What Does Intimacy Mean to You? By Niluka Gunawardane
Young Feminist Network is hosted by Everystory Sri Lanka. The Network brings together young women and girls in Sri Lanka interested in issues of gender, feminism and activism together to learn from each other, collaborate on projects, be connected to funding and other opportunities, mentoring opportunities, how to better shape their ideas and work, tools they can use and more. This will be an informal network built collectively with the members and their ideas/needs.
This interview piece first appeared in the Young Feminist Network by ESSL newsletter for the Month of February 2021.
Q: What Does Intimacy Mean to You?
A: Intimacy is breathing, tuning in to my breath as air fills my lungs from the outside and empties from the inside, blurring what is within and without, breathing in, breathing out. This breath, this air that I share with everyone and everything in ways that I could never fully imagine — this kiss of life, bliss. Intimacy is this beautiful, delightful, and sacred body of mine. All my senses, my mind and my dark velvety skin awakened by touch, sensation, sound and the most beautiful burst of colour and form that defines this sensual world. Intimacy is a cup of tea — …the warmth of the cup on my hands bringing me comfort and respite, the teasing invitation to taste as my cup touches my lips, the symphony of flavours and textures in my mouth as I taste each sip, the heat and revival that permeates my body with every gulp. I feel like living is an act of deep intimacy and belonging, if you tune in to the deeply sensual, interconnected nature of life in every moment…
Intimacy with life is a quality that I had to cultivate over time. As a young disabled (Crip) Queer person, I had a very uneasy and conflicted relationship with my body and my embodied desires. In many ways, I was disconnected from my body. As a child, seeing how my body invoked fear, shock or pity in those that I encountered led to a deep sense of shame. I was told by well meaning people to ‘cover up’ my stumpy left arm. Growing up in Sri lanka, I was often told that my body was ‘deformed’ due to my karmic culpability — “you must have done something horrible in a past life to be born like this!”. The narrative of past life criminality really sticks to you when you are young and impressionable, a time when your sense of self and identity are significantly influenced by external cues and standards. It is like looking at yourself through a hall of distorted mirrors at a circus, only to find something abhorrent and freakish looking back at you. I did carry this sense of ‘badness’ and the belief that my body was evidence of my deviance well in to my early 20s. This was compounded by my Queerness which made it unbearable to express or articulate my sexuality. In many ways I felt that I needed to apologize for my very existence! That kind of estrangement from one’s body and sense of self does not leave much room for intimacy in whatever form. That felt badness and shame eclipses opportunities for an authentic and unashamed relationship with oneself and others. It makes you feel deeply undesirable and unworthy of intimacy and connection. This self-loathing manifested itself for me as depression and self-harm. The experience of sexual harm and assault as a young adult was the nail in the coffin, leading to a long period of numbness, inner death and disconnect from my body. I felt disembodied for a very long time… It is on the journey of slowly coming back home to my body that I realized the importance of honouring, loving, and acknowledging my body for true intimacy with myself and others. Typing this, I feel amazed by how far I have come.
Q: How do you share and perform intimacy?
A: For me, intimacy is innately connected to authenticity and vulnerability. When I started working with persons with disabilities, I found that many of us carry a sense of shame and abhorrence towards our bodies, largely conditioned by the external messaging of undesirability that we receive from society. I feel that one of the most radical and subversive things we can do in the face of dehumanization and oppression is to radically love ourselves and our Crip/ Queer bodies. In that sense, intimacy is an act of deep resistance and reclamation! Several years ago, I went for a performance by Sins Invalid, a Disability Justice performance group based in San Francisco. My partner at that time had picked up a flyer advertising the event which read “An Unashamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility”. We decided to check it out. We did not know what to expect. I was in a deep state of shock and disbelief through that entire evening. These amazing, sexy Crip bodies all twisted, disproportionate, scarred, maimed, queer, uncontrolled, drooling, wheeling, limping, jerking just filled and commanded that space, one performance after another, through words and acts that spoke of deep desire, love, pain, sensuality, and intimacy — Crips oozing with sexuality! I found it to be so confronting. It just compelled me to take stock of my own assumptions and beliefs of my sexuality and desirability. I was in a state of deep discomfort. I wished my seat would just swallow me up. You can’t imagine just how much that unashamed display of intimacy by those who performed that evening transformed my life! It was revolutionary!
