By Stephanie Mines, Ph.D.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2000.
“If I am working with a gay man, I always inform him that I have AIDS so that he can feel comfortable about disclosing his status if he wants to. I think it models comfort with disclosure which I feel is important for gay men.”
The Chakra Man was designed as a quilt by Tom Sherman, in preparation for his participation in Hawaii’s First Annual Bike Ride to Stop AIDS. The bicycle ride is a 450-mile, seven-day tour on four of the Hawaiian islands, intended to raise money for Hawaii AIDS service organizations and to help raise awareness and educate people about AIDS. The quilt is created from old garments and fabric gifts from friends who responded to the request to send material that held their energy. The materials were sewn to create an “energy blanket” to support and energize Sherman’s body during the ride. Chakra Man is a visible symbol that celebrates life’s energy and supports health. The energy blanket has the outline of the body on it — half black and half white — suggesting the balance a healthy person holds with their light and dark sides. The seven chakras or energy centers pulsate with energy and serve to clear and recharge the energy centers of those who view the quilt.
Tom Sherman is a man with penetrating vision. His impressive stature and compelling voice certainly draw your attention, but what you can’t ignore, or forget, are his eyes. They invite you into the moment, putting you in touch with the depth of his presence. When he greets you to do a bodywork session or explains his work, the light of his inspiration shines through. When be gives you a massage, you can feel that he is doing it to transform lives — yours and his. His message, whether spoken or felt, is “live fully.”
Sherman is a licensed massage therapist, a certified Healing Touch practitioner, a licensed Vision Quest guide and a gay man living with AIDS. He faces his clients and his profession without compromising any part of himself. He is forthright and authentically joyful. He defines himself as a man who prepares people for life and death. “Bodywork,” he says, “teaches us to let go and release as we will be required to do when we die.”
I first met Tom Sherman on the telephone more than a year ago. I was interested in doing a Vision Quest in Hawaii and a friend told me about Sherman and his Nature Fast, a 10-day quest which included a fast in the wilderness above North Kohala on the big island. A clear, expanded “Aloha,” was Sherman’s first word to me. While almost everyone in Hawaii says hello and goodbye this way, “Aloha” is much more than a greeting. It speaks of surrender to the abundance of nature. Eventually I found out that Sherman was a healer and a man living with AIDS. I found myself powerfully drawn to his strength, his philosophy of vital living, and the life force he generated with unswerving clarity and unabashed joy. Whenever I go to the big island now to teach, I make sure I visit Sherman. On my last visit, I satisfied a desire to talk more deeply with him about his life and his work. I spoke with him at his Nature Sanctuary while the stirring winds of Kohala mixed their music with the soft punctuation of rain.
“I acquaint people with their chakras and how to bring light, positive, powerful, healing energy into their systems. I feel one of the most powerful aspects of my practice is the balanced attention I give to the physical and energetic bodies.” Like a gourmet cook combines spices to create a perfect meal, Sherman combines modalities to serve his clients best. Everything he does, but especially his healing work, is infused with his celebration of life. His encounter with death has been transformed into initiation.
Sherman now sees his AIDS diagnosis as an asset. “Being HIV-positive is a gift,” Sherman declares, to the certain astonishment of most listeners. His unashamed stance shakes us out of our assumptions. Sherman freely discloses his AIDS status to his bodywork clients, and uses the opportunity to educate people about AIDS. “My clients make the choice about what they want,” he says. “If my AIDS status or my approach to merging energy work with massage is unappealing, I offer referrals.
“It is important for me,” he continues, “that my clients feel safe.” Safety, according to Sherman’s definition means knowing what options you have, what choices you can make, and that you can have what you want. The greatest safety lies in empowerment. For visionary healers like Sherman, bodywork and energy healing (which he combines) are designed specifically for empowerment. Beyond the benefits of stress reduction, recovery from injury and relaxation, massage, bodywork and energy medicine awaken us to the magnitude of who we really are.
