By Stephanie Mines, Ph.D.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2001.
When the strands of the many cultures of Mexico are woven with the threads of a new spirit of healing and transformation, the resulting garment is like a huge brilliantly colored shawl (rebozo). This shawl extends between Mexico and the United States as an embrace, bringing warmth and comfort to those it touches. In the little town of Fortin de las Flores, near the Gulf of Mexico, Americans and Mexicans gather to weave this rebozo for themselves and for all the people they know. One particular gathering a year ago stands out as a shining example of the tapestry of healing.
It was a diverse assemblage — many psychologists, massage therapists, occupational therapists, educators, social workers, movement therapists, mothers and their children. Some spoke only Spanish, some only English. They came to live, eat, play, work and learn together for a week. They came to share their lives and their vision of a future free of shock and trauma.
They journeyed from Minnesota, from Colorado, from a tiny village near Puebla. They came from Mexico City and New Mexico; from Chile, Cuernevaca and Vera Cruz, Calif. But from another perspective, they all came from one place and they all spoke one language. The place they could all name as a point of origin was called “suffering,” and the language they all could speak was the language of “healing.”
Amy came from Boulder, near Littleton, Colo., where the Columbine tragedy had stunned her. Ofelia came from a village whose roads had been destroyed by the floods and storms in southern Mexico. It took her three days, by bus and foot, to get to Fortin de las Flores. Ignacio had taken shelter in Mexico from Chile, where he and his friends had been tortured by the armies of Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who oversaw a brutal slaughter of his people and their freedom.
Sue was recovering from two severe car accidents, which forced her to use a cane to walk. Mary wanted to stop smoking and find a new direction in her life. Dorasita wanted to make a career for herself as a healer and a dancer — how would she manifest this unique vision? Maria Christina wanted to create a training program for occupational therapists and include an understanding of shock, trauma and energy. Juan Carlos wanted to offer his clientele — the street children of Mexico, and their families — the opportunity to change their patterns of abuse. Since the old ways were unsuccessful, he sought to include the loving aspect of touch and the clarity of a greater understanding of the cycles of shock and trauma.
Shock and the Body
“For so well is the harp of human feeling strung that nothing but a crash that breaks every string can wholly mar its harmony.”
— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Roosters crow. From the school in the village comes the sound of the band practicing. Trucks barrel down the highway to Corboda, tooting their horns, racing their motors. The earthy smells of coffee and tortillas fill the air. The group meets on the terrace where Mimi, Eugenia and Salome (a group tending to the meals and childcare tasks) have laid out a sumptuous breakfast of assorted fruits (papayas, pineapple, the delicious bananas of the region), and the traditional Mexican breakfast of eggs, beans and tortillas. For bebidas (drinks), there are juegos naturlezas (natural juices), agua (watermelon water or almond water) and teas made from freshly picked herbs (chamomile, cinnamon), as well as the coffee, which is grown and roasted next door.
Some words come easily: “Buenos días.” “Good morning.” “Hola, amigos.” “¿Que tal?” “How are you?” “How did you sleep?” The long breakfast table is soon the center of a scene of laughter and talking as dreams are exchanged and everyone celebrates the marvelous food, the breezy, warm weather and the pleasure of being together. The ground of friendliness and safety is laid, in these simple ways, for an investigation into shock and its impact on health and structure. Though many of the participants in this workshop have never seen each other before, they enter each other’s lives easily. They share a mutual commitment to end the lineage of shock and trauma in their personal lives, in their communities and in their countries. The task seems great, but in community, the task becomes simple human inspiration.
Safety and Trust
Unbeknownst to the students, they have already put into place two fundamental resources for this investigation: safety and trust. Every therapist, but especially those who work with the body, must provide these resources in their practice. Safety and trust must be uniquely established through presence and attention to contact made with each client. Anyone who comes for healing may well be a survivor of shock.
