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.