Sherman has both a mainland and a big island practice. The Nature Sanctuary he built in North Kohala houses one; the other is in Oakland, Calif. In Hawaii, Sherman leads and facilitates Hawaii Nature Fast and maintains an ongoing practice in massage and energy healing. He serves the local community, as well as the visitors to this vacation paradise. He creates opportunities to educate about AIDS and supports anyone who has a personal story about AIDS. He hosts fundraisers for the local AIDS organization in his small Hawaiian community, is an advisor for the Hawaii AIDS Clinical Research program, and participated in the first Hawaii AIDS bike ride. In Oakland, Sherman feels a commitment to serve the gay community. He brings a heightened spiritual awareness to all his work with touch and is consciously a model of what it means to be a full man with well-developed masculine and feminine aspects. In both places, Sherman lives and works as a mentor for people who want to hear his message of manifesting essence as the sole purpose of life.
“Perhaps bodyworkers have something to learn from people with AIDS,” Sherman proposes, his forceful eyes meeting mine unequivocally. “The choice to live has been made for me,” he declares, moving rapidly from the table, where he has served us dinner, to the sink. He does everything precisely, and with a sense of ritual and order. The table is set with care. A candle is always present in his environment, the light burning to symbolize the flame of the spirit ever-present.
“Before I went on the drugs, I didn’t want to live,” he continues, back at the table, referring to the protease inhibitor “cocktail” which has offered so many people with AIDS the opportunity to live longer and to reverse some of the most debilitating aspects of this epidemic. “It was a shock to know I would be getting better, and when it started to really happen, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to be disappointed again. Many of my friends were gone. Why was I saved? The choice was made for me to live and I had to accept it. It took a re-examination of my life to understand this. My life was spared for a purpose. Now, what was the purpose?” he asked.
“This year there was a Hawaiian ceremony for the millennium. While most people were examining their resolutions or desires for themselves, a Hawaiian man guided me to explore my intentions for my culture. I am here now for other people. Everyone who comes into my life, without exception, is a teacher. My question is, how can I serve them?
“Although I did not die of AIDS, some parts of me did. Before my diagnosis, I lived my life for myself. Now I know my purpose is to live my life for others. I feel I have gotten this clarity about my purpose from the experience of being on a different plane, from a vibrational shift in my being which allowed me to be fully in contact with the reality of this world. This has forever altered my perspective on what the meaning of life is and what I am here to do. When I am here on the Nature Sanctuary, giving a massage outdoors, sometimes the wind swirls with great strength around me. I merge with it. It is not an obstacle, a distraction or a disturbance. The wind connects me with my experience. I let go into it. It is not outside of me. Massage does the same thing. It allows connection beyond the boundaries of the body.”
Ending the Shock and Trauma
Jeffrey Najarian is committed to being a messenger of healing for people who struggle with substance abuse, people who have AIDS and the gay community. Like Sherman, Najarian has faced a multitude of challenges to his life force. These challenges include AIDS, cancer, a serious car accident, and cyclic depression stemming from a lifetime of abuse. Najarian has fought to stay alive. He offers to others what sustains him: energy medicine, bodywork, and a spiritual practice focused on ending the lineage of shock and trauma that has so impacted him.
The story of Najarian’s graduation from the Boulder School of Massage Therapy (in Boulder, Colo. where he lives) is in itself a hero’s journey. Najarian moved from Ohio to Boulder to fulfill the dream be had of being a bodyworker. He had already been diagnosed with AIDS, and he felt that as a massage therapist, he could be of great service to people in the AIDS community.
“I have buried 32 friends,” Najarian says, his eyes filled with the wisdom of loss. “Many of their lives stopped before they began. I watched people suffer and die slow, painful, even horrific deaths. I searched for anything that I could share with others who were sick.”
