Nice to Meet You

I am attending my annual workshop, THE one I go to, sort of a pilgrimage you might say, tomorrow. Every year I show up kind of stumbling in, frayed around the edges, a little jittery from my summer schedule finally coming to an end, sneezing and blowing my nose (it’s always in October, when my allergies are worst).

David Lauterstein comes up to the Downeast School of Massage in Maine and helps us learn his Deep Massage technique. (You can be part of the Deep Massage Society on FaceBook if you like.)

I love my job. I love my life. I have the practice I’ve always dreamed of, and there’s not a day that goes by that I pause and say “Thank you…thank you that I got to do something beautiful with my life, after all…thank you for delivering me from a cubicle…thank you…”

But getting what you want also means getting what you didn’t expect. Having a private  practice is a solitary endeavor: it’s all on you, sweetheart. Lots of stuff goes on to make 1 session look effortless, much the same way a good piece of theatre looks easy and you relax just being at a professional show. Meanwhile there’s this amazing ensemble laboring as one behind the scenes.

In private practice, you are the ensemble. You are actor, stage manager, lighting director and box office. You are Sondheim, Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins. Cue the Jets and Sharks.

I fancied myself a solo performer at one point, when I was doing a lot of acting early in my 20s. (Had to do something with that theatre degree.) I put together a one-woman show that I trucked around a few places.

You know what’s more awkward than attending a solo show? Doing a solo show. I realized – fast – that there’s nothing worse than hearing your own voice for longer than 15 minutes. After that it’s dreadfully boring. You wait for someone to say something interesting: nope, it’s still you, with all those lines you wrote that you thought were so great at the time.

They were great. On paper. Now you’re windbagging with earnestness, or wielding humorous inflection, or mustering tears. It’s a bad church skit, an excruciating home movie, no matter how much subdued encouragement you get from friends and family. I am not a fan of the genre, nor do I think I was terribly adept at it, in case you couldn’t tell.

I’ve always enjoyed ensemble work: being raised Mennonite, community was everything and you were always doing things with someone else. A lot more got accomplished that way, and the other person at least had some better stories than yours, or some personality quirks that kept you riveted.

I like keeping my own company, but there’s a loneliness to the entrepreneur: a weariness that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking. I am working with someone else but often I feel I’m working alone.

By the time I plop myself into David’s workshop I’m too full of myself and in desperate need of not believing my own hype. I’ve had weeks of bringing my A game and the A game is starting to feel like chainmail rather than royal robes. I know I’ve been shoving myself around and yet I don’t know how to get the gears out of high rev.

I need what I get: colleagues, humor, listening, fooling around with new techniques the way a mechanic tinkers in the garage, elucidation, steeping.

Anyone who touches bodies for a living knows it’s easy to stop seeing the person you’re working with. We greet the whole but end up dealing with parts. We grind at the issue, rather than taking time to step out of it and widen our scope.

Our frame of reference – as practitioner, the do-er- becomes the platform for the hour. We forget there are two people in the room: the person on the table, and the person standing beside the table. One is responsible for the tenor, intricacies, and professionalism of a session, but both are “working” in the sessions itself.

This is called, to my understanding, meeting at interface: my hands meet your body. Your body meets up to my hands. This is where it happens, and nowhere else: not in my thinky notes from last session, not the story you told me about your body and what’s wrong with it, not even what either of us hope to have happen.

Interface is mute and blind, but it sings and sees. Its currency is curiosity and respect. I have things I would like to have happen for you in session, and I aim for them, but it’s not me aiming: we hunker on the starting blocks and charge forth down the track in tandem. And we break the finish line side by side.

What a relief! As the person standing beside the table, I can give up my onus, remove the superhero cape. Behold: You, on the table, know how to heal yourself. I can confirm that. I place my hand and it calls out: “What’s happening here?” Your body responds to my hand: “Here’s what’s doing. And.”

When I meet, rather than do, there is also room for alchemy, something David talks about as one of the great graces of massage therapy. We cannot make it happen but we can create the space where it could occur. It is, he says, “a decision initiated by our clients from deep within themselves.”

