Inner World, Massage Tales, On Writing, Thoughts on the profession

Until They Know

The other night, I sat with my partner, talking about life’s work, life’s purpose, and other meaningful things. We have that conversation a lot, both as a way to check in with each other for support and as a way to clarify for ourselves what is truly important. Sitting there, in our middle ages, we stretch forward and reach into what we both hope will be our renaissance.

I was telling my partner about the moment. The moment when I was sitting with a client, presumably massaging them but really being a loving, peaceful presence for them. In that moment, I felt all the struggles and blocks to my creative energy dissolve away. I felt open to receive and translate what ever might come forward. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in the exact right place doing the exact right work.

My client that day was frail, small, elderly. My client was also an open fount of love and kindness who never let me leave without telling me how beautiful and sweet she thought me to be. She was exhausted from a restless night and bouts of nausea. She was in extremis. From the outside, it looked like all I did was sit next to her and gently hold her hands.

As I finished telling the story, I tried to find a way to explain the rightness of that moment, to translate it into words that could describe what I want my work to be. Finally, I said:

I’m just here to love on people until they realize how much they’re worth.

And that was it. The exact right phrase. I have found my mission statement for the remainder of my career, and, truly, of my life as a human being.

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In my past, I spent several years in corporate America, and in those years I learned to deeply mistrust the idea of a “mission statement.” To me, it had the association of wasted hours in meeting rooms and whiteboards full of meaningless phrases. It meant a lot of back-patting while everyone settled back into the exact same soul-numbing atmosphere as before. Mission statements, I thought, look nice on annual reports or company-branded merchandise, but in practice they meant nothing.

When I hit on that sentence, though, I also hit on a new understanding of mission statements in general. After the political and religious definitions of the word “mission” in the dictionary comes this definition:

a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling

dictionary.com

I am not a traditionally religious person, but the idea of a “calling” still resonates with me. The truth is, we humans really are intertwined and connected in ways we don’t quite understand. There is a need in the community that each of us is suited to fill. That need has a voice, which calls out and, I think, it is our job to listen, and, on hearing, respond.


A few weeks ago I started out trying to write a few different posts about relaxing massage, gentle massage, and the underappreciated benefits of both. As with much of my writing, I thought I was doing one thing, but the writing eventually led me to a new (better) place.

I thought I was providing some education about physiology and the mechanisms of massage therapy as I understand them. In fact, I was writing my way into my personal mission statement, the guiding force that all my endeavors must support.


I have a postcard on my refrigerator which I got form an artist at the St. James Court Art Show a couple of years ago. It says: “Don’t become famous for doing something you don’t love.” I get that now, in a way I didn’t get it before.

It’s the love. It has always been the love.

Inner World, Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Chicken Skin and Butterflies

“Rebecca, your touch is so gentle I bet you could pet butterflies.” She said this to me as she dropped into the table and let her arms fall away from her body. She breathed deeply and evenly and within a few minutes I could see that she was asleep, or nearly so. At the end of her session, she smiled at me warmly and said she appreciated being able to fall asleep comfortably.

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She reminded me of my time in Thailand a couple of years ago. I studied Thai massage for a couple of weeks — just enough time to confirm that I really know nothing about Thai massage. The teacher used to joke about “elephant skin people” and “chicken skin people.”

Elephant skin people, to him, were those who wanted more aggressive bodywork. They seemed to thrive on the deepest compressions, the most rigorous stretches, and the rough handling of their bodies. He gave a demonstration on one of these people while I was there. The client, a muscled American motorcycle rider complete with leather vest and chaps, groaned and whimpered his way through the session with my teacher. After the session, he got up from the mat, smiling and testing his newly mobile joints.

Chicken skin people, on the other hand, required gentler handling. Their bodies could not take deep work and they often could not move into some of the postures typical of Thai massage. My teacher teased me that I was a chicken skin person. In that, he was (is) completely correct. I do not respond well to aggressive bodywork.

And, as I am starting to fully embrace, I am a massage therapist for the chicken skinned. I feel most connected and at my best with those whose bodies, minds, and/or spirits require gentle handling and a careful, loving approach.

My client, who found such a vivid and lovely metaphor for the way I work, also gave me the perfect ending to this three week exploration of “just a relaxing massage.” I am here to whisper, gently, to your nervous system and let your body sink into its own healing capability.

Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Just a Relaxing Massage, Part 2

Let’s talk about your nervous system. How about a quick check in? How’s it doing? If you are alive and reading this, it’s pretty safe to say that your nervous system is functioning.

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Your nervous system, the control system of the body, the keeper of the keys to so many other functions, is, for me, the primary target of massage. If I can facilitate a switch in your nervous system from sympathetic (“fight or flight”) mode to parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) mode, then a whole cascade of benefits happen in your body and mind. These include:

  • drop in heart rate and blood pressure
  • decrease in muscle tension
  • increase in energy required to focus
  • warmer body temperature overall

And these powerful effects come from that thing that is undervalued so much — “just” relaxation. Those effects seem pretty powerful to me, and definitely worth an hour of time.

Today I saw a new client. She chatted during part of the massage, talking about how she was always busy, always running, found it hard to stop and sit for a minute. She booked the massage as part of an ongoing plan to take care of herself. She talked about how it was necessary to take care of herself, but she said it in a way that seemed like she was trying to convince herself. For the last ten minutes of the massage, she grew quiet and her breathing deepened and slowed. Her arms, previously held close and tight by her sides, fell gently out to the sides. Her face softened. At the end of the massage, I said “Thank you,” and she said, “That felt good.”

That felt good.

It is enough, more than enough, to facilitate a space where someone can step out of their busy life and feel good in their own body, their original home.

Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Just A Relaxing Massage, Part 1

We make a lot of claims in massage therapy. Some of them are proven. Most of them are not. I was thinking about this today as I went to talk to a local clinic about their massage offerings. Their website included the “improves circulation” and “removes toxins” claims that we hear so much, and that have no evidence to back them up.

Much smarter people than me have written about this, at length and with remarkable clarity. I suggest you check out Tracy Walton’s take here for more detail.

I want to talk about why we make all these claims in the first place. There are days when the entire profession feels like a collection of people tied up in some kind of inferiority complex. And, yes, I am including myself in this whole mix. We make all kinds of claims about what massage can do based on anecdotes, or long-standing oral tradition, or sometimes wishful thinking.

It goes, so often, like this: “Massage is relaxing. . . AND it can increase circulation and boost immunity and it might even make you able to fly.*”

(* — massage will not make you able to fly. Unless your therapist hands you a plane ticket at the end of the session.)

What’s wrong with stopping at “Massage is relaxing?” When did it become not enough to facilitate deep, uninterrupted relaxation? I have the good fortune to live a slow life most days, with time for exercise and reading and general contemplation. Most of the people I know are not so lucky. One slow hour with nothing to do but receive skilled bodywork seems like more than enough.

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This week, I am working on removing the word “just” from my vocabulary when talking about massage — as in “just relaxation.” As I know from my understanding of the nervous system, the effects of relaxation are profound and wide-ranging in the human body. I’m going to stop diminishing that.

Next week, I will explore some of these effects and the profound meaning of calming the human nervous system.

Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

It Depends

There’s this thing that gets said a lot in almost every class I teach, no matter what the subject or how (in)experienced the students: “It depends.”  Meaning: more information is needed before I make a recommendation.  Meaning: every human is different.  Meaning: never stop thinking.

I am sitting at a desk in a remote location, away from home and away from people, planning out my 2019. What are my goals for the year? What do I want to create? What do I need to let go of?

I used to do this on a fairly regular basis, but it has been a couple of years since I actually sat down and wrote out the plan for the next year. The first time I did it, the words came to me faster than I could write them down. There was so much missing from my life at that point. It seemed lots of plans and ideas wanted to rush in to fill the vacuum.

Before I started writing today, I looked at that plan. Most of it didn’t happen. Or at least it didn’t happen in a way I expected. There was one sentence though, stuffed into the middle and written when I was tired and wanted to go to bed, that happened exactly as I wrote it. It was eerie, how precisely this thing happened. This one, half-forgotten sentence that became the thing that shifted my entire life.

So, can you plan an entire year before it happens?

It depends.

To me, this writing is an exercise in continual awareness of the kind we want our students to have when we say, “It depends.” Standing rigidly with knowledge or plans or protocols limits our ability to help. And it kills our ability to find wonder in the unexpected, half-asleep moments of our lives.

We stand, in this profession, in our knowledge and our experiential learning. We are not, should never be, trapped by it. We work with humans, after all, in their infinite variety. Every one of them is different, and if we stop thinking we stop serving.

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Let us not be constrained by the container of our own understanding. Instead, let’s try to flow, like cats do — adapting to the shape of the container before us, or abandoning it entirely when it doesn’t serve.

May your new year be full of awareness, critical thinking, and the magic of conditionality.

Inner World, On Writing

Which Draft Is This

We went to a show, my friend and I.  It was full of flashes of brilliance — beautiful gems that could be pulled out, polished and made into an even better show.  But it was a one-time-only experience.

It was unique, rare, and temporal.  It was deeply unsatisfying.

As we pondered these truths, imagining the new and gorgeous work of art that could happen if this section came out and that one expanded and it all had a more coherent frame structure —  we also pondered what it was that was so deeply unsatisfying.

“You know what it is?” my friend said, “They stopped at the first draft.”

And of course that was it.  We watched a first draft, knowing there was no possibility of a next draft, and still seeing the potential that a next draft could be.  Frustrating.

So, of course, I will quote that Anne Lamott line about “sh*tty first drafts.”  Here is whole quote:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

It’s a great line, and a great sentiment.  Just get the words out.  Just work.  What happens too often, what happened in that show we saw, is that people get out the first draft and stop there.  The effort of putting forth that much feels like enough.

As Anne Lamott, or any other writer, would tell you — it isn’t enough.  There are revisions and reworkings and next drafts to go, long before something is all the way done.  Some things are never all the way done.  Construction on Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s adjective-defying cathedral in Barcelona, began in 1882.  It is projected to be completed in 2030.  Maybe.

On a more local scale, I’ve been contemplating my professional life, and how it has shifted and changed over the years I have been a massage therapist.  I’m on, I think, my third draft at the moment.  And several people I know are still on their first draft.

I’m becoming aware that it is part of my mission as a massage educator to get people (and maybe the profession?) to move through whatever draft they are in right now.  It’s so easy to get comfortable with a limited repertoire.  Are we doing things because they are intuitively and scientifically effective, or are we doing things because we always do them?

Every new draft grows under the skin of the old draft, and when it pushes through it is often familiar enough to be recognizable.  So why are we sitting with the old drafts, afraid to move through it into the next best version?

Let’s get to the next draft.  Let’s start by making space for each other’s mistakes, blind spots, and outright incompetence.  These things are temporary, and necessary if we are to move into something new.  Just work.

Hey — Speaking of work — Did you know I host a monthly webinar series called The Interdisciplinary Clan of Mystery?  It’s where my friends at Healwell and I interview someone who is doing excellent work in health care, and we try to learn how to break out of our silos and step up our service game.  If you’re a human who has ever interacted with health care, this might be for you.  Check out the episodes here.  (And while you’re there, take a minute to look at the wonderful goodness Healwell is putting out into the world.  These people are the best, the brightest, the funniest.)
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.