With enthusiasm and drive, Najarian was on the brink of a successful culmination at massage school when he was diagnosed with cancer. He could barely sustain the magnitude of this challenge. He tells the story with great dignity:
“I was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. My T-Cells dropped to 77. Normal T-Cells are 800-1,200. I dropped out of massage school, feeling defeated and overwhelmed. I also began taking HIV anti-virals. I was completely defeated. Two years later, the cancer was in remission and I was having a positive response to the HIV drugs, but my depression continued. I was desperate to find some insight into the lessons of my life which felt like a nightmare.”
For Najarian, the missing piece to his puzzle was in two parts. One was the gift of energy medicine. The other was an understanding of how shock and trauma work in the body and in the brain. The link between shock and trauma and what was happening in his body was a miraculous awakening for Najarian. As he puts it: “I now understand the connection between my depression and the years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse that I experienced early in my life. As I unravel layers of buried pain, I reclaim myself and find my purpose. I feel empowered to confidently provide outreach to people with AIDS, people in recovery from substance abuse, and people with chronic illness.”
After almost a year spent studying energy medicine and the mechanisms of shock and trauma, Najarian returned to the Boulder School of Massage Therapy and graduated. Now Najarian not only has a private practice in energy medicine and massage, he also is an educator. He has presented workshops at AIDS Medicine and Miracles, the National Gay Men’s Health Summit, Shadowcliff Retreat for People with AIDS, and he provides training for the staffs of agencies which serve people living with HIV. He continues to study in Boulder, inquiring deeply into the dynamics of healing. He is particularly interested in how shock affects the body, weakens the immune system and inhibits empowerment.
In 1889, Pierre Janet, one of the first scientists to investigate the physiological impact of trauma, said, “All traumatized people have the evolution of their lives checked.” Now, in the year 2000, we are just beginning to accumulate information about the relationship between shock and trauma and immune function. Research done by the Center for Disease Control shows that HIV infection is 2 1/2 times more likely to occur when there is a history of abuse. For women, childhood sexual abuse is the greatest indicator of risk for HIV. What about the relationship between shock and trauma and muscular pain, joint discomfort and difficulties with movement? This is the frontier where Najarian is hanging out these days, with his community of like-minded healers.
Najarian has a particular focus on providing resources for people who are in the difficult process of recovering from substance abuse. How do massage, energy medicine and bodywork play a role in this profound reclamation of self? Najarian answers this question by talking about his own life experience:
“My struggle with substance use began when I was 13. It cannot be separated from the feelings of shame I had about my sexuality. I was so confused. In order to be who I was and fulfill my needs, I had to use substances. There was no other way I could live with myself. I didn’t know how to accept myself as I was, because no one had ever modeled that for me. I knew my parents would be horribly ashamed of me because I was gay, so I was ashamed of myself. It was not difficult to discover that sex was much more enjoyable if I was drinking and smoking.
“Casual sex and addiction are really the search for something outside of oneself that will convey a sense of connection or wholeness. I’ve used shopping, alcohol, drugs, sex and relationships to fill the emptiness and pain I felt inside. When the cancer returned a second time, I knew that my internal emotional state was fertile ground for disease. Years of repressed emotion and my patterns of denial and numbing out were no longer working,” Najarian said.
“In August 1998, I was introduced to an approach to healing that includes energy medicine and a compassionate understanding of the impact of shock and trauma. By using the principles of this awareness and continuing to address the shock and trauma in my life and in my body, I am restoring what I lost. I am finding options I did not know I had,” he said.
“I continue to investigate the source of my fear and my rage, my grief and my self-hatred. And slowly but surely these demons are less powerful as I shine the light of awareness upon them. The surprise is that as I am empowered to explore my past, I also discover a whole and complete self that has survived despite the horrors this body has lived through. That is the beauty of energy medicine. It has given me what I was searching for in all my addictions. It has given me a way to make a deep connection with myself and with others. I feel that connection in my body and I can sustain it. Energy medicine, bodywork, and an honest confrontation with my past allows me to transform the wounds of deep suffering into tools for service to others.”
