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

The White Light Blob

If you read this, try to imagine me telling it from memory, standing on stage in front a mike, robed in stage lights, to a standing-room-only crowd, hoping my years of stage performance cover up my profound nervousness. Who wants to stand up and get a slice of their life exposed to a lot of people, most of whom have known you for years and think they know you better than that? Well, me, apparently, and six others of us.

Part of the reason it was SRO was because Jason Bannister has done a tremendous job of revitalizing our Belfast-area tradition of thespianial excellence. This was a Midcoast Actors’ Studio fundraiser and word’s gone out: they do good stuff.

The other reason there were no places to sit is that it was billed at a night of “local luminaries” (1 of which was me, ha!) and so everyone was keen on hearing what John Ford, Andy O’Brien, GW Martin, Jenny Tibbetts, Aynne Ames and Charlie Dufour had to say.

This is, more or less, the story I told this past Saturday night down in The Fallout Shelter stage area of Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine.

Hope you enjoy it.

***

Sometimes you have something happen to you once. Once.
And it changes the way you live your life everafter.

It’s the late 1990s. I’m living and working in the Boston area, desperately attempting a career change — in my mid-20s — after a hopelessly misguided foray into technical writing. It was possible, then, to have a little technical know-how, and be unafraid of learning HTML, and get an obscenely high-paying job. I had one of those obscenely high-paying jobs, and I was miserable. I was bored, sitting in a cubicle all day in front of a computer screen.

And not only was I bored, I was incredibly inept, and rapidly becoming more so, as everyone around me was keeping pace with all the new computer languages that were to be learned, practically daily, and I wasn’t. I had a choice: go to back to school and learn computer languages or Do Something Else. So, much to the surprise of myself and everyone who knew me at the time, I decided to go to massage therapy school.

So I was working full-time and going to school on weekends and weeknights, and I was in my final semester at the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. And they were offering internships – go work in a professional’s office, you know? And so I was like: yeah. Good. I’ll do this too. Because, you know, I was already tired? And wanted to find out what being more tired would feel like.

I had my internship with Marilyn <not her real name, I just couldn’t remember what her real name was!> at an OB/GYN clinic in Haverhill, Mass. She was everything I wanted to be. She was it. She came to work every day? With a coif. I mean a hairstyle.

Her outfits were totally professional, maybe just a touch over-the-top. I recall gold buttons, some brocade. And she was the only massage therapist I had ever known up to that point, or ever since, to wear heels to do massage.

She had the respect of her peers, which were mostly doctors and nurses, and her practice was full. No empty moments, really. I wanted to be as much like her as I could be.

My internship? Remember I was a student, not licensed, so I really couldn’t touch anyone at this point, least of all her clients, and so…I observed. I stood, and observed. If you think it’s relaxing to get a massage? Try standing in a corner of a room — it was a small office, there was no place for me to sit, really — watching someone receive work, and it’s warm and darkened and there’s a fountain going and music and happy sleepy sounds from the client. I did a lot of this <nodding off>. But I did manage to learn stuff.

She was also a Reiki practitioner.

Now. I had a very sniffy relationship with energy work, Reiki in particular. In my final semester, we had a Modalities class, study of various other techniques (besides massage therapy) that could be incorporated into and referred to from a successful massage therapy practice. Professionals would come in from their respective fields, talk about their work and have all of us do a little hands-on.

By and large, most of these techniques were more energetic in nature: Polarity Therapy, Craniosacral therapy, Zero Balancing, Therapeutic Touch… Reiki. And my classmates would be putting their hands on each other, and feeling pulses and seeing colors and sensing auras and whatnot, and I wasn’t seeing anything, I wasn’t feeling anything. I was not accustomed to being a failure at anything — except my job! — so this class made me feel like I was “failing” energy. And it just made me mad.

So I was hoping that in my internship with Marilyn? We could just neatly circumvent Reiki: focus on business practice, how to communicate with clients, that kind of thing.

