June 16, 2011

Lord of the Trigger Points

A discussion on Facebook reminded me of this mnemonic I made up a couple years ago. With apologies to Tolkien fans!

Two Points in the upper traps, where temple pain is made,
Two in the levator scap causing stiffness of the neck,
Two in the SCM whence frontal headaches trade,
One in the lower traps, starting all the wreck,
In between the low thoracics and the shoulder blade.
One Point to start them all, one Point to goad them;
One Point to aggravate and stir them up and hold them,
In between the low thoracics and the shoulder blade.

June 7, 2011

Why Massage?

A Facebook post tells me that I should hit the streets and sell the benefits of massage to everyone I meet: that my business (as opposed to my work) is all about selling. I bridle at that. I'm useless as a salesman, in the first place: nobody in their right mind would set me to selling anything. The first thing I do with a pitch is queer it. I don't like tooting my own horn, and I don't like tooting horns in the received wisdom parade. I don't like tooting horns at all.

I'm skeptical about a lot the claims made for the general health benefits of massage. For the same outlay of time, spent on exercise, naps, and hot baths, I've argued – not to mention a lot less money – you can get the same or better results in lowering your blood pressure, reducing your stress, and improving your circulation. Massage does these things, it just doesn't do a very important amount of them. And its benefits are transient.

Then there's the various extravagant “healing” claims. In general I take an even dimmer view of them. A shaman is someone who comes from a vigorous tradition, has traveled in other worlds, taken genuine psychic and physical risks, usually blown a fuse or two with hallucinogens. He's not some middle-class suburban kid who's read a Ravenstar book, chewed a little peyote, taken a weekend workshop in Polarity, and changed his name to Wolf.

There's a whole slew of manipulative therapies – more than you can shake a stick at – for resolving specific problems. I practice some of them, trigger point and some MET (muscular energy technique). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It shades off into the sort of work that physical therapists and osteopaths and chiropractors do. I don't take most of their claims all that seriously either, and mostly I've regretted it, the few times I've let those people get their hands on me. I know enough now to just look their treatments up and try them on myself, if I think they might work. Occasionally they do. But that's not what my massage practice is about. If I think something will help my client, I'll teach them how to do it. It's unusual for any of these practices, done in the standard “dosage” of therapy – once per week – to be very effective. Daily, or several times a day, is more like it. Mostly, people just get better because they heal up, and the therapy has nothing to do with it.

You see? Salesmanship is not my strong suit.

On the other hand, I get more massage than most of the massage therapists I know do. I walk the talk, even if I don't talk it. I believe in massage: it's an important part of my life.

Why? Well, it's not about health, in the narrow sense of the word. I'm not trying to lower my blood pressure or cushion my cortisol spikes or drain my lymph. It has to do with tenderness and respect, with protected spaces, with wordless friendship. It's about touch.

In a sense, it's all about the boundaries, inside and out. Outside, I measure people's suitability as friends or lovers by all sorts of criteria, most of them ridiculous. If I shake hands with them or hug them it has all kinds of meanings and subtexts. It's all tangled up with prestige, whether I'm good enough, whether they're good enough. I become more and more aware of it, as the years go by, and I hate it, but it's more than a lifetime's practice to shake free of it.

Within a bounded space, though – the physical space of the massage table, the temporal space of the session – we can play the Vajrayana game. Just pretend: for an hour and a half I don't have an ego. I don't care what anyone thinks of me. No one knows that we are in this relationship, so social prestige has nothing to do with it. The clients eyes are closed, so all my trappings – clothes, jewelry, whatever – are out of the reckoning; they're naked, so all their trappings are absent too. It's down to touch, to two human beings, an ordinary pair of hands and an ordinary body. It feels sacred to me, in the same way that wilderness feels sacred to me. There's nothing here that's been put here to mark anyone's power or subservience. Nobody owns anything here. Nothing we do has any social meaning or importance. All the nonsense has been cleared away. This is touch, touch as simple as stone, water, or tree. It doesn't need anything else.

And of course – like all Vajrayana practice – it fails. I do care what my clients think of me. They care what I think of them. We veer into distraction and ideation. There's what the boundary-pros call transference and counter-transference: we make each other into parent or child or lover figures, superimpose old relationships onto this one. But of course that's what we do all the time, with all our relationships. What's different about this, is that there's space and time enough to see it clear, in all its absurdity; to set it aside, with more or less success; and to return to the love, to the hands and the skin. It's not perfect. But it plays, there, with the perfection that we know is possible. It keeps alive our yearning for a connection that is simple and real. And that's gift enough. That's what brought me to massage, and what keeps me here.