The Skin as a Map of Experience


Our bodies are covered with a protective sheath that is highly sensitive and easily injured; we call it ‘skin.’ As our most intimate connection with the environment, the skin registers both loving caress and brutal blow. It is multilayered, with a dry outer covering and a moist inner layer, which is rich with blood vessels and nerves. It’s an exquisite interface that bears the brunt of daily life. Every message the skin receives stirs our awareness, like ripples on a pond. Affectionate touch can build confidence, while violation instills shame.

Rather than respecting its sweet sensitivity, our culture places unrealistic demands on the skin and the hair it produces. We spend billions on cosmetics, hair products, and surgical procedures in hope of preventing or reversing aging changes.While it makes sense to nurture the skin, for instance by applying moisturizers and sunscreens, it also makes sense to recognize that wrinkles and graying are natural outcomes of living.

Changes in skin and hair progress more rapidly when we grapple with major stressors, whether due to financial insecurity, unstable relationships, trauma, bereavement, addictions, insomnia, chronic worry, or depression. Scientists have begun to connect hardship to bodily aging through causal chains of inflammation and chromosomal deterioration. We now understand why those of us who have suffered more turmoil may look older than others of similar years.  We often bemoan these marks of living, but we could choose to honor them as badges of experience.

We could feel awed by the way our surfaces record the passage of our lives. Sadly, however, most of us find it hard to view aging changes as neutral facts of life, as natural and hard-earned marks of experience. We consider them embarrassments that marginalize us in both workplace and sexual marketplace. The social stigma of advancing age is undeniable, but we needn’t compound the problem by internalizing society’s adolescent attitudes. We can cherish our bodies even as they wear down through the decades. We don’t reject our beloved pets as they grow old. Why not be as accepting of our bodies as we are of the animals we adore?

If we want to change our attitudes, we can begin by understanding all that skin does for us. For instance, it protects us from infection, helps regulate body temperature, heals after injury, and manufactures Vitamin D. It also gives us the rich, essential experience of touch. This sensation of touch can be explored in mindfulness meditation, as in the practice that follows:

To begin to feel more in touch with your living surface, close your eyes and explore the map of skin that covers your body. Tune into sensations at the crown of your head, then investigate each area below, moving to brows and eyes, then nose and cheeks, then mouth and chin. Look for sensations of air movement on your face, notice its warmth or coolness. Then, explore the scalp from crown, sideways down to ears, and backward to the base of your skull. Move down into the neck: feeling its surface from just below the head to just above the shoulders. Mentally travel down the skin of your arms to your hands, feeling the texture of clothing and places where your fingers rest. Next, investigate the torso from top to bottom, exploring its front, back, and side surfaces. Locate pelvic and hip regions, then move into your thighs, knees, calves, until you arrive at the souls of your feet. Identify sensations of pressure where your body feels support from furnishings or floor.

Skin ReceptorsAs you explored your body’s surface, you discerned different qualities of sensation: air flow, clothing, and pressure feel highly distinct. The sense of gentle breezes comes to us via receptor cells tuned to light touch, including sensors at the base of hair shafts. Silk feels different from wool because we possess detectors adapted to feeling texture. The heavy press of body parts against floors and furniture is experienced courtesy of receptors that respond to deep pressure. Other sensors detect the stretch of skin over joints, warmth and coolness, pain and injury, etc. Looking inwardly during practices like the one above, you can appreciate the skin’s life of sensation, tuned to the varieties of contact.

Recall that your supple, sensitive surface has enwrapped you since before you were born and has been changing ever since. Although skin renews itself throughout life, repair loses pace with time. Collagen and elastic fiber deterioration leads to sagging and thinning. Pigment production drops, so hair grays. The badges of age emerge. See if you can view them as medals of valor on your living uniform.Your skin records the imprints of your life. Admire its artistry and fortitude as it faces the world.