* In this essay to avoid the awkwardness of always saying “massage/bodywork” I use the terms massage and bodywork interchangeably for all the various therapies that utilize touch and/or movement.
I was at the end of a session on a psychotherapist who had been working long
and hard on a major undertaking. I had concentrated, using primarily Zero Balancing,
with clearly held points of contact, tractions, and rotations, to facilitate
her sense of having open space within. And I had maintained a consciously relaxed
pace to convey a sense of having “all the time in the world.”
At the end, she was quiet for a long time, breathing easily, but obviously still exploring deep within her experience.
Finally she said, “That was incredible.”
Then she was quiet for an even longer time. And it appeared she went much deeper into herself. And then she said, “That was more than incredible.”
It is my experience that “more than incredible” is often the result of our massage and bodywork. It is a fantastic, perhaps the highest benefit of what we do. And yet, for being the highest benefit, this realm of the “more than incredible” is not often talked about.
Why? Some possible reasons: it’s not easy to put the more than incredible into words. It’s hard to find words for an experience that is mostly non-verbal. It may sound silly or even overly sensual to describe how ecstatic the experience of massage can be. We may be embarrassed or feel pretentious vocalizing the spiritual results of our work. We may fear jeopardizing our mainstream, paramedical position. Insurance companies aren’t paying for the incredible. We don’t ordinarily have curricula in our schools that systematically explore the extra-ordinary. It not socially supported as a conventional health goal.
Whatever the reasons, we must overcome the difficulty and resistance to discussing and further developing the more-than-incredible results of our work. It is arguably our most important and unique content. We must allow it to be an abiding interest in our field, a realm to be evolved further. I believe it is deeply related to the possibility of humankind making progress not just in the technological realm, but in the realm of mind, emotion, spirit, and body as well.
What is this more than incredible realm? Of what use is it? How shall we explore it as therapists and as humans? What relevance may it hold for our world today?
Clinical orientations to the contrary, massage is not mostly a medical modality. In a client, for instance, with supraspinatus tendinitis, I may spend 5-10 minutes focused on the tendon. However, the majority of the session is spent enhancing the person’s posture and positive energetic experience.
I don’t want my clients to say, and I don’t think many therapists
are satisfied with, “What a competent massage!” As a massage therapist,
I want my clients to say “Wow! I feel so great.” The allopathic
context is such that I don’t go to the doctor and ask him at the end of
the session whether I can come back next week! But with a good bodyworker that’s
exactly what I’d say. Because the experience has been so deeply pleasurable
(as well as symptom relieving) that I want more.
In spite of the language that says allopathic medicine is healthcare, it is largely not healthcare, it is disease-treatment. The disease-treatment system, because of its focus on acute conditions, its narrowly clinical education, and the insurance industry doesn’t have the time or the inclination, to explore health. Thank God, of course, for high quality disease-treatment! Many of us would not be here today were it not for the tremendous, life-saving advances in allopathic medicine. But the goal of our life is not mere survival and neither should it be of our medicine.
Massage is very specifically a health modality. It results not just in relieving musculo-skeletal symptoms but also in people feeling qualitatively better and different. We practice one of the only forms of healthcare that specifically addresses the whole body and not just a part. After the massage the person’s whole body commonly feels lighter and taller, more radiant, more alive. Clients feel more connected to themselves, the people and the nature around them. Massage is unique, incredible health amplification.
Massage/bodywork is also specifically a care modality – the human hand is the primary instrument for the direct transmission of care. The Beatles were right! On one level, all we all need is love. Massage is, because of the unique qualities of human touch, the most explicitly loving of all health modalities. You can not take love out of the touch equation without a palpable loss of spirit.
It is the precious birthright of massage and bodywork to grandly and uniquely explore and expand the whole realm of health and care.
