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Beyond Touch: Kin and Syn-Aesthetics

I settled into my midline, my sit bones anchored in a comfortable chair, my back supported by a cushion, feet aware of contact with the ground. My whole body notices the air, and the qualities of the field more than my conscious cognitive self does. It knows when to make contact because of a palpable readiness resulting from this client's response to my invitation to drop in and resource.

This liminal relational knowing is essential to biodynamic craniosacral work. There is always much more than bodies in touch with each other through light practitioner hand contact.  Our knowing matches that which our aliveness inherently expresses and could be called “metatactile”(beyond touch) to borrow a word coined by DeafBlind poet John Lee Clark. It is multidimensional and multi-relational, not centred on our cognitive selves but suspended everywhere instead, fully allowing, through the deep listening of a multi-sensorial holding. Craniosacral practitioner and author Mike Boxhall spoke of becoming “the empty chair”: stepping out of the way as much as possible to become a vessel through which 'we' can perceive and surrender to what is.

By the time I make contact with this client’s ankles, my fluid body is in tune and will keep attuning while Health Intelligence reveals itself. In this case, I feel it arising out of their right hip, knee, and shoulder from the first moment of contact. This pattern of expression or ‘conditioning’ makes itself known not just to my hands but to my whole body. 

I sway and follow, syncing in an act of dynamic balance between my body and a biodynamic force that flows between and around our fluid bodies, way beyond both our corporeal selves.

Biodynamic craniosacral therapists tap into this “fluid field” to perceive through and with movement. We witness a slowing down and amplification of movement as more spaciousness and ease emerge but nothing ever stops still. Even when we hold a stillpoint, a pause between inhalation and exhalation, even when we bow in awe to the buoyancy of whole body stillness that does not begin or end with the body, motion is always there, pregnant, ready to give birth anew.

Stillness is a dynamic process and so is the constant adjustment of the body towards balance or a coherent equilibrium. Homeostasis is a bit of a misnomer as life is constantly re-appraising and re-positioning itself in relationship with all motilities expressed. Although we tend towards equilibrium, it is never actually static: stasis (stability) and the Greek prefix homeo meaning ‘likeness; resemblance; constant unchanging state’ do not apply in a world in constant flux.    

Kinaesthesia means the sensory perception of movement: kinein means movement in Greek and the primary meaning of ‘aesthetics’ is perception through the senses, not appreciation of beauty, a 19th-century interpretation. 

Our craniosacral knowing pertains to kinaesthesia but is not brain-centred. It relates and dances with the myriad dances at play in our perceptive field. 

Dancing is a kinaesthetic art form. Kinaesthesia is also how a child learns to relate with the world, and it accompanies and evolves with each new type of sensory motility, from crawling to walking to running, cycling…

It begins in the womb because the embryo ‘moves into form’ in constant relationship with the uterine, maternal, and mother’s environmental surrounds. The embryo ‘sees’ without eyes (sealed shut during most of the pregnancy) in the relative darkness of the amniotic fluid. This full-body sensory perception, this inherent living dynamic process remains with us all our lives. Yet our kinaesthetic and synaesthetic (the prefix syn means 'with' or 'together', synaesthesia is perceiving through a combination of senses) perception is developmentally ‘pruned’ and educated away from a whole body ‘feeling-with’ into a fenced-out sensory approach restrictively led by what we call the five senses and the predominance of an internal centre as opposed to dynamically immersed dancing relationships.

Our inherent mode of embryonic perception is synaesthetic. Birth psychologist and author David Chamberlain tells us that the embryo has at least 12 senses. I cannot resist pasting his list:

“(1) Touch (receiving touch, and reaching out to touch) is the first sense to develop.

(2) Thermal sensing of hot and cold is indeed real, but usually ignored

(3) Pain sensing (now termed nociception) involves crushing and nerve damage. The reality of pain was tragically overlooked in creating the protocols of modern obstetrics.

(4) Hearing begins as early as 14 weeks after conception, then improves greatly in ten weeks with cochlear resources and full growth of the external ear.

(5) Balance, gravity, and orientation in space develops from week 7 to 12.

