When we are born, we do not yet have the ability to communicate verbally, and have very limited abilities to see and hear. Our first mode of communication is through touch. We sense changes in tension, shape and movement flow in our mother/caregiver’s body. We learn how to interpret the meanings of changes in sensation, and consequently learn how to communicate through our bodies. Babies learn very early on how to arch their back away to avoid something, how to soften and melt their body into somebody they love. They understand when the person who is holding them is anxious or scared to be with them through the tension felt between bodies, and even changes they might feel in pulse. In fact, a large component of this understanding may be instinctual, not learned.
We never really lose this ability to communicate through touch. We learn to value verbal expression as our primary mode of communication, but we never really lose the ability to learn about how others feel about us and to communicate how we feel to others through touch. For example, by placing a hand on somebody’s shoulder from behind to get their attention, we can often detect what their mood or expression might be before we even see their face. It is the most primal way we learned to build relationships, learn our own value, seek affection and care, and build social interactions.
Thus, the world’s earliest religions communed with the divine through a physical relationship with the world. Rituals, via their property of physical touch, developed as a way to communicate with and make sense of what early humans must have believed was a very chaotic world. However, this sense-making is not the same as abstract philosophization. Ritual is not an attempt to predict and deconstruct through the mind, or logical and analytic faculties, as much as it is a means to grow intimacy with that which is unpredictable, unknowable.
We don’t know this world and we can’t really know it. It is frightening to be born into a world that we learn in our first moments cannot be controlled. We can learn patterns and predict some things with some consistency, but we cannot control it. For example, as infants, we might know that most of the time, when we feel a pain in our stomach and cry, it means we will get fed – but that is not always what happens, and we might not be fed in the way we want if we are fed. The most primal way we know to make sense of this chaotic existence is literally, physically, to touch it. We can commune with its pulse and emptiness, learn what it is saying, and perhaps even learn how to speak back.
For those who seek to grow closer to love, touch is an instinctual way to do that. Touch expresses the liminality between the loved and lover. One thinks of holding the hand of a loved one, and a moment where you have the urge to squeeze it tight enough almost to hurt them, because it frustrates you that even when you are near to one another, skin and flesh still separate you. It is so fundamentally human to grow love through touch.
As they say on X-Files, “The truth is out there.” This is a truth that we don’t only seek to know, but we seek to grow an intimacy with. There is a place for logic, meditation, and abstraction. Ritual is not necessary to know the truth; it is possible to know the world by transcending physicality. But that is not how love naturally grows. For as long as we are human, our body grows and knows love through touch. When we leave touch behind in our spiritual practice, we leave behind a valuable, natural tool our bodies have equipped us with for growing our relationship with the world.
On the other hand, we are beings that are often frustrated and disgusted by the fact that we are embodied. Having a body – shaving it, cleaning it, feeding it, resting it – can be very annoying and quite a pain sometimes. But it can also be really beautiful to feel things, if we’re open to it. Some people don’t even remember what the feeling of their own skin is like.
Certain aspects of touch and ritual just serve to connect our body with a rhythm of worship, or even just groundedness and centering. Even when we do not participate explicitly in ritual in the way that puja or other rituals are delineated in Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Dao, and various other religious traditions, there is always a physical aspect to how we practice or commune with our spiritual selves. For example, there may be differences in the ways we sit or place our hands during meditation, the weight on our feet when we stand in prayer, our comfort or discomfort with these situations and shifts in balance. The feeling of the hands on the knees in a kneeling position; the feeling of the left palm cradling the right hand; the feeling of dropping a forehead to the ground; these are all, in a way, physical rituals tied to different religious traditions which instantly carry practitioners to a certain place or feeling just through their associated sensations.
Likewise, rituals from indigenous traditions around the world which involve stone, metal, paper, cloth objects, and items from nature, might serve to connect us with the divine as it is present in the world/nature. By physically familiarizing ourselves with things of the Earth, we develop an intimacy with this planet and the things these objects symbolize. From the outside, the physical expression of a ritual is meaningless. For example, we might take water and fill one container, then pour it out as an offering, sometimes right back into the same body of water. It seems to be a pointless exercise. But it’s not about the process of it – it’s always about you, your feeling. Understanding ritual procedurally does not tell you anything about what it is. You will never know from watching me offer grains of rice slowly and repetitively to a deity that internally, it can feel just like stroking your fingertips from the forehead back through the hair of your beloved as they rest in your lap. That loving, that soft, that much adoration.
When we return to touch-based ritual after a long time away from it, all of the accumulated memories and experiences associated with that particular act come back into the sensorium. There was a long time a couple of years ago when I hadn’t made time for ritual anymore. The first time after that hiatus when I lit a stick of agarbatti (incense), I remembered what it was like to be thirteen again, when I still lived with my parents and I would light an agarbatti at my home altar every morning before going to school. My mom usually lit it before I woke up, and I would wake up from the smell of smoky sandalwood, and the sound of her ringing a little bell as she did aarati. But sometimes I would light it if she asked me to. The ashes would fall out of the silver thali we kept it in, and I was annoyed every time I was always the one who had to clean it up. All sorts of feelings and memories like these came back to me once I held that box of matches again, opened the packet that I kept the agarbatti in, affixed it in the wooden holder. All of these things I remembered were a part of my making.
Generally, across many religious traditions, we are moving away from physical ritual. But I still think we desperately crave the intimacy borne through touch. Spitz (1946), in a classic (and controversial) psychological study suggested that infants who are deprived of touch or affection simply waste away and die, or grow up with significant developmental impairments. We probably will not die if we disconnect ourselves from the physical experience of our spiritual lives. But there may be something we are missing out on in that disconnection. The next time you feel very connected to the world around you – in any moment, religious or just out in your life – ask yourself what it physically feels like. It may be something worth connecting to.