This was the location of the wellness center where we were teaching the oncology massage workshop — smack dab between a smoke shop and a cemetery. The business itself was impressive — a well-organized staff, therapists always busy, a personal trainer and chiropractor both seeing clients in fully-equipped spaces. All this built and managed by a powerhouse of a woman. I was impressed and inspired and I told her so.
My co-teacher and I looked forward to three days of open exchanges and a great workshop experience that only happens when the participants are already comfortable with each other. Within the first hour, though, it was clear that this would be different. Every time we asked a question, everyone in the room looked at the owner before they answered. On every break, the owner spent time shifting and arranging the room, or telling her therapists about tasks they needed to do once the workshop was over.
My co-teacher and I knew — what we had here was the biggest control lover we had ever seen. And she had assembled a staff who mostly thought, worked and acted just as she wanted them to. Usually, when we teach this workshop, there is a moment of pure sweetness or deep understanding for most students. There are times when the whole room swells with compassion and kindness so palpable it feels like a warm hand on your shoulder. We kept waiting for, hoping for, trying to create those moments — but they never happened. Not even close.
The driving emotion for the therapists in the room was caution. How do we limit our liability? How do we make sure no one sues us? And, unspoken but there, how do we not piss off the owner who is sitting in class watching us like a hawk?
We gave all the energy we had, but not more than we could spare, to that room. We left hoping for the best, trying to focus on the heartfelt thank you letter we received from one of the volunteer clients. (I found it very telling that the letter was slipped into my hand at a moment when no one else could see it happening.) We shrugged our shoulders and said, “Well, I hope some of that sank in.”
On the drive home, a colleague sent me a text message to ask how it went. This was my response: “We showed that video that makes everyone cry. Nobody cried.”
This remains one of my most unsatisfying teaching experiences. I don’t think it’s necessary for someone to cry to demonstrate compassion, but I do think it is necessary to step out from behind caution, control, and the need to be in charge and expose just a little of your vulnerable, beating heart. Sometimes life puts you in a hard place — between a smoke shop and a cemetery in a gray midwestern town — and the only thing that keeps you going is just a touch of softness.