(6) The chemosensors of smell operate in close association with the chemosensors of

(7) taste as both are bathed by amniotic fluids passing through the nasal area.

(8) “Mouthing” is used to explore texture, hardness, and contours of objects; this sense is not about food and eating.

(9) Sucking and licking in the womb are mouth-related pleasure senses. The sucking of fingers and toes is not nutritive. Male thumb sucking, seen as early as 13 weeks, is often paired with erections, suggesting sexual sensations. Ultrasound reveals prenates licking the placenta and twins licking each other, suggesting pleasure in bodily contact.

(10) Vision in utero is paradoxical because limited by eyelids being fused shut for about six months, yet it seems functional in hitting targets like needles during amniocentesis at 14 to 16 weeks of age. Some form of vision seems to facilitate twins boxing, kicking, kissing, and playing together in the womb.

(11) Although prenates have never been acknowledged for their psychic gifts, they do demonstrate clairvoyance and telepathic sensing of things clearly out of reach; womb babies know whether they are wanted or not, and discern the character of their parents.

(12) Finally, prenates also demonstrate transcendent sensing during near-death and out-of-body experiences. When out-of-body, no senses should work for either babies or adults, but they do. In transcendent states, even immature senses function well and events are stored in memory--as can be demonstrated years later. Contrary to popular belief, babies in the womb are richly equipped for sensing!”

Interesting to note that most if not all of these senses have to do with some form of body contact with fluid, airwaves, chemicals, nourishment...with which the prenate feels.

Canadian professor Erin Manning writes about touch as a way of “feeling-with” and “worlding”, making felt sense of the world and experiencing in neurodiverse modes of knowing.

“Neurodiverse sociality lives in and through the force of the shaping, a shaping so deeply alive with the world it continuously activates new fields of resonance in the edging into existence of body-worldings.”

I’d argue that as an intrinsic part of this neurodiverse mappemonde BCST senses in shapes, sees with much more than eyes, and listens with hands, nose, mouth, and heart to the smell of anesthetics dispersing, or the tobacco fumes inhaled as an embryo. It also mirrors movements through a kind of 'virtual body' that is not limited to its outline.

This neurodiverse practice shows time and again that bodies are not above all individual, they are inseparable from a collective community of human and non-human beings, things, architectures, histories, stories, and emotions.  We constantly participate in this tumultuous interweaving whether we’re aware of all we perceive without our eyes or ears, the dominant senses in our Western modernity. Our nose, taste buds, and skin but also our heart, gut, and all nerve plexi intercept and interlace with what our lives land, experience, and contact.

We’re simply unable to consciously notice everything because consciousness inevitably filters what we perceive. However, we can broaden the scope of our consciousness as well as its scale, the quality of its engagement, and vantage points to shape much richer sensory experiences.

A BCST session is an opportunity to plug into the vastness of our sensorium and rekindle our inherent synaesthesia. Just to add here there are no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ ways of perceiving, just a spectrum of possibilities formatted by different grids. A dissociated or partly embodied perception is as valid as a fully embodied one (if such a thing exists). We are all moulded by culture and education but also imprinted by different wounds and life events. 

BCST helps to gradually lift these grids, enriching our inner and outer perceptive fields. Some clients speak of feeling more spacious, lighter, taller, more alive, fuller, more at ease, grounded, receptive, softer…

What would happen if you stopped reading now and closed your eyes? Where do you see with your eyes closed? What is the first thing your awareness notices?

When I close my eyes at this moment in time, I feel my belly in contact with the edge of the table and I listen in to the ripples of this conversation. My breath expands and enjoys the solidity of this rhythmic support. My lower back opens and feels into the space that separates it from the door… I could go on but you get what I mean: the first things I notice are relational touch and movements.

 Erin Manning argues that a neurotypical formatted —and pruned— perception or mapping of the world is unable to cope with the hyper-sensitive awareness of whole bodies’“feeling-with” the world with which autistic and DeafBlind people perceive and communicate.