Blending Energy Medicine and Bodywork
“Energetic medicine recognizes the power of our thoughts and of this world we are now residing in.” — Caroline Myss
Our bodies speak the language of energy in sensations, rhythms, aches and pains, joy, repulsion, spiritual expansion, depression, elation, fatigue, emotions of all kinds, and all the experiences of illness and health. These are the words we use to describe our personal energy and its response to the world. Energy medicine is about bringing all these sensations into balance. You know you are balanced energetically when you feel peaceful, empowered, and ready to meet yourself and others, clear and focused. Energetic balance gives us the resilience to meet stress and challenge. It provides a felt sense of congruence with ourselves, with others and with our environment. Energy medicine engenders and sustains true health — a continuous state of presence, clarity and vibrancy.
For Sherman, the practice of energy medicine takes the form of Healing Touch. He includes Healing Touch in every massage session he does: “Sometimes it is the total focus and very explicit; at other times it is not even mentioned. I typically do an energetic assessment of the flow of energy through the ankles, knees and chakras as a way of determining where there are energetic blockages,” Sherman continues. “This is done with a pendulum and a hand scan of the energetic field. I encourage people to use their voice both in asking for what they want and in giving expression to the tension they find in their bodies during the work. They can tell their stories, and make connections between their physical pain and their emotional histories. I give them a place to truly let go.”
For Najarian, the practice of energy medicine is in the form of the TARA Approach and Jin Shin Tara, which employs Oriental pulse diagnosis to read energy. While Sherman reads energy with a pendulum, Najarian reads energy by touching positions on the wrist of his clients and thereby noting the pulsations of the meridians, or energetic pathways. Healers employ many different styles to assess energy, but they all read it in some way to determine the most effective intervention to re-establish balanced movement.
The integration of energy medicine with massage is a natural one for Sherman. “If I work on the muscles to release holding and tension, I know that this released energy also needs to be smoothed and cleared from the energetic field. The Healing Touch energetic techniques are great for this purpose. I typically end each hands-on massage session with energy clearing and balancing techniques.”
Najarian begins his sessions with clients by talking with them about the stress and trauma they have experienced in their lives and how these events have affected their bodies. His training in The TARA Approach has educated him about how the nervous system responds to shock and trauma by becoming adrenalized and how that adrenalization can affect muscular behavior and tension or holding in the joints. Before a stimulating massage intervention, he offers the subtle clearing of energy medicine, guided by the direction of the pulses. He holds points along meridian lines until the pulses in the points come into balance. This creates a flow of energy throughout the body, making the body more receptive to massage.
Najarian can also provide sessions which are pure energy medicine. In this case, the client can release tension without having to undress. This is enormously attractive to survivors of sexual abuse who are frequently retraumatized by needing to disrobe, by being touched in sensitive areas, and by being “worked on” by someone who stands above them, fully clothed, while they are in the vulnerable prone position. This can replicate one of the fundamental attributes of shock, which is that it occurs when we are without defenses. While it is true that all adult clients have the resources of their action and their voices, they may forget this if they are triggered by a situation which resembles the conditions of an earlier, invasive experience. Since people who have experienced shock and trauma tend to dissociate when they are triggered, they may fail to acknowledge this at the moment and then feel violated later.
Empowerment is the purpose of energy medicine, no matter what form it takes. Sherman addresses empowerment in many ways, not the least of which is the empowerment inherent in receiving touch that is well-boundaried and unconditionally healing. “Accepting and loving one’s whole body and being is work we all face,” he says. One of his primary commitments is empowering people, and gay men in particular, to free themselves of shame.
Sherman tells the story of a session in which he felt he served as channel for the release of energy of shame for a man who had been sexually abused by his father. “I felt and saw the dark, rough, large chunks of energy flow out of him, through my arm, down through my body, out my feet and deep into Mother Earth. The sensations were nothing I had ever experienced before. As time passed, the energy became smoother and lighter until it almost completely dissipated. At one point, I began to feel the pain and tears came. I quickly realized this was not my energy. I didn’t need to take it into me and process it. I went back to letting it flow through and out. This was a significant realization and direct experience of how I can work with other’s energy and not have to take it on as part of mine. It was also a first-hand experience of the psyche’s release of material long buried inside the body.”