Hallelujah. The monologue is over. Let the duet begin.

I’m ready for another year.

Every true journey is a journey to the center of the self. Jules Verne imagined it under the earth. But we therapists don’t just imagine it. We get to take a real journey over this living surface, affecting what’s underneath, the subterranean flows of muscle, bone, emotion, thoughts and breath.
Each session we do is an adventure story and an interface of biographies. Who could not be fascinated with this journey?
— David Lauterstein

I’m Just Trying To Help

“Just relax your shoulders, now. I’ve got it.”
“I know, I’m always trying to help.”
“Yes, I understand, I really do. But you help more by not helping.”

This is a conversation we have, you and I, when you’re supine on my table and I go to skootch under your shoulders with my hands, so I can get to your upper back muscles, and I feel you tense and lift. Or when I go to work down your arm: When your arm is stiff and your elbow locks and you hold out each finger for me when I go to massage them.

This is the little bit of conversation we do have, since there’s not a lot of talking, and when I say “just relax now” I am using what I hope is the most encouraging, friendly tone. Because I do understand. I really do.

Helping is a lovely quality, whether we’re moving our limbs around for our massage therapist, or picking up our neighbor’s newspaper for him and tucking it in his mailbox, or hoping to inspire a family member to quit drinking. Our intention is undeniably excellent. A gold star, five gold stars, for The Helper. I give myself props for it whenever I can. “Good for you, Kristen” I say to myself. “You really want to make a difference. I like that about you.”

“Helping” is what a lot of us do to ensure another’s happiness. We don’t want to put anyone out. We are scared of looking like we don’t care, or seeming selfish. We want to be the one who makes a difference.

There’s basic courtesy, mutual respect, and then there’s helping. I’ve waited tables and had customers try to help me figure out which table is going to open up first, or try to help me seat people. Pretty easy to spot how how incredibly annoying that is, right?

But when we do it, what we say to the other person is, “Well damn. I was just trying to help,” and behind that is quite a healthy dollop of indignation. Don’t get annoyed, because I was trying to help, could be the subtext. And, even farther under that, could be: you idiot.

So we help even when it hasn’t been requested. Even if we’re paying someone. And oh my goodness are we good at it. Sometimes, the better of a job we’re doing, the more annoying it is. Heated conversations — with mean words and a lot of stomping about — usually involve the phrase “just trying to help” at some point.

I’m not saying everyone who tries to help me by lifting or moving their limbs around in session is a Helper, but when I watch my clients try to help me in session it makes me consider what helping is. The sunny side of helping is: we really do want to help someone. The dark side of helping is: we don’t trust them.

For a lot of us, this is based on cold hard experience: we’ve been hurt, we’ve watched people go down the tubes, we’ve become increasingly annoyed by a bad situation and so we just start helping, just to do something to fix what is unbearable. We start anticipating more and more when help is required, then, and it becomes A Thing we do without even realizing it.

Even when the best, maybe healthiest response, is to step back. Relax. Watch things unfold. Unclench our grip.

“Not-Helping” in a massage session is a great opportunity to practice kinesthetically what might be difficult for us to manifest behaviorally. Often what we learn in the body brings simpler, more relaxed understanding to parts of ourselves that cannot and will not be nudged, budged, or unlearned by any other means.

Massage therapy is so good for so many things, not the least of which is learning when to engage, and when to let go, and you and I are both doing this during your session.

Because you know what? Sometimes I really do need your help. One of those moments where I absolutely, 100% require it? Is when it’s time for you turn over. Yep, I cannot do that for you. (interestingly enough this is one of those moments where I get the least amount of cooperation: I’ll never forget the time that, after I finished my back work with one long-term client, I gently encouraged her to roll supine. A substantial amount of time passed, and I thought she might be completely asleep. Then, in a very petulant tone, from the muffled depths of the face cradle, she said emphatically: “NO.”)

More occasions for you to help: I’m not going to put the bolster in or take the bolster out without lifted knees, please. If you could move up into the face cradle a little more that would be good.