Massage is clinically effective, and can properly be used within an allopathic context. We help re-weave fascia with precision, we impact circulation, help muscles, tendons and ligaments heal. With sufficient knowledge, we support new and more effective postures and movement patterns. Through our effects on the autonomic nervous system we can relieve stress including its negative effects on digestion, elimination, respiration, heart rate, circulation, lymphatic flow, and the formation of trigger points. All this and more constitute the mechanical consequences of massage. Were that all we could do, we would indeed be practicing a wonderful and largely medical modality.
Now let’s look at energy. We, frankly, make people happier. We help them let go of short-term stress and confusion. With sufficient knowledge and sensitivity, we help clients let go of long held tensions sustained through chronic emotional postures and beliefs. We encourage more flow and balance within – take your pick of language – the meridians, chakras, nadis, energy centers. We enhance the person’s experience of the pleasure in being alive. Through the explicit connection of touch, we help people know that they are not alone in this world. During a massage often the client has a direct experience of psychophysical health that gives them a new vision for how different this life could be, how each and every one of us could participate in a heaven on earth. If you want to follow your bliss, you often could do no better than to follow your therapist into their treatment room!
Human touch is the most sophisticated physical tool in the known universe.
We can not synthesize a material that even functions like the skin of the hands,
let alone something that operates with the sensitivity, intelligence and motor
complexity of the human neuro-muscular system through the hands
Touch is also the only way to bring two energy systems into direct contact with each other. Michaelangelo’s image of God and Adam’s hands approaching each other has the enduring power of reminding us of the literal sharing of the spark of life that touch is.
And human touch, as if its sophisticated contact with structure and its ability to contact energy were not enough, combines both!
Every time we lay our hand on the human body with consciousness and good will, we are uniting the worlds of structure and the worlds of energy in the only possible way for this to be done! Human touch is the only context in the known universe in which there is a simultaneous and conscious contact of both structure and energy.
Imagine the particles and waves constituting this universe since its inception. Now consider how, after eons of travel these coalesce into this most unlikely form, the human. Here is the human bodymind - nature at long last become conscious of herself - lying on your massage table. And then in therapy another of these walking miracles actually has the capacity to move and intentionally make healing contact with another. Then one says, “That was more than incredible.”
Touch is by definition the most ecstatic (from the Latin ex-stasis meaning “out of stasis”) form of medicine and healing. It uses movement to move us out of stasis, out of being stuck.
It also moves us out of our usual sense of self. A person can not change without new experience. The therapist, by helping us let go of tensions we ourselves have not been able to relieve, opens us up to new experience.
I once saw a tee-shirt that said, “Forget your work, forget your boss, forget your name.” Many is the time I’ve laid on a massage table and within just a few minutes have forgotten all my problems. On the table we take a vacation from the usual self and the usual world. The great English psychotherapist, Marion Milner said, “All real living must involve a relationship, recurrent moments of surrender to the “not-self.” How clearly and dependably massage results in this relationship.
There is a deep unmet need for ecstasy in our culture. We provide, unfortunately, mostly debased forms, many addictive: drugs, alcohol, TV, food. Massage is one of the only socially acceptable contexts in which people can experience deeply ecstatic states. It is our task and challenge not to let this remain underexplored. And it is our responsibility to let the ecstatic journey that bodywork often provokes not be merely a narcissistic “trip.” The ecstatic power of touch must be something for everyone to be delighted and educated in, something for us all to pick up, not just a few to carry.
In so far as we interact with the world of structure, we are engaged in an applied science and require the knowledge and respect for the world of anatomy and physiology. In so far as we engage inspiringly with the world of energy as well, we need knowledge and respect for the world of psyche, spirit, and the mysterious.
“Haptic” is the term given to the kinesthetic sensing of reality
– it involves our direct experience of the world through pressure, temperature,
proprioception, and balance. We are used to thinking of art as being something
we see or hear. But ultimately art is a bodily felt experience manifesting in
chills up our spines, in the heart-lifting effects of melody, the inspiration
and exhilaration of a beautiful sentence. As creative bodyworkers we have the
great privilege of working directly with the human mind, body and spirit –
not paints, not tones, not turns of speech.