Until one day. We had a little time: she looked around, was between clients, looked at me, I wasn’t doing anything, so she said, “Hmmm…let’s see…we’ve got a little time…would you like some work? What shall we do…how about Reiki?”

And I thought to myself, “How about not?” But then! I thought again, “Wait…wait! This is your chance…to LIE DOWN. Maybe take a nap. Say yes, dummy! Say yes!”

So I did, I said “yeah sure” and finally got to lie down on the table I’d been watching her clients enjoy so much.

In Reiki you usually receive on a massage table — about the size of a twin bed, smaller than that — you are fully clothed, there is no disrobing for Reiki, and the practitioner places his/her hands on you in various positions – here <top of head>, here <upper chest>, here <lower abdomen> and so on.

So I was lying there and she began the session, as you do…putting her hands on my head, my upper chest…a few more other places…and then she went around to my feet, cupped my heels in her palms, and held them.

The first thing I noticed? That completely wrested me from my somnolence? Was that time suddenly. Slowed. Down. It was just like in the movies, when things go to slow-mo? It was like this <makes gesture and a noise> but without the noise. Um – that in and of itself put me on sudden high alert. What was going on?? I looked up at Marilyn from where I was on the table.

The second thing was: in that moment, in the warm darkened quiet, I saw a 2-ft wall of white light come out from behind her shoulders, pour down over her arms, through her hands, and go shooting up into my body.

Now. The 2-ft wall. It was — I say it was a wall. It moved through me like a wall – wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense. How does something move through you like a wall? Never mind. It was more like a blob, a wave, it was – a white light blob.

It had edges. It had mass. And was capable of producing its own speed, since when it got to me it suddenly moved very fast.

The white light? Was like – you know those days when you’re looking at the sun – not directly at the sun, bad for you – right around its edges? The way the sunlight looks? It had that quality and intensity.

And its effect on me? When it hit me? You know what it’s like to touch an electric fence? It was like that! Only a lot more enjoyable. It was like being electrified, or set on fire. I felt it in every cell, all through me.

It passed through me but it was also passing over me, in fact for the brief nanosecond it went up through my head I saw nothing but It, the white light, in my eyes, so my vision was filled with it briefly.

I was visited upon. It was checking me out!

And then suddenly time snapped back into place. Marilyn was standing there working as she had been. Everything was back to normal. Except for me. I was lying there, doing this for a while <flops about>.

And I when I’d recovered, I whispered to her, “What was that?”

“What?” she said.

“What just happened,” I gasped.

“What just happened?” she asked.

I tried to explain it and couldn’t really and she just shrugged a little and said kindly, “Oh it’s probably just a little Reiki,” and kept going with the session.

I had class that night. And in that class were The Girls…you know, the girls in class…the ones you never get along with, they really have annoyed you for all of school and you also have annoyed them. Yeah, massage therapy school can be like that, people, it’s not all hearts and stars, trust me.

Anyway, this one girl did something that bothered me. But, instead of just sitting there and kind of making faces to myself, I spoke up. I said something to her. Which surprised me, totally. And, what I expected to have happen happened, she lit into me. And while this was going on, I was surprised again: I did not care.

On the way driving home that night, I remember thinking to myself and trying to put 2 and 2 together: “I had this experience today. Me, who never feels or sees anything. And, then I spoke up in class, and I felt confident. Wow… there’s gotta be something to this Reiki thing. I gotta learn more about this.”

So I did. As soon as I graduated from massage school, I moved to Maine, and started my Reiki training as soon as I could. I went all the way up to the master level. And I have had amazing experiences from learning Reiki! And people have reported amazing things from my work with them.

I’ve become part of the incredible Reiki, healing community that is in this area. You have no idea, how blessed we are. Really you don’t. Ask me about it, later.

And I also do Reiki when I give massage therapy…? You know I don’t have a valve in the back of my head, that says “yeeeeess this person gets Reiki noooooo this person doesn’t,” it just flows. It’s my way of working. And clients have commented over the years, “So. Your massage is like none that I’ve had. What is that thing? You’re doing?”

