Friday evening, I went with a friend to a kitten adoption event. It was outdoors in July in Texas (already a recipe for disaster when your guests of honor are wearing fur coats). Add a cup of car traffic, a handful of anti-gentrification protesters and stir well: instant stressed-out cats! It was difficult to gauge the cats’ personalities when they were so keyed up. And yet…every time we took one of them out of their cage and held them in our arms, they relaxed and began to purr.
This experience confirmed something I’ve learned over the past three years of doing Karuna Sessions: safety is a state of body, not mind, and a feeling of safety can be achieved by holding the body close.
Simple, yes, but it makes so much sense. Individually, we begin our lives as helpless babies, unable to physically survive without the care and nurturing of other humans. When we cry, and our mothers hold us, we know what it’s like to feel protected and cared for. Collectively, too, the human race began and survived in groups and bands. At night we would sleep in big piles, for both warmth and security. Being kicked out of the tribe and sent away from other humans meant certain death.
These days, though, we are isolated from each other. We have our own rooms, our big houses, our gated communities where we can retreat. Our children spend their days in age-segregated schools, while we warehouse our seniors in “retirement communities.” We drive in vehicles by ourselves, or lower our eyes to our phones on public transportation. At the grocery store, we apologize profusely if we bump into another person. The more affluent we become, the less contact we have with random humans not of our explicit choosing. We fear the other, and gather in segregated tribes whose values and ideas match our own.
Our physical bodies deal with immense amounts of stress on a daily basis. Crap food, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, and pollution all take their toll. Difficult physical labor or cube-farm jobs leave us feeling sore, cramped and tired. Worries from the personal to the planetary cause us to tense up, while judgment about our appearance batters us from the outside. Sometimes we can get away from our lives for a few days or weeks here and there, though we find ourselves back in the daily grind right around the time we’re feeling like we have relaxed.
When the body, the space that should be our safe home, feels like a war zone, where do we escape to? Most of us retreat into our heads. Our minds constantly race, overloaded with useless facts. Every day brings more bad news about death, hatred, collapse and disaster into our consciousness until we’re overwhelmed. We wonder why we’re depressed, traumatized, anxious, paranoid, angry and addicted.
We ferociously collect guns, dollars, possessions and information in an attempt to provide us with the security we desperately crave. And yet, it’s never enough.
Safety comes from other people, not from shutting other people out.* If we’re lucky, we’ll hold an infant in our arms and catch a glimpse of the peace we experienced at the beginning of life. Or maybe we’ll find someone who will curl around us nightly in a smaller configuration of our ancestors’ sleep habits. For the most part, though, we’re on our own.
When someone comes to us for a session, they are scared. Sometimes they have suffered a sudden loss; other times their crisis is a long time in the making. Their bodies are tense and weary and distrustful, and I know that we will have to work hard to make them feel safe and in control before we can touch them. We honor them with our words and actions, and let them know that our only goal for the next hour is to serve and care for them. Slowly we acclimate them to the idea that they will be touched by a stranger, and that we will tell them what we’re doing every step of the way.
The first place we touch them is their hands, a typical point of physical contact between humans. Gradually their breath begins to deepen. When we move to their face, stroking their cheeks and chin the way a mother would, the wrinkles begin to soften, the lips part. Their brows may furrow as they struggle to hold back tears, and sometimes they are unsuccessful and the tears will flow as they remember this familiar touch (or lack of it).
As they deepen into relaxation, they will sigh, or they will tell us how good it feels to be touched. Their stomachs gurgle as their parasympathetic nervous system begins to activate. Shortly thereafter, conversation ceases as they become comfortable with receiving. By the time we reach the part of the session where we embrace them, they are often so absorbed in the experience they have forgotten we are there. About five minutes into the embrace, we will feel them go limp as the micro muscles in their body relax. While the conscious mind may not remember this state, the body does. Oftentimes they will drift off to sleep. When the session is over, they are like a puddle of mush, still and peaceful. They have trusted enough to let their guard down, and have been rewarded with a state of deep relaxation, a state that only comes from feeling safe.
After the session is done and we are sitting on the couch chatting, they will look 10 years younger. Many of the wrinkles have been smoothed out, their eyes are brighter and a childlike innocence is in their smile. The relief of being supported with kindness and tender touch is palpable. Even though the experience has lasted only an hour, the memory will be remembered for months, in the head, the heart and the body. It will sustain them as they continue to soldier through the challenges in their lives.
I wonder how much suffering we could alleviate for those who grapple with trauma or addiction if we regularly reminded their bodies of the calm feeling that comes from being embraced. I envision a world where we tackle problems from the neck down in addition to talking about them. I want people to know that it is possible to trust others, that we can care for each other in physical, tangible ways and a body at peace will be healthy.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one….
* I’m well aware that too many people in this world have been made to feel unsafe in their bodies by the actions of those closest to them. Your mind may justify their presence, but your body will tell you when you can’t trust somebody. If you don’t want someone to touch you or be in your circle, please tell them to fuck right off. You have my blessing.