KS Blog

  • Beyond the veil

    Earlier this week, a client asked why we were wearing veils.

     

    “So men don’t fall in love with us,” I blurted out. “I don’t want them focused on us as people.”

     

    Which is true. But there’s much, much more to it than that….

     

    Bridging the physical gap between humans is simple, yet complicated. Touch is fraught for many people who have been touched in ways that make them distrust the motives of others. When a client walks into our space for a session, we have enormous amounts of respect for the bravery of the person who shows up to be touched by a stranger, and a reverence for the potential to harm or heal through said touch. The encounter must be extraordinary, and singular.

     

    What could possibly be extraordinary than paying money to let a stranger touch you?

     

    Letting a stranger wearing a veil touch you. Make that two strangers wearing veils.

     

    You have come for a Karuna Session because you are hurting. You’re not sure what to expect, but a friend assured you that it will cure what’s ailing you. Per the instructions on the door, you walk into an empty room. Sure it’s beautiful, but there’s nobody there. Is this an ambush? Are they going to steal your wallet and phone? You try to stay calm and breathe, but your heart feels like it’s going to bust out of your chest like the creature in Alien.

     

    You detect movement from another part of the room, and a woman steps out. Your confusion and nervousness grows. She’s wearing a veil! You are unable to scan her face for the normal clues that would tell you how to treat her. Is she young? Old? Beautiful? Ugly? Is she your sister? Your mother? Your ex-girlfriend? What is she hiding behind there? Should you be afraid?

     

    Should you bow? Shake her hand? Stand up? Remain seated? What the hell have you gotten yourself into? Furiously you try to access the “where have I encountered a woman in a veil?” file in your brain (your cell phone has been silenced and put away, so it’s of no use). You have probably seen a veiled woman standing at the altar getting ready to say “I do,” but there is nary a wedding dress in sight. The only other women who seem to wear veils are from the Middle East and, well, according to many, “those people” are terrorists.

     

    Yep, fear seems like the proper reaction in this situation. At the very least, it’s really fucking weird. An experience that will likely be strange has gone from strange to stranger to strangest in the blink of an eye.

     

    You keep thinking about that little scrap of fabric that obscures her face. While wearing a veil can be religious, more often than not it’s theatrical and symbolic. Belly dancers often rock ‘em. The dance of the seven veils was mythologized when King Herod asked Salome to perform that seductive bump and grind for him (that didn’t turn out so hot for John the Baptist, now did it?).

     

    But Inana, not Salome, was the Original Stripper, and said dance was named for her descent to the Underworld. Inanna decides to take a trip to the down under to visit her dark sister, Ereshkigal. As she descended through the seven gates, at each stage she lost one of her royal raiments, until she arrived at the bottom naked and unadorned. She had everything that makes her a queen stripped away.

     

    This may or may not be a metaphor for leading an authentic life.

     

    Regardless whether a veil signifies mystery or modesty, a woman wearing one is rarely encountered. While you might know how to interact with someone wearing a surgical, welding or Mardi Gras mask, this is uncharted, unfamiliar territory.  The best course of action is to follow her lead, and let her guide you through the encounter.

     

    Which is the point.

     

    When we get into situations where the usual social norms and niceties don’t apply, we don’t know how to behave. Sometimes this can be a bad thing: we tend to freeze up or look away when we see a bully picking on someone weaker. But other times, it allows the rules of engagement to be rewritten and we get to interact in an entirely new way.

     

    We have lots of fear around strangers, and our usual response upon meeting one is caution. This story about humanity is drilled into our heads by our parents, our teachers, our siblings, our friends and our media. We are told they will do us harm, steal from us, tell us lies or – THE WORST - touch us in ways we don’t like and didn’t agree to. (Of course, unless a person is in your immediate family, everybody starts out as a stranger, though some come pre-approved by people you know and trust.)

     

    But what if these veiled strangers didn’t behave as you’ve been told strangers often behave? What if they were kind and generous? What if they gave instead of taking? What if they welcomed your tenderness and vulnerability, and met it with compassion and empathy? What if they paid attention to your needs and invited you to take off your own veil and rest for a bit? What if they cared for you, respected your boundaries and made you feel good?

     

    What if you felt safe with them?

     

    What if they touched you, and not only was it not weird, but it felt good?

     

    Would you maybe, just maybe, tell a different story to yourself about strangers after you walked out the door?

     

    Anything is possible.

     

    You also might tell yourself a different story about people you already know, or people you would like to know better. One thing I’ve learned from doing this work  is that most of us wouldn’t know a healthy boundary if we bumped into it, especially when it comes to touch. It’s no one’s fault, really: we don’t teach relationship skills in school and popular culture often portrays non-consensual touch as the gold standard for seduction. Being clear around likes and dislikes, getting consent and having well-defined parameters for a relationship are foreign concepts.

     

    When a client comes in for a session, we do our damnedest to model a healthy, respectful interaction that keeps them in control, so the next time they encounter someone who is doing it wrong, they might speak up about what they need or extricate themselves quickly when clearly stated boundaries are ignored. At the very least, they will have a much better idea that someone is crossing their boundaries when it happens.

    ******

     

    Every last detail of a Karuna Session is carefully designed to make you feel surprised, delighted, curious and nurtured. We invite you to step into a different world with new possibilities and lessons. You never know what you might find out about yourself...and strangers.

