© August Rodin
It is February in London. The bone-chilling force of the wind seeps stealthily between the woollen layers of my coat, scarf and gloves, then jacket, jumper and vest. My muscles are braced tense against the cold, my arms and hands wrapped tight around my torso, as though I could squeeze myself to the point where my skin would become impermeable to the freezing temperature outside. Weirdly, this is also how I sleep at night, arms wound around my chest. When my eyes are closed, the only world I can see is within, inside my mind and breath. With my arms I am trying to contain the vast and howling emptiness within, craving in the darkness for numb unconsciousness.
This concave curled-like-a-caterpillar position of the body is often associated with a sense of protection; safety, seeking comfort, a rallying stance to shut out the external world. Yet, like every human being, I began the adventure of life in this foetal position within my mother's womb, where my skin was vital for receiving nourishment from the environment. I imagine my mother nourished her own connection to me, the child growing within her body, by regularly touching and feeling the skin of her stomach.
Touch is the primary experience of love. When a father cradles his new born baby, when a mother gives milk from her breast, when a parent is willing to wash and clean and gently rock to sleep, they are giving love. Sadly, by the time I became a child and was finally able to coordinate my limbs enough to reciprocate my parents’ love, my father was no longer alive and my mother was exhausted with grief.
I don’t know exactly when the shift occurred. Perhaps it was a gradual acceptance of breathing into my lungs the stifling air of religion and the eternal shame of being born in a female body, but we became a family who did not do hugging. My mother was a single parent with a full time job and raising four children. Skin to skin was a rushed affair; soaping and scrubbing in the bath, yanking knots and plaiting hair, or hitting in admonishment for fighting with my sisters.
Children do not necessarily understand the craving of love through touch, but they are highly adaptable. I thought I could win my mother's love with my smart brain. I studied hard and got the top grades in my class throughout junior school and secondary school. Following my A levels, I decided to study Architecture because it integrated my skill in maths and my love of art and design. How proud my mother would be, I assumed, that I was to be the first of her daughters to go to university. Until I realised that part way through my studies, her expectations had changed. Sure, she didn't mind that I studied a bit in order to get a decent job, but “when will you stop this studying lark and get married and settle down? Start living a real life?” she queried.
What a disappointment I was. My years of effort had not measured up. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I searched for love's touch elsewhere and ran into the arms of the first man who gave me a gold bracelet (For gold is the meaning of love for Indians). By then however, I hated my fat body and lumpy skin, and had no idea what it was to feel loved by touch. Losing my virginity (which is the most horrid expression invented for first physical love) gave me no joy because I did not love myself, had no confidence in my own worth, and could not see what any man would find loveable about me.
Yet I carried on searching. And although I see it only in hindsight, I had numerous, and ultimately disastrous, relationships because I was desperate to be touched, my skin constantly longing to feel that essential experience of love. I wanted to be loved by someone special, who I knew was waiting out there just for me. I believed in the delusion of ‘the one’, who would always keep me safe, take care of me, and with whom my body and skin would grow old.
Then came the realisation. Education and culture are all wrong. The dating sites, relationship books, parental advice, all misguided. Because we make the mistake of believing that love comes to us from ‘out there’, and that we have to be ‘good’ people to deserve it. We spend our entire lives in search of love from others, imagining that we need to behave in a certain way, or agree to certain conditions in order to receive love's touch. But stop for a moment and look. Our skin, the largest living, breathing sense organ of our body, is permeable both ways. It can absorb touch from the inside out, as well as from the outside in. We are already, and have always been, touched by love, which is within us and in our ability to create in abundance, for ourselves and for everyone.
And because we are mortal, organic, living beings, one day we will die. While we are here, however, the relationship we have with ourself is ever-present. And just as our skin and body is continually transforming, so can the potential to love ourselves unconditionally.
The next time you feel like curling up like a caterpillar, go beyond the defensiveness and emptiness. It is a simple change in direction to go within and be vulnerable to accepting and loving yourself in that moment. No matter how vast the chasm feels, love is not about filling it with peculiar heart-shaped cushions, jewellery, chocolates, or expectations. Give the love within your skin space to unfurl its wings and fly.