m also respectful of the boundaries of others; unfortunately, many people are badly wounded around unwanted and/or inappropriate touch. I myself am confused about the interaction of abuse, touch and sex, and I know many others are as well.
Yet I maintain touch is one of the core needs we all have, and I know touch deprivation is a condition that has been extensively studied. As human beings, we don’t develop normally if we’re touch deprived or otherwise dislocated from our neurobiological need for skin-to-skin contact.
This is an issue I deal largely with inside my own head, although I have mentioned it in writing. I haven’t discussed it among friends. If we reveal how ugly and pathetic we are, we won’t have friends, right?
Sigh. No. Not right. We all have secrets like this, and true friends don’t turn away from our warts and scars. Also, I get bored by my own fear and the tension between being real and being accepted. To hell with it.
Last night, I found myself standing outside in the early winter evening with two others talking about, of all things, hugs. The harsh light at the apex of the barn roof fell on us, making strange, stark shadows on our faces,
I was stunned (first) and amused (later) to discover a hug meant something entirely different to each of us. I’m constantly poking at the different meanings we have for words and concepts, and I’m acutely aware of the confusion and conflation of things like respect and agreement. Why should the experience and interpretation of either giving or receiving a hug be any different?
I suppose it’s such a deep, painful and private issue I’ve simply never given it enough airtime to realize touch, too, has many different meanings. The only meaning I’ve been able to see is my own, and I realize now my meaning is very unsophisticated and black and white:
Touch means love. If there is no touch, there is no love. If my touch is rejected, my love is rejected, which I take personally and make into a rejection of me, naturally!
So there we stood in the icy driveway, having just disembarked from the car. I said (and realized as I said it how true it is, though I never expressed it this way before) a hug is the best “I love you,” I can express. I’ve always been able to say (and hear!) far more physically than I can with words.
My friend (another woman) said she learned to think of hugs as a sign of weakness.
Another friend (a man) said to him a hug, or most other kinds of physical contact, are a threat of pain, violence or abuse.
Wow. The three of us stood there, looking at each other. I was reminded of how little we know or guess about what goes on below the surface of others, even others we know and care about. I was humbled by their honesty, touched by their vulnerability, grateful for the reminder we all carry around pain and confusion over something in our heads and hearts. I wanted (of course!) to take them both in my arms, but refrained (also of course).
It’s amazing to understand the best, most compassionate and loving gift I can give another might feel to the recipient like a threat, or endanger their sense of strength and independence. My intention may be completely lost in translation.
When I think about the times I’ve felt rejected or rebuffed as I interact with people who aren’t comfortable with touch, I suddenly realize their discomfort is likely not about me at all. I no longer get to be the star in my soap opera (nobody loves me, I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m untouchable). Maybe, in fact, others don’t want to make me feel weak, or threatened, or who knows what else!
I can’t help but giggle about this.
I can’t say more about my personal thoughts and feelings right now. It was one of those brief but amazing conversations I can’t stop thinking about. It didn’t lead me to a grand and glorious conclusion, it just revealed aspects of touch I hadn’t been aware of before.
Social touch is extremely complicated and essential to healthy human functioning. I discover, as I research, the discipline of psychotherapy is beginning to look at the importance of touch as a tool for connection and emotional healing. We know touch can play a role in physiological healing. Touch is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different social rules about touch. A couple of generations of American parents were taught to avoid holding or cuddling infants and children (don’t spoil your child); thankfully, we are changing our beliefs about that now, but that doesn’t help the generations of disbonded and attachment-disordered children who are now adults and struggling. Skin hunger and touch deprivation are a huge problem for elderly populations.
We also live in a #MeToo atmosphere in which the previously hidden pain of thousands of victims of inappropriate touch is becoming visible. As healing and validating as our recognition and outrage over this kind of abuse is, it leaves many people nervous about giving or receiving any kind of touch from anyone unless it’s sexual (as in consensual between two adults), making us ever more isolated, ashamed, and skin hungry.
I wish I had answers for myself and others, but I don’t. Somehow, we have to find a way forward with healthy boundaries, consent, communication and respect as we honor our deep physical, emotional and neurological need for nonsexual touch.