While the issue of violence is ageless and ancient, the world has never known the degree of violence which (and this is perhaps most frightening of all) has become commonplace to us. Very few lives have the luxury of being without violence, shock or trauma of some kind. Everyone who works with people, whether as a massage therapist or a teacher, a parent or a counselor, needs tools to identify and evaluate shock and trauma. Interventions that proceed without safety and trust, and the fully acknowledged, clear permission of the client, run the risk of reactivation. Frequently the therapist remains ignorant of this reactivation and the client does not communicate it. The very absence of this dialogue is a by-product of shock.
Nothing is more suited to the treatment of shock in the body than energy medicine. Furthermore, nothing blends more easily with all kinds of bodywork. But what, you may well ask, is energy medicine, and what is shock?
The Role of Energy Medicine
Energy medicine (sometimes called “energy healing” or “energy work”) to address muscular aches and pains or structural misalignments, dares to explore the origin of these conditions, particularly when they are chronic. It is usually subtle in its administration, employing a lighter touch and evoking delicate sensations. Reiki, Jin Shin, Healing Touch, Therapeutic Touch, Polarity and sometimes craniosacral therapy are categorized as energy medicine, along with many other systems. Energy medicine evokes awareness in the recipient of psychological, emotional and spiritual causative factors. In the deeply receptive state initiated by energy medicine, hidden or buried feelings such as resistance, resentment, contained or repressed fear or anger, dispiritedness or prolonged grief surface. Energy medicine can surprisingly and thoroughly change dysfunctional patterns in our bodies by giving us the space to see deeply into ourselves and the historical antecedents to pain or injury.
Energy medicine directs its attention to the etheric body, or to other subtle bodies, which frame and border the physical body. Energy medicine also directs itself to the chakras and meridians. These energetic pathways or structures were identified by ancient healers and were considered causal for illness and disease as long ago as the second century B.C. in many different parts of the world (Egypt, Greece, Rome and Japan). In Oriental systems, as well as in Western esoteric traditions, these fields have been recognized, seen and even tested. The recent recognition of the effectiveness of acupuncture by the National Institutes of Health in the treatment of pain and headaches is but one example of how these systems are becoming viable modalities in the West.
Because of its gentleness, its sensitivity, its non-invasive administration and its slower pace, energy medicine is the most appropriate treatment for shock. Shock is the result of experiences that completely overwhelm the nervous system, attacking when it is most vulnerable. Almost everyone has experienced shock, whether in an accident, at birth, during a natural disaster or as the result of developmental events. Abuse and violence, of course, are shocking. Touch often evokes memories of shock in the body. For this reason, people who work with touch and with the body have a responsibility to educate themselves about shock.
The health care professionals who gathered in Fortin de las Flores just prior to the millennium, all had agreed to this education and to prevent the further replication of shock and trauma. Through the use of energy medicine and the language of healing, they would repattern their own lives as they reconfigured their approach to working with others.
Sexual Abuse, Parasympathetic Shock and Sciatica
Dinner was served and the students gathered as a large family after a day of study and practice. Nourished, they adjourned to the sitting room where a fire roared. Seated in a circle, some in big chairs, some on the floor, they presented their questions, looking for a practical understanding of how to include energy medicine and shock resolution in their work with their clients. One of the Mexican students, a massage therapist, told his story.
A young woman came to him with a painful and chronic sciatic condition. The therapist interviewed her about her history. The client admitted her father had sexually abused her, but she could not confront him or her family about this. This simply was not done in Mexican culture. The client was torn between her love for her family, and even her love for her father, and her need to speak up. Not speaking up made her feel secretive, deceptive and ashamed. But the thought of revealing the abuse thoroughly frightened her. She could not move forward; neither could she retreat into denial. She constantly felt held back. Not only did the sciatica weaken her and make her feel powerless, but her situation with her father did as well. She was sad, lethargic, depressed and passive — all signs of parasympathetic shock; that is, the withdrawing or holding back response of the nervous system to shock. The way to shift parasympathetic shock is through empowerment.