Also? Please let me know if something isn’t working for you. This past week another long-term client finally remembered to tell me she couldn’t breathe well when lying prone. Together, with “creative bolstering” as I’ve learned it from Tracy Walton, we got her comfy.

But the rest of the session: I’ve got it. I can help your body if you don’t try to help me with the helping. When I go for your arm, let it flop into my hands like an overcooked noodle. When I go for your shoulders, let them unfurl over my fingers. If I scoop up under your lowback or knees: it’s better for us both if you just let it happen.

Speaking of knees: today I saw a client who did not want me to work with them. Not only not work with her knees: not touch her knees. She described why, and my first response was, “But massaging your knees…could…help that?”

Here is where *I* work with my five-gold-star-ness. I wanted to help her, you see. I felt that I knew better than she did about what she wanted.

I saw it, claimed it, tagged and bagged that thing, and immediately followed the question with, “…but of course I won’t even touch them. What *would* feel good for your legs?” And we came up with a plan of action for her leg massage, that did not involve me touching her knees, and in session I honored that request completely, even though everything in me wanted to Help Her Knees by massaging them.

And that’s the good news, is that when we stop helping we start listening. What would really be helpful here? What does this person need from me, truly? If I love them, if I like  them, even if I have the most basic regard for this person (like my neighbor with his sluggish paper retrieval), it might feel better — for both of us — if I’m more curious than assumptive.

 

 

 

 

Your Mind on Leash

There are an awful lot of dogs everywhere, have you noticed? You don’t notice the cats because 1) those who try to walk their cats on a leash experience new and meaningful definitions for the word “recalcitrant” 2) they are muy pequeño 3) cats don’t need a walk. They need a lie down, a stretch, a pounce, but they don’t need “a walk.” Don’t be insulting.

Anyway, I take walks in our neighborhood and 90% of the time when I encounter another person, they have a pooch tethered to them. These animals have all varying degrees of behavior, from lollygagging to ferocious. I admire people who have well-behaved dogs, because it takes a lot of discipline, on the part of both the doggie and the owner.

The other morning I was striding with purpose past a modest trailer park. Even in chichi Bayside Maine we have a trailer park: which i love: nobody should be allowed to come vacation by the sea in their $2500-per-week cottage rentals with cocktail parties and lobster bakes on the beach and extremely intelligent, articulate, ballsy children running amok without also seeing a trailer park. Bottom line: if you’re in Maine and you’re on vacation, you really need to see how 88% of the other half live. So you get it in your mind this is no utopia. (Although it is pretty damn close, for about 3 weeks out of the year, which is when you’re here, which is really not fair. Please come visit in February. Please.)

As I walked past, I saw a nice looking gentleman with his nice looking dog. I don’t know dog breeds on sight, I think this one might have been a white lab, if such a thing exists. We were about 25 yds away from each other. And the man put his hands in a different position on the leash, and looked at his dog. The dog looked at her owner, put her butt down on the ground. Both of them them turned to watch me pass.

I suddenly realized *I* was the test. Me, walking past them, was part of today’s discipline. In the body language of both owner and dog, this was not a problem necessarily: it was a bit of a game, perhaps. But I was a tasty morsel, something to lunge after: and the owner, with his fresh grip on the leash and his stance, was basically telling his dog, “Don’t lunge.” And she was staring at me, but with her stolid gaze she was basically responding, “I shall not lunge.”

I had admiration for the man — like i said I have a lot of respect for dog owners with well-behaved dogs – but as I moved past them, and caught a look at the dog’s face, I melted inside. Here was an animal: large, dignified, perhaps of some age, whose every instinct is to bark and defend. To protect with teeth and claw. Or, less dramatically, to aggressively sniff  or slather affection on the approaching species. She wasn’t doing what felt natural, what felt called for: she held her ground and merely observed me come and go. You gotta really respect a dog — as an individual! in its own right! — when it can do that.

Who taught her how to do that? Her owner: the dude holding the leash. He can’t prevent her from choosing to barkbarkbarkBARK or breaking away from him, without having his arm ripped out of its socket. But there’s enough symbiosis in their relationship that she knows there’s a reward for “good behavior” i.e. not doing what feels normal.