And I usually shrug a little and say, “Oh, it’s just a little Reiki.”

But you know, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment really. As I’ve considered it: that white light blob. It was – impersonal. Inhuman. It has. No. Name.

It belongs to no one.

It comes from nowhere.

And, therefore, I believe, it belongs to everyone. And is right here.

Thank you.

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.

Confidence, Julie Andrews-style

I didn’t have it, at first. When my sweetheart’s co-worker’s wife called me up for a gift certificate, I cringed a little. This guy usually goes to another practitioner in town: an excellent MT, highly trained with decades of experience, who with great devotion peels people apart.

Not my style, although I admire therapists who do it well.

Anyway I was nervous, in a way that I’m not usually nervous, knowing I was going to see this client. Both Nate (said sweetheart) and this guy’s wife had told me: he expects deep work, he expects deep work.

“He wants to be ripped apart,” Nate said to me.

“Geez, I do deep work but not that kind,” I replied. “Holy cow. Should I tell his wife to get a gift certificate with someone else?”

Nope, it was clear that she thought it was a good idea for him to try a different practitioner: me. And apparently he was happy when he got the gift certificate to come see me, so my fate was sealed. She had his whole birthday planned around this session: I was the pivot point.

I was up for working on him: I’ve always loved a challenge. But I was filled with the what-ifs. “What if I don’t lock in? What if I don’t connect? What if my strength isn’t enough, my technique isn’t enough.”

It was also his birthday. No pressure or anything. And, Nate’s co-worker. No telling what they’d talk about if the session wasn’t up to snuff.

To me, confidence is grounded in reality. You acknowledge your strengths, but you are also very aware of your weaknesses. You hope you do well, but you’ve been around for the many times you haven’t.

Confidence is closer to determination than power.  Its root is “confide.” It is, at its essence, belief, not proof.

All of us know what it’s like to go walking into a situation where we feel less than enthusiastic about our prospects for success. The gift of confidence is that it acknowledges this, yet we press on, usually due to the little conversation we have with ourselves beforehand. There’s relationship in confidence, even when you’re whistling in the dark to yourself.

A perfect example of this self-talk is Julie Andrews singing “I Have Confidence” in 1965 movie “The Sound of Music.” It’s excitement, dread, plowing ahead, hesitating on the brink. This IS confidence, even (and especially) when, after great expounding on all she will accomplish, she says merely: “Oh help.”

I know how she feels.

When my client arrived for his session, I began the intake, and starting looking, right away, for how I could connect, for if we could find that from the get-go I knew I would find my way in the session. It was my only (and best) hope. I couldn’t compete with whatever he’d experienced before, I knew that.

Massage therapy is mutual: it sure looks like the massage therapist is “doing” and the client is “getting.” But what I love most about massage, and what keeps me interested year after year, is the dialogue of it.

I’m not a talker, so I don’t mean conversation, necessarily. It’s inquiry: my hands & my client’s body, where they meet.* That meeting place has its own language and I trust that completely. Very often the more I think, the more trouble I get myself into when I’m working (and why I was lacking hope for my work: I was thinking too much about the session beforehand).

Most artists understand this, and above all else, massage therapy is an art. It is a learnable skill, but it’s an art, and the discipline of it is deep listening. Which can only be done through the medium in question: mine happens to be touch.

We were wrapping up his intake. “So I’ve heard you like deep tissue work,” I said to him. He nodded.

“Well,” I said, interested at whatever was going to come out of my mouth next, “I suspect that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what kind of work I will do. I promise to ‘get in there.’ Just maybe not in the way you’ve come to expect.”

He was.

“That was…fantastic,” he said, 90 minutes later.

If you’re a long-term client, I know that what you need changes over time, so I ask you please: refresh me. Let’s begin again, if there’s elements of your session that could be different or better for you.

If you’re a first-time client, I hope we will have many sessions to come, but there’s a good chance we’ll make quite a bit of progress in addressing, ameliorating and answering what you first bring to the table: literally and otherwise.

