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.

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Naked as the Day you were Born

Combine incredible stress and profound loss with a nurturing safe environment and being touched for the first time in months and you’d come unglued, too. My dear client lost her mother and feels alone, the most alone a person can feel, even if surrounded by tons of loving support, which she is not, which makes it so much worse.

Now she is undertaking building a house, her first, and also recuperating from a trying semester teaching brat kids and jousting with rotten co-workers. The woman’s a wreck. She’s on my table.

Re-drape. Grab the tissues and let her use the entire box if she needs to. Murmer consolations, good ones, don’t just pat absently and say “There there” or “awwww.”

Because I’ve known this woman for years, and I truly love her, I find myself rubbing her back between the wings, kissing the top of her head and saying “It’s gonna be okay. You’ll be okay” a few times until her sobbing stops and she starts to breathe naturally again.

“We’re gonna start over, with you supine now, with lots of pillows so you feel like Cleopatra on her barge!” I announce cheerfully, and make it happen quickly. No more snuffling into the face cradle: dignity and calm restored.

Massage therapists work parts: address limbs: move sheets and towels around like we’re doing some kind of horizontal semaphore code. We have these boundaries in place so everyone can relax and not worry about being exposed. There’s plenty of times, however, that exposure happens, whether we want it to or not.

Sometimes it happens when the client can’t help themselves, and they fall apart in front of your eyes. They just don’t care what you see.

I have a few who clutch at the linens when they roll either direction, exceeding even my careful work to keep them modest. That’s fine.  I understand. What’s more challenging to me is the client who starts taking off their clothing while I’m still doing intake. I think that they assume, since I am a massage therapist, that I will be totally okay with seeing their entire naked body.

Look, as much as I adore humans, I’d rather take my client in with my hands, not my eyes. Massage therapists have rites and rituals, and a sense of decorum, not to mention professional standards. While I will massage hinders all day long, I don’t want to see them up off my table, bouncing around the room. This is an art form, not a love-in.

But try telling that to an 82-year-old woman who is both so tired & so eager.  Before you can even get through your full gamut, the shirt’s off, the pants are long gone, and she’s sitting there in just her granny panties and footies.

I start into another question and trail off. “I take it you’re ready to get on the table,” I say.

She lets a pin out of her hair, and incredibly gossamer waves of long silvery hair billow down over her shoulders. I don’t want to look lower, but I do because it’s right there: two amazing breasts. Really. I don’t see many breasts up close, but these are unavoidable, and to my astonished eyes they look like they’re in great shape.

“It’s been a rough year, only getting rougher. Getting old is the pits. I feel like I’m looking at my life through the backwards end of a telescope,” she reports, as she goes to the table and skootches her hand under the linens, ready any time I am.  In her droopy drawers and her giant fuzzy socks, she looks like an elegant, aged fairy, a sage disrobed. I understand the time for my questions is over, and the time for me to work has begun.

Getting old is the pits, and over the next 90 minutes she goes into great detail about how much she has lost, how small her life has become taking care of her 92-year-old husband, all the things that have passed away. Maybe I’m the only person she can be wholly herself with, anymore, as she casts aside veneer and trappings, and speaks from her naked, weary heart.

Sometimes it only happens when the client is ready.

“Today’s a good day for a belly massage, I think,” says my longest-term client.

This is such progress I can barely keep from doing a fist pump. To spend as much time on his back and legs, as per his request, for over a decade, has meant that I’ve had to skip his arms and chest, as per his insistence. Which really is negligence:  the man’s got asthma, with profound breathing problems that have pulled his sternum down and affixed his anterior chest muscles to his ribcage.

I have only been able to guess at the condition of his thorax. Today, I get to see it.

“You got time?” he inquires.

Yes, lord, I do have time, I’ve had time for 13 years. Behaving as if it’s no big deal I drape his chest and let my fingers work  gently but persistently through the soft pine of his sternum, the branches of his ribs and around the scrying pool of his abdomen. I go over 90 minutes and don’t say a word about it: I know I might not have this opportunity again.

All of us in the industry have had these moments where we see a lot more than we meant to or hoped for. Despite all of our admirable attempts to keep it neat and tidy, things come undone. There’s a lot of grace in those moments, more than we could imagine. Trusting in all we do not see, we strive to meet fully what we do.

 

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.

Take Good Care

Even an “easy” day in the life can be fraught, if I’m not cognizant of details. For example, last Tuesday I had two 90-minute clients booked. Ah, piece of cake: walk in the park. Both long-term clients: needs understood, preferences noted. Presence adored. Can’t wait.

