Dimensions of Touch: Part One

by David Lauterstein

The renaissance, they say, took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. We are, however, in another renaissance today, one of equal or greater importance. This renaissance was predicted by the futurist, John Naisbitt in his book Megatrends. Naisbitt spoke of the coming world as one of High Tech and High Touch. High tech and it’s spell-binding world of virtual reality is well documented. However, the rise of High Touch and its corresponding commitment to the heightened experience of actual reality is equally newsworthy and of equal or greater significance. The renaissance of seeing and hearing has given way to a renaissance of touch. The most vast of senses, the earliest to develop, touch is currently the repository of one of the most remarkable developments of our age. The discovery is that touch is quite possibly the leading edge for the next step in our cultural evolution.

There has been far more proliferation of touch therapies in the last twenty years than at any other time in world history. And it is not any particular brand of touch that is singularly powerful – be it Feldenkrais, Swedish massage, Zero Balancing, Reiki, Craniosacral Therapy, etc. – but these all constitute a realm pointing us back to the source of our power – ourselves and the life force we embody. For, setting aside the claims of the various therapeutic brands, what is most powerful here is the tender power of touch – to touch the truth of our aliveness, to restore our sense of deep enjoyment, to rise and praise with touch the beauty that is human being. Touch connects us with all this. Touch is the medium of actual reality. Touch wakes us up from the marketed but illusory world of happiness through virtual reality and the accumulation of goods, the kind of happiness that takes no inner work.

The hunger for the real in a culture of alienation is the greatest hunger of all. Being in touch is a fundamental way to satisfy this hunger. How is it that touch acquires this power? How can we empower it to help in our struggle for a world that values and cultivates real life? How can we assure the continued growth and cultural influence of the high art and science of touch?

My experience in teaching and giving and receiving bodywork has led to the realization that there are actually seven dimensions to touch. These seven dimensions are both objective and subjective, structural and energetic. They form the common elemental substrate to all body therapies. More importantly the seven dimensions of touch can help everyone share in the power inherent in our connecting with each other. They point us in the direction which will hopefully assure the continued flowering of touch as perhaps the most redemptive aspect of world culture today.

Contact – The First Dimension

Recall from geometry that a point is one dimensional. An ideal laying on of a hand creates an illuminated experience of a single sacred dimension, the wondrous experience of being a living place. Like the first application of paint to canvas, the first note of a song, or the first step onto a celestial body, there is something miraculous about form emerging from the void, imagination becoming reality, of something emanating out of nothing. When we truly touch, it is an archetypal experience similar to the feeling evoked by Michaelangelo’s painting of God and Adam about to touch. In the simplest touch of a mother and child is imbedded the love that will heal.

In just this simple touch, after the long odyssey of the human race, after eons of evolution, we meet each other on this common conscious living ground. To optimize the co-creative meeting of humanity, we must make room in our educational system for an imaginative and exact experiential study of anatomy and physiology. Plato said that education should begin with the study of gymnastics and poetry. Self-exploration and expression through movement and word are indeed fundamental to the education of the soul. I want our education to include not just the Apollonian learning about reality through mere “facts” but as well this Dionysian learning about nature directly through experience. For our body is the largest, indeed the only direct experience we have of natural law. As the founder of Swedish massage, Pehr Henrik Ling said, “We consider the organs of the body not as lifeless masses, but as the living active instruments of the soul”.

When we have a compassionate understanding of and feeling for the structures and functions of our bodies, even in our everyday encounters with each other, we are far more likely to evoke the incredible effect of feeling illuminated by the simplest touch. We can so much more appreciate the miracle of meeting. Together we become a living, active instrument of soul. Isn¹t that the central hope of humanity?

If we would include in our early and adult education, discussion and experience of the benefits of human connection, of touch as healing, and of the energy of relationship, we could begin to consciously organize our individual and collective psychophysical reality . For most of us, our education in emotions, for example, is random. Our emotional skill acquisition is basically the same as our movement skills’ acquisition as described by Ida Rolf, Rolfing’s founder. She noted that in our society when a child first walks first across the room if he or she succeeds in making it across without major injury we consider it a success! She observes that we take virtually no responsibility or pleasure in helping children move in an efficient and beautiful manner. Therefore, their movements and their structures become “randomly” organized.

