Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Human Kindness

Several years ago, I participated in a three-day walk to raise money for breast cancer research and prevention.  The whole event was carefully constructed and well managed.  In addition to the logistics of directing, feeding and taking care of thousands of people, the organizers spent time creating an entire worldview.  We were all together, working towards the same goal.  We had a responsibility to each other.  The theme for the weekend was "Human Kindness."  They told us to be kind to each other, and we were.  

When I went home from the event, I felt a little sad that the whole world did not share that basic drive to be kind to each other.  I tried to keep it going in my own life, with varied success.  Some days, the tourist traffic and odd smells of public transportation made it nearly impossible.  

Last weekend, I was reminded again of the importance of being kind.  I went to massage a man who was on hospice.  While I was there, his pastor came to pray with him and the family.  I moved a discreet distance away while they shared their moment.  As the pastor left, he thanked me for my work and called me an "angel" for doing it.  I thanked him and went back to the massage.

Later I had time to reflect on the moment, and to realize how uncomfortable it made me.  Yes, I was aware of and grateful for the kind words.  Yes, I was humbled by the depth of the compliment.  And, yes, I felt boosted up by the acknowledgement of my work.  But I remembered that three day walk, and how just by practicing kindness, we created so many deeply touching moments.  It wasn't superhuman -- angelic -- it was just humans taking care of one another.  Is kindness really so rare in the world that it seems divine to us? 

 So, no, I am not an "angel," I am simply a human, trying to be kind to other humans.  On the days when it works, it can be beautiful.  On the days when it doesn't, usually there is some other human showing me how it's done.  We live on this earth, briefly.  We work on this earth just the same as the people around us.  Our kindness, our attention, elevates us.  Be kind, humans.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014



noun, plural sanc·tu·ar·ies.
a sacred or holy place.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sanctuary.  Massage practitioners use that word often when describing their practice:  "Welcome to your sanctuary," "This office is a sanctuary," etc.  I wonder if, when we use the word, we also put in the work behind making it true.  

A sanctuary is a sacred place, a place removed from the daily life of the world where a person comes to connect with something higher in themselves.  It takes more than quiet music, warm tables and soft sheets.  It even takes more than a skilled practitioner. Creating sanctuary takes work and intention.  Every time I walk into my massage room, I build this sacred space again.  

I start by turning on the music in the room, for the practical reason of adjusting volume and testing equipment, and to replace all the scattered thoughts in my head with focus on my clients for the day. Then I put sheets on the table, smoothing them down to be inviting and comforting.  The simple act of choosing sheets involves thinking of the client who will shortly be using them.  Does this person run hot or cold?  Is their skin sensitive?

I try to manage myself in the massage space as well -- even when clients are not there.  I save my task-based worries and general anxieties for my desk, with varying degrees of success.  I have been trying to convey this idea to my students, and I am running up against the wall of metaphor:  check your bags at the door, leave your garbage on the curb, put it at the coat check.  At any rate, I know that whatever I set aside will either wait for me to come back and care for it or walk away.

I soften my hands -- easier to let go that way -- and root my feet.  I create in my body something solid and rooted, but flexible and agile.  The truth about creating a sanctuary is that it is a relationship with the space, and as such, requires work.  I can call a place a sanctuary, but if I haven't put in the work behind it, the place is merely quiet.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Universe Has a Message for You

"The greatest glory lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
--Nelson Mandela

That quote is the one that convinced me that I am magic.

Well, not magic, really.  It just made me think that there is a possibility of fate being bent and shaped in just the right way -- that meanings are not always constructed in our minds, sometimes they appear outside us like shapes in the mist.

With my first graduating clinic class, I started a tradition, a closing ceremony.  On their final clinic shift before graduation, I gathered up a bunch of inspirational quotes, then wrote them on notecards.  I put the cards in unlabeled envelopes and shuffled them so I didn't know which was which.  Before the students arrived for their shift, I put a notecard in each of their massage rooms.  Everyone got a message.  I didn't know which.  At the time, it seemed nothing more than fair.  What if I assigned quotes to people and someone thought theirs was harsh, or took it the wrong way?  This way, I took myself mostly out of it, and they could make their own meaning out of it.

That day, Kim got the envelope with the above quote.  I have written about Kim before, how during her final term she was mugged, knocked to the ground and beaten.  By the final clinic shift, she was physically recovered, but still mentally reeling.  She came into the student lounge, notecard clutched in her hand and said, "This one!  You planned this!"  She knew I hadn't planned it, and so did I, but the coincidence touched both of us.  We hugged and cried.  Kim tucked the notecard into her shirt and kept it there for the entire shift.

I went home that night feeling contented, thinking what a nice, random thing to happen.  So the next time I had a graduating class for clinic, I did the exercise again.  My most cerebral student got the quote about overthinking.  I did the same ceremony the following term.  One student and I had spent an earlier shift talking over her negative body image and self talk, and I spent a long time gently persuading her to try being as kind to herself as she was to everyone else.  She got the quote about internal beauty.

There are more examples, some beautifully matched like these, some where it was clear to me that meaning was being drawn onto the situation by the students.  Still, every time I did this exercise, people left feeling like they had received a truly personalized message.  I decided to turn down my practical brain, and named the ceremony "The Universe Has a Message for You."

I have just started a new term, and I have a clinic group who will be graduating at the end of it.  I am looking forward to the messages that will come to them.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


In massage school, we talked all the time about trades.  We would connect with each other, with other therapists in the community, and we would set up trades. It was going to be great.  We were going to get so much bodywork, and so much feedback.  We would be healthier than ever.

The reality is, trades are very difficult to set up and delicate to manage.  Once we started working, we realized how little time we had to do trades.  We also realized how little energy we had left over after a full day of clients.  And if we schedule our massage trades all at once, it became hard to enjoy receiving massage because of either being keyed from giving one, or from thinking about giving one.  We started to neglect our self-care in all the ways we swore we wouldn't.  How long had it been since we last received massage?  Well, to be honest, we had no idea.

Recently, a very dear friend and fellow massage therapist started her practice at the Heartwood Center, where I work.  We spent many hours talking over our businesses, planning outreach we could do together, and generally supporting each other in the process of becoming self-employed.  Fortunately, we work many of the same days, so we decided to do regular massage trades with each other -- each of us alternating a week so we both received 2 massages a month.

Since trading with each other, I have noticed that I have more stamina, mentally and physically.  My chronically cramped right hamstring muscle is starting to open up.  I sleep better -- all benefits of massage that I have preached to my clients for years.

What surprised me, though, was that since trading with my friend, my work has improved for all of my clients.  Working with a friend requires careful management of the boundaries between friendship and clientship.  While my knowledge of my friend's life might inform the massage work I did with her, it was (and is) not appropriate to use the massage space to talk over our lives.  That comes later, when we both have a break and are eating lunch in the kitchen.  At first, I had to take some extra time to focus before I massaged my friend -- some more deep breaths, another brief mind-clearing exercise.  Now those extra steps have translated into deeper focus for all of my clients.

The bottom line is this:  we both started our practices thinking we were striking out on our own.  What we found was that community ties actually become stronger.  We worried that we would feel isolated when we started our practices.  In truth, we realized how isolated we were when we worked for other people.