     

     

     

  • America's Shameful Secrets

    A few weeks back, a video from a professional male cuddler came across my feed that prompted a ton of conversation. As always, the reactions were strong, and the comments illuminating – this is clearly something that touches a nerve (no pun intended).  Many people seemed to believe that those who availed themselves of such a service were sad and pathetic, and that it’s a sign that something is wrong with both the people who seek it and a society where it would be necessary. And there were just as many people who recognized that they weren’t getting their own touch needs met, and maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

     

    This is a topic I’ve followed closely over the past few years, and I’ve come to realize that there are two shameful secrets lurking in America’s relationship closet. It’s time to talk about this stuff.

     

    Secret #1: A romantic relationship will not fulfill

    all your touch needs.

     

    I have a lot of single friends. Regardless of their age or gender, they are struggling with finding someone to date. Many of them can find someone to hook up with…but not all of them. Lots of people go years without connecting with another sexually.

     

    If we are only allowed to share touch with people we are having sex with, a lot of people get left out in the cold. What about those who are physically disfigured? Clinically depressed? Painfully shy? Working two full-time jobs? Not stereotypically attractive? There are many people who will be passed over time and again for relationships by those looking for potential mates. Apparently these people need more therapy/diets/meds/social skills/friends/pets, and they will magically be desirable! (I’m sure that none of them have tried any of these things in an attempt to connect.) But instead of examining our current culture around touch, it’s easier to shame people and tell them that there’s something wrong with them.

     

    (Ironically, platonic touch can make people feel more relaxed, happy and open. When you feel better, you’re more likely to attract a partner.)

     

    Then there are those people who are in a romantic relationship that doesn’t meet their touch needs. Just as people have sex drives that range from insatiable to asexual, many couples have mismatched touch drives. Those couples who are fighting and don’t want to have sex, let alone cuddle with each other? That’s a lonely place to be. And what about mothers who spend their entire days being grabbed by children who need their attention, and then can’t get their own touch needs met because their husbands are exhausted from working all day? It’s not as cut-and-dry as it might appear….

     

    There are dozens of ways we put enormous pressure on our partners to fulfill all our needs, and touch is a big one. Those couples who find themselves in relationships with partners who meet these needs are in the minority, not the majority. Just because we expect our soulmate to come along and fix everything doesn’t mean they will.

     

    Of course, happily ever after doesn’t always happen. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. In long-term relationships partners die, leaving the surviving partner without any sort of touch; imagine sleeping in someone’s arms for 60 years and then having them gone. And while it might be perfectly acceptable to rebound from a breakup by running out to have hookup sex, it’s much harder to find comfort when you’re grieving. (Good luck being vulnerable with your Tinder date...) One of the best ways to feel cared for, supported and seen during grief is to have another person hold you when you cry, but that’s not always readily available. Which brings us to the second secret:

     

    Secret #2: People don’t touch their friends.

     

    If you’re horrified by the idea of people going to total strangers to be touched platonically, you’re part of the problem. Seriously. Every last person who finds paying for touch disgusting has one or more friends who aren’t getting their touch needs met. Unfortunately, people cannot turn to their friends for platonic touch: it’s awkward, embarrassing and can be easily misconstrued. Oftentimes the choice is not between being touched by someone who knows them or being touched by a stranger; the choice is being touched by a stranger or not being touched at all.

     

    Most people in social situations touch their friends twice: a hug hello, and a hug goodbye. If a person is touch-starved, three seconds of hugging on either end isn’t gonna cut it. Embracing another person for an extended period of time gives their body an opportunity to relax and feel safe. Even something as simple as a hand or foot massage, or brushing and braiding a friend’s hair gives a person with skin hunger a chance to slow down and breathe and be connected to others. (Primates spend 10-20% of their time doing social grooming and it ain’t just for removing parasites.) In our current climate of fear, uncertainty and stress, don’t we all deserve physical connection? Or should it only be reserved for those who are lucky enough to have found their Prince/ess Charming?

     

    Human beings are hard-wired to connect with each other physically. We started as a species sleeping in piles in caves, for both warmth and safety. To be physically disconnected from our tribe could mean certain death. And we start our lives as helpless infants, held by our parents. Denying that touch is a basic human need does so many of us a disservice. People are lonely, anxious, stressed, traumatized, depressed and angry. While platonic touch won’t solve all of these problems, it’s a simple way to get a bit of relief…or maybe a lot of relief. And right now, that’s important.

     

    If you’re happy with the amount and type of touch you receive, fantastic. But please, stop shaming others for being human and recognizing that they are missing a vital nutrient from their lives. Would you tell someone who is starving or thirsty that they are sad and pathetic for lacking in sustenance? If not, please don’t say that to people who are paying for touch, or contemplating doing so. Instead, ask them if they'd like to cuddle up on the couch and watch a movie with you.

  • Getting in touch with grief

    This blog post comes to you courtesy of my dear friend Absinthia, who suffered an unexpected death of her partner in July. She's been blogging about her grieving and healing process, and I asked her to write about the role platonic touch has played as she struggles with loss. Her words are raw, powerful and eloquent. If you want to read more about her journey with death, I highly recommend her blog.


    When the unimaginable happened, it was the welcome home I received that set me up for a healthy, loving period of mourning.

