On the Threshold of Touch

Suprabha Seshan

Behaviour exposes the content of your consciousness.

- J Krishnamurti

As a long time environmental educator I’ve been exploring imitation, song, touch and body-in-nature as channels of empathy between humans, and also between human and non-humans. My concern, and that of my colleagues at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, is the death of the living world and the insane degree to which modern humans are out of touch with life. Our premise is: to be human and alive requires the company of nonhumans. Our experience is: we return to the living world through participation and surrender, when we touch, and are touched by, the many intelligences of the forest.

A convivial empathic life for me is about song, and touch. Mimesis, I’ve found, is also a great way to discover another, by inhabiting their person (without hurting them).

How about for you? How do you come close to another?

Dating back to a conversation with the physicist David Bohm in the late 1980s, I’ve been aware that ‘placing oneself in the shoes of another’ is critical to empathy. It’s harder to do it with persons you are in dysfunctional situations with, but the fact is, you do it unconsciously, you become the other (in similar or opposite ways), or you take the other within you even when you don’t want to. This can lead, strangely enough, to understanding and empathy, or to separation and violence. Which way we go seems to depend on whether we are present to each other as living beings or if we are absorbed in projections of each other—in other words, with things.

Mostly I’ve been intrigued by what appears to be a play between creatures (ourselves included). A play of mirror actions and movements, mirror emotions and moods, mirror speech and thought, mirror attunements and awarenesses, mirror bodies and minds. I observe these through verbal and body language, held body states (openness and closure), reflexive action, perception and behaviour. What happens to my vision when my eyes follow the path of an eagle in the sky? What happens when I follow the print on the screen? A kind of inscribing happens: fluid with the eagle, fixated with the print. What happens to me when I look at another’s expressions? I feel my face doing funny things, and my body too. What happens when I imitate another? I get a sense of what it is to be that person.

Then, years later, I stumbled upon mirror neurons. At the time I was observing how dogs and their human friends seem to resemble each other; how parents are mimicked by their children (to the children’s own dismay!); how members of a community seem to be reflections of each other in healthy and unhealthy ways; how live music generates profound empathy; how trees, rain, animals, rivers and plants make me feel and behave in certain ways; and how cultures in different ecosystems seem to have different characters. My queries led me to mirror neurons, among other things.

Mirror neurons are special motor neurons that fire when you watch (through your eyes and your imagination) someone else do something—a movement, an action of any kind. This watching makes you feel you are doing the action yourself (though you may not be conscious of this). These neurons have been noted in monkeys, birds and humans, and are thought to be important for learning, for acquiring language and other skills, through imitation. Some people go so far as to say that mirror neurons and imitation are part of empathic relations with others, and are important drivers in cultural change.

I found it really interesting when I read somewhere that mirror neurons don’t fire when a person sees an inanimate object in motion, that they are responsive to other persons. I don’t recall any mention in the literature of how mirror neurons work between different species, but I’d like to propose that they fire (and you may think this is stretching things a bit) also when you watch non-humans, not only other humans.

Very young children often see other life forms, including trees, plants and insects, as persons. Many see rock persons and stream persons and mountain persons and star persons too. I know I do, and that my human friends at the Sanctuary relate to plants and animals in this individual, personal way. When you spend long hours watching fish (and frogs, birds, trees and rivers), or working with plants and animals, I do believe a mirroring happens, a kind of play between beings. It’s to do with how you regard the other and how the other regards you (and responds to you), and that there is mutual affect. You both change and you change each other, simply in attending to the other.

Rather than pursue the academic debate on adaptation and natural selection (and evolutionary determinism) or enter that domain where sociobiology, neurobiology and ecology commingle, I just explored, within my immediate world, this strange process at work, this mirroring. I observed it between all kinds of creatures, in all kinds of situations. Sometimes I think: the world is as wonderful as it is because of mirror neurons, or mirror somethings (plants are biochemical, not neuronal beings) and that it is as dysfunctional as it is because of mirror neurons, or mirror somethings. They can take us, if we’re wise (and lucky), to communion or they can trap us in the terrifying hallway of mirrors. I’ve experienced both, and been witness too.

Sometimes I think: the most confounding line in Bob Dylan’s repertoire is, what cannot be imitated perfect must die. Sometimes I think: humans are more subject to influence than we would like to acknowledge, or believe; that, in fact, life is all about influence, about all that flows in.

A few years ago, I began to realize that thoughts often appear to me first in melody, a sequence of notes, usually in a minor key. When I hum these out aloud, I feel I know what I really want to say just then and also that I know how to say it. Although I’ve sung in an improvisatory way since I was a child, it is only recently that I’ve come to understand that it arises from a direct desire to speak with someone, and that in fact it is very precise. No ambiguity and double entendres involved.

I also like to imitate birds, monkeys, frogs and other beings when they call. I do it quite unconsciously; it’s an old habit of mine, to honk, and hoot, and squeal in the forest. I don’t know that I ever get their phraseology and meaning, but in doing so, in actively imitating non-humans, in their presence, I feel closer to them, and I know they sometimes move closer to me, and sometimes seem to call back. These days, I see it more and more as a form of vocalized, full-bodied, open-hearted talking to other creatures.

