Touch and Presence as Intimate Communion by Christy Croft


Christy CroftOver the past 20 years, I’ve been blessed with many moments in which fully aware or embodied presence has intersected spiritual transformation, both in my own life and in the lives of others. In my work on a crisis hotline, I’ve held space for strangers to open up and speak freely about pain, grief, and despair.  In my work as a minister, I’ve held a couple’s hands as I blessed their marriage, and I’ve held space with the dying and their loved ones.

In my work as a doula, I’ve supported women draped over my arms as they pushed new life into being; I’ve also held crying fathers in hospital hallways while their lovers were being prepped for emergency surgeries. In my rape crisis work, I’ve held the hands of women in hospitals through fear and sorrow, and I’ve facilitated support groups for survivors to reconnect with their own embodied sexuality and the fullness of its complexity as they worked toward greater compassion for themselves and their processes.

I’ve worked to build a practice of presence and compassion in my life that extends beyond my family, even beyond people. Last spring, I was late to a party because I’d stopped to help a stumbling fawn out of the highway. Seeing that it was unable to move, I sat with it at the edge of the woods and sang it to its sleep.

Each of these experiences has transformed me, my way of viewing the world, and how I see the role of touch and presence in friendship, service, and worship.

A group of people lying on the ground together, laughing

Photo by flickr user aturkus

My last post for Feminism and Religion explored the idea of intellectual curiosity as spiritual activity when viewed through the context of embodied divinity – divinity that is embodied in our world, those we meet, and our own bodies. While a view of divinity as expressed through and present in the material universe makes intellectual study a sacred act, it also makes holy those moments of connection in which we experience greater understanding of our selves as expressions of the divine through encountering others in their own divinity. Sometimes this is through allowing ourselves to be fully present witnesses to the experiences and stories of other people; many times it is through sacred, consensual, healing touch. Both of these – conscious presence and sacred touch – represent bodily ideals in my belief and practice.

The embodied divine can be present in flowers, in rivers, in fawns and mountains and osprey. It can be erotic – found in the skin of a lover and the places where our bodies touch. It can also be intimately platonic – found in shared time, getting lost in conversation, or dissolving into a hug with a good friend. It can be given in the form of service, love, and devotion; it can be received through our humility and willingness to be vulnerable, to allow others to touch our lives as well.

In my life, I’ve experienced the embodied divine in both individual and universal ways. I’ve experienced this awareness through recognition of self and other as of the same fundamental substance, and I’ve experienced it through the mystic dissolution of self in trance or meditation. I’ve experienced embodied presence in the creation of an interpersonal dyad in which our individual understandings of self expand to produce a new, broader shared consciousness – this happens to me frequently in my ecstatic dance or hooping practice, when the other and I become one in our flow of movement and shared proximity. I’ve also had the experience of expanding that dyadic consciousness to include all of nature, becoming keenly aware of the unity of the whole of the cosmos.

This is not everyone’s path. We are not all called to serve as healers in crisis intervention or ministry or as professional companions to others along their way, even as we all bring healing into our lives and the lives of those we love. We don’t all experience bliss from the same sources; I find it in dance and touch and play and nature, where others find it in silence, art, or formal liturgy. Some may find their embodied bliss through sexual freedom and lavish intimate touch; others may find healing or power in preserving the most personal gifts of their skin and breath for themselves or the most intimate of their loved ones.

Our use of our own bodies has been regulated for so long that their actions and functions have been made to seem base by discourses that privileged the male perspective over the female and otherworldly promise over presence and expansive compassion. They’ve privileged the perfection of the mind over cycles of nature, the ecological complexity of our planet, and the exquisite mysteries of our cells and organs and emotions. We turn these patriarchal models on their heads when we welcome our bodies’ wisdom and presence, and allow space for the physical to teach and grow us just as we do the intellectual and transcendent. We can learn through reading and listening and study; we can also bring knowledge in through our fingertips, mouths, and movements, and in the ways we allow ourselves to be conscious and fully present in nature – awed by the stars, brushed by the wind, and pulled by the moon.

As I continue through graduate studies, growing my foundation of intellectual knowledge and critical skills, I am also making time for greater presence in my physical, cultural, and social ecosystem, drawing my awareness back down into my belly or feet when I’m feeling lost in a sea of often-conflicting ideas and theories. My spirituality is experienced through the expansion and refinement of my mind, but also through the workings of my body, intentional presence with others around me, and recognition that my life is part of the web of nature, not above it.

Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, priestess, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests include spirituality, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality

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17 replies

  1. Such a nice and comprehensive read with plenty of food for thought. Thank you!!

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  2. So beautiful! Thank you!

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  3. You do a lot of courageous work. “Courageous” in the sense of the word’s etymology, which is “cor” (Latin), “heart.” Also courageous in the sense of bravery. Thanks for this post.

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  4. Thanks, Christy, your comment very interesting where you say: “I’ve facilitated support groups for survivors to reconnect with their own embodied sexuality and the fullness of its complexity as they worked toward greater compassion for themselves and their processes.”

    A while ago I lost a close friend after many years of friendship. We were not lovers, and I had been celibate for much of my adult life. But I had no idea that such a loss could produce so profound a shock…the grief was exceedingly hard to handle.

    However seeing me in so deep a state of depression, another close friend took me on as a sexual partner and insisted on it, knowing something I didn’t know, that is, that I needed to re-engage my life force with my sexuality or I could easily have died too from the shock and loss. And indeed that gift of kindness turned out very helpful.

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    • Hi, Sarah!

      I’m not sure what you meant by “insisted on it” and how that weaves with concepts of consent, but I’m curious how that works in your life.