    Three weeks into my bucket-list vacation with my beautiful young teenage daughters, we got a phone call in our hotel room in Venice that changed everything. In just five days, my boyfriend Rupert was supposed to be boarding a plane to meet us in Greece; instead, he had been killed in a motorcycle accident less than two miles from home.

    I may have forgotten how I spent the following weeks, but I will never forget that traumatic night, alone with my children in a hotel 5,000 miles from home. I somehow pulled myself and my children off the floor, and we held each other, weeping and wailing. I talked with friends and my mom, crying and making arrangements to get home. At the advice of a friend more well versed in sudden death than she should be at our age, I took a hot bath because I couldn’t stop shaking from the shock. I held my younger daughter as she fell asleep; she was too tired to stay awake but too shocked and sad and crying too hard to fall asleep on her own. My older daughter offered to take a year off school so she could take care of me. I pulled her into my arms and let her know that was not her job.

    I just wanted to crawl through my laptop where my friends were talking to me and crying. I wanted to be held.

    The next afternoon, we were on a plane home. Venice to Paris to San Francisco. Our trip was cut short by two weeks. It was a long day, but the girls and I had each other. We were always within arm’s reach of each other. We used our remaining Euros to buy gifts for our friends at Charles De Gaulle during our layover, and we left the bag somewhere in the terminal. We weren’t making our way to meet up with Rupert in Greece, and our hearts were broken. We were lost and nothing made sense. I pulled my younger daughter onto my lap and held my older daughter’s hand. They stroked my hair and kissed me.

    I snuck up to first class to find the only empty bathroom, and what I saw out the window amazed me. I went back and got the kids and brought them up to see Greenland a mile below us, covered in snow and rock on July 4th. He had been dead two days. We put our arms around each other, and I took pictures out the airplane window.

    I had many offers of rides home from the airport that evening, but said yes to my parents. We were waiting in a short line at customs when I heard my name. Somehow, amazingly, there were two close friends returning from vacation in Mexico. They had heard the news. We only had a moment, but we shared a hug, right there in the SFO customs hall. Seeing familiar, loving faces and feeling their embrace helped warm my aching heart.

    My parents, too, greeted us warmly with loving hugs. We were never a demonstrative, physical family. Their hugs and expressions of love are rare, and yet were so welcome in this moment. My east-coast upbringing offered more competitiveness than physical, non-sexual loving touch between family members. I remember snuggling with my little sister when we were very young, but I don’t remember a lot of touch at home. At 15, my friends would hug each other and say ‘I love you.’ The first time a friend did that with me, I told her I couldn’t handle it, but I would work on it. She was very patient with me, and we are still close friends to this day. It was the beginning of the me who likes to hug.

    Just because I was raised a certain way, I realized, doesn’t mean it is true to who I am. I learned to love hugging my friends, and while I am not a very high-touch person, I am the first to open my arms when we greet. I love hugging. In social situations, if someone extends their hand, I put my arms around them. I have chosen to raise my children with lots of touch - I hold them, touch their arm when we speak, tell them I love them, play with their hair, and encourage them to treat each other with love. Some mornings, I will find them sweetly sharing a double bed, having a sleepover in each other's bedroom. One child is more naturally a high-touch person than the other, but they both give hugs and hold hands and show love easily.

    My parents drove us home from the airport. We arrived at my house to the most amazing scene. A few close girlfriends were standing in the front yard. As I got out of the car and held each one of them, the front door opened and a stream of people came through. There were more than two dozen people in my home, just waiting to hug me! I reached for them, and the tears came. It was so hard to be at home, knowing my love Rupert was dead and would never be there again, the shock still holding fast to my brain. As I walked through my home, I was embraced over and over again. There was a spread of food on the kitchen island, and music coming from a temporary DJ booth set up with twinkly lights in the corner.

    I have joined an online support group for grieving atheists. Recently, a member asked about anger. He was treating people around him horribly and wondering if his behavior was typical. He felt terrible about it, but he was out of control. Comment after comment of angry people grieving followed. I felt odd (wo)man out as I wrote, “I have had anger issues all my life. But now, with my partner suddenly, shockingly dead, I have no anger left. Anyone can leave us at anytime. We don’t know what each other is going through. I walk down the street and strangers passing don’t know I am grieving. I am emotionally fragile, and their flippant rude remark could undo me. I am even kind and patient with the frustratingly slow/wrong/rude clerk. I am simply too raw and vulnerable and hurt to be cruel to anyone.”

    I honestly believe this lack of anger I feel is because of the homecoming I received. My protective walls were ripped away when Rupert died, and my friends and family showed up for me with love. Had my kids and I walked into an empty house and gone to our rooms alone, I would have cried alone all night. I would have felt alone, unloved, empty, and eventually, mean. Instead, I was cared for. I was held. I hug everyone now, making sure to get my minimal touch requirements like it is a vitamin. It is the only thing that is keeping me sane as the waves of grief roll in and out.

    I attended Burning Man this year, which I have been doing on and off for 21 years. “Receiving hugs is my superpower,” I told a friend. My friends knew my grief, and held me tight whenever they saw me. The playa (Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held, is referred to as the playa) is a place of real connection, and when new friends learned of my grief, they held me, too.

    A real conversation can lead to a real hug, long and deep, even if it is from a stranger you have never met and may never see again. It is in that moment that we see each other, and the hug is the physical embodiment of seeing and being seen. It is I see you, expressed physically.

