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.

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.

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.

Feel Like a New Person

“I feel like a new person.” Nice compliment, one I never take for granted, but it does make me feel a little weird. In what way, I always wonder? My massage work doesn’t always produce miracles. It is merely one vertical bag of water unsnagging one horizontal bag of water. I love making someone feel like a totally new bag of water. Not really a miracle, just a fact.

Yet, to make someone feel brand new: now that’s something. I’ve had the privilege of giving this kind of work, and also receiving it.

I had a massage from my friend and colleague Derek in early March. It came after a February filled with illness, disappointment, darkness and cold. I threw myself back into my recovery program after a near melt-down and I wasn’t instantly relieved. I tried sleeping a lot, like I wanted to, and deep rest evaded me, night after night after pitiful night.

I realized I had an anxiety problem. What a horrible state of affairs! How unlikely and unfair for a massage therapist, who is supposed to ooze relaxation and tranquility from every pristine pore. This is what it must be like for a priest or pastor to have a faith crisis, or a psychiatrist experiencing regular untreatable depressive episodes; this is what it must be like for a cop who feels herself siding, inwardly, more and more with the perps she arrests.

Who hasn’t made their way to their massage therapist, praying for a miracle? Throwing ourselves headlong on our practitioner’s table, exhausted, suffering, unable to even offer complete sentences as he or she carefully, valiantly tries to do some semblance of an intake before letting us collapse? Don’t think I haven’t been there. I have.

stream_with_waterfallI didn’t want to do the weeping, the sighing, and the head-shaking mute bewilderment that I did with Derek, but that’s what I did anyway. My body had been holding on to too much for too long and my words wouldn’t come.

We have this thing when we trade with each other, us massage therapists, that is part cop-out, part compliment. “Just do what you do,” we tell each other with great warmth. “You know all the spots.” End with small grin. This is what I said to Derek, hoping he’d get it.

He did. I had a 90-minute massage session (in my own office, mind you: always a good test drive for your own space! I found my table quite comfy and warm, but the face cradle still problematic…no wonder my clients fuss over it) and while I had consciousness I noticed that I felt akin to a stream having its tributaries unclogged of leaves and twigs. Things began to loosen and let go.

What rose up inside me, once the session was over, was an overwhelming feeling of unmistakeable resurrected power. It was as if my old self was sloughed away, and the entire fabric of my being had been flushed. All energy centers were realigned and churning their lovely colors. I no longer had a mountain across my upper back. I could feel my entire self, all the way through my toes.

It felt…well…darn it, it made me feel like a new person. My life force, my will to live, had returned.

I leapt from the table, dressed, and practically kissed my colleague’s hands when he re-entered the room. “Thank you, thank you, you are such a gift,” I burbled in tear-filled gratitude. I know he didn’t quite know what to make of that. I know how he felt: it kind of blows your mind, as a practitioner, that you can make that much of a difference to someone.

He just hugged me and gave me a nice there-there on the back. Aww. I get to trade with the best people.

Perhaps this is what is meant by becoming a new person: if our pain and tension is met, even briefly, by another – by Another – there is information there that is news, very good news, to our lonely little bodies. If the hands that touch us are experienced, professional, nurturing and loving, there is something to that. It speaks a language our body is dying to hear, in much the same way warm sun informs a lake, or a garden hoe informs soil: something interesting, nourishing and highly educational happens, and transformation occurs with unparalleled ease.

 

After the Flu: Who’s In Charge?

One of the first things that clued me in that maybe not all was well within, was my raging fit over a new kitchen appliance. My husband purchased a modern pressure cooker that both of us were eager to try. Between the two of us, he’s more gifted in the kitchen (although I place a strong second); he was having no problem cranking out delicious, quick meals.

I, on the other hand, was still not able to make a recipe without scorching the food. Last Wednesday I was once again making a hash of things, and when he came over to see how I was doing, I unleashed upon him a vituperative spew that I spent the rest of the evening – and well into the next day – apologizing for.

“I honestly do NOT know what got into me,” I said to him, wholly contrite.

In less than 48 hours, I did.