How does a massage therapist empower a survivor of sexual abuse who has asked for help with painful sciatica? After all, a massage therapist is not a psychotherapist.
Holding intention simply means to contain an awareness of a possibility for someone. Such containment offers confidence, faith, assurance and a belief in process to the client. It creates an ambiance of stable courage and grounded hope that nourishes the client in silence.
Using intention, the therapist simply sees, in their mind’s eye, a picture of the client as strong and capable, calm and supported in moving ahead on their path. In this case, the client could be envisioned as having overcome indecision. Without saying a word, the therapist can have faith in the client’s capacity to know right action, and hold that picture of the strength internally. The client will feel the containment and relax because the possibility of a positive outcome and transformative change has been validated, albeit without words. The client usually is holding this hope, but is afraid to live in that confidence. The very wordlessness of the intention makes it less threatening.
The silence, the internalization, and the subtle, invisible nature of this intervention is what qualifies it as energy medicine. These same qualifications, however, have often caused people to discount the power of energy healing.
The second possibility for a massage therapist in such a situation came to light as the group acted out the case in question. An American woman played the client and a Mexican woman played the role of the massage therapist. The rest of the group observed and noticed their feelings and thoughts. Later, all would brainstorm the possibilities for healing.
The intervention that arose is simply called identification, or education. The therapist can speak directly to the client about the dynamics of the body. What happens when the hips are held rigidly, or one hip is hyperextended, as was the reality for the woman in the case study? How does such a physiological restriction play out in the rest of the body? What happens to the tissues, the joints and the ligaments around that rigid, perhaps inflamed, hip? What is the relationship between the hips, the pelvis and action, or movement? This education is as important to the massage session as the massage itself, especially for someone who is aware of the unquestionable interaction of life, feeling and the body. Such an education is both enlightening and healing.
In the play-acting, the “client” listened to the “therapist,” and as she did so, her face turned a pasty white, which is one of the signs of parasympathetic shock. Even though the “client” was acting, she felt the inherent emotions of the story.
Parasympathetic shock makes us withdraw. It resembles what animals do when they are attacked and “play dead.” Systems used for protection and defense shut down. This happens when the animal, or the human being, feels overpowered by the threat. Naturally, the skin turns white as the system drains its resources in order to survive. When a person in parasympathetic shock shifts to empowerment, their complexion usually reddens slightly as blood flow and adrenaline are freed. Thus, the therapist can follow the pattern of the client’s recovery just by noting changes in skin color.
The room filled with compassion as the group debriefed the situation. How does shock limit physical elasticity? What role can massage play in inviting vitality into chronically contracted tissue? What is the best approach to this invitation?
Domestic Violence: Healing the Body of the Family
Speaking of domestic violence in Mexico, like speaking out about sexual abuse, is revolutionary. It is not that different in America. In the United States, a woman is beaten every 60 seconds in her home. In Mexico, women are murdered daily during incidents of domestic violence. What do these horrible facts have to do with massage therapy, bodywork or energy medicine?
Domestic violence is a dramatic example of how the lineage of shock is perpetuated. Children who witness domestic violence, or even hear it happening during the night, often become either abusers or victims. They also frequently become street children when they run away or are abandoned by their parents. If they go to school, they are usually angry and violent students. They can grow up to become abusive parents themselves. To stop the cycle of reaction at any point is to make a valuable contribution to stopping violence worldwide.
Using the theories of energy medicine, and combining them with contemporary neuroscience, a case can be made for the possibility of ending the lineage of domestic violence by repatterning obsessive behavior in the body, as well as in the mind. Balancing the nervous system and changing the knee-jerk response in the body can not only impact a family, but an entire village, town, city or even a culture.
The Freedom to Heal
Ofelia, Leopolina and Carmen are psychologists and social workers who have devoted themselves to serving women and children survivors of domestic violence. They work in rural Mexico where resources and support services are the least available. Nan does the same work in the United States.
