Bodywork with Pam

Periods of extended skin to skin contact with another person are usually associated in our society with sex or mothering. Which is why I was a bit disconcerted at first when, during a bodywork session with my friend Pam Trice, Pam gently laid her hands on my forehead and kept them there. I had no apt category in which to put this kind of touch.

Part of me was on alert – what was she going to do next? She didn’t do anything – or at least not anything that would normally be called action. After what seemed like a very long time, but was probably only a minute or so, she moved her hands to a different part of my face, near my ears. Later, she placed her pointer finger and thumb on either side of both of my outer ears. This seemed like a very odd place to be touched.

I felt in a way that she was trying to sense/hear something from my body through touching my ears, a part of my body which connects me with the world through sound. I felt vulnerable, in a way, because I know so much can be communicated through bodily touch. What would Pam think if she picked up something about me that is embarrassing, perhaps even something of which I was not myself aware?

But what I sensed from Pam’s touch was gentle, non-judgmental. Summed up in one word, Pam’s touch was presence. This is nothing world-shattering. But if you think about it, how many times do your really receive the gift of someone’s full presence, especially as it is communicated through the body? We are so often distracted in each others’ presence, not fully paying attention, our own mental monologues  and expectations going on in the background even as we half-listen to other people.

What Pam was providing for my body parallels something that Parker Palmer has called “circles of trust” for the soul. Circles of trust are two or more people who create a space for each other for the soul to come out of hiding. Palmer likens it to holding a small bird – you do not wrap your fingers too tightly around it, smothering it. You also don’t push it to fly off before it is ready. You simply hold a space for the soul come into its own.

Bodywork is like creating a circle of trust for the body. Our bodies are often “in hiding,” fearful of others’ intentions when they touch us, tensed up and defensive as we try to prevent body language from giving off how we truly feel. By providing a scaffolding of gentle presence through physical touch, not invasive, but also not evasive, bodywork practitioners hold open a space in which the body can “come out” and speak.

Our bodies may speak in bold or subtle ways. In Pam’s presence during bodywork, I was able to attend more closely to my own heartbeat, not just in my chest but throughout my limbs, fingers, and scalp. Using cranio-sacral techniques, Pam brought to my attention some imbalance of weight in my pelvis area. This awareness helped me to focus on the tension I held in this area and begin to release the weight, confident that my body was being held in a safe space.

Having received the gift of presence in Pam’s caring, gentle, and non-demanding touch, I truly felt more at home in my own skin, more confident to live with integrity in my body.

Pam’s musings about bodywork can be found at her blog “Bodywork in Progress.”

Touching the Divine

“What are bodies for?” Elizabeth Lewis Hall asks. Modern thinking gives the body no ultimate purpose – bodies are simply made to be transcended and controlled – while postmodernity turns the body into a commodity – bodies are marketed, sold, consumed. From a social science and biblical perspective, however, Hall shows that bodies are meant for connection and relationship – to God, to others, and to His creation.[1] Nowhere is this more clear to me than at my church.

It’s Sunday at Comunidad Cristiana Nueva Creación. Each new person who enters the room makes the rounds to greet the others.  Hugs and kisses on the cheek are passed from one person to the next (except for men – it’s inappropriate for two men to kiss each other on the cheek). The ritual is reenacted after the church service, when Oscar, our worship leader, encourages all of us to embrace upon dismissal. No encouragement needed. Children, women, and men weave their way amidst the bodies, hugging, kissing, patting, squeezing, blessing. But the touching doesn’t stop there. As if two kisses for each person weren’t enough, after coffee hour, goodbyes involve another round of greetings. By the time I leave church, I have given and received about three kisses for each person in the church, let’s see…about 90 in total.

The kissing ritual has taken a while to grow on me. When we first started attending Nueva Creación, I was fine with the hugs, but kissing grown men and women? Not so much. I would lean forward rigidly and placed my cheek next to theirs, making the appropriate kissing sound, but careful not to make contact between lips and skin. Most of the congregation approached me without reservation. Elders graced me with bold smacks. Older women held me captive in their warm, perfumy arms much longer than I thought necessary. Sometimes my awkward attempts resulted in head bumps and apologies.

I can’t say that I am much more graceful now, but I have learned to appreciate this form of love. I used to joke with a couple friends in college about a study we heard that human beings need something like 12 significant touches a day to be healthy: “Have you gotten your significant touches today?” Surely, each kiss I get at church is one of these significant touches. In each, I am reminded that the body of Christ is not some ephemeral essence out there, but this little old lady in front of me with her soft, saggy cheeks and pungent floral perfume, or this stocky man with his glistening skin and robust hugs. With each touch, I receive through my skin and into my being the truth that I am not an isolated, disconnected individual, but a part of the Body of Christ, knit together (albeit awkwardly at times) with the other members. I am loved, I am enfolded, I am a part of a mystery bigger than myself. When I reach out to kiss Guadalupe or Alma or Tony, I am touching the divine.

[1] See Hall’s article “What are Bodies for? An Integrative Examination of Embodiment” in Christian Scholars Review (2010, 39, no. 2), for a full discussion.