Writing on the Importance of Touch

For the last 8 months I have been working on a writing project on the Importance of Touch. It centered around an interview with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, the founder of Body-Mind Centering®, and Deane Juhan, the author of Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork – an interview that was filmed and is available on youtube. I read, prepared for the interview, wrote, and edited for 8 months. My writing is now ready to be shared.

This is my thesis that completes my 12 year journey of graduating Pomona College with a degree in Dance – Movement Studies, and at this stage in my life, I undertook the thesis to have more of a balance of heart and mind and of what’s personal to me to what’s objectively academic. I share it as a researched paper and discussion with Bonnie and Deane about the place of touch in our lives, our bodies, and our culture and as an expression of my voice and who I am. Touch has been important to me for a long time, and I share with you my writing about it. (Clicking the link will open the manuscript):

The Importance of Touch

The Importance of Touch: Copyright © 2017 Aaron Bendix-Balgley. All rights reserved. May not be used in part or whole without written permission from Aaron Bendix-Balgley.

Email me at adb02005@pomona.edu if you read it and want to get in touch. It’s 87 pages. I put a lot of writing and editing into it. And I hope you enjoy. I hope you read from curiosity and a combination of heart and mind and what’s personal to you if you want to read . Thank you . Please do not benefit financially or publish without my consent. Please do benefit in your own personal experience.

Here are the chapter titles:

The Importance of Touch:
An Exploration of Touch as Education in the Human Being from Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Deane Juhan, Personal Experience, Anatomy, and Culture

Chapter 1: Why is Touch Important?: An Evolutionary View, A Human View, And Introducing the Perspectives and Scope

Chapter 2: Why is Touch Important for Bodies and Minds and our Nervous Systems?

Chapter 3: Why is Touch Important for Our Health, for how We Learn, and for Our Place in Evolution?

Chapter 4: Why do Scientists Say Touch is Important? Why has Culture said Touch is Not Important?

Chapter 5: Why is Touch Important in My Experience?, And Introducing Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Deane Juhan Speaking Together

Chapter 6: Interview with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Deane Juhan. El Sobrante, CA, February 28, 2017

Chapter 7: Pleasure, Perception, Pre-Sensory Motor Focusing, and Persuasion

Chapter 8: Conclusion: The Special Place of Touch for Human Beings and the Consequences of Touch’s Importance Beyond Ourselves

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Hugging Beautiful Women

I have been out of commission from my travels and my hugging ways for a couple of weeks. A case of swimmer’s ear from a thermal bath in Switzerland left me needing to rest. But enough of unpleasant things. On to what many people find pleasant… beautiful women.

I returned to hugging with a brief stop, and accompanied by a friend of mine, at the main walking strip of small-town, Kempten, Germany:

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We didn’t hug long enough – nor was the atmosphere right or my sense of presence strong enough – for me to make grand observations about hugging in this more old-fashioned German town. But, an observation I’ve made in the past did return to me in the form of several groups of attractive women who scoffed at the idea of a hug: Beautiful women find the idea of hugging a stranger more repulsive, and here’s why I think that is…

First, I should note that there may be some subconscious way I approach the offer of a hug differently when it’s to a group of attractive women. It’s certainly not my intention to do so, but it is possible that I have some tendency to be more timid, more desirous, more closed, or more self-conscious that I may be judged to be poorly motivated in my offer of a hug. Or from my long-standing observation that such women are less likely to take a hug, I may be more reluctant to make an offer or more defeatist in the way I do it. I try to make all hug-offers equally welcoming, but I’m imperfect, and I don’t want to dismiss this possibility. I have long observed (as particularly in this previous post) that the degree of presence I exhibit and how I make the offer of a hug are huge factors in how willing someone is to engage, and that could be involved here.

But, I do think there is some independent difference in how beautiful women respond to the idea of hugging strangers, and I’d like to examine that difference and what it might say a bit here… It’s not just the fact that such women tend to turn down a hug. It’s the particular sense of disgust I notice in how they do so. Plenty of people aren’t interested in a hug. But it seems to be the attractive women, and the men who insist they won’t hug me ‘cause they’re “not gay,” who act the most offended by the offer. Both, it seems to me, are reacting out of some sense of sexual fear.

It will come as no surprise to any female readers here that women are likely to be the subject of unwanted sexual attention… and for ‘attractive’ women, this may be a way of life. Or, at least they feel perhaps that it is the way of their life. Driven by I’m sure a reality that they do face ogling eyes and forward remarks, sexist comments and sexual advances, unwanted attention and ulterior motives to a greater degree, they come to expect the communication directed at them to be colored in this way. This has been my experience in other parts of my life, but especially this is my experience when I’m offering hugs.

