Compassionate touch FTW!
Even though it’s officially autumn, Austin is still summery hot at the end of September. Yesterday afternoon I walked a couple blocks to our corner store/gas station in 90-degree heat. This particular corner of East Austin has quite a few homeless folks who hang out; it’s close to one of the public health clinics and they often gather in the shade of the bus shelter or in front of the store. (When you don’t live anywhere, you tend to have a lot of time on your hands.) I’m used to seeing people in distress up there.
As I walked up to the store through the side parking lot, I saw a thin young man holding a bottle of water and leaning against the wall. He vomited, and I looked away, quickening my pace and doing my best to ignore him. In our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood he could have been a young, professional resident who had drunk a 12-pack of Lone Stars on Saturday night, or a junkie who had done too much smack that afternoon. I couldn’t really tell. (Both those demographics tend to wear rumpled clothes.)
I went into the store, made my purchase, and started the trek back to my house. As I walked by, the man was still crouched down, shoulder against the wall. I was going to give him a wide berth, but decided instead to see if he needed any help.
I approached him and asked him if he was okay. “I’m sick,” he said. “I got some water from the store, and then started throwing up.” He closed his eyes, trying to breathe. Clearly he felt horrible. I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling ill the last place I want to be is in a nasty parking lot in the mid-day heat, leaning against a wall that has probably been pissed on several times since the last rainstorm.
I continued to stand there, unsure what to do. “Is there anything I can get for you?”
“No,” he said, and turned his face toward the wall.
I stood there silently for another moment. Before I walked off, I stepped in closer, put my hand on his shoulder and said, “I hope you feel better.”
Of course I have no idea what happened to him, if he made it home. Maybe he had nowhere else to go, and was just going to sit there until he felt well enough to move again. I hope, though, that putting my hand on his shoulder gave him a bit of comfort, and let him know that somebody had noticed him and saw him struggling.
I spent a lot of time this summer driving around in triple-digit temperatures and scurrying into air-conditioned spaces once I left my vehicle. The sun is brutal – more than five minutes of exertion mid-day will leave you exhausted. As I drove, I began to pay attention to the many homeless people standing on street corners, literally frying their brains out in the punishing sun, surrounded by concrete and asphalt, breathing exhaust. Since I didn’t have money to give them most of the time, I would often look away with a small smile and fiddle with my car radio, trying to avoid eye contact while still acknowledging them. But perhaps I did have something to give: a handshake. Making a brief physical connection recognizes a person as part of the human family, and not a nuisance to be avoided. While it doesn’t put food in their bellies or a roof over their head, it does give them a bit of actual human contact in an otherwise lonely existence. Tiny instances of joy can make someone's day when they are in a bleak situation.
So many of us feel overwhelmed when it comes to the problems of the world. The mess we are in seems so vast that it’s easier to just shut down and become paralyzed. After all, we don’t have the time or resources to do something about it, let alone figure out where to stick our spoons and start tunneling through the mountain of shit we find ourselves in. Physical contact is a small, tangible way to relieve the suffering of another, albeit momentarily. It’s a way of reaching out and acknowledging that we’re all human, and that each of us lives in the sovereign nation of a physical body, and that we can interact with each other in a way that is trusting, caring, and pleasant (as opposed to yelling at each other from behind our screens).
Reaching out, instead of turning away, is a small step toward healing the pain, great and small, that defines the human condition every bit as much as love. Will it fix everything? Oh hell, no. But it’s free to give, and it’s a small act that can have a huge impact.
Americans suffer from a silent epidemic. This epidemic is skin hunger, and it afflicts millions. It is slow and sneaky; people can sense that something is wrong, but they don’t know what, or how to heal it, until someone says the words out loud. Skin hunger can affect our overall mental and physical health, and make our lives darker and more difficult. One friend recently described it as being killed by thousands of paper cuts. The cure is simple: all we need to do is reach out and ask others to embrace us. And yet….
Karuna Sessions recognizes that this chasm is hard for most people to cross. Being touched is a Really Big Deal, and when you haven’t had it for a long time, it’s hard to take the first step. We have created an immersive experience of compassionate touch that tells people, “We see you. We know you want to connect with others, and you deserve to have that pleasure. There’s no shame in wanting to be touched. We know it’s frightening to ask, and to receive. So we’re going to walk you through this fear, slowly and gently, and welcome you back into the human family.”
