This grudging regard, sometimes outright disregard or annoyance of one’s own needs goes for for me too, often to my dismay. Do I do my Qipong every day? Do I always eat right? Don’t I sometimes scold myself mentally, chewing myself out for this or that action, inaction, embarrassment, failing? You bet I do. But I’m trying, as I hope you are, to become gentler with myself. I fully believe that you cannot receive a higher love from another than that you give to and receive from yourself, so it’s imperative to practice self-love. Not the preening narcissism so prevalent (and rewarded, alas) in our society, but a gentle, non-verbal, primal re-connection to and appreciation of self.
I’ve often marveled at how I would touch a lover with more reverence and sweetness than I’d touch myself. Why is that, I’d wonder. Why is it easier for me to be present to their soul, expressed within their body, than to my own? It took someone else, a marvelous therapist in Woodstock, NY named Joseph Trusso, to steer me away from asking the question and to just get into action to change my dynamic with myself. He recommended this exercise to me in general form and, as is my wont, I then tweaked it for myself and my own clients.
So, to begin, this is an exercise, or, really, a practice, that is done with reverence, in a quiet, private setting. Turn off the phone and the radio, find a room to yourself, and some time when you won’t be disturbed. It might be good to light a candle first, to make this a ritual, with a real beginning, but I would not light a scented candle, or sage or incense, because I want your senses attuned to you, not to any external fragrance. The same with music: this should be done in silence. This can be seen as a devotional activity: you are the altar in this practice, the connection to God/Goddess/Sun/Heaven/Earth – whatever and however you perceive the Divine.
So, you’re in a quiet, private place. Now take off all of your clothes. If you’re cold, by all means get under some covers – I want you to feel warm, safe, comfortable, nurtured.
Now, I want you to slowly, reverently, and non-sexually touch your entire body. I want you to slowly, carefully and with your full attention touch every inch of your body – even that spot between your second and third toe – all of it! – and I want you to touch it like this: When one part of you touches another, there are two sets of nerves communicating that touch through your nervous system, the nerves of the part ‘doing the touching’ and the nerves of the part ‘being touched’. Of course, in reality, both are doing the touching, and being touched, but for the purposes of this practice, imagine bringing your hand (either hand) to your forehead. The hand moving to the forehead will be ‘doing the touching’ and the forehead will be ‘being touched’. Got it? Now, when they touch (actually even before they make physical contact), the ‘toucher’ and the ‘touchee’ are both sending information up the peripheral nervous system and into the Central Nervous System (CNS). Two streams of position (the proprioceptive nervous system that is the heart of Ortho-Bionomy), muscular contraction/expansion, two pressures from two sets of nerves (deep pressure and tactile surface pressure, which gives us sensations like rough and smooth), temperature, and perhaps other bits of information (I’d add perception of ‘Chi’ or ‘Prana’, for example), are all streaming into your CNS. It’s a LOT of information, and we rarely focus on it. Far from it: we actively filter a lot of it out, and we often have to – you can’t focus on all of that while driving a car or hitting a tennis ball.
But it is an incredible amount of information that we’ve become numbed to. Ironically, one of the ‘gifts’ of my paralysis years ago was that, as I relearned to move, I re-gained an intimate relationship with these data flows, as some of them were gone almost entirely (I am still about 50% numb below my shoulders, though the numbness is uneven and non-uniform, and involves deep pressure and tactile sensory nerves differently in different places). I got to re-see the incredible, delicate, complex stream of different sensations that we normally gloss over as we move our bodies without conscious thought. I actually feel less physically – I am really quite numb – but I pay more attention, exquisite attention, because I have to. So, although there’s less information coming in, there’s more awareness of, processing of, and appreciation of the information that does arrive. Now I am asking you to step into that world, inside your self, with your exquisite body of sense and sensibility.
You can use one hand, you can alternate hands (are the sensations different with the dominant and non-dominant hands?), and, later, after you’ve done this for a little while I’d encourage you to branch out and touch with other parts of your body as well – legs, feet, arms etc.
