Sometimes in workshops on body-based learning I ask participants to press one of their palms against each other in front of their chests, in the familiar prayer or “namaste” posture. First I ask them to place their awareness in their right palm, noticing it as the “giver” of touch as it offers pressure against the left palm. Then I ask them to shift their awareness to the left palm, as it moves from being the receiver of touch to take up the role as giver. The exercise highlights the challenge of distinguishing giver and receiver in an experience of mutual touch, though it is technically possible to permit consciousness to undergo this kind of pendulum swing from one side of the body to the other.
Between two people, the familiar social gesture of the hug blurs both physical and psychic boundaries. Outside of dramatic refusals to participate in hugs–e.g., by leaving one’s arms hanging stiffly at one’s side as one is wrapped in another’s embrace–it is difficult not to be simultaneously “hugger” and “huggee,” its never being clear who has initiated and who has received.
Recently, on Chicago’s famous shopping “Magnificent Mile,” I came across members of the “Free Hugs” campaign (https://www.freehugscampaign.org/). Standing in groups in public places, members bear signs reading only “Free Hugs.” As curious strangers sidle up to them suspiciously, inquiring what “the deal” is–I suppose, what’s in it for those offering embrace seemingly without expectations–they don’t gain much informationally. They’re merely told, “We’re giving hugs, if you’d like one.”
I wanted one. In fact, I was up for three, moving down the line of about 15 volunteer huggers and experiencing their arms and hearts opening to me.
“Good hug!” one of them exclaimed. Shock of recognition: He had felt my hug back. As consenters to hugging come ventricle to ventricle there is only simultaneous giving and receiving. Perhaps it is the unparalleled intimacy, the unblocked flow of energy, in this social gesture that makes its practice so circumscribed between members of different genders or particular social groups in many cultures, among them South Asians and Orthodox Jews.
Many of us find it advisable, or safer under certain conditions, to block such contact. At events run by the social club Mensa, where what some members regarded as excessive hugging led to complaints, attendees now wear colored dots on their name tags, signifying whether they are receptive to hugs from (1) anyone, or (2) no one, or are (3) differentially receptive, depending on the context and the identity of their potential hugger. Such pre-identification prevents the stiffening, the armoring that many of us use to stave off the invasiveness of an unwelcome or forced hug, like the one ordered to a toddler to give to her greeting grandparents while she’s still in just-off-the-plane shock.
In my dance life, I am trying to come to grips with the challenging Argentine tango, a dance impossible to imagine in either Orthodox Jewish or South Asian cultures, though it might go quite well at Mensa meetings. In Argentina, the tango is often danced with strangers in a position called “close embrace”–the man’s right arm wrapped closely around the far-away shoulder blade of the woman, the right one, the woman’s left arm wrapped to the far-away shoulder, the left one, of her partner. The dance is led chest-to-chest, the man signaling directional movements and even embellishments through subtle movements from high in his torso. As a friend of mine confessed, “Every partner I’ve ever danced with knows I wear a padded bra.” A couple dances cheek to cheek, or with their foreheads and noses a seductive hair’s breadth from each other, sharing breath, chests, embrace. Almost as intimately, their legs tangle decoratively, in, around, and under one another’s as they travel over the dance floor.
On the website of self-confessed Oregon-based “tango addict” Alex Krebs (and phenomenal teacher) is a comic questionnaire (https://www.tangoberretin.com/alex/thoughts/survey.html), on the model of the seemingly determinative personality questionnaires in magazines such as Cosmopolitan. Participants can receive tango addiction points for high scores on questions such as how many partners have cried in their arms from the sheer beauty of dancing tango with them, from the melting of the heart that occurs when rhythm, breath, mutuality, and motion conspire.
A Practice in Being “the Toucher” and “the Touchee”
Try this: Try placing right palm against left in front of your heart.
Think of your “self” as being centered in your right hand; press it purposefully against your left. Notice the left hand’s sensation of touch.
Now shift your sense of self to be centered in your left hand and press it against the right; become aware of the right hand as the one that is touched.
(Alternatively, you might try this with an open-minded friend, in a handshake position, noticing first one person’s right hand as the giver, then the other’s.)
- How easy was it to differentiate the right hand’s experience from that of the left?
- How did the experience of giver and receiver compare?
- How many physical social gestures can you think of that carry this kind of symmetry, mutuality?
- What non-physical gestures between people also dissolve these boundaries of apparent separateness?
Comment from Kara Grasso: I sat here (in plaid pajama bottoms and a gray tank top… haha) on my cushy couch pressing my palms together and smiling.