June 1, 2019

Healing Ritual

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool.  --Richard Feynman

I began this series of posts by listing some ways people think of massage:
By local expectation, law, and custom, massage is a business, selling a personal service, as a hairdresser does; and it's a medical intervention, treating musculoskeletal ills, as a chiropractor does. And then (not by law, but by alternative custom) it's sometimes a third thing: a healing ritual, addressing spiritual ills, as a shaman does.
Now we're headed for deep water. But this is why I get massage -- which I do, regularly -- and why I've made massage my life work. Massage can take you places. (It can do this both for the person on the table, and for the person doing the work: this is one of the less-discussed job benefits of doing massage.) 

It's easy to make this story stupid. It's easy to come up with engaging, anti-scientific stories about what's going on, replete with auras and crystals and and "energies" that instruments can't detect; which obey cosmological rules (that can be cherry-picked, because they come from long ago and far away, and no one can force their less likable variants on you). Browse a sample of massage therapists' websites and you'll find some very silly ones: some people are very transparently fooling themselves. When I tell people what I do for a living, a fair number of them evince a certain wariness, and I can tell they're waiting for the wack-a-doodle to surface. I can't blame them.

But in fact massage can deliver benefits that I would call "spiritual." If you're allergic to the word, feel free to use some other. What I mean is that it loosens the anxiety, and sense of constraint, of an overbearing ego. It reminds me that I am, in fact, just a small person who is part of a large world. It reminds me that my own obsessions, concerns, and worries are mental projections, not realities, and that even if they became realities they would not be all that important. My mind becomes spacious, and the world becomes radiant. All my senses (vision in particular) become sharper. Images become clearer.

It is an effect much like that of meditation. And like meditation, it is not invariably pleasant. It can make me feel raw, unskinned, vulnerable. There are reasons why we spend most of our conscious time pursuing distraction. Sometimes we would really much prefer not to "be here now." But we lose more than we gain by chasing distraction. 

This spacious mind is more open and more credulous than is usual, which is probably one reason why we massage therapists tend to be viewed as wacky or flaky: we often are. It's easy, especially if you haven't cultivated meditative discipline, to seize on some of the more vivid visualizations and fantasies, or some of the more appealing stories, and decide that they are real. But you don't have to do this. You can take them for what they are: ground for thought. "Intimations," as Wordsworth would say. You've opened the door to a multitude of images and ideas. That's good. Leave the door open, so they can leave just as easily: that's even better.

I recently read Michael Pollan's book on psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind. He has a chapter on neuroscience, with some intriguing hypotheses about states in which the brain becomes less organized -- the traffic controls are relaxed, and parts of the brain talk with other parts that they don't usually communicate with. I was struck at once by the similarity with how I experience massage, and I noticed particularly the phenomenon he calls the afterglow, an apparently common day-after effect, from psychedelics, of heightened vividness in perception, which is also a massage effect I've wondered about before. He cites scientist Robin Carhart-Harris, who speculates that when the brain becomes too good at being a prediction-machine it veers into anxiety and depression, and begins filtering out too much of "irrelevant" perception (for instance, perceptions of beauty): psychedelic experiences can counter that tendency. Maybe massage can too, by the same mechanism: throttling back the activity of the so-called "Default Mode Network," which is (possibly) the cerebral cortex's traffic-controller.  

I view such neuroscience hypotheses with a lot of skepticism: we still just don't know much about how the brain works, or what brain imaging really has to tell us about it. But it's a way of thinking about what we're doing, when we're doing massage, that doesn't require postulates that are demonstrably false. In this business, that's a step forward.


  1. Dale, you are a master wordsmith and once again you put into words what I often think of but haven't quite the same skill or gift. Thank you for writing this insightful helpful piece. Figuring out what we're actually doing as MTs has been a life's work for me...you say it best.