It may seem obvious that “sexier” women would show more of a suspicion that my offer of hugs is somehow sexual, but let’s examine for a moment what this means for them. To me, this is a tragedy in some way. Just by the luck of their physical appearance, there is a whole group of human beings who find it more difficult to believe in the genuineness of an offer of kindness. There is a whole group of human beings who find it more difficult perhaps to trust people’s motivations or to be open to connection. If every attempt at connection seems a sexual advance, it must be hard. And the fact that I feel I’ve observed this same effect of “hugging beautiful women” to some extent even when the person offering the hugs is female says to me that this sense of suspicion has spread more deeply into how they engage the world.

I have of course come across beautiful women who are much more open to connection or hugs than the generalization I’ve made. But I don’t think that’s an easy thing to accomplish if you are a woman with great physical beauty. It seems to me that there is a cycle and a trap that must be hard to avoid: a lifetime of different treatment leads to a suspicion that all attention is colored in a certain way and an ensuing difficulty in seeing beyond sexuality to generosity, openness, or trust. And that is the tragedy I feel I see here.

So dear readers, I ask you to hug someone beautiful you know. Hug them in as sexless a way as you can. And hug them with compassion for that it may be harder for them to be recognized for beauty they have within, and it may be harder for them to feel just welcomed.

 

Because I don’t really have a picture to go with this topic, here’s a (slightly) relevant one from the internet:

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Code Hug: The Police Response to Hugging

I hugged my first uniformed police officer yesterday! Not only that, I hugged my first uniformed police officer through the window of his squad car yesterday! I’ve hugged tens of thousands of people, but I’ve always really wanted to hug a policeman. I’ve had some less positive encounters with policemen and security guards. But I’ve also observed strongly in the process that people enforcing the laws often are, or have become, jaded to the idea that there is good in the world and in people. They always have to go around looking for the bad thing and the “bad person.” And nearly everyone treats police officers in some way like they aren’t human beings. So hugging a police officer, and offering them a taste of simple goodness and simple valuing of their human dignity – that’s something I’ve always really wanted.

There has also been a less positive response by authority to my hugging: I’ve been confronted at the 16th St. Mall in Denver, CO and kicked out of Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and earlier in the day yesterday I was told to leave my hugging spot at another part of the Paris beaches (Le Paris-Plages) along the St. Martin Canal. In America at least, wherever there’s private property and a security guard, it’s just a matter of time before I’m asked to leave. Either because there’s “no advertisement” allowed or because of the corporate fear of being sued for anything on their land, private property usually is a no go.

At the 16th St Mall, the security guard just instructed me exactly where the lines of private property and public sidewalk were, and kept reminding me again when he came by and I’d stepped off the 6 foot sidewalk I was allowed. The security guard at Rockefeller Plaza in New York at least was very friendly about it. He didn’t take a hug himself, but he was really interested in my story of why I do it, and he personally escorted me to the edge of NBC’s private property to find another good hugging spot. He was very masculine, but quite warm… and he seemed genuinely apologetic about having to kick me out. And yesterday at Le Paris-Plages, after an hour and a half of hugging and three hours combined of hugging at Le Paris-Plages locations – in which time I had happily hugged many people and more than a few security guards had walked by seeming to think what I was doing was fine – one security guard decided (as it seems law/rule enforcement figures sometimes decide) that he was in the mood for there being a law about a thing. I tried pointing out to him and the few other security guards he’d gathered around that there probably was in fact no basis for preventing me from hugging people on what clearly was public property and an event put on by the city – and I kind of enjoyed the group of French people gathered nearby who, taking up the opportunity to thumb their noses at authority and stretch their French anarchist muscles, decided to come over and give me hugs while I was there talking to the security guards – but I eventually decided to let it go and to instead offer each of the security guards a hug before I packed up and left. None of them took a hug, but I figured it must be a hard job having to be so stern about things. To want to say (not have to say by contractual obligation like the guard in New York) that gently offering people hugs is a thing that must stop means you must be in a hard place. And that means I want to hug you.