On further examination however, I know I’m in for it: my first is a house-call to my young client with muscular dystrophy. Packing up and traveling, wending my way through a variety of animals (she lives on a beautiful horse farm),  getting set up (there is a massage table there, but still, where to put what) and then doing a long session, is work. She needs deep tissue massage, yet I’m always cautious as I plow around her back: there’s a lot of tension here that’s chronic, unexercised, fatigued, dry…and getting worse. Checking in becomes part of the art.

My second 90-min. session is my longest-term client, whose body and stories and predilections are as familiar to me as episodes of Blackadder, a BBC comedy we both have vast portions of committed to memory. On the one hand, he’s my frequent flier, my regular, and I don’t have to convince him of the benefits of regular massage: he’s devoted.

On the other hand, having a ton of time with a client is equally perk and privilege, so I don’t take his loyalty for granted. There’s always an opportunity to learn more about him, and what I can do for him now…and now…and now.  I live to hear him say, as he often does, “That was the best yet.” How many “best yet”s will I earn in the years to come? Will I earn one today?

These two 90-min. sessions can suddenly feel like a burden. But I got into this line of work because I wanted to rejoice and be exceedingly glad, not so that I could further entrench my perfectionism. Over the years I’ve learned that how I treat myself has everything to do with how well I work, and how good I feel, bringing forth the “ahhh” in massage, for both myself and my clients.

How to take on the burden/blessing of bodywork? Self care.

Everything you long to do holds the key. It’s whatever you tell yourself you don’t have time for. It might be a discipline, but it might also be a past-time. If, when you’re doing it, you hear a soft knock on the door of your heart, and you can hear the door swing open and happy animal noises ensuing, you might have found one of many fine ways in which to take good care of yourself. Including:

3 legs to the triumvirate of self care:  journaling, walking, resting.

3 legs to the triumvirate of self care:
journaling, walking, resting.

Here’s what else self-care looks like to me:

Time. Time and I are not close. There are two genes in my family, the chronically on time, with hot indignation sprayed on those who can’t manage the same. The other, the chronically late, sometimes breath-takingly so, filled with profuse apology and repeated offense. Guess which one I have.

Having my own office and being responsible for getting the whole thing rolling first thing has, if nothing else, taught me to respect time. And it takes immense focus for me to get out the door every morning, which means I have to keep on top of myself to make sure I do. There is only one task: leave.  Move it, Burkholder.

Phone. It gets turned off. Sometimes at 7 p.m., sometimes 9. If I think someone can reach me, I’m not completely at ease. Never a phan of the phone, I am happy when it’s phlipped shut.

Little Me. Hearing my need for daily supplements and doses. There are herbs, vitamins, minerals and tinctures I take to keep myself feeling good and able to work with stamina for every person, no matter when they’re booked. I’ve also added Emerita’s Pro-Gest, as I find I’m trundling down the trails of peri-menopause already, and a little dab of this in the a.m. and p.m. has made a big difference for me. So has Avena Botanical’s Restorative Root Powder.

Being accountable to myself: listening to the little me inside who hopes the big me is listening: planning ahead enough so that I have my pills and potions, meals and snacks, green tea and gum for the ten-hour, sometimes twelve-hour, day ahead. Very much “what do you need, honey?” in my tone. Yes, speaking tenderly to myself: this is self care.

Consciousness. I’m not a natal MT. You? It’s not in me to spend vast tracts of time in meditative silence, massaging. I am a daydreamer, an entertainer, a giggler. A good part of my early years of practicing massage therapy was learning how to not to do too much of any of those 3 things while working.

Everyone has their own way of being present to clients, maintaining a high level of consciousness. Myself, I have relied heavily on the application of Reiki in my massages, something I can’t recommend highly enough. This sweet, powerful energy work gives me Source, something to channel when I feel lost or depleted, something to lean into for insight. I also call it prayer.

This enables me to bring loving attention, but not so much attention that I start to drift into hypervigilance, which makes for excellent business acumen, but lousy mental health. At a certain point: it’s good. It’s good enough. The client will pick up where I left off. Healing will flow when my hands stop moving. I don’t matter, and as Dale Favier says, that is a “radical blessing.”

Thoroughness is a curse. Leaving some things up to the Great Mystery is essential, otherwise there I am vacuuming again, or taking copious notes, when I could be unwinding and making time for the things I really want to do (like read, doodle, brush my cat, and watch the Mighty Boosh) which is what I encourage my clients to do…for their own self care.

Many thanks to the ABMP’s Jul/Aug 2013 edition “Take Care of Yourself, So You Can Take Care of Clients”  for the inspiration.

Ah, the ol' pink ball trick! That's a happy ped, because I roll this lil' dude around under both feet while doing client intake. A real waker-upper.

Ah, the ol’ pink ball trick! That’s a happy ped, because I roll this lil’ dude around under both feet while doing client intake. A real waker-upper. And so good for – well, everything.