    It is now nearly 9 weeks later, and I can barely remember the first six. I have taken my older daughter to school. I am able to make it through the day, mostly. I have started hiking again, spending time in the woods with my dog and a friend. We greet with a hug, talk, breath, walk, and always part with a long hug. I insist on it. Many evenings, I am in my pajamas by 5 o’clock. I snuggle with the fuzzy tiger onesie he wore on Halloween. The death of my love is still the first thing on my mind when I wake up, and the last thing when I fall asleep. The condolence cards are no longer arriving daily. Two close friends are still living with my daughter and me, and I approach them for hugs every morning and every night. In the midst of grief and unexpected celibacy, being held is the glue that keeps me together and makes it easy to treat my loves well. It scares me to think I could be mean, and they might die suddenly.

    I will keep hugging them so that I can treat them well. Life is short and death is out of our control. We are all temporary, and while we are here, we need each other. If the only way out is through, touch is the best guide.

     

  • Guest blog post: How Platonic Touch Can Help Relieve Symptoms of Anxiety

                       Photo via Pixabay by Unsplash

    Anxiety affects millions of people in various ways, and everyone has their own method of coping with the symptoms. Some of these, like exercise, are on the positive side. Others can include turning to drugs or alcohol. One way we can combat it, however, isn’t so well known: platonic touch.

     

    Platonic touch--meaning any physical contact that isn’t sexual in nature--can be extremely helpful in dealing with anxiety and stress. Studies have shown that hugging can lower blood pressure and heart rate, boost moods, and can even possibly fight off impending colds through the release of a hormone in the brain called oxytocin, which fights off cortisol--an enemy of the immune system.

     

    Because anxiety is caused by so many different things and manifests itself in various ways, platonic touch can be helpful in that it can be tailored to fit an individual’s needs. Unlike relaxing massage or yoga/meditation--which are done with the express purpose of healing one person--platonic touch is a two-way street. Sometimes stroking hair or skin or hugging is just as relaxing when it’s being given as it is when it is received, and because there are so many ways to touch platonically, a person can adjust it to their needs for the moment.

     

    There’s a reason kids run to their parents for hugs or to hold their hand when they are scared or nervous: touch brings reassurance. It’s comforting, has a soothing effect, and can make us feel less alone or afraid. Studies have shown that babies who are not given adequate physical contact can have lasting negative effects, such as behavioral, social, and emotional problems well into the teen years and beyond. In fact, many hospitals encourage skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby or father and baby immediately after birth in order for easier bonding and other developmental benefits.

     

    “Particularly in the newborn period, it helps calm babies: they cry less and it helps them sleep better. There are some studies that show their brain development is facilitated—probably because they are calmer and sleep better,” reads Scientific American.

     

    Touch is so important that it can have effects on us even when we aren’t aware of it. A 2014 study by Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence looked at the positive effects of touch, including these surprising results:

     

          Elderly nursing home residents often feel unwanted or unloved because of a lack of physical contact with others.

          Customers respond more positively to a tasting and purchasing request in a supermarket when they are touched by an experimenter posing as a store assistant.

          People are significantly more likely to return a dime left in a phone booth if the preceding “telephone caller” touched them.

     

     

    Anxiety can occur under many different circumstances and does not just affect one age group or one type of person. For some, it comes when the brain can’t stop thinking about “what-if” situations. For others, being in a large group of people causes stress and a sense of anxiousness that can’t be pinpointed. For these individuals--and many others--it’s important to try and suss out triggers and figure out what causes the anxiety so that it may be avoided.

     

    While being in social situations can lead to anxiety for some, spending time giving and receiving platonic touch can be immensely helpful in helping the mind to focus and unload some of its weight. Touch elicits strong emotional responses and can help us cope with negative feelings and memories as well as feel good about the future.

     


    Jennifer McGregor is a pre-med student, who loves providing reliable health and medical resources for PublicHealthLibrary.org users. She knows how difficult it can be to sift through the mountains of health-related information on the web. She co-created the site with a friend as a way to push reputable information on health topics to the forefront, making them easier and quicker to find.

  • Safety in numbers

    Friday evening, I went with a friend to a kitten adoption event. It was outdoors in July (already a recipe for disaster when your guests of honor are wearing fur coats). Add a cup of car traffic, a handful of anti-gentrification protesters and stir well: instant stressed-out cats! It was difficult to gauge the cats’ personalities when they were so keyed up. And yet…every time we took one of them out of their cage and held them in our arms, they relaxed and began to purr.

     

    This experience confirmed something I’ve learned over the past three years of doing Karuna Sessions: safety is a state of body, not mind, and a feeling of safety can be achieved by holding the body close.

     

    Simple, yes, but it makes so much sense. Individually, we begin our lives as helpless babies, unable to physically survive without the care and nurturing of other humans. When we cry, and our mothers hold us, we know what it’s like to feel protected and cared for. Collectively, too, the human race began and survived in groups and bands. At night we would sleep in big piles, for both warmth and security. Being kicked out of the tribe and sent away from other humans meant certain death.

     

    These days, though, we are isolated from each other. We have our own rooms, our big houses, our gated communities where we can retreat. Our children spend their days in age-segregated schools, while we warehouse our seniors in “retirement communities.”  We drive in vehicles by ourselves, or lower our eyes to our phones on public transportation. At the grocery store, we apologize profusely if we bump into another person. The more affluent we become, the less contact we have with random humans not of our explicit choosing. We fear the other, and gather in segregated tribes whose values and ideas match our own.