Here by the way is my hugging spot at Le Paris Plages yesterday:

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I have had more positive police responses in the past too. I’ve had a cop stop for 45 minutes at my regular hugging spot on the Pearl Street walking mall in Boulder, Colorado and just watch out of sheer curiosity, asking little questions along the way. And I once had a cop at the same location stand right nearby and, dressed in full police uniform, suggest to people as they walked by that “you should really hug this guy.” But the highlight of my police-hugging career definitely came last night. I’d had a pretty slow late night of hugging with the strange dynamics and space I found myself in here in front of the Eiffel Tower:Image

Then a police car started the slow crawl towards me. The experience with the security guards fresh on my mind, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when the cop rolled down his window and called me over. But his manner was calm and friendly, and after sorting out that I needed to talk in English, he, and the female cop driving the car, started asking me why I do this. They knew they are cops, and they made it clear they were asking just out of curiosity. But then when the guy asked if “the hugs are for anybody” it dawned on me, and I asked if he would like a hug. I had to try to contain my excitement, but I literally threw my sign to the side and reached through the window to hug him when he said yes. I probably stayed there in the leaning through the window shoulder hug longer than he anticipated or I maybe should have. But he seemed happy. Then I gave them the 3 minute story that I offer hugs because I feel there is an absence of kind, gentle touch in the world and because I want to offer a safe space of comfort, acceptance, and dignity to every person with each hug. I then suggested to the woman that she hug her boyfriend when she got home (she said her boyfriend might not like it if she hugged me), and the cops drove off smiling. A good day’s work! And it will always be my first. Here’s to hopefully more cop hugs to come!

Unfortunately in my excitement it never occurred to me to ask for a picture with the policeman. So here instead are a couple of pictures taken with three traveling Australian women I met while walking from my hugging spot back to the Metro:

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Câlins Gratuit en Paris

.. Or at least maybe “câlins gratuit.” I learned yesterday that “gratuit” should probably have an “S” on the end and that “câlins” is closer to “cuddles” than “hugs.” Apparently though French doesn’t really have a word for “hug.” My choices are hug with the connotation of cuddling or hug with the connotation of kissing. I’ll explore this notion, and the French attitude to hugging, further after I offer to cuddle more French people, but for now I’ll share a little about the people I met yesterday while hugging in a strange land:

I started my hugging yesterday out front of the Notre Dame:

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As with Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza in New York, I noticed some of the pitfalls of offering hugs in a place of touristy spectacle. People are in “seeing, not touching” mode and are as likely to point their already open cameras at me and see me as part of the spectacle as they are to engage me in a genuine way. People can also be kind of taking a vacation from themselves while they are in tourist-spectacle mode – and this makes it much harder for me to convey my hugs in the way I intend… to be an offering of support for people to feel comfortably and lovingly accepted for exactly themselves.

That said, I did have a handful of people take the pause to really engage my hugs. And the experience overall was much better and warmer than Times Square. I also met a group of travelers – a delightful young man from New Jersey and the two Spanish girls he’d met the night before on the Arc de Triomphe – who I ended up joining in walking Paris when the bright sun cut short my Notre Dame hugging session. We toured the medieval, stained-glass rich chapel La Sainte Chapelle, took a picnic by the Seine, and stopped inside this former Benedictine abbey turned church:

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After parting company, I took to my second hugging session of the day. This time I set up at Le Paris-Plages. That’s right… the famous sun-drenched beaches of Paris (apparently for one month in July/August, they throw down a bunch of sand on a stretch of walking path next to the Seine and call it a beach):Image

Here I began to experience how actual French people and Parisians feel about hugging (the Notre Dame was almost all foreign tourists – half the time people only understood my sign when I turned it to the English version). But more on that later.

I met a Tunisian man in his mid-30’s at the Paris beaches who became my first foreign co-hugger. He came for one of my first hugs of the evening and then sat down to drink a bottle of wine and literally cheer on as people hugged me. After a while I offered him a chance to join. His style was certainly not my own. He was loud, and he accosted people a bit – sometimes insistently walking into their space to suggest a hug. But his pushiness was kind-hearted, of the aggressively helpful nature I’ve been taught to expect of a certain style of North African friendliness. When I needed a toilet later, he walked the half mile with me to make sure I found it and asked many people along the way if we were headed in the right direction (it turned out later there was a public toilet 100 feet from where we’d been hugging). Later he really wanted me to come meet some Brazilian women he’d just met that he was sure I’d love. And all along the way, I got a slice of his life: He was in Paris on vacation for a month because he couldn’t stomach being in the “new Tunisia” during Ramadan. He said there’s a major cultural clash going on in Tunisia between the 5 million lay people and the 5 million religious people and that whereas before the revolution you could get coffee or go out in the day during Ramadan, now that was impossible. So to “live well” he had to come to Paris. He was very forward, and normally I wouldn’t invite someone to join me who doesn’t have a calm peacefulness to their approach or hugs. But I’m glad I did.