I provide the time and space for the best version of what could happen in session. We’ll find it, but find it together. In that togetherness, I have every confidence.

* otherwise known as “working at interface,” a Zero Balancing concept that I’ve been learning from David Lauterstein and his Deep Massage. In case you’re into the technical aspects of this.

Wounded But Serving

I think it’s a good thing to talk about self-care and how we can optimize ourselves for being the best practitioners we can be, but we need to get real: individually and as a profession. There’s self care because you need to be a little physically stronger, a little less sleepy in the afternoon: then there’s the self care of the truly wracked, anxious, woebegone and frightened.

Trying to get a toehold on sanity, and working that line, hour by hour, minute by minute, and also seeing clients.

I am writing this blog post now because I couldn’t write in August.  A situation with mental illness and addiction in my family reached new crisis levels. This person was rushed to the ER and admitted to a psychiatric and addiction center, for the second time this year.

 

There is, as of this writing, 30 days of sobriety, good prescriptions, and a will to live. But it has been rough. I became ill, too. The name they give it is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which feels pretty weird for someone who spends 8-10 hours a day helping people reduce theirs.

I was doing all the good stuff (more salads. Less caffeine. More sleep. Less sugar.) but a lot of it wasn’t working, when I desperately wanted it to. It just didn’t. There for a while I had a small bag I carried, along with my purse, holding all the tinctures, supplements, flower essences and powders I’d collected so I could dose myself all day.

I’m doing better (due to many kinds of support, which I won’t get into here), but there were plenty of moments when I walked into a session, hoping to help others, but feeling utterly broken and full of despair inside. This was a deeply painful place to find myself.

I felt guilty for barely holding it together and still seeing others in a therapeutic setting. Is there room in our profession for those, like me, hoofing it on the edge of darkness?

 

Consider your stereotype of massage therapists. We see a practitioner who is happy, relaxed, completely absorbed in the needs of the client, serene, centered, thoughtful…quite possibly the embodiment of health and sanity. (I mean, when I go get a massage, that’s kind of what I hope to experience, even just a little bit.)

There are massage therapists like me who have a loved one up to their gullets in mental illness and addiction and who, themselves, are in real danger of becoming sick and/or addicted themselves.

There are massage therapists with mental health issues.

There are massage therapists who are addicts.

There are massage therapists whose children are in jail or who have gone missing: whose loved ones are battling cancer or HIV, ALS, PTSD: who are facing foreclosure or eviction.

There are massage therapists who feel maligned or weak or increasingly concerned by a physical ailment or a state of mind: whose might have family members threatened with violence, deportation or incarceration: who feel endangered or misunderstood where they live.

How do I know this? I don’t, for sure. But a lot of humans have lives like this. Lots of people, navigating terrifying swells in a boat that is taking on water. Massage therapists are human: ergo, there are probably more of us working our hearts out to give to others, and doing so from a fragile place, than most of us realize or want to acknowledge.

Standing and serving in the midst of profound confusion and pain is okay. If we think we have to have it all together to work, that’s something we need to examine. We have compassion for our clients in the midst of their trouble: it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Also, some days the best part of being massage therapist was leaving my self outside the treatment room:  stowing my fears for a few hours while I worked to make a difference for someone, anyone. For all my technical skills, essential oils, good intentions, I could do nothing in my family. But at work: there was hope.

In your life, a bomb will go off. I promise you. Everything you thought about yourself and your world will melt like late winter snow. Who are you, then, as you stand in the wreckage, and also wish to work? Watch your illusions of control dissolve, one by one, until you’re seeing clearly, and wishing you didn’t. Until, one day, you don’t mind.

There is a moment, in the chrysalis, where the goo inside is not caterpillar, not butterfly. It’s an amorphous gel of who-knows-what. The entity that knew itself as Caterpillar no longer exists. The promise of Butterfly is too much to hope for.

There’s where you work from, as a practitioner, and in the midst of the life you’ve been given. This is what anyone, groping for a way, knows. Don’t be fooled by the nice smells, pretty colors and soothing music: massage therapists are right there too.

