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Inner World

Compassion: Sweet, but not Pie

Well, what an interesting couple of weeks we have had.  I took a week off to vote, and to remain attentive to the larger world around me.  There were wins and losses, both personal and political.  Today I am reflecting on losing a friend, and the larger lesson of compassion that remains in their absence.

My friend did not die.  My friend did not split away from me because we had such opposite voting strategies.  It was a much more subtle end, and the culmination of a pattern that lasted our entire friendship.

The whole story of what happened belongs to my former friend and me alone.  I am certain our versions would diverge widely, and like Rashomon, each one would contain only part of the truth.  That doesn’t matter.

sliced apple pie on brown surface
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What matters to me is this: in the conversations where our friendship was ending, I realized that we have fundamentally different views of compassion.  They saw compassion as a limited thing, to be offered first and fullest to an inner circle of trusted people.  Then, if there was anything left, it could settle on some other people. Compassion was a pie you offered only to those who had earned it.

I see compassion as a running spring, where you can dip in again and again and still come away with a full cup.  I felt like I could care about and comment on the injustices faced by one group of people and still care about injustices for other groups of people.

And, for me, in the weeks leading up to midterms, there were so many injustices to care about that if compassion were a limited commodity, I would have been out of it almost immediately.

There is a small way that I realize my former friend is right, however.  Without adequate self-awareness, self-care, and support, any human is subject to burn out.  It’s part of the reason why it is so much harder to hold deep compassion for large numbers of people than it is for a single individual.

I come back, then, to this moment.  Sitting here in the aftermath of midterm elections and the demise of a friendship, thinking about what comes next.  For me, that involves looking keenly at the world right in front of me and seeing where I can be kind.  At the same time, it involves keeping my larger eyes open to a world that is changing in ways I don’t understand or agree with, speaking about what I see, and standing up for what I believe is right.  This commitment to speaking up started a couple of weeks ago with my former friend.  I already know sad, bad, and unexpected things can happen.  And I know it is necessary.

massage education

Lizard Brains and the Power of Metaphor

Dear Ones, there are few things in live that give me the same intellectual warm fuzzies as a damn good metaphor.

 

And your very flesh shall be a great poem (Walt Whitman)

Hope is the thing with feathers (Emily Dickinson)

Beauty is truth, truth beauty (John Keats)

 

And oh so many more.  This is an occupational hazard of being a massage therapist who loves literature and language, and also really loves science.  Because science has delivered us some great metaphors.  They serve as a pathway to understanding our own bodies.  So eloquent and illuminating.  And yet, too often, so wrong.

 

Have you heard of the lizard brain?  That primitive part of our brain that controls basic survival functions and has no cortex for executive functions?  Maybe someone has brought out the lizard brain metaphor to explain their behavior in a stressful situation.  Or maybe you learned this in school as a way to remember how the cerebellum

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functions in relation to the rest of the human brain.

 

It’s a lovely little metaphor.  It’s easy to understand.  You only need to observe a lizard, or just know what a lizard is, to understand it.  It has kind of neat sound, too, with that “z” in the middle and the gong-like vowel sound at the end.  Satisfying.

 

And completely wrong.  See, our cerebellum is so much more complicated than I was taught in massage school.  (And, I’ll admit, than what I taught my first few classes of students.)   This “little brain” that we thought was only involved in coordinating movement actually has a hand (or a neuron) in almost all of what we do and think.

And we’ve known for a while that the idea that lizards don’t have a cerebral cortex is wrong.  They have a cerebral cortex — lizard version.  Of course it is very different from a mammal’s cortex, but it does exist.

We know all of this.  And yet the lizard brain metaphor persists.  I am wondering if maybe there is some usefulness to the metaphor.  Not as a way of understanding scientific reality, but perhaps as a way of understanding ourselves.  That messy, strange, shifting thing we may call our “being.”

We are not lizards, but we certainly share the planet with them.  And perhaps some behaviors.  Outside the realm of the classroom and brain science, could there be utility in understanding part of ourselves as lizard-like?  And harnessing that to control impulses, manage awareness, and grow into the humans we believe ourselves to be?

For my part, I will certainly strive for scientific accuracy in my classes, banning the phrase “lizard brain” from any materials.  In life, though, I may hold on to the metaphor for a little while longer.

 

 

massage education, Modalities, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Good Conversation, Better Work

For the past couple of months, I have had the immense privilege of hosting Healwell’s online webinar series, The Interdisciplinary Clan of Mystery.  This past Sunday was Episode 2, featuring Janet Booth, my new best friend and amazing, thoughtful human.  We spent an hour talking about end of life care, and what it takes for practitioners to serve clients at the end of life.  By the end it was clear — we needed at least two more hours.

 

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Talk is amazing.  And talk is cheap.  I found myself wondering this morning about the practitioners who watched the webinar, and whether anything practical was happening. We talked a lot about doing the inner work necessary to serve other humans.  Across the video conference lines, there was a sea of nodding, agreement, engagement and awareness.  Now, in our separate states, are we doing that inner work, or are we playing Candy Crush on our phones and ignoring our own uneasiness?