     

    Our physical bodies deal with immense amounts of stress on a daily basis. Crap food, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, and pollution all take their toll. Difficult physical labor or cube-farm jobs leave us feeling sore, cramped and tired. Worries from the personal to the planetary cause us to tense up, while judgment about our appearance batters us from the outside. Sometimes we can get away from our lives for a few days or weeks here and there, though we find ourselves back in the daily grind right around the time we’re feeling like we have relaxed.

     

    When the body, the space that should be our safe home, feels like a war zone, where do we escape to? Most of us retreat into our heads. Our minds constantly race, overloaded with useless facts. Every day brings more bad news about death, hatred, collapse and disaster into our consciousness until we’re overwhelmed. We wonder why we’re depressed, traumatized, anxious, paranoid, angry and addicted.

     

    We ferociously collect guns, dollars, possessions and information in an attempt to provide us with the security we desperately crave. And yet, it’s never enough.

     

    Safety comes from other people, not from shutting other people out.* If we’re lucky, we’ll hold an infant in our arms and catch a glimpse of the peace we experienced at the beginning of life. Or maybe we’ll find someone who will curl around us nightly in a smaller configuration of our ancestors’ sleep habits.  For the most part, though, we’re on our own.

     

    When someone comes to us for a session, they are scared. Sometimes they have suffered a sudden loss; other times their crisis is a long time in the making. Their bodies are tense and weary and distrustful, and I know that we will have to work hard to make them feel safe and in control before we can touch them. We honor them with our words and actions, and let them know that our only goal for the next hour is to serve and care for them. Slowly we acclimate them to the idea that they will be touched by a stranger, and that we will tell them what we’re doing every step of the way.  

     

    The first place we touch them is their hands, a typical point of physical contact between humans. Gradually their breath begins to deepen. When we move to their face, stroking their cheeks and chin the way a mother would, the wrinkles begin to soften, the lips part. Their brows may furrow as they struggle to hold back tears, and sometimes they are unsuccessful and the tears will flow as they remember this familiar touch (or lack of it).

     

    As they deepen into relaxation, they will sigh, or they will tell us how good it feels to be touched. Their stomachs gurgle as their parasympathetic nervous system begins to activate. Shortly thereafter, conversation ceases as they become comfortable with receiving. By the time we reach the part of the session where we embrace them, they are often so absorbed in the experience they have forgotten we are there.  About five minutes into the embrace, we will feel them go limp as the micro muscles in their body relax. While the conscious mind may not remember this state, the body does. Oftentimes they will drift off to sleep. When the session is over, they are like a puddle of mush, still and peaceful. They have trusted enough to let their guard down, and have been rewarded with a state of deep relaxation, a state that only comes from feeling safe.

     

    After the session is done and we are sitting on the couch chatting, they will look 10 years younger. Many of the wrinkles have been smoothed out, their eyes are brighter and a childlike innocence is in their smile. The relief of being supported with kindness and tender touch is palpable. Even though the experience has lasted only an hour, the memory will be remembered for months, in the head, the heart and the body. It will sustain them as they continue to soldier through the challenges in their lives.

     

    I wonder how much suffering we could alleviate for those who grapple with trauma or addiction if we regularly reminded their bodies of the calm feeling that comes from being embraced. I envision a world where we tackle problems from the neck down in addition to talking about them. I want people to know that it is possible to trust others, that we can care for each other in physical, tangible ways and a body at peace will be healthy.

     

    You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one….

     

    * I’m well aware that too many people in this world have been made to feel unsafe in their bodies by the actions of those closest to them. Your mind may justify their presence, but your body will tell you when you can’t trust somebody. If you don’t want someone to touch you or be in your circle, please tell them to fuck right off. You have my blessing.

     

     

     

  • A Network of Care

    A while back, I asked my Facebook friends how they would feel about dating someone with a chronic illness, or a person in a wheelchair. What about someone who is bipolar, an alcoholic or in treatment for cancer? The responses were mostly along the lines of “thanks but no thanks.” Some of the folks who spoke up were the chronically ill themselves, and they talked about how painful it was to read the responses because they were, above all, people who wanted to be loved for who they were…not rejected because of what role a health condition played in their lives. It was still a tough sell; most folks I know are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and food in their kids’ bellies, and have a hard time squeezing in self-care. Why would anyone willingly and voluntarily fall in love with someone who already had needs that will likely eclipse their own?

     

    Before divorce was a viable option, caring for your partner in times of sickness was an expectation in relationships. My parents were married for 46 years. My mother was 23, my father 34, when they walked to the altar. They shared a life together that included career, home, travel and children. In the last years of my father’s life, he developed dementia, and my mother’s role shifted from wife and lover to mother and caregiver…all while maintaining a full-time job and other professional obligations.  She was able to care for him at home with the assistance of extra caregivers and a great support network, but it was exhausting and demanding, a long five-year stretch. But what if my father had fallen ill within their first few years of marriage? It feels somehow different to take on this sort of role/obligation when a couple has already had 40+ years of symbiotic nurturing than to sign up for it from the get-go.