Caterpillar to chrysalis: for your encouragement (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gsm_ZyJz_s)

I feel it’s important to have boundaries about a lot of things but I’m equally convinced it’s important to share what you know, when you can, especially if it will help someone else, maybe remove stigma. So: I’m a member of Al-Anon. It has changed my life and saved my sanity.

It’s a Personal Thing

“Oh well. That’s a relief. We’re on the same page with that, too!” My new client sat back in his chair, and I thought I noticed his eyes go a little pink. I found it meaningful as well: it had taken a little time, but in under 12 minutes he and I got two very important things squared away: pressure level (firm, but not deep) and talking during session (none please).

I was happy for him, but sad. I knew this man had been getting massage for years. For years, receiving massage therapy, and no practitioners had this discussion with him?

Yes, yes, we want our clients to tell us what they need. “Just let me know,” we encourage them warmly, but the last time you had a massage how easy did you find it to communicate your needs when you’re already on the table? When I get there, I’m hesitant: I find it’s not easy.

My experience with this first-time client sharpened my already strong opinions about how to present one’s work to one’s clients. I’ve been a practitioner for 15 years, had a lot of massage myself, made regrettable mistakes but learned even more from other practitioners I’ve traded with who were good at what they did but had breathtakingly shoddy intake and outtake skills.

In brief, here it is: most clients are not interested in whatever technique you plan on using. If it requires dramatic bolstering, draping, stretching, give them a head’s up, but no need to explain constantly. Nor do they want to know about your next workshop, a meaningful experience you had with another client, or your favorite pet.

Rein it in. Err on the side of saying less, so you can hear more.

The difference – to me – between a good practitioner and an excellent one, one you can’t wait to recommend to others, is how well that practitioners listens. I’ve had plenty of massage from individuals who addressed my issues but who simply were not interested nearly enough in what I wanted, not picking up on my body language or hearing my voice. They steamrollered me with their personality. And they talked. A lot. It was not an experience I wanted to repeat.

How to get to the heart of the matter, then, even before you lay hands upon it?

I suggest getting personal.

This might seem an odd suggestion but look at what you’re doing: you’re massaging a person. For an hour. Maybe an hour and a half. They are mostly naked, strategically covered, and they are dozy. What is more personal than this? Other than bathing someone, or feeding them?

Here are some standard questions I ask. Depending on the answer I get, it invokes other questions…

Are you usually warm or cold?
(One of THE most important questions you need ask. If your client is cold at all, they will not relax. Also, if they’re sweating, they won’t relax either.)

If I use hot towels or essential oils in session, would that be alright?

What kind of pressure feels good to you? Do you know?

Do you want silence?
(I’m a non-talker and try to get that clear up front. A few exchanges is fine but I can’t concentrate if my mouth is going.)

Are there any parts of your body you don’t want me to touch?
(aside from the obvious of course) (sometimes I need to explain it anyway, for people who’ve never had a massage before and really don’t know what a professional’s parameters are.)

Be curious. It’s a fine quality in an MT. Listen. Find this person, who will soon surrender their body to your care for the next duration, utterly fascinating. Does their nose drip when prone? Tuck a tissue into one of their empty, up-turned hands. Do they have a persistent cough? Proffer a mint. Light too bright? “Would you like an eye pillow?” Is the music okay? “Maybe something more lyrical, less chant-y…”

By the way this is a good practice to get into not only with your first-time clients, but your regulars as well. Never assume you know. After 7 weeks, 7 months, 7 years, check in with them again: are they still getting what they need from the session? One of the fastest ways to breathe life into your practice is to see every client as if you’ve never seen them before. Ask them questions you haven’t in a while.

In short, take your client by the hand and lead them to the dance floor. You lead, they follow. Make yourself trustworthy: a little communication goes a long way. Notice them, the way a good server respectfully observes her customers, anticipating their every need, noticeable at key moments but most of the time, not noticeable at all.