We are artists and our medium is the greatest living organism in the known universe. A case can accordingly be made for massage being the highest of all art forms.
The acupuncturist, J. R. Worsley described these three levels of health as having to do with disease, disposition and destiny.
As healthcare practitioners we work amelioratively with anatomic and physiological
disease. We impact as well the challenges of disposition. We can help re-set
the autonomic set point of the “Type-A” personality. We can help
- with compassion, touch, and the right timing - heal the chronically broken
heart. We can take the puffed up personality and help them establish a more
grounded sense of self. The intersection of Ida Rolf and Fritz Perls, the founder
of Gestalt therapy, continues to be a big bang resonating throughout the realm
Finally, we can be the midwives to destiny. Who is it that you at your most healthy will become? Each therapist hopes their client will not only feel better but will have the restraining forces to their self-fulfillment removed.
Destiny is collective as well as individual. As each person becomes more fulfilled they also become naturally less self-centered. In this way, the spread of health begins to result not just in individual health but in the growing health of the community. Curing disease depends on immunity. But fulfilling destinies calls for and amplifies community.
It is the destiny of humankind to use the gift of embodied consciousness to evolve. We are still fighting our way through a difficult pre-history. May we use the gift of conscious touch to help people evolve their societies into prioritizing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness over the desire for profit and material gain. Touch reminds us again and again that joy lies in relationship, not in acquisition. The evolution of relationship is part and parcel of the highest role of bodywork.
We can resist the separation of energy work from structural work.
It is neither in the structural realm nor in the energetic that the real power, the evolutionary leverage, of bodywork lies. It is precisely in their union.
We can share our stories about more-than-incredible experiences of both givers and receivers with each other. The struggle of new experience to find its way into language and into collective consciousness is an important struggle.
We need to be appropriately self-critical. We will not be good scientists until we are willing to defend energy work from the overly wishful thinking of some of its devotees. Correspondingly we can restrain the clinically minded from allowing our scope of practice to be defined by insurance companies.
We can develop energy curricula based in Western psychology, science, and the wisdom traditions of the east. For instance, the chakras have tangible correlates with basic existential functions. No one should be graduating from massage school, for example, without classes in the role of the heart area in healing.
We can resist the tendency to identify health as a property of the individual. Let us combat the narcissistically oriented, vitamin-pushing orientation of the so-called “health” magazines. Health is behavior, and it largely depends on how we treat ourselves and each other (not on what supplements we take).
Heaven, according to science, is not demonstrable. But we know in our hearts and especially as therapists that heaven is alive and well. The subjective experience of deep health is the feeling of being connected to the taproot of one’s being, to animal, human and divine grace. At its best massage can result in a face-to-face, body-to-body relation to the sacred. This connection gives our work both its uncanny power and its enduring mystery.
“There is but one temple in the Universe…and that is the human body. Nothing is holier than that high form. We touch heaven, when we lay our hand on the human body.”
— Thomas Carlyle
The union of Art and Science, the integration of Energy and Structure in touch, the direct experience of ecstasy—these are what massage and bodywork most deeply are. It is our responsibility as therapists to know the earthy and heavenly dreams that touch holds for us. And it is our job to make these dreams come true.
David Lauterstein is the co-founder of The Lauterstein-Conway Massage School in Austin, Texas, and has been involved in bodywork for 30 years. He is the author of Putting the Soul Back in the Body, the pathbreaking article series, “The Seven Dimensions of Touch,” editor of the manual, ”The Alchemy of Touch,” and former editor of Massage Therapy Journal. Mr. Lauterstein teaches in Austin, throughout the U.S., and in England, trainings for healthcare professionals on Deep Massage: The Lauterstein Method and Zero Balancing.