Part of the reward might be a biscuit. But maybe the other part of the reward is the relationship: the way both of them feel when there is peace. Suddenly dog and owner have mutual experience: we watch things come and go, we observe together the world around us together. It becomes less punishment-&-reward and more exploration, gentle adventure.

Also there’s trust, established from probably years of training between this man and pooch. He loves her and knows her every instinct. She loves him and trusts his guidance. There’s intuition, respect and practice, all rolled into one here.

I’m not a dog person per se, but in this moment I became one, because for the first time I had an inkling of what it might be like to be a dog. Left to my own devices, I go down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, striving, scheming, reacting, defending, barkbarkbarkBARKING at the world.

The driver in the seat is my crazy mind: the thing that starts up the minute I awake and the last thing to quiet down before I sleep. It catches a whiff of something and — off it goes! My mind is like an untrained dog loose in the streets: hugely entertaining at first, then a nuisance, then frightening. I’ve come to realize there’s nothing I can do to stop it from doing whatever it wants, and if I don’t manage it, I end up chasing after it fruitlessly.

Massage therapy is hugely helpful in helping us put our minds on leash. As we lie in gentle repose in session, our beatific countenance could belie the raging turmoil within. There we are: all relaxed and stuff, and meanwhile we’re counting up errands, or reviewing some horrible conversation we had last week, or planning what to do on the weekend. It’s exhausting. And we’re supposed to be relaxing!

What saves us? Presence. The massage therapist is there, their hands shifting in response to what he or she perceives in our frame. Over and over again, as the minutes tick by in session, both the massage therapist and the client acknowledge their instinct: to check out, to lunge at whatever our mind purveys, to escape. Over and over again, your massage therapist says in his touch, “don’t lunge.” And as the client, you are learning how not to lunge.

The reward is the peace that exists in session: that we long for, all week, that we crave for a month or 3 months until our next appointment. Here is safety. Here is repose. Good dog. Stay.

Stay.

Natural, Free Neck Tension Relief

I don’t know about you, but neck tension is just the pits. I get it bad. Sometimes it gives me pains all down the lateral side of my neck. Other times my occiput gets this stabby thing. Ugh.

Just about every place in your body, you can get to and stretch. You can roll it out with a roller, or do a yoga pose, or rub it out yourself. Neck tension is hard to get rid of, without someone else to do it for you.

I have a very dear friend who lives far away from me. She has neck tension. If I could get to her neck I would, I would just rub the hooey out of it, but I can’t because there are just too many miles between us and that would be — without a shadow of a doubt — the longest distance I’ve ever traveled for a house call.

She was hoping I could give her some “natural, free” ideas of how to reduce some of her neck tension. I started compiling a list in my head and then I thought, why not share it? So here are some ideas, and if you have one that I’ve missed please add it to the comments below!

(And by the way I’m not going to say anything stupid like “reduce your stress level.” I find it more stress producing to say things like that! The chance of our stress level magically going down is pretty slim, and besides, some of the things that stress us out, when considered, give us pleasure and happiness too. Would we take those things out of our lives? Probably not. You know the only thing I think doesn’t have stress? A bagged potato. So. Here are some ideas of natural, free, and manageable ways to reduce neck tension. And by manageable I mean easy.)

Water. Give it a try. I was gonna get all up in my panties about the necessity of drinking water but then I realized it’s just another thing that can stress us out (“am I drinking enough water? Am I doing it now? NOW??”) and besides there is no clear, unequivocable evidence that drinking a lot of water is going to fix anything. Instead, please read this amazing article by Paul Ingraham from painscience.com: “Chronic Dehydration Fear Mongering.”

One of the best quotes, for me, from this article was this:

Drink your 8 glasses per day (or 10, or 14), and ignore anyone who tries to get you to worried about it … or who tells you it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It just doesn’t matter much! – Paul Ingraham

YOU know how much water you should be drinking. When you have neck tension, and you can feel it ratcheting up, just check in: “have I had a glass or two of water recently?” Go have a little. Or a lot. Follow your thirst. It can help reduce your tension, certainly stave off a headache.