     

    (NOTE: I’ve known many people who have been in long relationships with people who are chronically ill, and they have talked about the toll it takes on them to be a primary caregiver. Many of them say that if they had known about the challenge, they might not have made that choice. It’s a lot…especially when they didn’t have a great support system of their own….)

     

    In a world where online dating can create the illusion that there are infinite possibilities for potential partners, it’s easy to become swept up in the quest for THE ONE. No longer do we have to “settle” for someone who is less than perfect; we can just keep looking for the person who fulfills all of our needs. Tiny details – like preference for one dog breed over another – can be a deal breaker, but what does it matter? There are hundreds, if not millions, of others out there who also love Labradoodles, and surely one of them will be THE ONE! If it’s easy to reject someone for something as trivial as canine obsession, it’s even easier to reject them for something serious, like fibromyalgia or complex PTSD.

     

    Sadly, this is a model that leaves many out in the cold…and often without human connection and comfort. If you don’t have a partner who can hold you when you’re having a bad day and tell you that everything is going to be all right, then where do you get that support? (And of course, no one talks about the fact that having a partner doesn’t guarantee that they will get this – just as couples often have different sex drives, many couples have different touch drives.)

     

    What happens to those who don’t find themselves paired up, two by two? Do they stand outside the world of relationships, looking in like a homeless person looking at people enjoying a fine meal? If they are lucky, they find themselves with a strong community of friends and family they can call on, but that’s not always the case. In the United States, the number of single people is at an all-time high. While some of them may be in relationships, many find themselves in utter control of their own fiefdoms and fulfilling the roles of breadwinner, caregiver, decision-maker, cheerleader and planner for themselves and others.

     

    To me, it makes so much sense to form relationships that are based not only on sexual attraction but also on platonic touch. It would allow us to give and receive tangible, nurturing support from a network of people, instead of expecting one single person to fulfill all of our needs. And more importantly, this is a model that allows those who are most in need of support and care from others to get it outside of romantic relationships. It would also allow those who are supporting people who are in demanding caregiver roles to get some of their touch needs met when their partners can’t do it for them.

     

    Platonic touch not only provides emotional support, it provides oxytocin, a great aid for physical wellness: it resets the parasympathetic nervous system, reduces inflammation, and can give pain relief. Platonic touch requires no specific skills, equipment, membership or training.  It doesn’t get doled out via prescription, is all-natural and self-generated. And it’s one of the most pleasant forms of self-care out there. It does, however, require making ourselves vulnerable by asking for a type of connection where we don’t yet understand the rules of social engagement because they aren’t carefully scripted.

     

    Of course, it’s easier to continue to believe that the absolute perfect person who will be our everything exists out there, and that they will accept us, warts and all. That they will see past our scars, our history, our traumas, our aging bodies. That someone will see that these things are our strengths, not our flaws, and that they are what make us unique and interesting, and not defective and unworthy.

     

    That person may very well exist…but they are much easier to find when we are already taking care of ourselves. And forming relationships based on nurturing, platonic touch is a fantastic, rarely considered option for doing so, and can make what could be a very long wait much more tolerable…..

     

  • A Woman's Touch

    Like many entrepreneurs who are growing their businesses, I do rideshare driving to help pay the bills. It is a good fit for me: the hours and the money are flexible, I like taking care of people and listening to their stories, and it’s often a fun job. I have tons of opportunities to learn new things about the city I live in and the events that go on here and I cross paths with many folks I would otherwise never meet.

     

    One thing I’ve learned is that Austin is a destination city for bachelor parties. It makes sense: there are five different bar districts where you can walk around and get drunk, and if you have people coming from many different parts of the country, it’s pretty central. I often find myself with a car full of young dudes on their way to or from breakfast tacos, barbecue, tubing or drinking. I love their hope and excitement for creating a future with their brides-to-be, and to get to be a fly on the wall when observing male friendships.

     

    Friday afternoon I got a ping from an address around the corner from my house. I instantly recognized the address: it’s a super-popular Airbnb rental that often hosts bachelor parties. Sure enough, I drove up and there was a horde of guys in their late 20s with matching t-shirts that had been designed to commemorate their weekend of drunkenness and debauchery.

     

    One of the guys asked if they could all fit in my car; sadly, my clown car was in the shop and I could only take four of them. Three of them piled into the back seat, and the groom got into the front seat. We started heading for a bar downtown so they could start what would clearly be a long night of drinking.

     

    As we drove off, the groom put his hand to his forehead and started complaining loudly to his friends. “You guys, my dad is driving me fucking crazy! He’s ruining my weekend! It totally sucks!” Turns out that dad had invited himself along to party for the weekend, and had an agenda that differed slightly from the rest of the crew. The groom had woken up that morning to find him perusing ads for escorts on Craigslist and trying to figure out where he could score some drugs.  We all laughed - it was funny as fuck - but it was clearly stressing him out. The groom proceeded to get louder and more agitated, and was beating himself up for not saying no. Instead of having a fun weekend where he was the center of attention, he was doing damage control.

     

    Like many people who grew up in a household with yelling, I’m not fond of loud voices. It’s even worse when it’s going on inside a small, enclosed space while I’m trying to focus on piloting a 3000-pound vehicle through Friday afternoon traffic on a holiday weekend. I had to do something to bring this guy back to the present moment and calm him down, for my safety and theirs.