I met also a couple from Westminster, Colorado (a 20 minute drive from where I live) on their honeymoon. They eventually had to leave after a nice conversation about our home, their honeymoon travels, and their love for each other because in her words: “I’m sorry. We’ve enjoyed meeting you here, but I’ve really got to go puke somewhere.” But I think they both took to heart my advice that they feed their marriage by hugging each other a lot. And, I met a couple (or couple of friends?) who had been sitting on the sand next to me during my whole hugging stint… Another New Jersey transplant, and a Parisienne, they were kind, inquisitive, and helpful. Here they are pictured in my hugging photos of the day:

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Meeting interesting people is not the intention of my hugging as I travel, but it certainly is a nice bonus.

On Hiatus…

This hugging business is a hard life. I need a vacation. No. Not true. I do have a 2 1/2 week meditation retreat in the middle of France starting tomorrow though. I may have a chance to teach some hugging there, and I’m sure I will gain some new perspectives on what the hugging means and how to better do it and teach it, but this retreat will take me away from a public to hug and an internet to write about it on. I’ll be back to the modern world in the last week of September when I resurface in Paris. Look for more hugging and more words about that hugging then. Have a great 3 weeks!

New York City: The Highline and The Importance of Being Present

How is it that in the first 20 minutes of hugging when I went out on Thursday to The Highline (an elevated rail line converted into a walking park in Manhattan’s Lower West Side), only 4 or 5 people hugged me, but in the last 20 minutes of hugging, I hugged 50 or more people? In my last post I talked about the socialization effect – the degree to which people’s responses are based on how socially acceptable what I’m doing appears. And time of day, weather, and the specific crowd at that time can all make a difference as well. But by far the thing that most effects how people respond is the degree to which I am, or am not, centered and grounded. When I was starting on Thursday, I was on two hours of sleep – a bit disconnected and a bit grumpy. People stayed mostly away, and rightfully so. The unlucky few who did decide to hug me in that time received some of the worst hugs I’m likely ever to give. But, as I stayed there longer, I started to settle into the meditative state of peace that I get to with hugging – my “hugging zone” (in talking to a new friend last night, it became clear how much this resembles athletes being “in the zone”). I started presenting the warm and compassionate exterior that I was feeling more and more inside.

This has always been the case. The degree of difference can be more or less stark, but it has always been that the first half hour of my hugging is the slowest, the hardest, and the least rewarding for those who hug me. But there’s a zone I get to – a peaceful and occasionally trance-like state – once I’ve been at it for a bit that translates dramatically outward. I start being able to connect much more deeply, much more individually, much more naturally, and much more meaningfully. The hugs themselves become a far more helpful thing – and really what I want to give when I’m offering hugs. And I get magnetic. People are drawn to me. Believe in auras or energies or charisma or whatever you like, but the effect is real. I had an interesting demonstration of this a few weeks ago when I was back in Colorado… I had fully entered my peaceful hugging “zone,” but decided to take a little break for 5 minutes. I was standing just to the side of my hugging spot talking to my friend at the Gelato booth when a man walking down the street stopped five feet from me and just started looking at me. I continued my conversation, but after twenty or thirty seconds I turned to the man and gave him a gentle, questioning gesture. He kept looking at me and said slowly, “So…. what is it you’re doing? What’s… your thing?” I paused and then silently turned over my sign to reveal “Free Hugs,” to which he replied “Ah… I knew it was something” and came in for a hug.

On Thursday at The Highline, this effect was again real. Especially in my last half hour of hugging, there was a definite magnetism I was giving off. I could see people veering off their determined path – coming in for a hug when they clearly intended originally on walking by this strange thing. I could see individuals veering off from their group – making the decision to override the socialization effect – and their group coming for hugs afterwards. I could see people who didn’t take hugs still have smiles and laughter at what was there. I had groups gathered around waiting their turn for hugs. And most notably of all to me, in all that time and all those hugs, nobody asked me the usual questions. Nobody needed to know why I was doing this.

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Hugging in New York City: The Socialization Effect

New York City is an interesting place to go hugging. There are so many possible spots, from the well known like Union Square, Washington Square Park, and Times Square to the more mundane – sidewalks in seemingly random places that still have enough foot traffic and lighting to go hugging. In the dozen or so times I’ve hugged in New York, the best places have been The Highline, a walkway intersection by the Delacorte Theater (Shakespeare in the Park) in Central Park, Rockefeller Plaza (before I got kicked out ’cause none of that will be had on private property), and a few of the random streets I found with good spots. I actually prefer these places in some ways as there is none of the expectations there that many of New York’s more touristy spots carry towards busking and performance. My favorite of those may have been a sidewalk just to the side of Union Square where my neighbor the Halal Kebab-cart man took an unusual amount of pleasure in what I was doing… to the detriment of his bottom line (he barely paid any attention to selling food) and to the slightly inappropriate, but at least amusing, attempt to hug (or get me to hug) all the pretty women. The worst spots have been Times Square (really demoralizing in the lack of human dignity there), Union Square itself, and surprisingly to me, Washington Square Park. In places like these people seem to be on guard or in the mode of seeing things as spectacle, which makes it hard to connect. Or the spaces are just too wide and crowded.