If you have no idea if liquid has passed your lips today, what you drank or even what your day was like, then we go on to…

Soak.  Getting water into your system is a challenge. Soaking in a bubble bath? Are you kidding me? Who has time for that? Plan a treat. Soak your feet.

Pick up a dishpan, big metal bowl, even an 8-quart kettle if you have nothing else. Put in some epsom salts or sudsies or smelly-goody thingies, throw a bunch of hot water in there, grab a towel, and have a soak.

You can soak your feet and: catch up on reading, watch TV, listen to someone sing. Or examine seed catalogs. Whatever. If you are sitting down, even for 10 minutes, you can soak your feet. You can even draw water into your tub, sit on the edge of the tub, and soak your feet there.

Believe it or not this can make a difference for neck tension. Relaxed, warmed feet can relax you, overall, and if you are relaxed overall your neck might also let go.

In lieu of a soak, I also heartily recommend a very hot shower with the water pounding on the top of your head for a spell. Speaking of your head…

Orientation. Where is your head? In time and space? (here I must insert a link to the classic Pixies song Where Is My Mind)

Locate it. For every bit of forward head movement there’s more, more and more weight on your neck. If you don’t believe me, please check out this article from The Washington Post, ” ‘Text neck’ is becoming an epidemic and could wreck your spine.”

“Ahh ha ha,” I hear you retort, a little smugly. “I do not text, you foolish woman. So there!”

To which I counter, well. I believe you could replace the word “text” with any of the following: computer, book, cheffing, Kindle…knitting neck even…any activity where your head is dangling off the front of your body as you focus on what’s in front of you.

Your neck is not designed for this. Bring your head back into alignment with your shoulders. If you can’t see your shoulders in your peripheral vision, then your head is probably too far forward. And, you look a lot more like a turtle than you could possibly imagine.

For the health of your head and neck – and, because, like me, you are just a tiny bit vain (just a tiny bit) – get your head back on top of your body.

SWING. Whatever physical activity you do, is awesome. I encourage it. Even if it’s an energetic blitz from the parking lot into the store, or trying to catch a train. What I am encouraging here is getting your arms going. I mean to the point of dorkitude.

WALK with PURPOSE. Dance like you’re at a concert – arms up and waving about. Swim, and really dig into the crawl or backstroke. Just stand in the kitchen and flop your arms around for crying out loud. I’ve noticed, when I mobilize my shoulder girdle, I start to feel blood flow up into my neck and my head clears. Try it for yourself.

Speaking of crying…

Cry. Okay, if you’re like me this is not something you want to aim for. But pushing to get through (and, if you consider it, the physical act of pushing through something requires you to tense up, hunch over and lead with your head…hmmm) stuff, we get winched up: physically and emotionally (there’s no barrier between the two, remember).

We fight back our words, instincts, and tears. Pretty soon we are bottling everything and we might not even be aware how restricted we’ve become: in thoughts, words and deeds.

Crying is, actually, not only good for your emotional/mental health but seems to help the physical health of your neck too. Again, I’m speaking experientially here, but if I allow myself some time to feel what I feel – or, if I can’t go there, feel what someone else might be feeling (ergo compassion) – the tears come.

And my head lets go. And my neck muscles let loose.

And here I must post a link to the classic “Free To Be, You and Me” children’s album from the 1970s: dear Rosey Grier singing “It’s Alright To Cry.”

It might make you feel better!

 

We All Just Want To Go Home

People who get up and go swimming at the Y at 4:30 a.m. are an entire other species as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the ungodly hour or even the exertion I find unwholesome. It’s the thought of changing clothes.

Just now I have removed my pajamas and put on something that allows me to take a walk down the lane. Excruciating. I live in the country, surrounded by trees and rivulets and mountains, with the sea within view, and if the wilds of nature were my only companion I would gambol freely in my jimjams!

