There are few interactions that come close to the experience of the original holding and bonding between mother (or primary caregiver(s)) and child. Certainly fewer that hold as much importance. For those of us who were held, nurtured, fed and cared for in this most intimate, skin-on-skin way, we have a remembrance of this sense of unity, this warmth, this merging, this direct experience of light melting into light. We may not consciously remember the details, but every fiber of our being and body registers this security, this safety-in-existence, this osmosis-like assurance born of love and union, along with the release of oxytocin in our bodies. The only thing that might trump it could be the return to the uterus itself.
This touch-bonding with mom (or caregiver) lets us know that the world that we are emerging into is safe. Imagine the far-reaching effects of this single form of interaction alone, and what it portends for later in our lives as we grow into adulthood: the knowledge that we indeed EXIST in a context of assurance and warmth, that life is good. That life is safe, love is available, and tenderness is the norm. Certainly there are ways that life informs us of our individuation and perhaps bursts this bubble as we grow, yet this initial connectedness carries us through the vicissitudes of life the way a perfectly balanced (and light!) meal can carry us through an ultra-marathon.
The need we have for this physical experience of connection never goes away. To take the marathon metaphor even further, around mile 15, let’s be honest, we might benefit from a topping-up in the form of an orange—or in the case of snuggles, a hug, or an arm around our shoulder. While the initial reaching out for contact may have been met well in the first many days, weeks, and months of our lives, this yearning we have (or as I call it, “the urge to merge”) never goes away entirely.
Then there are those of us who didn’t fare so well during this vital and inaugural stage of development. For a host of reasons, many of us don’t fall into the category of having been “well-snuggled” out of the gate. To say this lack of having had this primordial itch scratched could have far-reaching effects—like leaving us feeling “hungry” throughout life—would be an understatement. It is a vital need that science, neurobiology, spirituality, and psychology ALL agree on:
We need this vital interaction, this vital touching of skin and souls, to not only thrive and feel the connectedness of life, love, and god that is our birthright, but as babies, we actually need it to LIVE.
Sure, for survival reasons in the face of neglect we may (understandably) pretend we don’t need it, or even convince ourselves and our psyches that we don’t for not having had access to it from day one. The pain of recognizing this lack may have been too much to bear, and so we shut it down as part of our survival strategy; yet a big part of our survival and consciousness aches for the melding of loving energies, even as we shut down our conscious reaching out for it. Yet need it we do, and preciously, if not at times painfully. No human is exempt. Touch is one of our most basic forms of communication, connecting us to ourselves and to each other. Phyllis Davis’s book The Power of Touch is a gorgeous guidebook for rediscovering this essential healing language.
There is great news for those of us who were under-touched during this pivotal time: We can all heal our attachment wounds at any time in our lives. There are many forms of healing in this regard. Therapists are slowly becoming more open to offering this survival-need touch in professional environments and workshops. In more modern therapeutic contexts, the age-old “ethics” of there being zero touch allowed is softening, and not a moment too soon. Yes, people are afraid of harassment charges and the legal implications in an ever-broadening litigious (aka irresponsible) society. Some therapists and workshop leaders are resistant for more altruistic reasons—they don’t want to thwart or arrest a client’s process through transference or interpreted sexual impropriety. While these concerns are certainly valid, when taken to a rigid extreme, they block what could become some of the most corrective experiences of a person’s life.
There is an increasing knowledge of a limit to what top-down (singularly cognitive) therapies can offer. In our modern world, where bottom-up (body or somatic oriented) therapies are getting more of their moment in the sun, it is impossible not to notice the quality of healing and trauma recovery that can be born of skillful, attuned, sensitive, respectful, and appropriate touch, when permission is granted by the client. In my opinion, a combination of the top-down AND the bottom-up approaches can benefit anyone committed to truth, healing, and wholeness.
The following are other forms of healing touch to consider:
- The slow and titrated approach of certain healing modalities, like Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing. This model has a deep knowledge of the entire physical, neurobiological and emotional system, and a knowledge of how to skillfully usher our bodies into discharging any past traumas that might preclude us from associating touch, or even rest, with safety.
- The corrective effect felt from skillful hands-on healers, which include reiki and hands-on energy healing.
- Yoga that is trauma-informed. Approaches that adopt some functional and healing contact are slowly being integrated into the more innovative yoga practices, which introduces skillful touch into the practice by a teacher, practitioner, or a partner.
- There is perhaps no better version of healing than can be found in a simple hug. Practiced with your partner, a friend, a family member. When mutually agreed to, a hug can afford a moment of healing, of re-wiring our brains, of learning or re-learning the ebb and flow of generosity and receptivity in a way that can touch on the early hunger for this quality of such contact.Dr David Schnarch, in his book Passionate Marriage and in his workshops, recommends the “hugging till relaxed” exercise with your partner. It can support the slow softening of boundaries in a functional way within the context of committed intimacy. While it may not be the instant panacea for past challenges, it can serve as a slow-moving investigation back home to each other when each movement and subtle shift can be used for the benefit of uncovering fears, repressed memories or feelings, or resistances between each other (often having to do with unresolved pain from our past). My husband and I tried this exercise at David’s workshop years ago, and we return to it when words don’t seem to be working their magic of re-connecting us—or even if we just want to connect but don’t have the energy for verbal discourse (at night, let’s say, after a full day with our five-year-old, when we have no gas left in our tanks to be conversationally engaging). It also offers a quality of connection that can go beyond the often fraught (if not largely wonderful) version of touch during healthy sex.
- Visiting Ammachi, the hugging saint. Ammachi (or “Amma,” as she is affectionately referred to) is known for traveling the planet and offering hugs to hundreds of thousands of people—delicate, maternal, and heart-full embraces that transform. All over the planet, Amma is sought out for these powerful moments of interaction, which are often coupled with her talks.
- Dr. Margaret Paul, in her book Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by God, extols the gifts of healing in an exercise she calls “mother bonding.” She invites a friend or family member (in the case of this exercise, a female) to remove any agenda other than to bring life’s love through to the person being held. I have had the pleasure of being on both sides of this exercise, and I have to say that after being held in this way for 20 minutes at the back of my tour bus, while on tour ten years ago, I noticed my food obsession and my desire to reach for a cocktail after the show completely evaporated for my having been held. A revelation for me.
- Dr. Wendy Maltz has an excellent DVD entitled “Re-learning Touch” that slowly guides couples through reclaiming and revitalizing the subtleties of touch ranging from non-sexual to sexual.
- Skillful massage like cranial sacral or other types of massage received from medically- or physically-intuitive practitioners can break the barrier into an experience of healing that requires a context of safety, kind presence, and skill.
- Contact dance or contact improv that is trauma-informed. When led by a teacher who is deeply attuned to the crucial importance of healthy boundaries and incorporates that understanding into the way he or she teaches the process, contact improv can be a powerful way to rediscover positive touch through shared momentum and shared weight through movement.
- Work with animals. If touch is associated with abuse or trauma from our past, sometimes starting the touch inquiry with a favorite pet can be a great first step. Feeling our favorite pet’s heartbeat and warmth and sweetness, and resting into that quiet with them, can take us slowly from what feels foreign (resting into the warmth of physical contact) into deep healing.
May what might be a slow journey back into the arms of the divine mother be one that is offered to you, no matter what point in your life you risk reaching for it again. For reaching out for this quality of touch and contact is to be human. Is to be chemically, hormonally, and scientifically corroborated. Is to be alive. Is to be loved. And is to be godly. May you rest in the arms of love for as long as your nervous system and heart need for you to touch on the innocence of who you were … and the deep preciousness of who you are.