21. Touch

In the last essay I quoted from the Nobel Prize Address of Nikolaas Tinbergen in which he described the Alexander Technique as being “based on exceptionally sophisticated observation, not only by means of vision but only to a surprising extent by using the sense of touch”.  I want to try to clarify what kind of contact and interaction is being practised, in the approach of the Alexander Technique teacher, through what Nikolaas Tinbergen calls observation by using the sense of touch.  This quality of touch is one of the distinctive characteristics of the Alexander Technique teacher, and of putting the Technique into practice whether as a teacher or in any other situation or activity.  It was part of F M Alexander’s way of teaching from the beginning but there is anecdotal evidence that in the last years of his life, after two strokes in his late seventies (1947-8), the quality of touch he brought to his teaching more fully realised the qualities that had been inherent in it when his teaching was more outwardly vigorous and, one might say, instructional.

Rudolf Steiner’s investigation of the sense of touch has helped me to understand what is being aspired to in the touch of the Alexander Technique teacher, and I will present his thoughts on the subject after some preliminary markers have been put down.  The word ‘feel’ has in its root the hand – ‘palm’ comes from the same ancient root as ‘feel’.  There is the basic gesture of reaching out, groping, with the hand, with a stick, into the darkness, into a place unknown.  Becoming aware of something other, through touching, leads into more active examining or searching.  It can also lead the other way, back into the one doing the searching, so that touching turns into being touched, and then into experiencing an emotion or a particular conscious state.  So ‘feel’ embraces both an act of touching and the sensation aroused when touching, or when touched.  We speak of the ‘feeling of water’.  Compassion is also implied – I can ‘feel for’ the other.  And both in the groping, and in the emotional state, and in the responsiveness which is included in the use of the word ‘feel’, there is something that is outside the clarity of the intellect, that is, perhaps, vague, perhaps opening up a deeper interaction which is beyond words, or statable reasons.

If I am feeling my way the caution may be because I cannot see where I am going.  Feeling can contrast with seeing – leading us to be slow and deliberate or also allowing us to get below the surface.  We recognise the distinctively human ability to move between participation in the external world and participation in a more personal emotional-moral inner world.  Opening out to experience, or closing off, withdrawal, are both characteristic gestures of the human soul.
If we think of feeling (the inner state) as touching, as an inner touching, then, within this realm of inner touching we can experience both opening out and withdrawal.  In opening out, in a movement towards uniting through this inner touching, there will be the tendency towards moving out of the boundaries of the physical body, out of the awareness of the physical.  Conversely, in a movement of withdrawal, there is likely to be both a sense of loneliness and an enhanced experience of bodily boundaries and of the impact of physical existence.  There is, in us, a very basic longing for losing the boundaries, for uniting with a wider existence.  D W Winnicott, the pioneering psychoanalyst, captures, very convincingly for me, the process by which the mother’s care, her touch, helps the young child “gather the personality together from within” (FMM, p 79).  Winnicott describes the child getting her feet on the ground, becoming a “specific person whose particularity is rooted in his body”, as Adam Phillips summarises Winnicott’s view (FMM, p 80).  But Winnicott also believes we need to be able to choose to let go of this necessary integration so that we don’t live all the time with the fear we will fall apart into pieces, dissolve.  We need to be able to allow “the innate capacity of every human being… to feel that the world is unreal” (FMM, p 80).  Here Winnicott adds “the famous footnote” as Adam Phillips calls it – “We are poor indeed if we are only sane” (FMM, p 81).  Touch is about the body and the sense of integration but because it is not intellectual it can help us to find a mobile integrity which is not charged with fear or denial.  It can help us more freely, inwards or outwards, from the boundary of the self.  It can help us to be whole and to let go.

Rudolf Steiner spoke and wrote about the senses on many occasions.  On one of the earliest he has just tried to characterise his world view in a kind of motto “Take your stand between God and Nature and let the human being in you speak.  Speak of what is beneath you as well as what is above you, and you have anthroposophy.  It is wisdom spoken by man” (WM, p 5).  He goes on to say “Observing the human being in this anthroposophical sense, we ask what it is that must first engage our interest.  It is his senses, and it is through these that he acquires knowledge of the physical-sensory world” (WM, p 11).  In this lecture Rudolf Steiner is keen to distinguish the sense of touching as groping, searching, feeling around for something.  In this sense he wishes to characterise all the commonly considered senses as being different kinds of touching, of reaching out to find out about the physical-sensory world.  Touching is the coming into contact with something external – he is not really wanting to admit it into the company of the human senses at this stage.  The reason for this is that in this pure sense of contacting, bumping, Rudolf Steiner is questioning what, if anything, we are learning about the world.  This realisation is crucial to getting at the heart of what the Alexander Technique is relishing about touch.