The Healing Proletariat: Healers Who Heal Themselves
“Your body is designed to heal itself. The ability of a body to maintain its health and overcome illness is, in fact, among nature’s most remarkable feats. But you’ve been placed in a world that systematically interferes with this natural capacity, and your conscious involvement in your health is required if you are to truly prosper.”
— Donna Eden, Energy Medicine
Since Najarian learned about energy medicine, he takes care of himself every day. He can listen to his own pulses and treat himself to find stability and balance, even under the most difficult circumstances. When he had to undergo shoulder surgery, he used Jin Shin Tara consistently. The doctors were amazed at his recovery. The energetic shifts Najarian experiences stimulate his motivation to exercise, to eat well, to meditate, and to go for long walks with his dog Kasba.
Najarian’s medicine bag is now full of tools he uses regularly so that the world around him does not undermine him. It takes courage to live a life that is different from the mainstream, and to embody the confidence in unique beliefs. Incorporating energy medicine with massage, talking about how shock and trauma influence muscles and joints, encouraging and educating people to find the healer within, bringing out the wounded healer in gay men with AIDS — these are all daring choices for a lifepath, and for a career choice. The stamina and will necessary to walk this talk requires ongoing nourishment. Najarian has gone public with his commitment by co-authoring a handbook (The Tara Approach to Resolving the Dynamics of Substance Abuse) for recovery from substance abuse using energy medicine. In it he says, loud and clear: “Depression waxes and wanes within me. But as much pain as I have been in, I would never again reach for crystal or alcohol to numb my pain or my feelings. Now I reach within.” Najarian has learned to be self-nurturing and in this regard he is a model for people living with AIDS and all of us. He is no longer a victim.
Tom Sherman feeds his own awareness of energy by being with the energy of nature. His abundant garden on his Nature Sanctuary reveals this successful co-mingling with the earth. Sherman maintains a regular practice of yoga, swimming and exercise. He receives ongoing energy and bodywork from his colleagues. His singular message to other bodyworkers is, “take care of yourself as a primary way of serving others at the highest level of your capability.”
How can we define Tom Sherman and Jeff Najarian? They are both gay men living with AIDS. They are both certified massage therapists. But I would call them frontiersmen, healer heroes, harbingers of an evolving approach to healing. They carry forth the mandate of their embodiment by serving life 100 percent of the time. Is this difficult? No. It is rejuvenating. It is natural. It is hard work not to live at this level of investment. One of their greatest contributions is the way they integrate and combine healing systems, designing sessions and treatments to suit the people they serve. The freedom they give themselves to do this comes out of their intimate understanding of the healing process and how they themselves experienced it.
Sherman clearly defines the crucial value of this integration: “My greatest frustration comes from seeing a purist or ‘us and them’ attitude in health care. Too many practitioners focus on one approach to the exclusion of any other. My healing journey definitely underscores the necessity for diversity. I know I would not be alive today if it were not for pharmaceutical medications. But if I had only followed the Western medical route, I would never have learned what happens when you view a medical challenge as a gift and a teaching. I would never have searched to the core of my being, into the wounds of my past, for the lessons I needed to learn. I would like to see a better integration of systems and understandings, of Western and Eastern wisdom in both mainstream and complementary health care. We are moving in this direction, but we have a long way to go. I can support this change by practicing this integration in my own work.”
The inspired lives of Tom Sherman and Jeff Najarian take massage therapy, and therapy of any kind, into a new dimension. Combining skill with profound compassion, these men live lives of constant transformation. Their confrontation with death has empowered them to be deeply, thoroughly and truly alive. Can we let them be our teachers, these gay men with AIDS? Can we let ourselves learn from their suffering, just as we have learned from the sufferings of the greatest healers?