Crystal Casket by Rowan Wilding
Innocent, yet somehow run afoul of a jealous queen A sly drop of poison introduced A taint that can never be erased. So polluted, then, they built me a crystal casket, Protecting the world from my touch. I rise and clothe my outcast body, day by day Concealing shameful curse But at night I return naked to my crystal casket. The moon bathes me in her cool silver milk Ebbing and flowing like a slow heartbeat in the ravishing night. I lie with my hands folded on my chest (Their small warm weight comforts my empty heart) And watch the sky storm with stars Galaxies in my eyes. Neither shroud of rain nor quilt of snow can touch me, shut away But I love them from within my crystal casket. No faithful guardian watches over me, a lighted lantern at his feet. No prince arrives, seeking a poisoned kiss. I was never black as ebony, red as blood and white as snow. Now I’m spiderwebbed with age and moon-milk Cool inside my crystal casket while midnight passions wheel around me Dark flowers and fruits, musk and nectar, texture and taste and scent
I was recently introduced to Havening. I’d never heard the term before, but I was intrigued by a brief explanation that Havening is a neuroscientific tool to assist in repairing emotional trauma. I looked at a couple of links and was so interested I tried the technique myself, just to see what would happen.
The human brain’s structure, function and capability are still a mystery to us in many ways. The brain does appear to be highly plastic; that is, we learn, we unlearn and we can develop new neural pathways and rehabilitate, to a greater or lesser degree, some kinds of physical traumatic brain injury as well as emotional trauma. We obviously treat some brain-based dysfunctions by pharmacological means, in the form of prescription drugs or self-medication via alcohol, nicotine and illicit substances.
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In our current culture of emotional illiteracy, sometimes the only way we know to mitigate our emotional pain is to numb out or distract. Relieving our symptoms, however, doesn’t address the root cause of our difficulty, it only covers it up for a time. Havening is a tool that allows us to address the source of our trauma and pain without chemical substances or the need for specialized (and expensive) treatment. It empowers us, the experts on our wounds and broken places, to become our own healers.
Nowhere on the Havening website or in the video is there mention of us giving our consent to the possibility that we can change, grow and heal. However, that is in fact the first step. I have observed, in myself and others, that sometimes we become so deeply invested in our pain and limiting beliefs we’re really not willing to heal and change. We say we are. We say we want to feel better, but when it’s time to do the work of exploration, excavation and learning to make different choices in managing our thoughts and feelings, we don’t. We’re not willing to be wrong, let go of our grievances and stories, practice forgiveness and give up the satisfaction of shaming and blaming others.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
I suspect Havening is a waste of time for those who approach it unwillingly, just as more traditional therapies are a waste of time (and money) if we’re only going through the motions.
Assuming we consent to give Havening a chance, the technique requires us to sit with ourselves in a quiet, safe place and deliberately bring to mind a single difficult memory or event. Rather than running away from our feelings, we intentionally recreate and recall them in all their vivid intensity, and as we do so we notice how our bodies process and express our difficult feelings. When we have re-experienced, as fully as possible, the feelings around our memory or event, we begin to lightly stroke or rub our arms, self-soothing with our own touch and presence. Still stroking our arms, we close our eyes and visualize walking along a beach, counting slowly to 20. Still stroking our arms, we open our eyes and, without moving our heads, look to the left, then the right, then the left. We don’t have to do this quickly or with strain. We practice this lateral gaze, combined with stroking our arms, for a minute or two, then close our eyes and visualize walking through a summer meadow, counting slowly to 20 again. We follow that with the lateral gaze for a couple of minutes, all the while still stroking our arms. The third and last visualization is of walking down a staircase, combined with arm stroking and counting slowly to 20. We follow that with practicing the lateral gaze for a couple more minutes.
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At the end of this series of steps, we relax and intentionally probe the memory we started with. We notice how our bodies feel and what our feelings are compared to when we started.
I know from emotional intelligence training experiencing our feelings fully and completely is the best way to allow them to move through us and dissipate, but I frequently feel so overwhelmed by the intensity of my emotions that I’m afraid to do that. Sometimes I think if I start crying, or expressing rage, I’ll never be able to stop; I’ll fall over some invisible edge of self-control into permanent madness and chaos. Havening is enormously useful for me because it gives me a safety net to fall into. No matter how strong my feelings are about a specific memory or event, I know I’m going to be able to successfully help myself calm down and feel better immediately. I don’t need to wince away or try to minimize my feeling experience.