I want you to close your eyes, and slowly, softly, sensually-but-not-sexually touch yourself, all over – I mean everywhere! What it is like to touch your genitals non-sexually? Your perineum? What is it like to delicately circumscribe the puckered circle of your anus, the arch of your tailbone, the softness of your eyelids?
And, most importantly: what is it like on both sides of this conversation? Because with each touch, I want you to focus first on the part of your body being touched. Try to isolate just that ‘side’ of the nervous system conversation for a second. Feel the tactile response, including roughness or smoothness, the energetic response, the pressure, the temperature. Feel the nerves fire along a path as you move or stroke. Then turn your attention to the part doing the touching and focus on it for a second – the single fingertip or fingertips, the palm, the fingernail or nails. This touching need not be static, in fact I’d say try touching without movement first, register it from both sides, and then try stroking and other movement – try it all, as if you are a new born child, just learning that you even have a body, and setting out to explore it with non-judgmental curiosity. And I’d also say a spirit of what I’d call ‘reverent play’ is important. Try your fingertips, fingernails, maybe the top of your hand, the palm, the soft part of your wrist. Try to ignore the rest of the universe, until you are your universe. Feel each end of the conversation as individually as possible.
Now, you may find parts of your body that you are judgmental about. I’ve told several of you about the roll of fat around my middle that I’m not too crazy about, about how, when I touch that place, I can still, if I am kind and open and gentle with myself, find things to appreciate about that place. it is nicely curved, sensual even, and warm. I can appreciate how that place loves the palm of my hand, and how the palm of my hand loves that place, and how beautifully they fit together.
A girlfriend from long ago once set me a task: find an object in your house, something you know well, and ‘forget’ what it is, look at it as if you’ve never seen it before. Explore it with a totally open mind. So I took a whisk out of the kitchen. I played music on its tines (and even ended up recording some of it!), I dipped it in ink and paint and made designs with it on paper, I cleaned it up and massaged parts of my body with it. I tried petting my cat with it (that did go over so well), and I took it outside and played in the dirt with it. I tried playing gongs and pot lids with it, I tried using it in the shower to stimulate my lymph glands. In short, I ‘forgot’ what it was to the best of my ability and reinvented my relationship with it (interestingly, I don’t think it would ever have crossed my mind to whisk eggs with it if I didn’t know that that’s what it was designed for).
I am asking you to do the same thing, to the best of your ability, with your body: try to forget everything you ‘know’ about it, and discover it anew, reinvent your relationship with it.
You may learn some interestingly specific things. For example, after our hands, faces, and genitals, our feet have the most nerve endings, yet we shod them in socks and shoes, walk on them all the time, callous them. Spending some intimate time with your feet may re-awaken that massive proprioceptive data flow highway to your brain; you may be amazed at how much raw sensation your feet can register.
But the larger, most important and overarching discovery won’t be about one particular place. In fact, it won’t be about anything in particular at all. Rather, it will be a slow accretion of self-acceptance, self-love, even self-wonder. You will appreciate this incredible body of yours, its incredible mobility and sensitivity (yes, I can deeply, reverently appreciate even my less-than optimally mobile and partly numb and sometimes pained body – it doesn’t matter if you’re a 20 year old yogini acrobat or a 90 year old in a wheelchair, your body is a miracle of mobility and sensibility!).
If you do this right, it can take 45 minutes or more. Try it once or twice a week for 6 weeks. yes, that’s a lot of time away from House of Cards or the absurd election season – but it’ll be worth it. Yes, you are worth it. But only you can stake that claim with the Universe: only your actions can proclaim, yes, I love and cre for myself. No one else can ever, ever give that to you.
Cherish your body, and the spirit that animates it – for without that spirit, there would be no ‘you’ to appreciate you. This practice, if done properly, will literally touch every square inch of your body that you can touch, but most of all, it will touch your heart as well.
Hopefully, it will open you to you.