But they’re not. I have neighbors. They might see me parading down the road in my flannels and have confirmed a few suspicions they’ve harbored about me and whatever else goes on in there.

As I sit here I realize I am cold. I don’t like being cold. It will take a while for me to warm up inside my clothes. I won’t feel like moving much until I do.

This is why I can’t even imagine putting on a bathing suit in February and trucking my weeping tired self off to a vat of water where I may or may not get warm enough to enjoy. Do bathing suits ever warm up unless you’re lying in the sun and it’s 80 degrees? I can’t even conceive of that kind of fabric against my skin, and putting my body in water. Keep me fuzzy, for all enduring time!

Most of us – me included – would like to protect ourselves from the inevitable change and growth that just being alive procures, and this is evidenced in the small things (like improving our attire) and then the big things too (like improving our habits, our minds, our relationships). But we also know we need to keep moving, and in fact it is something to look forward to. Every day is an adventure story unto its own self.

What we need is an incubator, a holding tank, a very little pot, to get us from one part of our lives to the next.

I am not a great gardener. I’m learning but it sure takes time. When you put a whispery seed into soil to get it started, you don’t plunk it in the ground right away. Especially up here in Maine, when things don’t really start warming up until June.

No, you put the baby seed into a bassinet — a seedling pot — something that holds it, but does not prohibit growth. Something that a seed can feel its way into, which is invisible, but is there.

I suppose this is why we swaddle babies, or find our pets tucked into the most impossible corners and under things (especially cats). Cozy promotes life.

And look at us: hot water bottles, warm towels out of the dryer. Bed warmers. Heated car seats. We wrap our hands around hot beverages, again and again and again. All of us are heat-seeking, because when we are warm we can expand. We feel like getting up. (Or not.)

It’s a cold world, and that coldness is not necessarily based on temperature. We can feel cold and immobilized even when everything is sunny and hot. You know what I mean: it’s your neighbor’s outdoor July 4th picnic and everyone else is whooping it up. You’re not feeling it, sitting there in your shorts and tank-top, sweating and smiling weakly, working on your excuse to go home.

In therapeutic massage and bodywork we help people go “home.” We present our clients with a person-sized envelope they can crawl into and not come out for a while. Even in a session where there is a perplexing issue being addressed: when we bring our heart into our work, as most of us do – because we can! because we have the luxury of time, in our line of work – we provide the warmth, serenity and safety our clients need to try out being who they are, and to entertain the idea of being something else.

And I would also like to say this is not mere coddling? Or some low form of placation, or something to sniff at as merely palliative. Touch matters.

In 2010 Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote “No Longer on the Doctor’s Checklist, but Touch Matters” for The New York Times. She said, among many other excellent things:

The laying on of hands sets medical practitioners apart from their counterparts in the business world. Despite the inroads of evidence-based medicine, M.R.I.s, angiograms and PET scanners, there is clearly something special, perhaps even healing, about touch. There is a warmth of connection that supersedes anything intellectual, and that connection goes both ways in the doctor-patient relationship.

More recently, this past March The New Yorker ran a piece by Maria Konnikova, “The Power of Touch.” She cites many studies on how touch centers us and heals us, from encouraging healthy emotional development in children, to reducing the chance of catching a cold. She writes:

The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.

Let’s not underestimate the true power of what we do, as practitioners, and then when we are receiving work too. Especially when it is thoughtfully, intentionally, entered into as a ritual, as sacrament really, as an honoring, saying “You matter. You matter now. You matter again. Here. You matter here.”

Professional nurture is the purveyance of therapeutic massage, and it is very good food indeed.

We are the warm clothes that allow clients to transition from one part of their day to the next, from one part of their lives to the next. Our offices are like potting soil and the next-sized pot, where people can come in and get a sense of themselves, and then go back out, a little healthier, brighter, more supple and a tad more willing to move ahead.

There is No Cure

I was listening to my client talking, but it might as well have been me.

“I’ve been detoxing and eating better and resting and I cut back on my caffeine, and I still feel like crap.”