      I definitely have found immense healing through reclamation of sexuality and the sacred nature of sensual touch.

      I was thinking of this recently when reflecting on my participation in the ecstatic dance community (I linked in this piece to something I wrote recently on my own blog about dance). While I mostly dance solo, lost in the bliss of my own movement, I do sometimes partner dance, and it is usually with the same few people. There’s a closeness established in that, and a shared physical experience of healing and (sometimes) sensual touch in the absence of words, since the dance space is without conversation. There’s a closeness in that shared physical experience that breeds knowing of self and partner in a way conversation doesn’t — like you said, a re-engaging of life force.

      The physical matters. That shared life force matters.

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      • Hi Christy, in answer to your question regards “insisted on it.” I trusted my friend, and although the insistence was strong, it needed to be. I’m not sure why I had been celibate for such a long time, but my friend was not going to let me die from the shock of grief. In any case, the help seemed to me very kind.

        I visited THE SACRED LOOM and will visit again soon and explore it more thoroughly — quite interesting indeed!! The images too so fascinating!!

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      • Thanks for sharing that Sarah. I was definitely asking from an open place of curiosity.

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  5. Thanks, Christy. I am reflecting on the balance I read here. It’s “easy” for me to listen to another, and “be” there, and care. But I’m now learning to love “me” too and appreciate myself. Why do we find it so hard and come to it so late?

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    • This is something that has to be a conscious practice for me, too. It’s much easier for me to find love and compassion for others than it is for myself, and it’s been through meditation on the ways in which the other and I are one that I’ve been able to bring that compassion back around to myself, mother myself, and love on myself when my inner critic has found yet another flaw in myself to highlight or study. It’s a roundabout way of getting there, but perhaps influenced by the ways in which our culture respects altruism but frowns upon self-centered-ness (obviously playing here with the concept of grounding and centering as well).

      Self-acceptance and self-love are things I’m still working on daily, so if it figures prominently in my reflections it is because it is still at the forefront for me as I set my intentions and work toward fuller, more authentic expression.

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      • “It’s much easier for me to find love and compassion for others than it is for myself, and it’s been through meditation on the ways in which the other and I are one that I’ve been able to bring that compassion back around to myself, mother myself, and love on myself…”

        This is how I have come to be able to love myself. I found the adage that you can’t love others until you love yourself did not resonate for me. I could love others, but not myself. So I took what I knew of loving other people and started to learn to love and forgive myself.

        I think for people who have been deeply wounded the way to self-love and self-acceptance is that way: from the outside in, since on the inside there isn’t what is needed to begin with,

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  6. touch. we are living in a world where it is missing, and oft discouraged. School teachers cannot hug the littlest of students; in work we operate in realms of defined personal space for fear of lawsuits. I have found in times of great strain, the comfort of lovemaking to be a healing force as mentioned in the reply above; but also massage, a healing touch offers much to those going thru major life changes and stress or pain. From bachelor to widow, an animal companion offers the warmth and peace of healthy touch when no human acquaintance is connected well enough to ask for the simple transference of body heat much less the energy exchange of the life-force. Your giving nature is a true gift.

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    • Thank you! It is interesting with how we view touch in our culture. I’m naturally a hugger. The kind of gives big, deep, long, dissolving hugs, puts a hand on someone’s back or arm if they’re having a hard time, and welcomes a hand on my own. My background in rape crisis has taught me much about the ways consent factors into touch, and I definitely never want to touch someone who doesn’t want and enthusiastically welcome receiving it, and sometimes it’s hard to know what someone else’s boundaries are without asking.

      The conversation is complicated by the fact that the action itself is meaningless in the absence of context, and while teachers offering a hug can simply mean affection and warmth, it can be (among those who abuse) a grooming behavior, and I think our culture’s fear of touch in certain contexts is rooted in our inability to tell which touches are motivated by appropriate affection, joy, and compassion, and which carry the baggage of power relations, coercion, or impropriety. It’s muddy.

      So I have these frameworks of intimacy that I’ve constructed that shape how I approach things — this person welcomes touch, this one doesn’t. There are a handful of coworkers with whom I regularly share touch and hugs, and others I know it might be weird. I don’t typically hug those I’ve met through academic work, though I do those I’ve met through my volunteer work. Occasionally, I have to do the work of breaking down my construction of someone through the context in which I first met in order to allow space for them to become a part of my life in another, more intimate context. It’s a lot to juggle. These issues are easy to state in terms of ideals, but harder to integrate into practice in our larger culture. I’m still figuring out how that works.

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  7. The photo with all the people and the long-legged tall person with bare feet in the middle seems to build the image of a tree: symbolically it might look like an emblem for humanity taking on responsibility to save the environment. Absolutely love it.

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  8. This is a lovely addition to our discussion of embodied theo/thealogy. Thanks, Christy.

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  9. This is a thoughtful, interesting post.

    As a survivor of extensive sexual abuse, touch has been very problematic for me, as have boundaries! It has taken years of hard work to understand boundaries and appropriate touch, and to learn about receiving much-craved touch without sex having to be part of it.

    I love that you talk about the embodied divine in the material aspects of this world, as that is something I am thinking about a lot lately. Particularly in relation to plants because I work with them so much, and people, as I struggle to find the divine in even in those I dislike or abhor.

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    • Thanks for bringing up backgrounds, Iris. I touched on that a bit in my post and above in my reply to Ret MP as well, and it is problematic to re-teach and re-learn a lot of that after extensive abuse. I believe that might be part of why I’ve made such an effort at coming to an intentional understanding of touch, boundaries, compassion, relationships, and friendships as well, and why it occupies such a significant part in my spiritual and personal growth practices. Thanks for your comment, and for reading.

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