Touch of the Ancients
Sensual Massage – Nature’s natural medicine at our fingertips
by Colin Richards, Master Masseur & Sexual Performance Mentor
Touch of the ancients
For centuries and in many early cultures, massage was an accepted and common healing treatment. As early as the 3rd century BC Chinese Taoist priests, to the 1st century BC Indian Tantra gurus, to the Greeks and later the Romans, even to the more remote tribes of the Pacific islands, massage with oils (often infused with herbs and flowers) was an integral part of maintaining a healthy life. It was seen as a way to heal ailments or calm the body and mind after a hectic day of battle, politics or sport, as a treatment for skin conditions and, of course – within Tao and Tantra philosophies – as a way of enhancing understanding and sensual communication between lovers. But most importantly, these ancients held no distinction between sensual or non sensual, believing that ‘if it felt good then it must be good’ and that the sensual process which ultimately creates life is sacred and natural – to be embraced rather than feared.
Massage remained common throughout the first millennium, then gradually – particularly in Western Cultures due to religious doctrine – the emergence of science as the only accepted healing treatment and later, the puritanical values of the Victorian era, right up to the present day ‘can’t touch’ culture, touch became demonised, viewed mostly as sexual unless given within a relationship. This meant that the for last few hundred years right up to the late 20th century, if you were not in a functioning intimate partnership the only means of receiving touch was either in medicinal treatment (such as rubbing a remedy balm into the chest for colds) or in polarity as a sexual service given by escorts and prostitutes, making the word ‘massage’ simply a euphemism for sexual favours.
Touch in the 21st century – The stigma of touch
Many of us are fortunate to be in a loving intimate relationship with a partner, where sensual touch is given to each other often as a prelude to sex or just to show love for one another. However, for those not in a relationship or whose relationship has become non intimate and physically distant, intimate touch can be elusive, available only by seeking out some kind of ‘treatment’. Some simply go to a hairdresser or beautician, some visit a sports or therapeutic masseur or other ‘bodywork’ practitioner. For some the choice is a furtive sexual liaison that allows them to touch and be touched – even for just a short moment. But the touch in these situations is mostly given conditionally and without feeling. The therapist remains painstakingly clinical to avoid any impression of intimacy; the hairdresser keeps chatting – lest that lovely feeling of having the scalp massaged be misunderstood, and the brief sexual encounter remains mechanical for fear that any intimacy shown may imply the desire for relationship. Many societies in the modern West are ‘touch-starved’. We actively discourage the kind of affection that is expressed naturally in other cultures. It’s socially unacceptable to touch. There is an unwritten rule that says the less you know someone the further apart you must be. Think about being on a train. When another passenger gets on, the last place they will choose to sit is next to an occupied seat. Only when there is no other option will they actually sit next to someone else.
All too often, when we hear about touch, it is in the context of pornography – even abuse and violence. We go out of our way to ignore or deny the need for caring touch and because our bodies remain imprinted with that basic need, we live with the consequences: reduced well-being, fear, depression, insecurity, abusiveness, mental illness. The high levels of publicity given to sexual abuse over recent years have been a great deterrent for healthy touching. We’re afraid of touching because our actions might be misinterpreted – hence children are deprived of appropriate touch at a very early age. Our response has been analogous to that of the person who, having eaten some bad food, decides that the best course of action in future is not to eat at all, rather than ensuring that what is eaten is healthy. So too it is with touch. There’s the rotten variety which makes us ill, but there’s also the nourishing, wholesome kind, which is the staff of life itself. Please, let’s not allow the existence of harmful touch to lead us to deprivation.
How important is touch?
The words that spring to mind are – crucial, critical and vital. Literally vital, as without appropriate touch, people cannot grow and develop. Touch is powerful . ‘The greatest sense in our body is our touch sense. It’s probably the chief sense in processes of sleeping and waking; it gives us our knowledge of depth or thickness and form; we feel, we love and hate, are touchy and are touched, through … our skin.’ (J Lionel Tayler: ‘The Stages of Human Life’ – 1921) Touch is instinct. When a baby cries, its instinct is to pick up, rock, pat and soothe. When you bang your elbow, its instinct is to grab it and rub it. Touch is an unthinking part of our everyday language: we say – rub up the wrong way; out of touch; lost their grip; thick-skinned or thin skinned; the personal touch; when something’s exactly right we’ve ‘put a finger on it’, and maybe most telling of all, when someone’s moving away we say ‘keep in touch’, even when what we mean is write or phone. The dictionary definition of ‘touch’ is ‘the action or an act of feeling something with the hand etc’. The operative word is ‘feeling’. Though touch is not in itself an emotion, its sensory elements induce those feelings we describe as emotions. A comforting hand on the shoulder of someone who is distressed produces a very different emotional reaction to an apprehending touch on the shoulder of a wrongdoer. The touch of someone’s hand, the closeness of an embrace, and the connection of personal contact signify caring and comforting. Feelings of security, safety and easiness are amplified. Touching builds closeness, fosters communication and nurtures intimacy. Touching gives a person the sense of being cared about and cared for. Being touched or held makes a person feel worthy psychologically and soothed physically.