In our society, there is virtually no education in organizing our emotions, mind, or spirit. Not surprisingly, we live in a society strikingly random in its psychic organization! We will still be living in this pre-history of conscious humanity until we include in our education exploration of how emotions, thoughts, and spirit are organized in the human, This will include a knowledge of some of the major theories of energy anatomy – the various models as elaborated in Chinese Medicine, the chakras and nadis of Indian cosmology, the energy theories of Western psychotherapeutic pioneers such as Wilhelm Reich. These can contribute to an energy literacy without which our touching, the ways we connect, may be experienced merely as mechanical. These are part of the precious, often unclaimed, energetic heritage of world culture.

Let us note the relevance of this first dimension to people who utilize touch within their profession. The first dimension of touch brings long overdue attention to “psychomechanics”. In massage trainings, for example, students are sometimes introduced to “bio-mechanics.” However, rarely addressed is the issue – how shall we organize our thoughts, feelings, and spirit as we touch? To organize the psychic as well as physical self, notice that healthy, mindful touching partakes of the same spirit as meditation. In most forms of meditation, we center our awareness on something – a mantra, a breath, a prayer. In this way awareness shifts from being random in its organization to having a “home base” to which we can return. In mindful touch, the first dimension provides precisely this center. Our home base is the literal meeting place of two persons’ structure and energy. In Deep Massage and Zero Balancing, this meeting place is called “interface”.

For health practitioners, when touching consciously, as in meditation, there are moments when the attention naturally wanders to an anatomical insight or to the relevance of a certain feeling. Yet we can return again and again to interface, to the place where we meet. And certainly we periodically bring our awareness to our body movements, to the animal grace and balance that feels good to both parties. Then we return our awareness, our energy, to interface. And we access the spiritual realm, the sense that we are equal and, in some important senses, one, so that our interface includes the spirit as part of the content of our meeting. As we circulate with our awareness as called for, through our emotions, body, mind and spirit, we come to dwell with more and more clarity, more strength and more fullness of being together in this place where we miraculously meet.

For all of us, the conscious experience of the first dimension of touch can open a new world of being together. In the words of psychotherapist Steve Gilligan, “The thing that brings human value back to experience is the touching of it with human presence.”

Movement – The Second Dimension

We experience the second dimension of touch when we are touched and then moved in body and soul by another. In the simplest sense this is a geometrical fact. A point is one-dimensional and a plane, such as that described by a hand moving across a body’s surface, is two-dimensional. The deeper grandeur and creative power of the second dimension is evoked by the image of the spirit of God moving across the waters, creating life. Movement proceeds mysteriously out from stillness. As we know from physics, movement requires energy. Therefore, when we experience movement, we by definition are experiencing energy.

And, when we experience loving movement, we experience ec-stacy. Loving movement proceeding out of stillness is literally “ec-static” meaning, of course, “out from stillness!”

We are touched and moved not only from without, we are touched and moved from within as the wisdom of our life processes manifest themselves. The human animal is unique in being able to become conscious of how we have been created, of what forces are moving us. What a literal trip to exactly and imaginatively traverse the evolved routes of being, the continuing saga God writes in sinew and cell! The origin, insertion and action of each muscle, the unique curving shape of each bone, the undulating structure of the nervous system – each cell, tissue, organ and system can serve as an intelligent guide for our movements when we touch and move in our lives.

The sense with which we perceive and give touch is the “haptic” sense. Charles Moore and Kent Bloomer in Body, Memory and Architecture write, “Treated as a perceptual system the haptic incorporates all those sensations (pressure, warmth, cold, pain and kinesthetics) which previously divided up the sense of touch. For example, if you accidentally swallow a marble you may haptically sense it as it moves through your body, thus experiencing part of the environment within your body…No other sense deals as directly with the three-dimensional world or similarly carries with it the possibility of altering the environment in the process of perceiving it; no other sense engages in feeling and doing simultaneously (my emphasis).” Indeed what is touch? We say we are touched by a friend’s hand, but would you say you are touched by the chair you sit on? Touch, we see, implies an energetic dimension. The second dimension of touch reveals the essential content of this dimension. What is touch? Movement with awareness. The moving of living beings into structural and energetic contact with each other is touch. Touch is living relationship. And as we move together, we change together.