(And once people go through the experience, the relief on their face is palpable. They look 10 years younger, and say, smiling, “I had no idea how much I needed that.”)
Whether rich or poor, old or young, beautiful or ugly, healthy or sick, humans share one universal characteristic: we are all born in a physical body. When we are young, our parents care for us by holding our bodies close to ours. Before we can walk, think or talk, we learn what safety and contentment feels like. As we age, we move away from this simple pleasure, and take up residence in our heads. If we’re lucky we find this solace again in the arms of a lover.
People are starving, hungering for embrace, connection and touch. While they see a smorgasbord of sexual options offered up, many still find it impossible to open the door, walk into the restaurant and have a seat at the table. Karuna Sessions offers compassionate touch: a home-cooked meal from mama, simple food prepared with love and care, nutritious and filling. We nourish and fortify people, let them know that it’s okay to be hungry, and that they will be fed. We give them a really satisfying meal, one that will sustain them if it’s a long time until they can feed their skin hunger again. (I’m also interested in having some research done on our process; I think it may have value for those suffering from PTSD, addiction, anxiety or depression.)
For the past two years, I have been trying to figure out how to let people know about our sumptuous fare. There are millions of people to feed out there, and we’re serving up a meal that satisfies their skin hunger, one at a time. Karuna Sessions truly is a ministry of the body.
I also believe that as the skin is the outer layer of our bodies, skin hunger is only the outer layer of our desires. We hunger to connect with other people’s hearts and minds and souls. It’s human to want to know others; we are nothing more than monkeys with car keys. Closeness is in our DNA; it has always helped us survive. Perhaps if we can experience being physically intimate with others in a safe space and experiences pleasure without expectations, we will learn to trust each other, to talk to our friends and neighbors, to ask questions instead of spewing opinions, and to recognize that we’re all in this together.
If we want to survive as a species, we’re going to have to get a bit closer and take care of each other, in a million different relationship configurations. And then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a chance to navigate out of the multiple messes we find ourselves in.
Even though I haven't birthed another human being, I mother adults. It's really amazing work (and especially cool to mother the mothers - they need it more than most people). If I worked every single hour of every single day for the rest of my life, I'd never be able to get to all the people who need what we do.
We all have it in us to mother others, regardless of our gender, or whether or not we've had children. The world would be a much better place if we would give each other permission to ask for and give loving, reassuring, nurturing care to others. To be able to hold someone when they cry and tell them it's going to be okay is to be human, and to share the burdens of pain, loss and loneliness that all of us experience.
Kindness, comfort and tenderness are in short supply in our world today. Please try to offer a little bit of one of these things to friends, lovers, acquaintances and strangers whenever you can. Take the time to ask people if they need anything, if you can help them out. Let them know that you see them struggling or suffering, and that they're not alone. It's a very quick and easy way to create palpable change in the world.
When we first started Karuna Sessions in 2013, we referred to ourselves as professional cuddlers. The concept of professional cuddling is a fairly recent one, but it has grown in popularity over the past couple of years, and we were happy to be part of this trend.
And then, at the behest of one of the therapists we work with, Epiphany Jordan tried a standard one-on-one cuddling session with a client, and realized that we share almost nothing in common. Yes, there is cuddling involved in what we do, but the resemblance ends there. Below are some of the key differences that make Karuna Sessions a far superior service.
Effective. Metaphorically speaking, a Karuna Session reboots your body. Unless a client is going through a really difficult time, most clients find a single session to be satisfying and nourishing. Those who seek repeat sessions find they need to return only once every 6-12 months.
Universally needed and enjoyed. Single males are typical clientele for professional cuddlers, and the media portrays them as sad, pathetic losers. While we do have clients who are single and male, many of our clients are women who are happily married with children. People undergoing duress and those in good physical/mental health alike have benefited from our services.
Carefully designed. We’ve spent hundreds of hours refining what we do. Every detail of our session is imbued with meaning and significance. Karuna Sessions has crafted a 5-step process (Intiation, Introduction, Immerson, Integration and Completion) that is slow, smooth, and guided by compassionate practitioners. Clients remember, analyze and integrate the experience long after they walk out the front door.
