Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Touched by an Elephant, Part 1

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Part I: Setting Out

About three years ago I decided to pursue a PhD in somatic psychology. I'd spent the last few years establishing a healthy massage therapy practice in Los Angeles, and although the bodywork was rewarding and meaningful, I wanted to go deeper in a manner of speaking. The whole premise of somatics—body psychology—is that mind and body are intricately interwoven. They affect each other, and express each other, in myriad ways, not the least of which is the healing power of touch.

More recently, I made the decision to complete the fieldwork by researching human-elephant communication at a sanctuary in Cambodia. This turned more than a few heads. Mind-body psychology was a big enough leap for a massage therapist, but elephants? What do elephants have to do with massage?

That elephants have complex emotional and social lives has been well documented for decades. They form intricate, mutually supportive social systems and have been known to adopt orphans. Also well documented is their recognition of death — they mourn lost loved ones, and visit the bones of dead elephants with reverence and ceremony (Moss, 1998). They have a sense of themselves, recognizing their own images when presented with a mirror. Their use of tools and complex problem solving further underscore their intelligence. Like humans, they suffer devastating psychological effects from trauma, and have shown clear symptoms of PTSD (Bradshaw, 2009). They are also complex communicators, using a combination of trumpets, squeals, rumbles, gestures, touch and infrasonic (low-frequency) vibrations that can apparently travel over vast distances (Pool, n.d.).

Attempts to understand elephant communication have only just begun. It is a challenging enterprise, because while elephants clearly have a complex system of communication, we cannot assume it has much in common with our human systems of abstract syntax. How then do we begin to bridge the gap?

One thing that we have in common with the elephants: we have bodies forged for the unique conditions of this particular planet. As we become more open toward the deep reality and wisdom of our bodies, and as we get back in touch with the sensual body-consciousness that existed on earth before civilization began, we begin to reconnect to a kind of ancient preverbal intelligence that elephants and humans share. One of the primary means by which this preverbal awareness is known and communicated is through the sense of touch.

This was my premise as I set out for the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, a sanctuary for retired work elephants. Most of the elephants I encountered there had a history of trauma and abuse. Even those who were treated relatively well had spent their lives in forced labor prior to their arrival at the sanctuary. Some were curious and open to having contact with visiting humans; others, I was warned, might be dangerous. Unlike American establishments, there were literally no walls between human and elephant at the Cambodian Sanctuary. I didn't know what to expect.

Want more? Read Part 2 here!

Photos courtesy of Jason and Linsey Honaker. 

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Bradshaw, G.A. (2009). Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Knaster, M. (1996). Discovering the Body's Wisdom. New York, NY: Bantam.

Montagu, A. (1971). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Moss, C. (1998). Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Pool, J. (n.d.). "Elephant Communication." Retrieved July 14, 2015, from http://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-communication.html.