They all arrived at Fortin de las Flores spiritually eager and physically exhausted. One of the first criteria for becoming a healer who uses energy medicine is self-care. These women sank into the program in Fortin as a child sinks into her mother’s lap. The energy medicine taught there involved Oriental systems, including pulse diagnosis and the treatment of the meridians. For these women, their pulses all said one thing: fatigue. As the days passed and they received treatment, they slowly regained their strength. As Leopolina recovered, she wanted to dance in order to free herself of the many burdens of suffering she had taken on in her work. As she danced, the students celebrated her service, and her regeneration.
Leopolina’s dance illustrated how the script of service can be edited well. The sacrifices she had made and the strain of her many obligations dropped from her shoulders as she moved for herself, without restraint. In the freedom of her expression and the honesty of her vulnerability, Leopolina modeled what all survivors of domestic violence need. She created space to honor herself. She admitted her depletion. She did not deny her feelings.
Once this dance was done, Leopolina said quite genuinely she needed help. She needed to change, but she could not do it alone. Though she was a healer, she was also a victim of domestic violence. Her victimization was not only from within her own family of origin. She was victimized by the way she worked, geographically isolated and overly-responsible. From this simple acknowledgement, Leopolina was able to ask for help.
All the service providers who worked with domestic violence understood Leopolina’s dance and Leopolina’s need. They agreed to support one another. This is the same path survivors of domestic violence must take. Eventually, these women committed to building a bridge between American and Mexican safehouses (or refugios) — sanctuaries for women and children leaving domestic violence behind.
The Safehouse Legacy
While the first safehouse dates back to 1971, when Erin Pizzey founded Chiswick’s Women’s Aid in England, the movement is very new to Latin America. All the refuges opened after the initial safehouse in England have since been full to capacity. It is likely this will also be the case in Mexico. Lenore Walker, a founding member of the movement against domestic violence and author of Battered Woman, underscores the value of these shelters:
“The importance of the shelter movement is that it provides a sense of community and a support system. As soon as battered women walk through the door, they are no longer helpless victims. They begin to realize that they do have power over their own lives, that other people care enough to risk helping them and that the institutions of society can and will come to their aid.”
In Mexico, such discoveries will be tantamount to an initiation into power for women who have been forced into silence and isolation when they are brutalized. The women in Fortin who have encouraged the development of safehouses in America and refugios in Mexico are like soldiers of liberation. They become doubly powerful and deeply nourished when they join arms to work together.
Massage therapy and energy medicine can serve the function of recovery for survivors of domestic violence, just as it did for Leopolina in Fortin de las Flores. Recovery leads to expression. Expression builds the foundation which allows us to reach out and ask for support. Only from this series of steps can something new evolve.
“It feels like the shadows that were nesting in my body have been removed,” Leopolina said to the group, after her dance. “We have to transform ourselves in order to transform the world.
“I let out the shocks that were held in my organs. I let them out into such a loving space that I was able to connect not only with myself but also to the community, to the whole. This gives me the courage to invite the people I work with to do the same.”
Leopolina spoke these words, as she looked directly into the eyes of all the participants. Everyone knew, in that moment, it was not far-fetched to transplant Oriental theories of energy, of meridians and pulses, to Mexico. On the contrary, in an utterly human way, cultures befriend one another, particularly when you speak the language of healing.
Children and Energy Medicine
Some of the workshop participants brought their children, to the delight of everyone in Fortin. As the participants did the hard work of unraveling shock from their lives and the lives of their clients and their cultures, the children’s bright faces reminded them why they were engaged in this hard work.
But the children were curious about the adults. What were they doing as they gathered in circles? What were they talking about so intensely, late into the evening? Why did they embrace with their eyes closed, and cry, and then dance and laugh? What was making them so sad, and then so happy? Was there some secret here and why couldn’t they be a part of it?