Rudolf Steiner explored the sense of touch from many angles.  Some eleven years after the last lecture quoted, in 1920, when Rudolf Steiner was deeply committed to social renewal after the First World War, he spoke about the senses as a way of bringing spiritual concerns into physical existence – “it is not a question of our penetrating mystically into our body through our soul-spiritual phenomena” (SSFSF, p 54).  Regarding the sense of touch, he describes the obvious associations of the activity of touching, and also the more hidden inner experience.  This is a demanding passage which I will quote at length.  “Still less do we perceive the inner processes of the sense of touch which, in fact, we project entirely to the outside.  We can sense whether bodies are hard or soft, rough or smooth, made of silk or wool.  We project the experiences of touch entirely into external space.  What we have in the sense of touch is actually an inner experience, but what takes place within remains completely in the subconscious.  Only a shadow of it is present in the properties of the sense of touch ascribed to the objects.  The organ of the sense of touch, however, causes us to feel whether the things are silken or wool, hard or soft, rough or smooth.  This, too, sends its effects within.  It radiates into the soul, but the human being is not aware of the connection of his soul experiences with what the sense of touch attains in touching, because the two aspects are greatly differentiated – namely, what streams to the soul within and what is experienced on the surface outside.  What does, however, stream into the soul is nothing else but being permeated with the feeling of God.  Without the sense of touch, man would have no feeling for God… the condition of permeation with universal cosmic substance, with being as such” (SSFSF, p 49).

If we take away the information which touch gathers to it, information which is all interpretation based on memory, or which brings in elements from other senses – then we are left with a very basic experience of our own bodily nature, of our separateness, of a boundary.

Imagine yourself in the dark, in an unfamiliar room, perhaps a bit fuzzy having just woken up and looking for the light switch as you manoeuvre across the room.  You bump gently into something.  We experience what is other than us.  We experience we are outside it, and by meeting with something, touching, we are called into experience of ourself.  But there is also the longing for union, for what D W Winnicott called unintegration which is definitely not the same as disintegration.  It is the longing for union, for rediscovering the mindless union.  So the firmness of body meeting body – minus all content of texture, temperature, material, or any interpretation – can reveal an underlying longing for intimacy, as a potential, a longing to explore ‘how do I relate, how am I like, how can I go through the barrier with – this thing?’  So our touch confronts us with the nature of reality, of whether we can live both as a clear self and reach beyond the surfaces which we bump into, or which we see.

I will mention one other reference by Rudolf Steiner to touch.  I do so in order to bring in a topic I will enter into in the next essay – the sense which Rudolf Steiner calls the sense of Ego, the sense by which we recognise that another person is a human being with a self-conscious individuality.  In his mature description of the senses Rudolf Steiner links the sense of touch with this sense of (the other’s) I.  Through touch we find ourselves, we enclose ourselves.  To engage the capacity to perceive the I of the other we have to go through, transform, give up, that inner clarity which has emerged out of the contact.   For there was longing in the contact – the longing to know the other.  The purer and simpler the touch, the more satisfying that which is being touched, then the preparation is made to forgo that clarity of separateness and (as an unconscious consequence) find the I-being of the other.

I will say more about the sense of Ego in the next essay but for now I will quote from a lecture by Rudolf Steiner in which again he is looking at what is above, and what is below, the purely ‘human’ being.  Again he is wanting to focus on the inner experience of the bodily senses, especially touch.  “When you touch something like a table, it exerts pressure on you, but what you actually perceive is an inner experience.  If you bump into it, it is what happens within you that is the content of the perceptual experience” (R H Lecture XIV).  The inner experience radiates in from the surface.  Our attention may be more directed to the external world, to the table we have bumped into, but we can let go of that element and let it give us what Rudolf Steiner calls, “an inner feeling for our own I, an inner feeling of the I” (RH Lecture XIV, p 200).

