August 8, 2012

A Brief Salute

I drew a chair up to the head of the table. My client's eyes were closed, and her face was beatific. (Do people have any idea how beautiful they become, after twenty minutes or so? I don't think so.) I slid my hands under her shoulders and lifted, and gently rocked them from side to side: her head lolled slightly, back and forth, loosely and easily. That's what I like to see.

Her eyes opened, and she asked, “what's the benefit of that?” Not in a snarky way, but like someone who can see something's important but can't quite see why.

“I haven't the faintest idea,” I said, and she laughed.

“I could make something up,” I said. “I could say, 'this is what you do all day, hunch your shoulders forward, and if I do it for you, then you can finally see it and let go of it.' How's that?”

She laughed again. We come from the same Buddhist tradition, one that values skepticism about the stories and explanations we're constantly manufacturing. Other clients are not so happy with my reluctance to tell a story. They want me to have a whole connected, consistent narrative about the healing journey we're on, complete with heroes and villains, risks and triumphs, critical turning points and grand accomplishments. I won't do it. Even though it has some real therapeutic value, at least in the short term. In the long term, though, it's just more of the same, more that binds us to the wheel. It's how we got in this mess in the first place: by believing our own stories.

No. Of course I lift the shoulders for a reason, for dozens of reasons. One being that I would like someone to be doing it to me, right now. I take a deep breath, and exhale slowly as I lower them again, and something unlocks in me, something deeper than scapulae or trapezius: something in the heart that imagines them, and imagines hers – both our hearts, not that they're two separate things at this point.

That's another story, of course, and I treat it like all the others: something to acknowledge, with a brief salute, as it flickers by. No need to believe any of them or hold on to any of them. We have the real shoulders and the real hands: something deeper and better than all the stories in the world.

August 5, 2012

Geography of the Body

I flex my hands experimentally, as I do, these days, in the way that any careful workman checks his tools. They're good: flexible, only a faint muscle soreness along the thumb metacarpal – the adductor pollicis brevis and the opponens pollicis; under what palmists apparently call the mons veneris (yes, I know! You'll have to ask them.) No hesitations, no glitches, no twinges in the joints. Good to go.

I have to be careful what I do with my hands – especially, how long I leave them wet. I can't let the skin get too soft: It's risky, for instance, do a lot of dishes and then take a long shower, because it leaves my skin dangerously soft, too soft for the strength of my hands. Before I was a massage therapist, I scorned work gloves: now I always wear them to sling lumber or cinder blocks around. I'll tear the flesh right off my fingers if I don't watch it.

“I'm so grateful for your hands,” said a client, yesterday. “Paws,” she added, which surprised me. I always think of my hands as being distinctive for their sensitivity: I like to imagine that my brain, like that of a raccoon, devotes an inordinate amount of room to the sensory map of my hands. But it was an intriguing glimpse into how they were being received. What did “paws” mean? Large, blunt, friendly, undemanding? It was clearly meant as praise. I'll have to mull that over.

There's a gulf between bodyworkers and most other people. For us, the whole landscape of the body is closely mapped, full of named landmarks: we can easily describe any location within a quarter inch or so. Each particular spinal vertebra has a name, and distinct parts: a body, tranverse and spinal processes, facet joints. To the layman, it's all a vast unknown, unmarked country. A client says “my back's been hurting,” and asking for details plunges him into confusion. It's sort of the middle of the back? Or maybe the lower back? It's not just the lack of vocabulary, but a lack of sensory training: I don't think their brains really bother to map these sensations to different places. It's not just that they can't say: it's that they don't know. It's just the back. It hurts. It might have a left side and a right side, it might have a lower, a middle, and an upper, but that's about it.

It strikes me as a deep, pathological alienation, not knowing the landscape of your own body, not having names for all these parts that creak and hurt and impinge, that give comfort and pleasure or pain and distress. I feel about our general anatomical ignorance the same way I feel about Americans' geographical ignorance: no wonder the world is such a threatening, mysterious place, if you can't really locate anything in it, if you can't tell Saudi Arabia from Pakistan. All news is equally bad news: none of them can be up to any good.

August 2, 2012

Remedial Work

I guess I feel about being a professional massage therapist the same way I feel about being part of an organized religion. It's not something to be proud of. It's remedial work. We need to do it because we're such a sorry troop of lost primates, not because we're so sophisticated and advanced. We don't even know how to groom each other or pray: we're having to start over from scratch.