She explains that ‘mirror-touch’ or “vision-touch” (witnessing someone’s stroking their arm for example as a sensuous experience of contact in one’s own body: “you touch yourself and I feel it because I see it” ) synaesthesia experienced by autistic people is seen as a loss of bodily integrity in neurotypically-formatted studies. 

“The deficit model of sensation begins with the presupposition that senses are fixed and located, working with a pre-constituted body schema whose ‘sense of agency,’ it is said, is fractured by the increase in sensation.”

She continues: “Bodies are only properly bodies when they can fully distinguish themselves from the world, the implication being always that bodies are separate entities that have dominance over their sensations, and, by extension, over their movements. The deficit model perceives any deviation from this norm to be a lack.”

My hands often involuntarily move ever so slightly away from contact sometimes, to hover above an area. I ‘see’ it happen but do not always cognitively know why, only my hands do and that’s fine by me. I surrender to their 'agency' and whatever guides their movement.

BCST in its emphasis on the experience of bodies in contact within the fluid field belongs to this wide spectrum of neurodivergence or neurodiversity, a more all-encompassing term. It very much deviates from the established norm in the way it initiates and encourages awareness to free itself from restrictive formatting so that our inner Health Intelligence, our life force itself feels freer to roam, invest, inform, and fulfill its many roles.

Far from being seen as a deficiency, the more bodies sense and “feel the touch of the world” the better in a BCST model.

Touch alters the “feel of the space” and bodies are shaped by this spatial agency, by these meetings.

This poem called ‘Clamor’ by John Lee Clarke (DeafBlind author previously mentioned), evokes just that:

“All things living and dead cry out to me

when I touch them. The dog, gasping for air,

is drowning in ecstasy, its neck shouting

Dig in, dig in. Slam me, slam me,

demands one door while another asks to remain

open. My wife again asks me

how did I know just where and how

to caress her. I can be too eager to listen:

The scar here on my thumb is a gift

from a cracked bowl that begged to be broken.”

Can you feel how this affects you, how your body responds to the words’ sensuous strokes, not only the images conjured in your mind’s eye but also how your fascia or your organs move and apprehend or are apprehended by the fluid space around them? Do you feel the tugging and sweet melting motion of your tissues surrendering? The curve of my abdomen, on the right, as it meets the iliac crest is heaving with delight as I read these lines.

John Lee Clark begins an essay called Metatactile Knowledge like this:

"How did you know?"

"That's a response I often get when I interact with people. How did I know that their shoulder needed a massage, or that they were hungry or sad, or a spot on their arm was itchy? The owners of pets I meet are also amazed. Almost immediately I've found their pets' sweet spots. "That's right! She loves that. But how did you know?"

On one of our first dates, my future wife asked, "How did you know?" Without realizing what I was doing, I had pressed her Melt Button. (She wishes me to inform my readers, lest their imaginations run away, that it was nothing naughty.)

When our twin sons were born prematurely (now a happily meaningless fact), the nurses in the NICU were impressed by what I did. I felt right away that my sons' skins were too sensitive to stroke. I just held them or squeezed their arms and legs, even firmly, but I knew not to stroke. The nurses were going to give instructions to that effect, but there was no need.

I wasn't conscious of it. It was natural. So natural, in fact, that I didn't have a name for it, this skill that goes beyond just feeling texture, heft, shape, and temperature. I'd like to call it metatactile knowledge. It involves feeling being felt, being able to read people like open Braille books, and seeing through our hands and the antennae of and within our bodies. It involves many senses, senses that we all have but which are almost never mentioned—the axial, locomotive, kinesthetic, vestibular…. All "tactile" to some extent, but going beyond touch."

“going beyond touch”

As I resonate with John’s words and feel them through my familiar craniosacral prism, I ‘translate’ that contact could be seen as a simple way in —if we wish to operate in a binary narrative of internal/external — or as one strand in a rich conversation immersed within the fluid fields where our bodies and everything else relate.

As John says, “We all are in continuous conversation. Except that not everyone is as engaged in conversation as they could be”.

I would add in turn that BCST helps us to remember this whole body sensory blueprint knowing experienced by our embryo, and more actively engage with the conversations of life.

A knowing that is beyond intuition, intellect, or instinct.