Martyn Rawson, whose monumental book The Spirit in Human Evolution is my constant companion, as he explores prehistoric art and what it tells us about human evolution, describes two of the earliest traces people made: first, finger flutings, – meandering swirls of 2 to 4 grooves made by fingers tracing across soft chalky precipitates on cave walls.  Imagine or try the act of drawing your finger tips across a contoured soft surface in which your active contact would be registered.  There need be no representational impulse.  But this meeting of self with world is more than touch.  It brings in movement and texture and suggestions of form and life.  These are active traces.

Very different is the second kind of trace, the common hand stenciling which Martyn Rawson describes and comments on.  A hand or arm is placed against the rock and pigment was, it seems, often blown by the person concerned from their mouth, or through a tube, leaving a bare print of the hand on the wall once the application of pigment was completed and the hand removed.  Martyn Rawson describes how different is the effect of such a stencil technique from a (more obvious) hand print.  “The halo of colour sprayed onto hand and wall unite both in one focused sphere.  Removed, the hand takes some of that quality with it, leaving an empty-handed space behind.  A unity is consciously formed and then divided.  The place retains the outer part, the person takes the inner part with him, with the colour as a reminder.  The two parts can be reunited” (SHE, p 272).  Touch is about separation and reunion.  Our consciousness of ourself needs the physical body with all its frailties.  Some of the hand stencils and other marks in the Pyrenean caves at Gargas show marks made by fingers reduced to stumps, probably by frost bite.  Our self, born of the body, awakens as a sense of mortality, and as a sense of personal power, the energy of being.  Both aspects of our inner world can be obliterated by the world as we perceive it and interpret it with the intellect.  The outwardly directed ‘touching’ of other senses such as sight and taste, take us into a social world in which we can lose what, in a quotation from Rudolf Steiner which I brought in earlier in this essay, he calls the experience of God.  Bare, pure, touch takes us back to that, because it reawakens the deep awareness of our own existence.

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher who died in 1965, wrote a work called Dialogue in 1929, following on from his famous I and Thou of 1923.  In defining ‘dialogue’ Martin Buber introduces the idea of “experiencing the other side” of a relationship – of really entering the uniqueness of the other person.  The need, Buber says, is for a comprehensive kind of listening which includes much more than listening to words, but means attending to all that is present in the meeting.  What is significant about Martin Buber’s view, in relation to touch and in relation to the Alexander Technique, is that he is not advocating an ideal of instant mutuality, equality, friendship.  We meet others but we hold our ground.  There is a beautiful description by Martin Buber of what ‘conversation’ can mean.  He describes two men, recently met, who are together: “The one is sitting on the common seat obviously after his usual manner, calm, hospitably disposed to everything that may come.  His being seems to say it is too little to be ready, one must also be really there.”  The other man “withholds himself”, cannot communicate, but then, inexplicably, he “releases in himself a reserve” and the release streams from him “and the silence bears it to his neighbour.  Indeed it was intended for him, and he receives it unreservedly as he receives all genuine destiny that meets him” (BMAM, p 4).  This is Buber’s dialogue “in the precise sense factual, thoroughly dovetailed into the common human world”.  There is no touch in this picture of the silent dialogue, and it can happen under the surface of ordinary speech.  But touch, in the context of an Alexander Technique lesson, is what helps the teacher not to be pushy, to stay factual, stay human.  The man, in Martin Buber’s situation of dialogue, who sits “on the common seat” with his calm presence has not suppressed himself.  His deed is one of strengthening and of withdrawing – strong and silent, but able to ‘listen’, with many senses, out of a created space.

Touch can give the measure of the space to be created within.  As we touch we are also being touched.  We can impress ourselves on our surroundings, be elastic and sustain our own responsiveness; we can be plastic, by contrast, letting other bodies impress themselves on us.  Touch is the most physical expression of that quality of meeting which enables us to take in experience and consciously assimilate it: make it our own – to be both impressionable and have integrity.  Nikolaas Tinbergen, in his address quoted at the beginning of this essay, spoke of the “observation… by means of the sense of touch”.  He had noticed or experienced something of importance.  It is the complementary but different qualities of sight and touch that are important.  He realised that the two were working together but did not find the words to capture the pure but elusive wisdom of touch which the Alexander Technique reveals like the shape of your hand on the rock of the cave’s wall.


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