We are relatively healthy, here: we eat home-cooked meals, do fresh juices and smoothies, buy local as much as possible. We exercise, and I don’t mean the gym: I feel strongly that shoveling snow, constant stacking and restacking of the woodpile, walks along country roads and the physical labor we both do for our jobs equates regular exercise, and that’s enough for us (for now). We take a few supplements.

Basically, after my evening of explosive anger, within 48 hours I was overcome by a deep mucousy cough (which I never get) and unrelenting body aches, chills, sweats, and pains for over 3 days. Someone swopped my brain with a bowl of gummy bears. I did a lot of sitting and staring, morose and unwashed.

A nice big fat juicy virus. In extreme close-up.

A nice big juicy virus. In extreme close-up. It wants entry to your cells, in a big juicy way.

As I slowly regained some strength, my husband started to tank, so there for a while both of us were wrapped in blankets, holding hands over the top of our quilts, mouths hanging open, playing game after game of Angry Birds (the irony doesn’t escape me).

And totally blowing up at each other, and then apologizing. Seventy-two hours of this.

“Oh yeah, it’s a cough, it’s terrible body aches and headache, and crushing crankiness,” said my friend when I inquired as to his health and found out he too had been ill for nearly a week. (It’s that time of year! And we’ve got it bad here in Maine.) I was relieved when he mentioned the bad mood, for it was our fits of anger that really bewildered me the most.

Certain emotions seem to welcome illness. But what comes first? The virus, or the emotion? Can the presence of an alien in our system – such as a virus, which is keen on setting up shop and replicating ASAP – create nearly alien emotional states in us as well?

Does it sap our immune system and also our bonhomie; our willingness to be egalitarian? When invaded, the body senses a threat and it doesn’t try to negotiate with the virus, see both sides of the issue, willing to let bygones be bygones: the body does not look at an invader and hope negotiations and treaties will result in a mutually beneficial resolution. It’s WAR.

I am wondering, then, if the war-like state of our 100 trillion cells might, just possibly, change our mood. Color our outlook. I know there is no real boundary between the body and our mind – the two are one – but I don’t think I’m alone, here, when I say that I sort-of assume my mind’s more in charge of things than my body?

But it’s not! Of course it’s not! All I have to do is look at the pleasurable outcome of body overriding mind: my own profession, massage therapy. This is precisely why massage therapy is unmatched at reducing anxiety and tension. After an effective session, stressful thoughts don’t chance a snowball’s chance in Fresno.

I have tried worrying after I’ve had a massage. I can’t do it, which makes me giggle with glee because I am a homegrown worrywart. (Another reason I’m so glad I found massage, and it found me.)

We put a lot of emphasis on personal efforts at mastering our own minds, but the body is the mind’s ultimate master. Whether through the discomfort of illness, or the bliss of massage, it picks up our mind in its gorgeous arms and says, “Shuuuuuuuush.”

David Lauterstein just posted this today on his Deep Massage Book FaceBook page: “The body is our teacher. Will this knowledge become common? Will the misplaced worship of the mind alone end as an embarrassingly long historical era?” Amen brother.

Two other things:

1) Being ill really reminds me the fallacy of “hurry up and get better.” Whether it’s the flu, or a persistent low back ache, or recovery from surgery: it takes the time it takes. There is no hurry. It’s the body. It has its own time-clock, and will slow you down to itself, if it has to, for you to get with its program.

2) I know, as a profession, massage therapists usually attempt (if not succeed) at modeling health and wellness, but if you’re never sick how are you going to understand someone who is? If you never suffer, how can you understand another’s suffering? Depression? Anger, sorrow? I’m not suggesting you go out there and intentionally invite disaster upon your person, but there’s nothing like a strong dose of it to help you open your heart afresh.

“I know, honey,” is all I’ve been saying to my husband for the past few days, “I know. I know, it really hurts. You feel awful. I’m so sorry.” And I’m looking forward to sharing this newly kindled compassion, personally won, with my clients too.

When you or someone you know gets the flu: “Your cold and flu symptoms, explained” — Courtesy of CNN and RealSimple.com. Why you feel the way you do: with remedies too!

Also, a very cool (if not slightly alarming) animation: “Flu Attack! How a virus invades your body” — Courtesy of NPR.org