A few weeks ago, I participated in a drama therapy session where the facilitator asked us to caress our bodies with love. For the first time in a long time, I became conscious of the scars of self-harm and self-loathing on my body. I touched each scar with a sense of reverence and apology. A deep wave of emotion along the lines of “Oh my beloved, I am so sorry” arose as I caressed my scars in a state of deep intimacy and embodied connection. I shifted my attention to my stumpy arm with its tiny palm and button like little fingers and skin full of tactile sensation. “Wow! You are beautiful” I said in my mind. It has been quite a process — getting to a point where I could say that with sincerity and conviction.
Intimacy is when I can touch or look at my body, mapping the rich terrain of pleasure, pain and desire — the many gifts of being an embodied being! Intimacy is when I can hold whatever feelings and emotions that arises with a sense of spaciousness and non-judgmental awareness. It is only when I can hold space for myself that I can do so for others. Intimacy is when I can silently and full heartedly watch a beautiful sunset with a friend or lover.
Spirituality has been a very important part of my journey of love for myself and others. I have been particularly drawn to Tantric teachings of intimacy and love. It has taught me that acts of intimacy such as deep listening, holding space and honoring oneself and others can be cultivated through practice. Imagine what a difference it would make if children and young adults were taught how to love and relate to one another in this way! We often long to be heard, to be believed, to feel connected and to belong. I feel that much of the suffering that we experience arises from disconnection to our bodies, to others and to our beautiful Mother Earth. Our minds and bodies also store immense pain, grief and trauma. We often resort to being guarded to prevent further injury or hurt. Having tried that approach, I feel that a path of intimacy and vulnerability is more conducive to our collective healing. It opens us up to the many pleasures of life including our sensuality and sexuality. Mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet”. I often remind myself to do this when I am caught up in busy-ness or worry — to come back to the inherent intimacy of living in this moment.
Q: How do you share intimacy through inanimate objects?
A: As I type this sentence on my keyboard, I realize just how much intimacy I share with and through inanimate objects. Often, for persons with disabilities, this intimacy with the inanimate becomes even more heightened. About two years ago, I had a nerve injury and was unable to walk without support. This meant that I had to wear leg braces to keep my body in balance and walk without falling over. For that period in my life, those braces were very much a part of my own body. The shape of the grooves of the soles of the braces left an imprint on my fleshy soles due to daily usage. It defined how I navigated the world — my gait, my equilibrium. It mediated how I “kissed the earth” with my feet through plastic and straps.
Many persons with disabilities experience the world and share intimacy through inanimate objects such as wheelchairs, canes, prosthetic limbs, and cochlear implants. A friend of mine who is a wheelchair user said that when he uses a wheelchair, it becomes part of his body and personal space/ territory. Touching his wheelchair or pushing it without his consent feels similar to someone coming and touching your body or pushing your body without your consent. It would be a very unpleasant experience, wouldn’t it?
Intimacy with inanimate objects brings a sense of sacredness to our mundane acts and interactions. Have you ever watched a Japanese tea ceremony? The amount of presence and respect that is shown when handling and preparing the teacups and pot, the tea leaves, the chasen (tea whisk) is incredible. Just watching the ceremony brings a sense of calm, intimacy and connection. Underlying Japanese Tea Ceremonies is the principle of Ichi-go ichi-e, that every single moment is unique, and every single encounter is a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. It is an invitation to bring presence, depth and intimacy to every single moment and every single encounter.
Mia Mingus, a Crip Queer thought leader speaks of ‘Access Intimacy’. Persons with disabilities are often excluded from full participation in socio-economic and political life due to inaccessibility. This could range from inaccessible built environments to attitudes and inaccessible work/ school cultures. Access intimacy is when environments are accessible based on dignity and respect as opposed to charity or compulsion (‘obligatory’ access). Crip bodies are often subjected to degrading treatment without any consciousness or recognition of that indignity. I remember attending a disability awareness workshop on the third floor of an inaccessible building. One of the presenters who was a wheelchair user was carried in his wheelchair to the third floor by a couple of men. This was considered an acceptable access solution even though it was deeply humiliating and degrading for my friend. Access intimacy, where we can navigate the world with ease and dignity becomes especially important given this cultural background. Access intimacy often arises from spaces of affinity such as organizations or communities for persons with disabilities where there is a shared experience and understanding of the tyranny of inaccessibility.
At a personal level, I use Art as a medium of expressing intimacy, affection, and desire. We all long for intimacy, closeness and connection through a diversity of relationships ranging from parents and family to friends, colleagues, lovers and even strangers. The intimacy of locking eyes with a stranger, acknowledging their presence through your presence and attention, honoring them with a smile or look of recognition can be immensely powerful. It is about holding space for both the immense joy and depthless pain that living in this sensory world offers. Intimacy for me is often the most significant and compelling form of inspiration and motivation — the act and experience of deeply loving myself and others.