For those of us who wield self-improvement like a cudgel – I am doing this because I am going to experience this, or else – there’s nothing more frustrating than not getting what we want. I am personally acquainted with the feeling.

“I’m doing everything right!”

“Except getting massage…” I said quietly, noting that I hadn’t seen her for nearly four months. She had even paid for a bunch of sessions in advance. She just hadn’t booked any appointments.

She leaned in to me. “But I shouldn’t need it,” she continued. Candid exchange between us had never been a problem. I was up for a brief tete-a-tete.

I leaned in too. “Why?!” I insisted. She stared at me, and I pressed the point. “What, do you think you’re better than massage? Than people who get it? Like me, for example?”

She sighed and flopped back in the chair. “Ughhh. Good point.”

I waited. She continued.

“I just didn’t think I needed it. It just feels like palliation.”

Much as it made me bristle, I identified so strongly with my client: with the “doing everything right” and the indignity of slowing down for anything that’s not getting me somewhere.  When I’m knee-deep, ankle deep, in improvements of whatever kind, everything I do is grit, hustle, a shoving aside of everything in my path to get to the thing.

Sometimes we really need to be like this to make changes. Sometimes it’s all force, for a long while, until we start to notice things shift slightly.

Hence a distaste for anything that slows us down.

But wonderful things happen, you know, and not necessarily because we were good or wise or healthy. Miracles do occur. Even the most undeserving (me, you) get unbelievable second chances.

We might not notice it if we’re standing up in the middle of the river of our lives and charging upstream.

Palliative means fixing without curing. Certainly there are some things that are cured: the headache, the broken leg, the broken heart. I’m all for making the bad stuff go away for good. I’ve done it for others, and had it done unto me. It is terrific.

But I’d like to know what we are about, when we say we’re cured? From the very condition of being human, which is, in two words, no guarantees? Supplies dwindle. Shops change hands. We got it, and then we don’t got it. We get it back. It goes away too.

So what’s the problem with palliation? It is holding hands with someone, after all. Here we go, hand in hand into the dark and hopefully through it, but you never know.

It’s a problem when you believe, as I have, that you’re entitled to not having to walk into the dark because you’re a good person doing good things. You’re entitled to health and happiness, world-without-end-amen, especially – only – if you’re doing everything right.

We have a lot less control than we thought. What does massage do for that? Every time we go into session, as either practitioner or participant, we put ourselves – literally – into someone else’s hands. We surrender. We have a good idea of what can happen, especially if it’s someone we’ve worked with for a while, but improbable things happen all the time.

When I’m a client: there’s stuff I had no idea hurt. The places that feel completely bound and hopeless are occasionally more supple and interesting than I expected. I make connections between my tense spots. I relish in what feels good for once.

When I’m the therapist: Today I see you and hear you as different from last time. Yes this is where you’re always tense but look at how you soften if I change my depth of work by degrees. And you are as lovable as you ever were. And that’s a nasty scrape, when did that happen?

From massage therapy we also learn improvisation within a safe framework. We do this all the time in our own lives, even and especially when we are really steering ourselves big time, but in session we are – again – in the reliable caring hands of someone else who is confirming for us that –  indeed – this is a great spot to be curious.

We go charging into our tension, thinking we know. In massage, with the help of the therapist, we catch on that our instincts might have been right all along, but here’s this new tidbit we hadn’t considered, and it informs our next choice. This is also great practice for whatever else is going on in our lives.

We learn it’s not only okay but very good for us to let go. To feel our whole being soften, fiber by fiber. “Oh my gosh I feel so much better” is not something we say after we’ve worked ourselves into a panting lather. It’s usually something we say after we’ve had the chance to lay down for a while, breathe, and be, with someone who cares.

Doing something right, by not doing anything at all.

You are a Body. Not a Head.

Winter in Maine is a wonderful time to get familiar with your body: how much you use it, and when it is telling you to stop. I know most people feel themselves most fully in the summer. Well, who wouldn’t?

When we are warm and unencumbered, we struggle not against howling gales nor winch up with the mincing steps of navigating ice. When it is beneficent and redolent all around, we toil and weary but the air supports us, and besides, we are mostly barefoot.