With the greatest innocence and purity, children carry shock in their bodies, just as adults do. But adults have accumulated many complicated layers of shocking and traumatic experience, and as a result they have created defense structures and armoring to lessen the pain they feel. Growing up in social structures where such pain is denied, these protective mechanisms have become part of their survival. Without the background strength of validation for true feeling, adults revert to “fitting in.” Children, on the other hand, reveal their shock quite easily. The children who had come to Fortin were in families going through divorce or medical crisis, or some other major challenge. They knew, instinctively, that what the adults were talking about, studying and practicing, applied somehow to them. Children experience this knowing as action and sensation, not as thought. They were magnetized to the adult gatherings. They wanted to be part of what everyone else was experiencing. And they could be. There was no reason not to include them.
Just as energy medicine is the perfect form for treatment of shock in adults, it is wonderfully suited for children as well. The gentle, spacious, non-invasive choreography of energy medicine allows children to receive it easily. When treating children, special attention must be given to allowing them to determine how much treatment they will receive. Of course, the same applies to adults, but adults tend to want more treatment than children do.
The potential power of treating children for shock using energy medicine is astounding. To free children of the burden is to truly fulfill our function as adults. For children who are survivors of domestic violence, for instance, the non-invasive quality of energy medicine soothes the way they have been violated by touch, or are fearful of it. Children awaiting a foster family in Missouri, for instance, are offered gentle touch as “emotional vitamins,” says Scott Hummel, executive director of a facility for physically abused children. “Touch is only offered once trust and respect have been established.”
A Child’s Story
The international community of healers gathered around the eldest of the children in Fortin when he volunteered to receive a treatment. It had been a long and demanding day and the cooks had arranged a special dessert. Boxes of gaily wrapped chocolates and cookies were distributed and everyone became a child as they opened the treats. Jovial shouts and bright expressions accompanied the competition for the brightest wrappings. Everyone delighted in detailed descriptions of the contents of their sweets. It was the perfect party atmosphere to treat Miguel who was normally a rather serious and somber child. As the eldest in a struggling and afflicted family, he held a position of responsibility that he needed encouragement to abdicate.
He stretched his lanky 10-year-old frame on the treatment table and crossed his arms over his chest. As he lay down, everyone suddenly became quiet and Miguel’s eyes darted quickly around the room.
Evenings in Fortin are cool. The women snuggled in colorful wraps. Dorasita and Nacio sat close together. Emma curled into Juan Carlos’ side. Mimi and Salomé brought in steaming pots of tea, sweetened with cinnamon and honey. The room was pungent with many years of damp nights. The candles flickered and the fire crackled.
In families where shock has occurred, there is usually a child who tries to be the healer. This is frequently the child who grows up to be a psychologist, a massage therapist or a social worker. While often appearing to be calmest, he or she may actually be very angry. The healer child sacrifices childhood itself. Miguel was such a child. The tightness in his chest, neck and shoulders revealed how much he was holding back.
In the awkward pause when adults and children realize they have something important to say to one another, there is a gem of energy medicine that fits perfectly. This ancient and simple gift is called storytelling. It erases confusion and replaces it with wonder.
As Miguel received an energy treatment, the international community told a communal story in pidgin English and Spanish. The story Miguel wanted to hear was the story of a boy who swore and yelled and did wild, even coarse things. This was the kind of boy Miguel could never be because of the role he had created for himself in his family.
As the story unfolded, and Miguel’s neck and spine let go, the group laughed louder and louder. They created fantastically “bad” and ribald scenes for their fictional character. Laughter is not in Spanish or English, and neither is love. The multi-colored rebozo of compassion surrounded the healers and survivors on that evening.
Miguel stood up from his treatment with a look of great satisfaction and mumbled something about funny adults, a shy smile on his face. His shoulders sat lower on his frame, his walk was more loosely limbed, his arms swung freely at his sides and his eyes were no longer nervous. Less vigilant and more child-like, he went easily with his mother, brothers and sister to bed.
The group members embraced each other warmly. Whispered wishes for dulces sueños con los ángeles (sweet dreams with the angels) drifted on the moist air. For that night the lineage of shock ended and all slept peacefully in safety and trust.