Not awkward. Part of the reason professional cuddling is awkward is because it’s not an interaction with familiar, well-defined social mores - people have no idea what to ask for or how to behave. Because we grok the importance of respecting personal boundaries and guide you through the experience, clients report feeling safe, at ease, and deeply relaxed.
Different interpersonal dynamics. One of the biggest criticisms of professional cuddling is that it’s easy to misconstrue as a romantic or sexual experience. With our model of two practitioners/one client, this dynamic is out of the picture. It more closely resembles a pair of attendants waiting on a nobleperson than three people having a romantic encounter. The client's internal experience is prioritized over the external interaction with the practitioners, allowing for maximum immersion.
Mutual trust and respect. We believe that men crave comfort and tenderness, and are not sex-crazed animals. We also believe they understand the difference between the erotic and the nurturing. We are not scared of men (or masculinity), and welcome all people, regardless of gender. We model respect and kindness, and offer a gentle experience of the mother archetype.
Cautious approach. We understand the deeply transformational nature of our work, and approach clients with care. We recognize that we are not psychotherapists or medical doctors, and consider our work an augmentation to more traditional modalities. We do not take on clients who have serious issues prior to communicating with their regular caregivers so we may work in tandem with them.
Broad perspective. Yes, cuddling is fun, and oxytocin makes you feel good, but our philosophy encompasses theories that draw from a broad range of social and physical sciences, including human development, neurology, biology, sociology and anthropology. While we don’t discuss these during a session, this information and knowledge informs our intentions and creates a deeper, richer experience for the client.
Secret sauce! Just as chefs will add an unexpected flavor that makes for a one-of-a-kind dish, we have a secret ingredient in our sessions. It adds something unique to an experience that is already powerful and singular. We’ll never tell you what it is, but feel free to guess.
Tuesday night was a learning experience on so many levels. We were invited to come and organize a sanctuary and offer compassionate touch to Amanda Palmer’s fans at her show at the Paramount in Austin. While this isn’t how we normally work, it wasn’t too far of a stretch from the Snuggle Salons we offer as part of our educational outreach mission to teach people the importance of platonic touch. The Karuna Lounge went really well, and we got to put our hands on a lot of people (and create a safe space for some people who weren’t comfortable being touched).
Many folks walked by and watched us but didn’t come in, like a homeless person watching people eat in a restaurant. Skin hunger is a real thing, and it often feels like slow death. It always saddens me that something that is so simple gets mired in fear, confusion and loneliness.
But if they moved past their fear and came in? It never fails to amaze me to see people who have long been physically isolated, their bodies soaking up human touch and oxytocin like parched earth getting its first rainfall after a long dry spell. “More please, more!” their cells scream, “gimme some of that good stuff!”
When we do the Snuggle Salons, the first hour is devoted to a Boundaries 101 workshop. It’s not that people need to learn how to cuddle; it’s that they need to learn how to say yes or no, I want this and not that, I like this and hate that. It’s stuff we should be taught in 7th grade, and yet….
Turns out that basic communication is hard. Really hard.
Tuesday night, at Amanda’s show, we had people sit down in front of us, and we would ask them what they wanted, and how they liked to be touched. The question frequently stopped people cold. “Wait….WHAT? You mean I can CHOOSE what kind of touch I want? And WHERE and HOW I get touched?” And then they’d be all like, “um, I have no idea.” (This is the part where being a professional comes in handy.)
Most people have never given any thought to how we might like to be touched. We all know how to tolerate unwanted touch, whether it’s our parents forcing our naked 3-year-old asses to get dressed, or an uncomfortable exam at the dentist. If we live in big cities, we are constantly jostled in the bus, elevator or grocery store and often guard our personal space fiercely. In intimate relationships, we expect our partners to know exactly what we want without us specifying, and touch is often considered solely a prelude to sex. And far too many of us have been touched in ways that are harmful and violent.
The compassionate touch we provide is pleasurable, innocent and gentle. It is an end unto itself, and the people receiving it are a marvel to witness. The trembling, teary-eyed smile from a simple caress of the face and hair. The body relaxing after a ten-second embrace, when said body’s owner realizes that they are safe. The breath and the heartbeat slowing down when a person is cuddled.
