Sunday, August 11, 2013


Throwing pots on a wheel is a craft of touch. Learning it is an
exercise in beginner’s mind. No knowledge, no skills and no
sensitivity to the medium. Watching a woman who had been doing it many
years, barely touching the edges as she narrowed the top on a delicate
vase got me to thinking about the different levels of knowing that
came with different pressure of the hands and fingers. If you look at
a map of how much of the sensory cortex is devoted to what parts of
the body, the fingers and thumb have disproportionately large shares.
As my teacher Bianka said, I’m still “lunging at the clay”. Developing
touch that learns and responds more carefully requires practice. Every
new skill could be thought of as developing a touch for a particular
thing. And everything we get in touch with adds a type of awareness
that has practical applications that also extend the metaphors
available in verbal expression.

Images for touch in art suggest the depth of its importance for human
well-being. The most famous touch is probably the Sistine Chapel image
of Adam being given life when touched by God. It’s a common metaphor
for sharing a transformative energy. The image of touch as a healing
influence is widespread, whether in religions, energy healers or
simply one individual touching another. As I watch people in my
neighborhood carting newborns around in baby carriers I remember the
pediatrician that lived upstairs who carried her baby in her arms or
on her hip all the time when the baby was tiny. She clearly was aware
of all the research on the importance of physical closeness, not just
for a baby’s sense of safety but because touch itself is so important.
Massaging babies improves their digestion and absorption of nutrients,
but the more significant finding about touch is its role in long-term
bonding. Touch stimulates production of oxytocin, a key ingredient in
bonding for all mammals. Many of us grew up in societal groups that
were not conditioned to touch and are thus uncomfortable with it.
Given the research on how it affects not just health, but
intelligence, it’s a difficulty we should learn to overcome.

The research on the advantages to gentle touching goes on and on. When
a drug research lab was feeding rabbits a high cholesterol diet so
cholesterol drugs could be tested, they couldn’t understand why the
cholesterol of the rabbits in the middle cages didn’t go up. They were
eating the exact same food as the others. A surveillance camera
provided the answer. The technician on night duty would take out the
rabbits in the middle cages and pet and play with them. Being touched
affected their cholesterol. The effects of stress on cholesterol were
shown in studies that measured higher cholesterol in accountants at
tax time and students at exam time.  Since cholesterol is a component
of neural function for the manufacture of new connections, working
through the stress to a successful conclusion may make proper use of
it, while not dealing with it may allow the cholesterol into the
bloodstream. Massage when under stress could reduce the negative
health effects via its beneficial effect on metabolism.

The fact that so many positive effects accompany touch underscores the
importance of human contact. We need to feel part of a larger whole.
It doesn’t have to be physical. We’ve all experienced being touched by
a gesture of kindness, a look of understanding, the attention of
another when we need it most. The concept of being touched, by a
painting or through empathy for another, conveys a feeling in our
depths stirred to activity by the connection.

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