I’ve spent much of my life starved for loving touch. I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about skin to skin touch that says “I’m here. I care about you. You’re safe with me.” In times of high stress and upset, I frequently wrap my arms around myself, the closest I can get to getting a hug. Havening provides the physical comfort of touch, which we know can calm stress and produces serotonin, a natural chemical our brains make that gives us a feeling of well-being.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
Anyone who meditates or has done Lamaze breathing for childbirth knows when we focus on breathing or a mantra our minds learn to be quiet. The three visualizations used in Havening, combined with self-touch and counting, immediately distract from the intensity of our emotional pain, as does practicing the lateral gaze. We rarely use our eyes to look laterally without moving our heads, and to intentionally and repetitively do so takes focus.
The purpose of this specific set of steps is to “rewire” a neural pathway caused by emotional damage or trauma. The links in the first paragraph explain the science and neurology behind this better than I can, so I won’t reiterate. What I will say is, somewhat to my astonishment, I noticed a sharp decrease in the emotional pain surrounding a memory the very first time I tried Havening. I didn’t lose the memory, but it was no longer attached to such an intense emotional reaction. I could think of it and remain physically relaxed and centered. I could see it more objectively. I could say, “Yes, that happened. It hurt me, but now it’s over.” Overwhelming unpleasant feelings were no longer connected to the memory.
As I practice Havening, I notice a couple of interesting things. The first is that the memories that give me the most trouble are small. A single phrase that broke my heart and irrevocably changed everything. A memory of no words at all, just someone else’s strong emotion. I use Havening to address my most private mental slideshow, where each slide is a single small period of time; a single scene, rich in sensory detail; a single moment of terrible clarity and revelation. I marvel at the power of these small pieces to shape our lives so profoundly. I never think of Havening around divorce and break-ups or even deaths. Those obvious upheavals are not the events in my life that have had the most power.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
The second thing I notice is how my visualizations are changing. The first time I did Havening, I followed the cues in the video exactly. I had no plan to elaborate on the three visualizations. As I’ve made a practice of the technique, though, my visualizations are becoming more and more vivid and sensual. I imagine walking hand-in-hand with someone. I imagine the feel of the sun, the sound of the sea, the grand sweep of a lovely curving staircase and a crowd of people waiting for me at the bottom. I also note that the unintended elaboration of the visualizations is all positive. I feel safe, protected, loved and joyous. There’s no lingering feeling of pain or discomfort from the memory or event I recalled just a minute before.
Havening is, above all, a flexible tool. Anyone can use it and fit it into his or her particular spiritual, religious or philosophical framework. It’s completely private and open-ended. Havening can be done once a week or three times a day. I can work with a single memory for a week if I need to, or tackle a new one each time I practice. It works equally well with old memories or new upsets.
Havening provides a kind of emotional detox. Since I’ve been doing it I feel lighter, more peaceful and as though I can think more clearly. I’m less easily triggered and hijacked and I respond more and react less. My head and heart are less cluttered. My feelings seem more like allies and less like enemies.
The biggest gift of Havening is the way it supports my intention to be authentic. It seems to me we all suffer some degree of shame about the things that really hurt us. It’s hard to explain, even to ourselves, why a few words or a gesture hurt so much. We tell ourselves and others not to be silly or dramatic or have such a thin skin. Havening provides an open door, an invitation to honestly acknowledge our hurts and take responsibility for soothing them. It gives us permission to feel our honest feelings without the need to minimize, explain or justify. We are fully empowered to respect and address our own pain.
Finally, Havening has become a ritual of self-care. I like essential oils, and I set out a blend from Young Living, a bottle of massage oil and a small hand towel by the chair I practice Havening in. I rubbed a white candle with the essential oil blend, and when I sit down I light the candle, mix the oils and use the mixture on my arms, hands, cuticles, etc. as I practice. Ten or fifteen minutes of deep moisturizing, aromatherapy and massage, in combination with Havening, leaves me feeling calm, strong, centered and cared for.
Havening is a new technique with a lot of promise. I’m interested to watch it evolve and be subject to scientific studies. Several practitioners are expanding Havening for other psychological applications, and I follow the blog with interest. In the meantime, it’s a powerful tool that costs nothing, does no harm, and results in significant benefits.
The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of a local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 84 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane lap pool. The therapy pool is about 94 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.
As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me to be paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.
I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.
I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.
For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.
There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.
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But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.
I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?
In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.
The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.
As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.
Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom encompassing all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.