 

Since Sunday evening, I have been noticing all the ways I avoid or numb out.  Let me tell you, there are a lot of them.  It’s not always things that are clearly unhealthy.  Sometimes it’s exercise.  Or a book.

 

I had a new client a while back, coming for a massage after several months of not receiving massage.  Healthy, right?  Good self care?  Yet — I wonder.  During the intake I learned this new client had just received some very difficult health information.  Just received, as in about a half hour before the massage appointment.  The client made it clear that the entire massage was a time to forget this looming diagnosis.

 

It is not my place to tell someone how to handle their own bad news.  It is my place to serve without judgement and to create a place of safety.  But that client stayed on my mind for a long time.  I wonder if there is a place where that person can acknowledge what they feel in a place of safety and comfort.

 

Is there a place to be comfortable with our own discomfort.

 

I am working on creating that place and carrying it around me wherever I go.

 

Uncategorized

Emily

My first job in senior care was on the memory care floor of a nursing home.  All the residents were in the later stages of some kind of cognitive decline.  Most of them spoke very little, some not at all.  One of these was Emily.

Emily smiled quietly from her chair whenever anyone said her name.  Her posture was perfect.  She folded her hands beautifully in her lap until something — anything — was placed on the table in front of her.  Then she would gently pick up the object and examine it with her hands, gently, with divine attention.

Emily had striking deep brown, almost black, eyes.  Her eyebrows were still a deep black, while the rest of her hair was gray.  Emily rarely noticed anything outside the reach of her hands.  When it was time for her to move from one room to another, she stood slowly and took the arm of whoever walked with her.  She took short, shuffling steps, like many of the other people on the floor.

Every day, just after lunch, Emily’s husband came to visit with her.  He greeted her in the dining room.  Every day, her serene countenance grew into a wide open smile as soon as she saw him.  Her eyes sparkled and her pale cheeks flushed pink.  They walked down the hall, arm-in-arm, and went to Emily’s room where they would sit next to each other and hold hands.  Sometimes, her husband would brush her hair, or show her pictures of the grandchildren.  After an hour or two, around the time Emily started to fall asleep in her chair, her husband kissed her on the forehead and said goodbye until the next day.

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I had the privilege of witnessing so many love stories like this one in that job.  Emily and her husband hold a special place in my heart because their tenderness was unshakeable.  On rare days, Emily would get anxious and almost angry.  She couldn’t sit still and would not hold her husband’s hand.  He still looked at her with the same unshiftable tenderness.  On these days he would try to stroke her hair or sing to her.  If nothing worked, he would simply sit and love her.

The absolute simplicity of his presence, every single day, reminds me how much we all have to offer each other.  If we will only just show up, and be present with another human with no judgement.

Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Death and Other Benefits

As I’ve written before, I knew from the start of my massage career that I wanted to work with people in extremis — whether through age, illness, life stresses, or other factors.  I am not a mechanical fix-’em-up therapist.  I am a keeper of respite.

In my last quarter of school, I got in touch with a Donna, a hospice massage therapist who had attended the same school.  Donna generously agreed to let me shadow her for part of one day and talk to me in detail about her work with dying people.  With her, I went to the hospice inpatient facility.  Donna checked in with the nurses and got a list of people who might be open to receiving massage.  The nurses directed her first to one woman in particular.

“She’s struggling,” the nurse said, “Maybe you could ease her a little.”

Donna and I walked into the woman’s room.  I stayed close to the door as Donna approached the bed and gently touched the woman’s hand.  The woman was taking short, gasping breaths.  Her neck twisted with each breath and she shifted constantly in the bed.  Donna spoke very quietly to her and got permission to give her a gentle massage.  I watched Donna with my still-learning eyes, trying to parse exactly which techniques she used and how she crafted a coherent session in this unusual location.

person massaging man while lying on bed
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And then I forgot all of that and just watched.  Donna placed her hands on the woman’s ribcage, she stroked her hair and lovingly pressed her hands.  The woman gradually stopped shifting her position.  She still took short breaths, but they seemed more comfortable now.  After about fifteen minutes, Donna thanked the woman and we left the room without a sound.  The nurse walked into the room after we left.

Donna stood at the sink washing her hands, and I stood with her trying to form an intelligent question.  I could only manage “Thank you” and “What? . . . .” As I struggled with my words, the nurse came up, grinning.  She patted Donna on the back.

“Donna,” she said, “I think you just massaged that woman to death.”

They smiled at each other and hugged.  At the start of the day, the patient was in distress, struggling to breath, or to stop breathing.  After the massage, she appeared to be in much less distress and slipping into an easeful death.  I hope that is what happened.  To be honest, I have no idea.

What I do know, however, is that I am much more suited for the kind of work Donna does than almost anything else.  To facilitate ease in the face of distress.  To work with another human and help reduce the struggle of their transition — whether it is the transition to health after a long illness, the transition to a different lifestyle, or the transition from life into death.

Thoughts on the profession

The Imperfection of Sight

“It wigs people out when someone actually sees them.  And it wigs us out to fully see ourselves.”