     

    At a stop sign, I turned to him and asked, “is it okay if I put my hand on your shoulder?” He looked a bit surprised, but agreed. I placed it on his shoulder blade and patted him in a comforting gesture. He quieted down, and started breathing more deeply.

     

    In the back seat, his friends started hooting and hollering. “Dude! She’s trying to turn you on!” they crowed, grinning and nudging each other. They hadn’t even started their evening and already their boy was getting some action!

     

    “No, actually, I’m trying to calm him down,” I replied.

     

    “Yeah, no, that feels good. I appreciate it,” the groom told me. A few moments later, I removed my hand (it was required for steering) and the rest of the ride was calm. When we reached the bar, they tried to get me to park the car and come in for a drink. I could think of dozens of things more appealing than sitting in a bar at 4 in the afternoon (like driving in rush-hour traffic) and I sent them on their merry way.

     

    After I drove off, I started thinking about the reaction of the guys in the back seat. They immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was trying to hit on a guy whose sole reason for being on vacation was to celebrate his impending nuptials to a woman he clearly loved (after he had chilled out, he talked nonstop about her).

     

    These young men couldn’t wrap their head around the idea that touch can be used for relaxation, not arousal, and that my clearly stated intention was to be kind and supportive toward their stressed-out friend. If I had put my hand high up on his thigh, I could see where they would have been confused, but there was nary an erogenous zone within my reach. And of course it never crossed their minds that I was madly in love and didn’t have any interest in boinking their friend (though had they known, I suspect they would have been even more derisive – no woman who with a boyfriend should be touching a man who isn’t her partner).

     

    I wondered about their relationship status: were they all single? Did any woman who smiled and said hello become a potential sex partner in their eyes? Was it possible to have a tactile human interaction with the opposite sex that was based on friendliness, or was it always seen as flirtation? Why would a woman touch a man unless she wanted to have sex with him? Did they get confused when they were touched by a female nurse or hairdresser?

     

    If they did have girlfriends, would they automatically assume that she wanted sex when she went in for a hug at the end of a hard day? Would they find themselves being rebuffed for sex and couldn’t understand that their wives were touched out after giving to their brand-new infants all day long? Or would they learn that it’s important to feel nurtured and safe in the arms of another, and that sometimes it has absolutely nothing to do with sex? (If they were lucky, they would have daughters who would teach them that lesson.)

     

    As I’ve spent time studying the cultural implications of touch, one of the most damaging trends I’ve noticed is that we suffer from our society’s inability to uncouple sex from touch. Men in particular bear that burden; while many women are comfortable being affectionate with each other, many men are not. If they don’t have friends and family living close by, some men can go weeks without being touched by another human being. It’s gotten to the point where I can look at a man and see that it’s been a long time since anyone embraced him.

     

    I’ve had an easier time offering strangers a hug as I’ve aged, but I still hold back for fear of my intentions being misconstrued if said stranger is a man. And I am saddened by the fact that many men are afraid of being touched by other men. What a different world we would live in if we could see touch as a part of our health and wellness, similar to exercise, nutrition and a good night’s sleep. I think we would be happier and calmer and more relaxed.

     

    I hope that my bachelor pals got smashed drunk last night and offered each other copious, celebratory hugs…but not so drunk that they crossed boundaries with women they found attractive. And I hope the next time they find themselves in a situation with a woman comforting a man, they can tell the difference between sex and kindness.

  • Ask Before You Touch...

    (Photo by Eric Kilby)

    “What do you do?” is a common opening gambit when chatting with strangers. As you can imagine, “immersive touch therapy” is a response that garners lots of quizzical looks, curious questions, nervous laughter…and tons of great conversation. Over the past three years, I have come to realize that we don’t think much about the first sense humans develop, and its role in how we interact with each other.

     

    Oftentimes, people will tell me how long it’s been since they’ve been hugged, or how their now-grown children no longer snuggle up with them, or that the thing they miss most about their ex is sleeping in the same bed. At some point, I might ask them if they would like a hug.

     

    If they say yes, we will embrace. It takes about 5-10 seconds for their bodies to relax  – totally understandable when the person touching you is a complete stranger – but if we keep hugging, eventually their bodies will soften, they will sigh and say “that feels SO good.”

     

    Because connecting with another human being through physical contact does feel good. Duh.

     

    Of course, there’s a caveat (isn’t there always?):

    If you don't want to be touched, it won't feel good. Period.

     

    My Grand Plan is to get people to rethink touch: who, what, where, when, how and why? Our biology has wired us for physical connection, and yet, what that looks like for each of us varies wildly.

     

    Consent is the fulcrum around which human interactions pivot. Whether a relationship lasts a lifetime or a moment, it must be based on respect, kindness and common desires. While bodies operate in a similar fashion – they need food, water, air, rest, evacuation and movement in order to function – their nervous systems, personal preferences, culture, upbringing, and injuries (physical, mental and emotional) make them highly individualistic in what they like…and what they can tolerate. 

     

    We tolerate a lot of displeasure and discomfort in our daily lives. Some of it is necessary – standing in line at the grocery store or getting a tattoo, for instance. Much of it is unavoidable. But when it comes to having somebody touch us or hold us for comfort or connection, the conscious yes is the most important part of the process. Our bodies don’t lie to us about whether or not they feel safe. When we make physical contact with someone in a way that feels threatening or overwhelming, we tense up and check out. Why put ourselves – or others – through that? Last time I checked, we had enough stressors to deal with.