I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.
Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.
In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.
When I was pregnant with my first son in 1989, I approached parenthood the way I approach every new endeavor. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I had a shelf of books on pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding and parenting. Like most parents, I wanted to be the best I could possibly be.
Twenty-five years later that I came across the only book I needed, a simple paperback I’d never heard of or seen, a book never mentioned by health professionals, teachers or anyone else. The book was The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. It only took me a couple of days to read, and I cried through the whole thing. I’ve rarely read a book that so completely captured my private longings and sense of being broken.
By then, of course, it was far too late to apply the information as a parent.
As I embark on the second half of my life, I think about the continuum concept every day. I grieve for us all, victims of rape culture, many of us broken and maimed sexually, physically, mentally and emotionally. Few of us have any idea what a healthy human relationship looks like, and fewer still know how to go about creating and participating in one, or are in fact able to because of the damage current parenting practices and other social norms cause.
My own needs for affectionate, nurturing touch and in-arms experience are chronically unmet and over the years I’ve learned to spend time in water, in the sun, with animals and in nature as substitutes for human contact.
The trees and forests here are nothing like the pine and aspen forests I knew growing up in Colorado. The broadleaf forests in Maine are tall and deep and thick, every layer incredibly rich and complex. The trees are a mix of fruit, evergreen and hardwood such as birch, beech, oak, ash and maple, to name but a few.
Over the months, as I’ve walked this place and made friends with it, I notice a thing about this forest.
The trees die in one another’s arms.
Trees of all ages grow here. Older, damaged or weak trees begin to lean and die. They can remain standing in death, becoming snags for wildlife and insects, or rot from the inside out and the roots up with the help of fungi and moss. These can be pushed over with one hand, and as they fall they collapse wetly into pieces, releasing the woody smell of mushrooms. Smaller trees can sometimes find a way to fall all the way to the ground, especially at the edges of forested areas or along the river, but the huge old trees away from the edges have no room to fall entirely. They might drop branches or break at various points up the trunk, but the whole tree can’t come down at once.
Die in my arms 09/27/17
All over this 26 acres old trees are leaning, dying or dead, held in the arms of their healthy, living neighbors. Some neighbors of the same species are no doubt family members, but it doesn’t matter. A tall, strong ash might hold an old beech, or a maple support the skeleton of a pine.
This is not a dutiful, quick, can’t-wait-to-get-it-over-with embrace, but a years-long in-arms relationship while the dead tree rots and breaks down, feeding its patient supporter and the rest of the forest, until the moment comes when the last of its body decays enough to fully rest on the ground where it was born.
The forest grows together, lives together and dies together.
Die in my arms 09/27/17
Yesterday morning I went out to clear around an old shed we plan to put a foundation under and use. At one time there was an arbor along the south side of the building that supported a grapevine. The arbor is long gone now, and the sprawling grapevine is as thick as my wrist in some places and has spread over an area of about 50 square feet. I went to work, lopping saplings and woody growth and pruning the rest. The vine had produced some purple grapes as it crawled up the shed wall. I’ve never tasted a grape with such intense flavor, but there weren’t many. I wondered if we built a temporary trellis and I gave it some attention we might be able to take cuttings and save it. If it can survive years of neglect and still fruit, it seems to me it’s happy here.
Apple and grapevine 09/27/17
I worked away until I came to the foot of an old apple. This tree is gnarled and twisted, as they often are, and the entire trunk is hollow from below eye level to my highest reach with several entrances and exits. This particular apple is early, and the fruit has mostly dropped and been eaten by wildlife. As I knelt under the tree, cutting back woody undergrowth, I looked up.
The grapevine, having no trellis to climb on, had over the years climbed the tree instead, and pounds and pounds of purple grapes hung down from the apple tree canopy, invisible unless you stand right under the tree.
Die in my arms, I thought, looking up in wonder. Live in my arms. Flourish, shelter and fruit in my arms.
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash
Trees are not people. Clearly, people are not trees. We have demonized the continuum concept. We have civilized ourselves into cities of concrete and steel, hospitals, institutions and prisons. Touch in our culture is about rape, violence, abuse, capitalism and control. The need and desire to give and receive touch is viewed as inappropriate and dangerous. We’re addicts, homeless, outcast, broken, sick and lonely. We’re divided from one another, competitors and enemies. Few of us will die in anyone’s arms.