I am fortunate to be able to teach in a number of different venues, and I love them all.  My favorite, though, is the almost overwhelming intensity of a short workshop. With a room of people who have chosen to spend their time and money in a very particular way.  I teach continuing education, and in the workshops we often take time to consider ourselves, and what version of ourselves we bring to our clients. 

A few days ago, we were talking about working with people who are seriously ill.  We were considering medical decisions, and what we might do if we are working with someone who makes a decision that is different from one we might make.  The question on the table was about a specific case; about our thoughts, resistances, and feelings.  It was about what we would do.

Everyone in the room took the time to think about the question.  They sat in their groups and talked animatedly with each other and when we came back together, they gave their thoughts in echoes. 

Of course we would work with this person. 

We are massage therapists.

It’s not our concern what decision someone makes.

And that was the end of it.  Or was it?

I agreed with and believed everything they said. We are compassionate professionals and we practice unconditional positive regard.  Everyone’s health care decisions are their own to make.

And yet.  After the work is done and the client feels better and we get home alone at night with our feelings and our truth, what is there? Is there only a practiced neutrality that never allows for any conflict or feeling of distress?  Are we that good?

We are not.  I know deep in my own being we are not.  Because we are human.  The thing we are good at is hiding the uncomfortable bits of ourselves.  Our fears.  Our prejudices.  Our anger and our hurt. 

There were only a few minutes of class left.  So, I took a deep breath and offered some homework.  Dig a little deeper, I said.  I told them the truth.  I had conflicted feeling about working with the person in our scenario.  I saw wasted resources in the decisions being made.  I have prejudices that are causing me tension around the whole situation. 

If we don’t take out our darkest feelings and consider them, how do we trust our light? 

Remember when you were a child and were scared of the monsters under the bed or in the closet? Remember that a swift antidote to those fears was to go and look.  Put on a light and see the places where your fears reside. 

ancient art artist artistic
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It wigs us out when we see ourselves.  Because when we do, we must acknowledge the parts of ourselves that are not kind, not loving, not full of unconditional positive regard.  In our oversimplified way, we might think this makes our kindness and love somehow invalid.  What is does, really, is give us the tools we need to make our kindness and love richer and more true.  It saves us from collapsing under the weight of our unacknowledged shadows.  It returns us to our wholeness. 

The students left with the homework.  I hope they went home and looked into their own hearts and saw everything, or a little closer to everything.  I know some of them did not.  But I believe some of them did, and that is enough.  It is imperfect and it is enough. 

massage education, Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Aural Forestry

What started as an adaptation to technological difficulties grew into a new research interest and intentional structure of the whole massage environment.

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This is Nadine, one of the office plants.

I love my office.  It has a skylight for natural light, and it is large with plenty of room to move around. My office mate has an amazing eye for design, so she put together the space in a way that is beautiful and functional.  I am proud to bring new clients into the space and trust they will feel at ease there.

I don’t love the technology, or lack thereof.  There is no WiFi in the space, so my regular streaming music service is not available.  When I moved into the space, I pulled out my tablet and searched my apps for some kind of relaxing noise making program.  I found I had an app called Spa Music, and that this app had a mixing board page.  You could combine any number of nature sounds to create a custom, relaxing soundscape.  I quickly settled on “Lake” as the background and experimented with different bird songs, crickets, or even jungle frogs on top. The sounds would play until I turned off the tablet, with no wireless connection necessary.

I set up the nature sounds on the speakers and invited in my first clients with some trepidation. Would they miss the music? Is there someone out there who really is a huge Dean Everson or Enya fan, and was I alienating them?

I quickly learned a few true things:

  1.  Almost no one notices the music/sounds unless they stop unexpectedly.
  2.  Lots of people in Kentucky get significant joy out of observing and identifying birds.
  3.  Working around nature sounds for several hours has a significant positive effect on my outlook.
bright countryside dawn daylight
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Somewhere in the collection of random information in my brain, I remembered one of my friends talking about forest bathing.  Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, has been described in Japan since the 1980s, and is a part of preventative health care there.  Several studies on the benefits of forest bathing suggest that a slow, attentive, mindful walk in nature has a number of health benefits.  A few researchers started to break the experience into pieces to see if similar health benefits could be available to people in urban environments.  A study in Japan suggested that simply being around fresh flowers in an office had a positive, relaxing effect on office workers.

What about just the sounds of nature?  Could listening to lake noises or birdsong have a positive effect on someone’s overall massage experience?  So far, I haven’t found any studies on this particular question, so I only have stories.

I have the story of the woman (and avid birder) who is coping with a painful autoimmune condition, whose posture relaxed as soon as she heard the birdsong in my office.

I have the story of the man who called my office “instant calm” when he walked in.

And I have the story of every day I spend in that office, feeling more attentive and present without the burden of tuning out some hideous “spa music” coming from the streaming service.

For now, I am letting the nature sounds play on, and spending as much time as possible in actual nature as part of my regular self-care.  I’ve got other, really fun projects keeping me occupied outside the office right now, but who knows?  Maybe this nature thing will grow.