Kinaesthetically and Synaesthetically.

The ‘lightness’ felt by clients during sessions belongs to this blueprint memory imprint of levity experienced while we basked in the amniotic fluid for nine months to shape a human form.  

I have personally noticed that this ‘lightness’, this renewed ease comes with greater sensory immersion and perception and I wonder whether what was ‘pruned’ is in fact just silenced and can be awakened given the ‘right’ circumstances.

When I enjoy a contemporary dance show, my whole body dances with the dancers and my skin ripples with their fluid touch. It’s as if their vibrant life force rocks mine more alive, to fill me up with the deep pleasure sensual bodies display when they are danced by movement, when their bodies ply with lithe abandon, interweave, and create together. I walk on air out of such shows. I experience so much levity and lightness, I could climb a mountain and have, on many occasions, danced or jumped this soft, supple vibrancy in the streets!

I wonder whether this sensory siloing, discounted from 12 (or more) to 5 shies us away from our natural capacity towards ecstasy. The bliss of sentient oneness with the surround that the embryo experiences and that spiritual mysticism endeavours to restore.

A bliss that poetry also sparks up. French author Christian Bobin writes:

“L’homme-joie (The joy-man) 

La douceur de ce poème était si grande qu’à la fin de ma lecture je n’avais plus de corps

The softness of this poem was so great that by the end of reading I had no body anymore.”

Such a gorgeous ‘feeling-with’ ode to immersive surrender.

JLC calls the arbitrary separation of bodies from the world in neurotypical perception “distantism”. He is at the forefront of a new tactile language that bridges the distance between communicating DeafBlind bodies. Called Pro-tactile, this linguistic and cultural movement was created in 2005 by Jelica Nuccio.

Watching Pro-tactile conversations brings embodied listening to a whole new level, “allowing all co-composing bodily senses—including the kinaesthetic, the proprioceptive, the vestibular— to connect to the incipiencies of a welling environment.”

Movement and touch are at the centre of this metatactile, whole-body-sensing language. “Making movement primary by itself shatters distant- ism, for distantism requires position.” (Manning)

JLC talks about “tactile freeze”, a learned condition impeding our sense of knowing through touch and denoting how ‘anti-tactile’ Western societies are. He quotes a fellow Pro-Tactile trainer, "Tactile freeze is learned. It is natural for us to explore everything tactilely. But when I was a kid, they hit my hands for touching.”

“Reinventing what it might mean to communicate is key to this practice, and this includes communication with the more-than, engagement with what else the world carries, and what else a body-world relation can be.”(Manning)

My vitality feels so invigorated by this form of engagement with the world, this 'world-bodying' because it points to something familiar, that we lost along the way: a sense of immersive participation with all that is. Metatactile knowledge returns us to our essential biodynamics.

JLC asks:

"Shouldn't we be thankful for the diversity that evolves among us, instead of arbitrarily deciding that one thing is normal and another is not?”

“It [this diversity] may even be vital to the human race.”

If we were to re-write Syn and Kin aesthesia, like I did in the title of this piece, it would literally mean perception through the senses together and in familiar relationship, or a communion of sensuous relatedness and togetherness in how the world shapes our perception and how we shape it in return. A participative reciprocity, “a shaping so deeply alive with the world” (Manning).

“We all stand to learn from a modality of feeling that is so ecstatically more-than-human.” says Erin Manning.

A way of relating intimating to us that all is potentially kin and together/syn, intertwined.

“In a philosophy of pure feeling (as opposed to one of pure reason), the world is alive with feeling, and it is this feeling that moves through us, creating the lures that orient our experience.” (Manning)

Such new and ancient ways of communicating, being in, and feeling with the world can teach us so much. Watching how each body relates with spatial configurations in Pro-Tactile conversations I am reminded of the murmuration of starlings or the swarming of bees.

All windows, portals to a broadened integrated perception and chances to heal our wounded relationships. 

At the dawn of this new year I am left with questions around which I wish to orient: what else can a body-world relationship feel like? How can we participate more fully in this world-bodying? How can we nurture this feeling with the touch of the world?


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