We know our stuffs most certainly when we prevail our squishy flesh upon a few snowdrifts, for example, in below-freezing temperatures. Many things not in our favor. Except our body. Which is quite excellent, when you can feel its health.

I was thinking about it a lot today while putting in a few shifts of excavation. The Blizzard of ’15 gave us everything it promised. Today, it was a game of “Find The ___.” Find the cars – find the gas tanks – the compost pile – the woodpile. Carve paths to each. Throw snow around. Gasp and sweat.

With each heave-ho, I was aware – believe me I was aware – of all the muscle groups working together on my behalf. It is truly amazing, it really is. Do you ever catch yourself in a task and marvel at how it all works?  “Do this,” our will drives our body, and the body says, “Yes,” and it happens. (With varying degrees of success of course.)

I played with centering myself in different parts of my frame. The temptation is to just work with one side of your body – hack away at a pile relentlessly until it vanishes – but this is not an elegant approach. (Plus it just really makes everything hurt after a short period of time.) I switched arms, even for just a few shovelfuls, even though the switch felt non-instinctual and clumsy. It gave the other half of me something new to do and surprised muscles that weren’t very busy until that moment.

I also found things went a lot better if I firmed up my abs and gripped tight into my glutes. Things also went better with taking breaks and going inside for water. This was exercise!

What a gift: to be body aware, and play with what we find. My instincts have been honed by nearly fifteen years of practicing and receiving massage therapy. I have studied, contemplated, touched and been with Body. A day outside mooshing snow around is continuing education, as far as I’m concerned.

Doing massage therapy is a great way to spend your humanity: loving the warm, electrical, water-filled bags that are us. And by love I don’t mean anything more than full attention: but full attention is the most loving thing we can do. Whether we are lying on a massage table or asking the herculean of ourselves with winter labor, it is, therefore, love.

Besides being a massage therapist there is just the benefit of receiving massage, which not all professionals seem to do with the same consistency. There’s a lot of overlap between the restaurant industry and massage therapy, as I see it, and I say a massage therapist who doesn’t receive semi-regular massage is like a chef that does not go out and try other chef’s fare. It’s mostly unheard-of in the restaurant world. It should be in ours.

There are so many benefits to massage therapy, but one of the greatest, and possibly hardest to describe, is the gift it gives us of being in our own bodies and having someone else helping us affirm our existence as a body, not just a head.

I’ve written before about the seduction of our age: the supremacy of mind and inconvenience of our body, as if all we are is a pair of eyes inside a slab of jello-y meat.

Massage therapy is a subversive act. It says “hush now” to our mind, which like a spoiled child insists it’s king. Our attention, if we allow it, trickles out of the confines of mind and into the glorious vistas and uncharted waters of our frame.

We become aware of the strangest places: the underside of our upper arm. The webbing between our toes. The very top of our head. Behind our knee.

Body awareness in session gives rise to few words (thank God) but these are the top 3 phrases I’ve heard:

“I had no idea that was sore.”
“Oh my God that feels so good.”
“That’s the spot.”

To be in our bodies and notice what was quiet but aching; to be there when we’re consumed with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing; to have another person acknowledge – with their hands – what’s been bugging us for days. That. Spot. It’s been confirmed and now it’s already starting to feel better because someone who not only cares but has the knack for professional kneading is very keen on helping.

When we are aware of our bodies, we experiment with what works. We play with how we move, lift, respond. We’re more apt to listen when it’s tired, we’re more inclined to notice when we feel good.

Massage therapy gives us ground substance against which everything else is measured, and gives us refuge when we’re feeling stressed. We know how it feels to not be stressed: we’ve had massage! We can go there again, either by recreating it on our own through self care, or, hey, better yet, calling up our massage therapist and making an appointment.

We’ve tasted the good stuff. We know how to make it happen again, how useful it can be.

Even – maybe and especially – when thrusting about amid ponderous snowdrifts.

“Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage — it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”
David Lauterstein, quoting Nietzsche in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” on his Deep Massage Book FaceBook page