Tim Holmes Sudio logo

The Mysterious Language of Touch       by Tim Holmes

"God created humankind in his image.  In the image of God he created them.  Male and female  he created them.  God saw everything that  God had make and indeed it was very good".                         Genesis. 1:27, 31a

This will probably constitute the only instruction on the meaning of touch that you will ever have.  I have shared it with high school kids in church camp for some 30 years.  This is merely a basic overview of a complex idea, but it suggests unusual but perfectly available possibilities of which I wish everyone could be aware.  

Your body is a gift from God.  Some in the church would have us believe the body is a den of sin to be monitored and overcome, but I say that attitude is a misuse of the gift.  We should each of us delight in our bodies, take pride in the astonishing depth of their mystery, know what their abuse is, and know the intricacies of caring for them.
Becoming Aware of Our Touch World
Touch is crucial to human development.  Without it babies die and adults go mad.  It is a kind of vital medicine; an exchange of energy vital to life.  One way we can tell that for sure is that it is natural (not synthetic, like a drug) and that it FEELS so GOOD!  We all want more in our lives but we feel restricted by social rules and learn to do without.  I want to encourage you to give yourself the gift of more embodied life.  We begin with an expanded understanding:  

What does a touch mean?  We certainly have our ideas, but they are vague and tend to flex with the situation.  Once one begins to really investigate what a touch really  “means” it becomes clear that there is no universal meaning.  There are very few solid meanings of touch (if you hit someone it means anger or hatred, though it could be teasing. A kiss is not always loving, sometimes it's simply respectful or merely an unemotional ritual greeting.)

We can distinguish different kinds of touch from each other (say sex and violence) but the lack of variety indicates our lack of sophistication or even knowledge about this crucial aspect of human interaction.  Because our bodies are very sensitive and can distinguish a huge variety of sensations– like the range of colors we can see–  touch has enormous expressive possibilities which humans could conceivably manipulate to create powerfully expressive languages.  (Painting is such a language).  Yet we have few words for those touch distinctions so we tend to think of differences in sadly simplified ways.  

Who makes up the rules of touch?  Rarely are we told what the meaning of a touch is- we pick up the meanings by observing our elders, or –frighteningly– in the “locker room” of peer wisdom at school.  Those meanings grow spontaneously in the social fluid and are rarely questioned consciously, though they cause us no end of trouble as we mature.  Therefor there are no definitive meanings for different kinds of touch.  Meanings and rules are also never universal in any case, but are very culture-specific.  (The hand shake that is a normal friendly greeting in the west reads as more aggressive in the east.)  So even if we could settle on collective meanings, they would change with a change in cultural context.

Would you get into a car and drive toward a stranger who is driving directly toward you at breakneck speed?  Well, we actually do it all the time.  What allows this to happen in almost perfect safety is the line that runs down the middle of the highway.  Clear boundaries supported by good communication permit greater freedom than we could ever achieve on our own.  

Most of the “rules” of touching are developed over generations to smooth social relations.  They are maintained mostly by the pressures of social expectation.  But we can address the astonishing lack of expressivity in the Language of Touch while protecting ourselves and others, by establishing our own parameters and being in good communication with those with whom we are “in touch”.  In other words each of us holds the keys to our own experience.

Writing New Rules  
There is no institution or school of thought or even solid tradition that oversees the Language of Touch.  Therefor we are all relatively free to carry out our own explorations as long as we keep ours and others' safety and well being in mind.  

Changing or defining meanings in this language is just like it is in a spoken language, where a word's meaning is a social construct in which all who use it much be in agreement.  Nevertheless, the specific meaning of an interaction can be as simple as two people agreeing on what they think it means.  (For example, “I am happy to rub your back but this in no way indicates an invitation for more touch!”)

Touch is a doublefaced experience meaning both parties may not experience touch the same.  Don't be obsessed with what the other thinks.  Ask them, take them seriously and then let it go.  Your responsibility is for yourself.

The Practice
Only one cardinal rule crucial to being your own touch explorer:
"Love your neighbor as yourself".  (Not before yourself, not instead of yourself, not  as yourself through the other, but AS yourself!)  This is aware respect.  It is the only appropriate attitude and without it all interactions become abusive.

Knowing that respect is primary, each person wanting to explore touch can be responsible only for themselves alone.  You are the ONLY one who ever gets to say what what is comfy for your body, period.  Even if you are married.  Having said that, most of us don't have so much trouble with bossing others around so much as actually saying “no” to some approach which we find uncomfortable.  Find your own voice and own it.  It will not only protect you but it will give your partner confidence that you are being real with them.

Mapping the Universe of the Language of Touch
I believe that all manner of touch (physical contact between two people) and its meaning can be placed on a map of all the possibilities– or a kind of globe actually, as it is a three-dimensional shaped model.  It's like a color wheel but for touch.  My map reproduced here is like a flat world map: a flat representation of a diamond-shaped object, front and back, with most of the information on the front.

The layout is similar to the Native American view of the physical universe; the central truth being encompassed in the “four directions”, (East, South, West and North) with the addition of two other elements (sky and earth).  If you are not familiar with that system, then it is easier to just envision the map as a diamond with four major poles and two lateral points (front and back).  

Any further explanation becomes very complex very quickly, and so can only be shared in a workshop or a full-length book.  I apologize for ending this simple overview with mere titles of the major elements of the map:

The Elements  
(There are two elements that we know the best and are the easiest to understand because they receive by far the most focus in our culture:  Sexual and Violent.)

The Four Directions are:
a.  Ęsthetic
b. Sexual
c. Violent
d. Ritual

The two lateral points are:

Tim Holmes Studio  2011
Lingua Tactus Nebula

The four angels - detail from Lingua Tactus Nebula by Tim Holmes

Lingua Tactus Nebula

The chart scale - detail from Lingua Tactus Nebula by Tim Holmes

Lingua Tactus Nebula

Cartouche - detail from Lingua Tactus Nebula by Tim Holmes

Lingua Tactus Nebula

Lingua Tactus Nebula, from the Metaphysical Maps series
Mixed media on paper by Tim Holmes, 20 x 25", 1995

Creative Comons  Copyright • 2011• Tim Holmes Studio