     

    Asking before touching somebody you don’t know well takes only a moment. Touching somebody without asking can have lasting consequences. It’s always okay to ask, and it’s always okay to say no. Rejection is not the end of the world, or even the end of the relationship. A boundary can mean not right now, not that activity, not with you. Respecting said boundary is the important thing, and easier to do if we don’t take it personally. As my friend Francesca Gentille wisely says, a boundary is for me, not against you.

     

     

    Some people can’t get enough of touch. They hug their friends, classmates and family members like it’s going out of style. On the other end of that continuum are people who, for whatever reason, do not like to be touched. They stick out their hands for a handshake when a colleague comes in for a hug, and cringe when friends hug them.

     

    There is no right or wrong way to handle hugging and giving/receiving touch. Having agency over our bodies is a simple and powerful thing. Making choices about who we want to get closer to provides us with better capacity to care for ourselves and trust our instincts.

     

    If you want more touch in your life, you are going to have to ask for it. It will be weird (as is any sort of interaction that isn’t socially scripted with well-defined roles) and people might say no to you. Sometimes you might have to pay for it if you don’t have other options. But it is your responsibility to ask for what you need.

     

    If you don’t want to be touched, you deserve to have your preferences respected without being coerced or having to explain what you want or need. This, too, will be weird (often people get focused on what they want and don’t stop to think that the other person may not want the same thing), and people may get offended when you say no. But it is your responsibility to ask for what you need.

     

    For all of humanity’s existence, touch has been necessary for our survival. Touch is still necessary for our survival; it is how we care for our young. With consent, touch could help us thrive. I see a world where we can give and receive touch from each other for wellness, comfort, safety, relaxation, happiness, connection and pleasure. I want to live on a planet where we reach out to each other with care, kindness and trust, where we realize that we need to turn toward our fellow humans if we want to evolve.

     

    Would you like a hug?

     

    (This post was brought to you by the mental soundtrack of Susan Sarandon’s “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me,” White Zombie’s “More Human Than Human" and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”)

     

  • 16 Ways to Get Your Platonic Touch Needs Met

    Touch is one of our most basic needs. If we are fortunate, we begin our lives with a family who gives us nurturing, loving, compassionate touch. As we grow into adulthood, though, we are taught that the only way to get our touch needs met is through a sexual relationship. This all-or-nothing paradigm leaves many people with no touch whatsoever, and no way to get this need met. Even being in an intimate relationship doesn’t guarantee that you will be touched – just ask all those couples who never have sex!

    Consensual platonic touch is a great way to get your skin hunger addressed. An important part of consent is it is okay to ask and it is also okay to say no. Be okay with rejection; we are all rejected from time to time, and the world doesn’t end when it happens. Approaching another person with no expectations, a sense of respect and an open heart is recommended and encouraged.

     

    Be aware that going into a touch encounter with an agenda or desire to create a sexual connection is probably going to backfire and get you neither touch nor sex. Consider the other person’s needs and desires: is touch, or even verbal intercourse, something that would benefit them? Oddly enough, by getting your platonic touch needs met, you are more likely to be relaxed and attractive to others and be considered a good candidate for a more intimate relationship!

     

    The following list provides some suggestions of non-sexual ways to receive touch.

    1. Ask a friend or family member to hug you. If it is a friend of the opposite sex, be clear that you are not interested in sex, just touch.
    2. Get a pedicure, manicure or facial.
    3. Get a haircut. Ask the stylist to shampoo your hair.
    4. Schedule a massage.
    5. Hire an escort or sex worker and ask them to simply hold you.
    6. Look for a local cuddle party in your area. Sometimes they are organized on www.meetup.com.
    7. Go to a busy public place and hold up a sign that says Free Hugs.
    8. Sign up for a dance class that involves partner dancing. Eastern European folk dancing also involves holding hands and dancing in a line.
    9. Run an ad on Craigslist asking for someone to cuddle with. Be willing to exchange emails with them, and meet in a public place, so that they will feel comfortable. (Pet peeve: many people are putting ads on Craigslist these days with a cuddling title, but they are really looking for casual sex. Be honest about what you want and need; bait-and-switch is unethical.)
    10. Make an appointment for a Karuna Session.
    11. Do not rule out the option of being touched by a member of the same sex. Women tend to be more touchy-feely with their friends than men, but in many other countries, heterosexual men routinely hug, hold hands and walk arm in arm.
    12. Ask for a hug from a medical professional you see (like a therapist or doctor). If they decline, tell them that this is something you are craving, ask them if they can recommend a touch professional.
    13. Join a social group or organization that meets regularly where members know each other and often hug at the beginning or end of events. Be prepared to show up regularly and allow them to get to know you.
    14. If you are a spiritual person, consider getting involved with a church. One of the biggest benefits of organized religion is the community created around it.
    15. Take a weekend-long workshop. People who spend a weekend exploring a topic that is somewhat self-reflective often become close and hug each other at the end.
    16. If you can’t find someone to hold you, you can wrap yourself tightly in a blanket, and rock a bit from side to side. This is the best way to simulate cuddling.

     

    One last note, personal connections will involve taking some risks and getting out of your comfort zone. If this is too much of a leap for you, please consider an option that involves paid touch. It is likely that after your body has had a chance to relax, and you remember how good it feels to be held, you will be more ready to take some of these risks.