Vocalizing like this is a part of my day, and sometimes even my dreams. It certainly is a part of the forest.

But it was the elephants who really made it very clear to me, during two episodes earlier this year, when they stayed with us at the Sanctuary.

Briefly: I sang to the elephants many times during those days. Or rather, I uttered sounds that sometimes were musical (to human ears), but more often were spontaneous responses to the elephants’ own vocalizations and body sounds. To everything I heard from them, I offered something in return. These included yells and shouts, long steady notes, a throaty roar, a weak trumpet and many spontaneous songs of my own. Sometimes I just sat or stood there in silence, venturing as close as I could, without threatening them or myself, and close enough to feel the fullness of their great presence.

I don’t know that I ever understood what they were saying, or that they understood me, but I know I understood something about being with them, and that perhaps they understood something about being with me. I’d like to think that they came to recognize the voice of a woman singing to them, a sound very different from all the men shouting at them to drive them away, all along their migratory range. Imagine if you were a refugee, desperate for food, driven out of your home, and all you got were shouts and threats and explosives and electrocution and the awful portent of starvation and insanity, and how, in all this conflict, someone singing to you might make you feel there was a friend around.

Disclosing my secret—that I sing to elephants, and talk to them—is another way of saying I know something about them from my feet upwards, and from the back of my throat, my chest and belly. I can’t tell you a thing about pachyderm biology that can’t be said in two or three lines, but I can follow them close, and I feel the pull of their bodies upon mine, their movements mirrored by my own.

Whatever I knew about them (read, heard, remembered) meant nothing when I was actually there with them, alone, under the full moon on a cool February night, at the far edge of the Sanctuary.

So I’ve been discovering this year that there is a perfect distance between creatures, no matter who they are. I’m discovering the converse too: there is a perfect touch between creatures, no matter who they are. Between plant and plant, plant and insect, insect and bird, frog and snake, elephant and elephant, elephant and human, water and root, sky and tree, light and leaf, fish and stone. Distance and touch are essential to communion.

Touch: feel, make contact with, make intimate, meet without cutting, caress, connect

We think of touch as something we do with our hands and fingers only. I’m interested in the convergence that happens also through the skin (warmth and cold, pleasure and pain, the full spectrum of sensation), the soles of one’s feet (stance, balance, stride and grip), one’s eyes and ears and nose (molecules and waves); through one’s back and belly and limbs (the flex of muscle, weight, torsion and action); through voice and thought (direct speech), mind and heart (memory, experience, intuition, emotion, feeling and attention). None as discrete as they appear on this page. None located in one person, or species, or entity, or organ or system, or thought; or in time (to one moment). Touch dissolves boundaries, and opens the inner to the outer (assuming they are experienced as separate) and vice versa. The world flows in, changes you; you flow out, and change the world. Touch is the manifestation of the question asked by writer Derrick Jensen in an amazing book called What We Leave Behind: Where do you end and I begin?

Intimacy and distance; touch and space; push and resistance; action and reaction; fall and friction; collision and explosion; always mutual, always perfect, always the most appropriate gesture and response, unless of course someone has to eat.

Through my plant and animal and human friends, I’ve also been discovering the lines of transgression. Usually these signify death, through eating. Perhaps it’s not right to consider eating an act of transgression, but I looked up the word. It means, to step upon, to infringe upon boundaries. Of course, in nature, everybody is somebody’s food, so eating might just be one of those energetic exchanges called upon by organisms so that the great web of life continues.

I don’t quite understand what happens emotionally between creatures up until the moment of death, so I’ll use the word transgression for now; I’m assuming it’s not easy for the one being eaten. Elephants taught me a lot about a different kind of transgression, not just the eating kind (though they ate a lot from the land we’d protected for so long). I wanted them to eat; yet I knew we would have to turn them away soon.

I’m referring to moments of near-death. I could easily have been killed during those days. If I’d ventured too close to their babies, I would have been, for sure. And if they’d ventured too far into the Sanctuary, they would have been trapped, a kind of death too. It would have led to a lot of conflict.

To end with, some thoughts on another kind of touch. A lot of time is spent by me, and a lot of us modern humans, tapping, touching, stroking keyboards. Every imperative to do this (i.e. stroke keyboards) is obvious and necessary and urgent; we just do it without thinking; turn on the machine and get in there to work, play, relate, learn, share, plan, create, be entertained.

It’s fun, and quite often useful and meaningful even, and it can sometimes be lovely, especially when you connect with friends.

Whatever the imperative, if you look at it on a global scale, a lot of us, millions and millions of us now, stroke plastic keys a lot of the time, and respond to imperatives of the virtual world.

Just think, hundreds of millions of us around the world spend more time touching computer keyboards than anything else, than anything else.

What are the implications of this? I’d like to hazard some guesses. In the machine world: we touch what we need, or what we desire and identify with. We protect what we touch.


In the living, sentient world, we touch whom we need and identify with. We protect whom we touch.


I’d like to take it a step further. In the living, sentient world: we touch whom we love.

Whom do you touch?