Through all these varied locations and varied successes though, a pattern began to emerge: It has always been true that how people respond to my hugging offer is shaped by how people around them have responded. I’ve always noted that too large a crowd of people meant fewer hugs… If the first people up front turn down the offer or walk by unnoticing, it becomes very unlikely that the people walking behind will do any different. I usually have to wait until the group clears if a large crowd is walking together or in succession and the first wave declines. On the flip side, once one person within eyesight has taken a hug, the people that follow, whether with that person or not, become much more likely to hug. I will often go two or three minutes with no hugs and then have a wave of 5-10 hugs in the next two to three minutes. This is how my average of hugs usually stays above one a minute. This has always been the case, but somehow this effect, and a few other socialization effects seemed more dramatic in New York…

During my Central Park hugging, I routinely had a number of stretches of 5+ minutes with nothing but funny or distressed looks, but I also had many waves that lasted and formed impressive streaks. I even had a line of 10 or so people form at one point. The feast and famine of hugging, and particularly the degree to which people seemed more interested when they saw an example was notable. So too was the number of people who requested group hugs at Washington Square Park and the number of people who were more interested in hugging when I had a partner with me than when I didn’t at The Highline (always a notable effect as well, but more pronounced in NYC). Another thing I’ve noticed here, but only in limited amounts elsewhere, is a sizable number of people who express the clear desire to have a hug (saying “I really could use a hug,” walking by several times in different directions, etc…) but never actually take that hug. I’ve always had people who express interest, seem uncertain of taking action, and then come down off the fence when I make a clear offer directly to them. But here in New York, there were far more people who resisted despite themselves – who seemed more captured by their social norms.

So why is this? I have a few theories, and I will offer those, but no definite answers:

The first and the simplest is that in a city of this size, social rules and expectations become more necessary. To maintain order and community with so many people, there must be more conformity not less – a hidden playbook that strengthens with each use and sets guidelines for how to behave, in part at least so the sheer number of human interactions can be more rote and not so tiring in their individuality.

The second, a variant on that, is that in such a large community, conformity within a small group becomes more important. This exerts itself in New York and in many other large cities in the amount of segmentation that happens between communities that are a part of the whole. In a smaller sense, this means that if one member of a social group walking down the street engages with a hug, the social pressures or draws are then larger on the rest of the group. In less specific ways as well, in a city the size of New York, there seems to be a loose feeling of community that forms just from existing in the same space as the people around you. There are so many places and people scattered about NYC, that some small accepted sense of community forms for the people who have chosen just to occupy the same area of space at the same time. In any other place, people would definitely respond to the social normalization of what I’m doing that occurs when someone within eyesight hugs me. But here in New York there seems to be an added sense of union that forms when people in one space can participate in something there together as an ad hoc, short-lived community. This perhaps is a wonderful, if fleeting, thing.

The third, which I’ve noticed myself being in The City, is that privacy comes often only in the company of strangers. There is very little truly open space, and apartments are quite crowded and full. On the Subway, but also in the open air, privacy is found by just not making eye contact or engaging with others. The effect of that on the hugging is that people engage in any way (even to reject the offer) less until they see reason to take notice (i.e. other people already having engaged). Because privacy is needed when there are people around, those people become more a part of the landscape – moving architecture of the space as much as human beings. This to me is both logical and dangerous. In moving around the city, it would be tiring to connect readily with people, and there is of course a genuine need for “alone time” wherever you can get it, but it means that at least in the public space, human beings get reduced to sound bytes and surface impressions. There is engagement when the circumstances are right – a mutually witnessed comedic moment, a shared small tragedy or triumph – but the sheer number of people moving around far outpaces those moments, and that makes more people into moving objects than complex human beings, at least in the public space. Since understanding the perspectives and individual natures of human beings is how I base my life and my hugging, this to me is a hazard.

The fourth is that people, from experience, simply have more expectation of what a man with a sign might entail – and have less curiosity to find out what this one is about.

And, the fifth is that most simply of all, people have just hardened themselves more against being open and supported. I sense a feeling of going it alone here that sadly leaves less room for accepting acceptance. Value must be proven from inside, out and not taken as offered. Little do they know that I endeavor in my hugging methods to support their internal process and to help validate for them, but also from themselves, who they already are.

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