The liberating potential of our movements and of our every touch is assured by the fluid nature of the connective tissues in the body. The connective tissue of the body, the “fascia”, is thixotrophic. Technically fascia is a liquid crystal. And, “thixotrophic” means fascia has the property to, with any increase of activity from within or without, become more fluid. When we touch with both structure and energy, fascia changes from being solid to being more fluid. This property affords us the incredible opportunity that when we touch each other with love and clarity, our movements can reshape body, mind and spirit. The body is not solid, even if our tactile sense gives us that illusion. Through our thixotrophic nature we are open to change. The fascia forms the physical basis for our hope. Our ability to let go and create ourselves anew is a function not only of this chemical property of fascia but also of the circulating intelligence of the nervous and endocrine systems. The paths our touching takes within us are not just in fascial planes but within the neural pathways of memory, emotion, and thought. For the body’s movements and postures do not come from the muscles and connective tissues – they are rather initiated by the electrical stimulus and orienting messages from our nervous and endocrine systems. When we touch, when we move, with love and mindfulness, we are introducing clearer and stronger haptic impressions into the neuro-endocrine system than those that had previously existed. This second dimension of touch opens new opportunities to let go, to stand, to feel and think in freer ways, in ways more congruent with our true nature. In this way, with anatomic and physiological rigor, we can say – love will set us free.

Breath – The Third Dimension

With breath we activate and stimulate the third dimension of touch. Most people ordinarily experience the body as having just a front and a back – that is, as two-dimensional. To experience oneself consciously as three-dimensional is for most people an altered and en-lightened state of being.

The first dimension of touch establishes a meeting place, the second, a fruitful path along the length and breadth of our being. With conscious breathing we add the physical and energetic experience of depth. Breathing fully we feel waving movement, space opening and closing within us. The continuous expansion and contraction that breathing involves is perhaps the primary way we sense that we are alive.

We take over 20,000 breaths each day! Fully breathing means fully alive. As we breathe more and more deeply, more energy is available for each and every living cell. We don’t label it a nutrient only because it is so fundamental. Let us never forget – breath is the primary source for our energy.

While it is true that we touch structurally with our hands, since breath the primary source of our energy, our touch originates energetically in the breath. In a touch that feels alive the origin of that life is breath. Energetically when two people touch it is experientially rigorous to say it is breath touching breath.

Breath is the source not only for the quantity of our energy but plays a large role in determining its quality as well. Our brain stem at the base of the cranium keeps us breathing but we are free through higher brain centers (diencephalon and cerebrum) to modulate our breath amplitude and rate, and with it the spirit with which we meet our ever changing life. For breath is a primary modulator of the autonomic nervous system, the system which orients us toward fight or flight or rest and repose. The respiratory system responds continuously to the ever changing nature of inner and outer reality. As we breathe we use our breath to sedate or stimulate our entire organism. This is an incredible existential fulcrum we have been given! With this awareness become conscious, we can use breath intentionally to deeply amplify our life force and to finely tune the autonomic nervous system. In this way when we touch with breath, filled with more life and balance, we give each other living permission to heighten life and to restore more balance and flexibility to the autonomic nervous system – the way we respond to the “changes” of our life.

As the very root of the word reveals – re-spir-ation – breath is not merely an energy source in the physical sense but is the anatomical manifestation of spirit. Touch with breath is touch with spirit.

Hands, as the structural end points of our touch, in an incredibly beautiful way shape our breath, just as the voice shapes our breath through song. In India there are sacred hand positions known as mudras. With the breath/spirit active in our touch, living hands become dynamic mudras. From this standpoint mindful touching has then the structure and function of a sacred dialogue as conveyed through the hands modulating the spiritual power of breath.

It is said that eyes are the window to the soul. Even more dramatically we can see that breath is the window to the spirit. Through our senses, we so often unconsciously track the movement of each other’s breathing. Sighs, yawns, shallower breaths, dreamy rhythms, each speak of the trajectory of the spirit. Mindfully noticing breath we can respond to each other, almost in a call and response manner, to the changing shape of the spirit. Understanding better the movement of the spirit within our relationships, we can touch each other with more understanding. Now relating with more assertion, now moving slowly or speeding up, our touch can appropriately add extra sweetness to moments of deep nourishment or surround extraordinary experience with stillness.

Breathing, we bring fresh air into our situation. Touch with conscious breath brings lightness, loosens our illusion of solidity, and unites us all living beings in the grandeur of planetary gas exchange. Right now all life is breathing. Touch with breath inevitably heightens the life of all.

In closing I would like to reach out and touch you with these sacred words from the Laguna Pueblo people. They evoke beautifully the redemption of our living in conscious touch with each other –

I add my breath to your breath, that our days may be long on the Earth, That the days of our people may be long, that we shall be as one person, that we may finish our road together.