Perceiving Interconnectedness Through Touch

Painted turtle with injured shell taped, held head on by a human hand

Opporunities for touch are plentiful when rehabilitating wild turtles, like this painted turtle who was hit by a car.

On a Tuesday in September 2017 I had a Shamanic Reiki client in the afternoon, so my parents picked my son up from school. I arrived at their house to claim him as they were finishing dinner. When my father started to push his chair back, I said, “No, stay there. We have to run.” I missed out on a hug. Five days later my dad passed suddenly, and there were no more chances for that hug.

Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I cannot hug my mother. I cannot hug my daughter. I cannot be in my yoga studio. There are no hands-on asana alignment adjustments. And I cannot offer in-person Shamanic Reiki sessions. I feel lost and longing for touch and am feeling again regret for that hug I turned down.

Touch as sensation

Of all our senses, the tactile sensation may be the most powerful, the most overlooked, and the most abused. I recall standing in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, looking at the vast expanse of Monet’s Water Lilies from a respectable distance. They were awe-inspiring, but I wonder now if my experience of them would have been different if I could have run my fingers over and felt the texture of the canvas and the contours of the oil paint. How many children have been asked to look but don’t touch, when touch is how they most want to explore the world?

Touch can also be a source of pain. My closest friend heads a company that developed an app to record instances of domestic abuse. She is sadly aware of the increases in such episodes while victims are forced to shelter in isolation with their abusers. The same senses through which we experience joy and wonder also bring us pain, and it is a sad commentary on human nature that there are those who willingly inflict pain on others, peverting the experience of touch.

Touch as participation

To occupy myself during isolation, I have been rereading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. In it, Abram speaks of touch as participation. To touch is to also feel yourself being touched. He wrote, “…the world is perceiving itself through us.” Each time I read that I have a moment of mind-blowing awareness.

As a Shamanic Reiki practitioner, I know that I am affected by the energetic transmission just as my client is. It is not depleting since it is not my energy I am sharing, but as the intelligent energy moves through me it is also working on me. Early on in my Shamanic Reiki training, my teacher, Llyn Roberts, addressed the question of the appropriateness of touch in a Reiki session by reminding us that touch is in itself soothing and, while avoiding obviously sensitive areas, we should not deny a client who would like to receive Reiki though direct touch. Now, when my only Shamanic Reiki sessions are at a distance, I am missing the touch. The energy flows regardless, and I am both directing and receiving its benefits, but neither my client nor I are experiencing the deep, reciprocal participation of touch.

Perceiving interconnectedness through touch

If we experience the world, and the world experiences us, through touch, what has happened to our understanding of interconnectedness as “nature” has become, for many, something to look at from a respectable distance? As a child I was blessed with a direct, tactile experience of other species. There were pets – dogs, hamsters, and parakeets – to touch. Outdoors, I caught (and released) frogs, held fiddler crabs while they threatened with tiny claws, felt jellyfish run through my fingers. I dug my toes into the silt in the shallows of the bay, feeling for the points of buried clams. I felt the ridges of a scallop’s shell, and started when it snapped and flipped out of my hand. Tiny nails scratched my skin as a chipmunk climbed to my shoulder for a peanut.

When I tell others of these experiences, as often as not the response is “ewww.” Contemplating touch, I realize that my childhood was not typical, and my access to nature was a privilege many did not have, including those who grew up in the same middle-class suburban neighborhood with the ocean only blocks away – considered privileged by other metrics – but who were told other animals were something to fear or loathe, and definitely were not something to touch.

If our perception of interconnectedness depends on participatory touch, how can those who cannot, or will not, have that experience understand what we are losing as species disappear from Earth? I am coming to realize that my past and present tactile acquaintance with other species is a driver of my desire to protect them. Saving the abstract idea of “wildlife” is a nice concept I can get behind. Saving turtles, the animals I both keep and rehabilitate, and have held in my hands, touching and being touched by them, is a passion.

Looking to the future

I am acknowledging also that community engagement in both avoiding vehicle strikes and protecting our local turtle habitats may start with access to and encouragement of safe tactile experiences. I plan educational programs informed by a desire to create these experiences. Pet a turtle? Absolutely, if the turtle desires to participate. Additionally, I am considering how other touch experiences, such as yoga and Shamanic Reiki, can blend into such an educational program. Turtle yoga? Yes, it might be a thing in the post-coronavirus future.

Meanwhile, I miss hugs and the reciprocal touch experience of hands-on Shamanic Reiki and yoga. I am privileged to share my home with my immediate family and a variety of species, both domestic and wild, and have opportunities for touch, even if they feel insufficient, and to have the time to design programs. I hope someday to give you the chance to hold a turtle and want to save their species.

Until then, my friend, stay safe, be well, and acknowledge the unfulfillment of your own desires denied by our shared social responsibility.

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