The connection may only last for a few minutes, but it is deep and authentic. It can and will be hella awkward: the brain screams, “a stranger is touching you! Danger! Danger!” It takes a while for the mental chaos to quiet down. But the body knows. The body remembers what it feels like to be touched or held, and that this signifies peace, comfort and safety. Even if you didn’t get it as a child, the body knows. – it is designed to be held and comforted Humans are wired seek to connection with others. It’s a feature, not a bug, and no amount of intellectual machination can change that. You can argue with yourself, but you can’t argue with Mother Nature.
I also spent a lot of time wondering what else people don’t ask for, how many times they go along, do what they’re told to do, suppress their own desires and kill their dreams before they even pursue them. I wonder how many people say yes when they mean no, and put their own needs behind those of their friends, family, boss, kids or partners. And why? Fear of rejection is certainly a huge part of the equation. But another part is that so many people have no clue what they want.
The solution for this is two-fold. First, think about what it is you want, and then ask for it. And second, ask people what they want or need…and then give them a little bit of time to answer. Let them move through the panic (“I need to decide right now or the opportunity will go away!”) and the awkwardness (“What if they think I’m weird for wanting that?”) and the fear (“What if they say no?”). There could be a whole world of awesome waiting on the other side of those questions.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. You’ll never know, unless you ask.
Thank you again to everyone who came in and trusted us. We look forward to seeing you again.
p.s. If you didn't have an opportunity to enter our drawing to win a free Karuna Session, we'll give you one more chance. Enter here before 11:59 p.m. Friday, April 17.
When we found out that Amanda Palmer was performing in Austin, we asked her to come try a Karuna Session. Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion, and a Karuna Session is designed to nurture body, mind and heart. It's cutting-edge self-care, something people desperately need in an increasingly stressful, fast-paced world.
We figured that since Amanda was on tour, pregnant and likely exhausted, she would be a perfect candidate for receiving compassionate touch. We also figured that her intimate relationship with her fans meant that she encounters many folks who need our services, but either didn’t know about them, or - like so many people - they might be afraid to ask for mothering and nurturing from someone they knew.
Turns out Amanda's dance card was already full, but as she often does, she decided to take our offer and make it all about the fans.
Because, yeah, she IS that awesome.
Amanda invited us to come set up a sanctuary at her Austin show on Tuesday night for fans who were feeling lonely and vulnerable, and literally needed a shoulder to cry on (or fans whose hearts were bursting with joy and wanted to connect with others). Of course we said HELL YES!
If you're at the Paramount on Tuesday night, please visit our Karuna Lounge for a heaping helping of hand-generated, organic, artisinal oxytocin. We’ll be happy to provide you with the kind of support, connection, comfort and warmth that drew you to Amanda’s music and message in the first place and send you back out with a big-ass smile on your face.
While we love creating public spaces* to provide compassionate touch and spread the gospel of how oxytocin can improve our health and our world, it's not our main jam. Our passion is providing private compassionate touch sessions and giving clients an experience of deep peacefulness, relaxation and satisfaction. We would like to give three of Amanda’s fans a chance to get the initiatory session we originally offered to her.
There are two ways to enter this contest:
If you are at the Paramount on Tuesday night, please stop by the Karuna Lounge (located in the VIP bar on the mezzanine) and answer one - or both - of the following questions:
Q #1: What do you desire most, but are afraid to ask for?
Q #2: What is your greatest fear about being vulnerable?
We will pick the best answer for each question after the show, and the two winners will receive a gift certificate for a free Karuna Session.
If you can’t attend the show, you can still enter to win by clicking here. We will randomly choose one of you to receive the third Karuna Session.
The fine print is as follows:
You must be over 18
You must be able to redeem your gift certificate by June 15, 2015 at our East Austin studio
- Yes, you really can enter three times if you come to the show!
Best of luck to all who enter! We look forward to reading your responses, learning about your dreams, and hugging you in person.
And thank YOU, Ms. Palmer, for letting us take care of your fans. If you need anything from us on Tuesday, please don't hesitate to ask. Seems like you're pretty good at doing that....
* I knew all those years of building Burning Man theme camps would come in handy at some point!