The Touchables

"The communications we transmit through touch constitute the most powerful means of establishing human relationships, the foundation of experience."
Ashley Montagu

Have you noticed that some people are touchers, and some aren’t? Touchers will shake your hand or give you a hug. They’ll put a child on their lap and hold them close. They enjoy being close to people and making contact. Non-touchers avoid such close proximity, and may be uncomfortable when in the grip of a toucher.

In general, chimpanzees are touchers. They carry their babies until they are too large, and the babies get used to being in contact. The touch is pleasant for mother and child, and a strong bond forms between them. The family and friends of chimps help them with their grooming, and everyone seems to like it. Combing through someone’s hair you get to know them  pretty well, and they like it that you do.

Tribal peoples tend to be touchers. They carry their babies close to their bodies. They breast feed as nature intended. They know each other well because they live close together. Touching among peers is just natural and no big deal.

It seems that with the growth of civilization we lose touch with one another. Living in big cities, we don’t know most of the people we see, and we don’t want them touching us. Western civilized babies sleep by themselves, may be fed with a rubber nipple on a bottle, are pushed around in strollers that face away from the parent’s face, and they don’t get the bonding opportunities of their "less privileged" counterparts in so-called primitive cultures.

By choosing to live in big cities with big schools and big office buildings we must often interact with strangers. Since we don’t know them, we don’t trust them. The culture sets rules for the closeness of strangers. You can stand very close in an elevator, but you have to stand facing the door. You can shake hands on greeting, but it needs to be brief. No holding hands with strangers, except maybe in church when everybody else is doing it, or while folk dancing, but we don’t really folk dance much anymore.

People work together for years without ever touching each other. If you do touch somebody else at work, it had better be very innocent, very non-sexual. Since we spend time with people with whom we are not intimate, it is difficult to know when a touch is more than just a touch. Was it a sexual touch? Was it a gesture of dominance? Was it an invitation for an intimacy that we don’t care to share?  Rather than being misunderstood, most of us follow the rules and just don’t touch each other.

Instead we get cats and dogs. We need to touch somebody, so we pet our pets. We love our pets and they love us. That love is born of the touch. The cat or dog that lives outdoors with little human touch is different from one that lives with and is touched often by humans. The family pet becomes a little bit human, and their human friends get to be a little more animated.

People talk about what we can do to stop kids from being alienated and violent. Maybe we could touch them more when they are babies. Hold them more. Breast feed. Carry them next to our bodies so that they can see our faces and smell our fragrance. As they grow, hug them regularly. Comb their hair. Let them know they are dear to us and that they are part of us. Let them see their parents hugging, kissing and holding hands. Let them know that their family is a family that loves and respects one another.


In the book Zen Fables for Today: Stories Inspired by the Zen Masters, Richard McLean describes a Hug Meditation taught by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It goes like this:
When you hug someone you love, take hold of them, and in the first breath, in and out, be totally present with them no place else in the world. Then hold them for three breaths. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Try this with someone you love.

Notice how you touch or do not touch others. See if you can be more open to the opportunity to give and receive a hug.

When you shake hands, make a connection. The handshake is designed to acknowledge and connect with the other person. Practice being more present in that moment of greeting.

When in a crowd, notice how you respond to inadvertent touch. Are you repelled? Do you feel anxious that you might unintentionally touch someone? Try to relax. Gather in the energy of the crowd, and send it back as kindness and goodwill.

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© 1999-2002 Tom Barrett