When you have that kind of trust from your client, you might wander into the weeds and stars to that place where alchemy occurs, and where words no longer form. Just you, and the client, and the music.

Caring – With a Rebel Yell

“You know, it’s more than just a massage, isn’t it?” My longest-term client had finished blowing his nose and was settling in from prone to supine. I was getting his bolster situated, and preparing the warm towel roll for his neck.

“It’s about being cared for. And, as I get older, I need more and more of that. You are about the most caring-est person in my life.” He relayed all of this to me through closed eyes.

I considered how many massages I’ve given him. Probably around 500, over the course of 12 years. He started seeing me when I was fresh into my practice, and kept with me all this time. I thought it was just ’cause he was gradually more and more impressed with my expertise, but he was very frank with me a few months ago as to why he’s seen me so long.

“Habit.”

When my face clearly registered my unhappiness at being mere routine, he added hastily:

“But it’s the quality of your touch. It’s always been there.”

How lucky I am, I thought to myself then, that he has made a habit of the good will he feels from my heart.

“Being Cared For” is hardwired into the massage therapy profession and while sometimes it’s challenging to reach those wells of empathy and affection (depending on what I’ve got going on personally) caring for another is my touchstone, my calling card. I know that makes me a softie. So be it.

Why is it so hard for us to bring tenderness into our lives? Do we think we’re above it? Often we feel we don’t deserve it or need it. Which is a lie: look how quickly disease or dis-ease – physical, emotional, mental or spiritual – blooms when we keep charging ahead without regard for nurture or nourishment. Addictions take the place of regular loving self-regard.

Heaven forbid that we wait, listen, go with the flow or slow down for anything. Whatever our bodily needs might be – sleep, exercise, food, rest, cleaning, or touch – they are at best secondary and often last, as we bow to our List or Agenda or Goals, or other intellectual but questionable pursuits, such as hours of diddling in social media (guilty) or watching TV (guilty…especially since I discovered HuluPlus has a full catalog of Brit Coms.)

How can we bring more caring into our lives?

In what ways have I brought “being cared for” into my own life?

It surprises me, the list I come up with:

1) Treating evening with respect. Not insisting my day continue up until I sleep. And going to bed when I’m tired. If that’s 7:30, that is fine.
2) Taking the proper amount of time it takes to plan, shop for and cook a homemade meal. I do this once a week and I can tell you it’s a 5-hour endeavor, from the minute I crack open the cookbook to when Nate and I sit down to eat. The time to do this does not magically appear. I’ve made it a priority.
3) Damn the agenda, go for a walk.
4) Damn the paperwork, get a massage.
5)  Snuggle. Get close to a person or animal and linger, linger, linger. Physical proximity is great, powerful medicine. (Sitting in sangha, taking communion or being in a crowded bar watching an exciting baseball game are in the same vein.)
6)  Stop striving. Stop improving.  See what’s difficult, uncomfortable, unbearable – and, perhaps even more difficult, see what’s boring, mundane and average – and accept it utterly. At a certain point fighting the reality of your life not only makes you miss the life you’re actually having, but creates unnecessary exhaustion and colors everything you do and how you treat others with a faint aroma of distaste. Care enough about yourself and who you are, and what’s happening for you, to welcome all the imperfection without judgement.
7)  Make a difference when you can. This is the wisdom inherent in Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” : “Grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can.”  Notice your inner weeping, kvetching, sulking or raging and decide to make a little change in yourself and see if that helps.

For me, this list breaks the mold of societal expectation, and has an almost rebellious, anti-establishment energy to it. I think of the locavore, slow food movements. I consider how many people I know are working hard to get farms going, home schooling their kids or keep local businesses not only afloat but thriving. Lots of us want the good life, and the good life is not what they tell us it is.

If we’re constantly distracted, we’re right where they want us. Being cared for – caring for ourselves – equals presence. From this presence comes strength and wisdom, and then we’re not pawns in the game, but we are the piece movers: we reclaim our lives and take steady, conscious steps ahead.