What is touch?
Touch is contact, a relationship with that which lies outside our own periphery. It tells us we’re not alone. As infants, it’s primarily through touch that we explore and make sense of the world; the loving touch of our carers is essential to our growth. The cuddling and stroking received in infancy helps build a healthy self image and nurtures the feeling of being accepted and loved. Psychologists have demonstrated that our perception of how much and how we are touched relates to how we value ourselves; it’s the essential nourishment for self-esteem. Touch is much more than a physical interaction. It has to do with the acknowledgement of our shared humanity and mutual recognition of the inherent vulnerability and intense wish for contact that is present in each of us. When we feel loved as a result of an abundance of appropriate touch and affection in our lives, we have an inbuilt sense of safety and stability that does not depend upon how other people respond to us. We wake up feeling loved and go to sleep feeling loved – no matter what slings and arrows get hurled at us in any given day.
Touch deprivation – what happens if we’re not touched?
The 13th century historian Salimbene described an experiment carried out by the German Emperor Frederick II, who wanted to know what language children would speak if raised without hearing any words at all. Babies were taken from their mothers and raised in isolation. The result was that they all died. Salimbene wrote in 1248, ‘They could not live without petting.’Nor can anyone else. Untouched adults may not die physically, but life will not be experienced to the full. Touch deprivation is also harmful because it severely affects sleep, which is necessary for the conservation of energy. In all studies on separations of very young children from their mothers, sleep was always affected. The time children required to fall asleep was longer, and night waking was more frequent. In several studies a suppressed immune response was noted following the separation of monkeys from their mothers. Less antibody production and less natural killer cell activity resulted. After reunion with their mothers, immune function returned to normal. Studies on touch deprivation among pre-school children who were separated from their mothers also noted more frequent illnesses, particularly upper respiratory infections, diarrhoea and constipation. This is the same for adults: 26 adults with migraine headaches, randomly assigned to a massage therapy group, received twice-weekly 30-minute massages for five consecutive weeks. They reported fewer distress symptoms, less pain, more headache-free days, fewer sleep disturbances, also taking fewer analgesics and with increased serotonin levels.
Why do we love to be touched? Is it primal?
The need for intimate touch is primal; for millennia, man – maybe even before he had the powers of speech – more than likely used touch as a form of group communication. By nature we are a tribal species; we need each other to survive. For the first ten or so years of our lives we are extremely vulnerable; we need others to protect, feed and care for us and it is through touch we are reassured that we belong to the group, that we are safe. It identifies our place in the group hierarchy.
In nature’s example of the Bonobo monkey – that shares 98% of our genetic makeup and is regarded as the closest primate to the human being – sex and intimate touch is a major part of their social life and group dynamics. It is not so difficult to believe, therefore, that the natural state of the human being is very similar – an area studied by Frans B.M. de Waal and reported in the March 1995 issue of Scientific American.
‘The diversity of erotic contacts in bonobos includes sporadic oral sex, massage of another individual’s genitals and intense tongue-kissing. Lest this leave the impression of a pathologically oversexed species, I must add, based on hundreds of hours of watching bonobos, that their sexual activity is rather casual and relaxed. It appears to be a completely natural part of their group life. Like people, bonobos engage in sex only occasionally, not continuously’.
Bonobo Sex and Society, by Frans B. M. de Waal. [Read more]
Skin – the biggest sensory & sexual organ in the body
How is it possible that touch can be one of most effective means to influence the structures and functions of body and mind? The answer lies in the skin. Skin is the largest sensory organ of the body, arising in a human embryo from the same ectodermic cell layers as the nervous system. In the evolution of the senses, touch is the earliest to develop.
Skin statistics – 19 square feet of pleasure
In an adult male there are 19 square feet of skin which contains 5 million sensory cells and represents 12% of total body weight. Skin is softer in summer – the pores are wider and there is greater lubrication. In winter it’s more compact and firm, the pores are closer together and hair sheds less. A piece of skin the size of a 5 pence coin has: more than 3 million cells, 100-340 sweat glands, 50 nerve endings and three feet of blood vessels. Skin contains hundreds of thousands of sensory receptors, which are triggered by skin stimuli. Skin, so closely tied to the nervous system, sends messages to our brain via the spinal cord – heart rate and blood pressure react. Appropriate touch can prompt the brain to produce endorphins, the body’s natural pain suppressers, which are considered more powerful than morphine. This is why massage can help ease pain.