By David Lauterstein
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2004.
“There is but one temple in the Universe … and that is the human body. Nothing is holier than that high form. We touch heaven, when we lay our hand upon the human body.”
— Thomas Carlyle, Scottish philosopher
Heaven, according to science, is not demonstrable. But we know, both as givers and receivers of bodywork, that heaven often seems to make an appearance within the context of a massage session. Grace “descends” and our clients are often gifted with deep insights, visions, emotional breakthroughs, extraordinary energetic experiences and new levels of integration of body, mind and spirit. It is not necessarily, nor should it be, our intention as massage therapists to make people have extraordinary experiences. However, probably every bodyworker has had numerous moments when she and the client are filled with awe at the extraordinary power of bodywork. It is our privilege to be present and playing a midwife role to the birth of new experience.
Not so long ago, I was nearing the end of a session with a psychotherapist who had been working long and hard on a major undertaking. I had used Zero Balancing with clearly held pressure points, tractions and rotations to facilitate a sense of open space within. I had integrated pauses and a relaxed pace to convey a sense of having all the time in the world.
As I finished, she was quiet for a long time, breathing easily, but obviously still exploring deep within her experience.
Finally she said, “That was incredible.”
Then she was quiet for an even longer period of time. And it appeared she went much deeper into herself.
She then said, “That was more than incredible.”
Facilitating more-than-incredible experiences is one of, if not the, greatest thrills in being a massage therapist. However, it is unfortunate this experience is rarely discussed and that the descriptive language of just such an occasion is so underdeveloped. This article is meant to take us a step out of the existential closet and say loud and clear — massage and bodywork often takes us up to and beyond the limits of the human imagination.
The Importance of the More-Than-Incredible
Why is the extraordinary impact of bodywork discussed so infrequently? Some possible reasons include the difficulty in putting the more-than-incredible into words — this is an experience that is mostly non-verbal. To some, it may sound silly or even overly sensual to describe how ecstatic the experience of massage can be. Also, some clients may be embarrassed or feel pretentious vocalizing the spiritual results of the work. On the other hand, practitioners may fear jeopardizing their mainstream, paramedical position. Insurance companies aren’t paying for the incredible. Ordinarily, there is not curricula in our schools that systematically explore the extra-ordinary. And it’s not socially supported as a conventional health goal.
Whatever the reason, we must overcome the difficulty and resistance to discussing and further developing the more-than-incredible results of our work. Its relevance to massage and to modern culture needs to be elaborated. I believe it is deeply related to the possibility of humankind making progress in frontiers beyond just technological. We need to make progress in the realms of mind, emotion, spirit and body as well.
Real Health, Real Care
What is this more-than-incredible realm? Of what use is it? How shall we explore it as massage therapists and as humans? What relevance might it hold for our world today?
Clinical orientations to the contrary, massage is not mostly a medical modality. For instance, in a client with supraspinatus tendinitis, I may spend 5–10 minutes focused on the tendon. However, the majority of the session is spent enhancing the person’s posture and positive energetic experience.
I don’t want my clients to say, and I don’t think many therapists are satisfied with, “What a competent massage!” I want my clients to say “Wow! I feel great.” The allopathic context is such that I don’t go to the doctor and ask him at the end of the session whether I can come back next week. But with a good bodyworker that’s exactly what I’d say. Because the experience has been so deeply pleasurable (as well as symptom relieving), I want more.
In spite of the language that says allopathic medicine is healthcare, it is more appropriately called disease-treatment. The disease-treatment system, because of its focus on acute conditions, its narrowly clinical education, and the insurance industry, doesn’t have the time or the inclination to explore health. Thank goodness, of course, for high quality disease-treatment. Many of us would not be here today were it not for the tremendous, life-saving advances in allopathic medicine. But the goal of our life is not mere survival and neither should it be of our medicine.
Massage is specifically a health modality. It results not just in relieving musculo-skeletal symptoms but also in people feeling qualitatively better and different. We practice one of the only forms of healthcare that specifically addresses the whole body and not just a part. After the massage, the person’s whole body commonly feels lighter and taller, more radiant, more alive. Clients feel more connected to themselves, the people and the environment around them. Massage is unique, incredible health amplification.
Massage/bodywork is also specifically a care modality — the human hand is the primary instrument for the direct transmission of care. On one level, all we need is love. Massage is, because of the unique qualities of human touch, the most explicitly loving of all health modalities. You cannot take love out of the touch equation without a palpable loss of spirit.
It is the precious birthright of massage and bodywork to grandly and uniquely explore and expand the whole realm of health and care.
Structural and Energetic Healthcare
Massage is clinically effective and can properly be used within an allopathic context. We help re-weave fascia with precision and we impact circulation and help muscles, tendons and ligaments heal. With sufficient knowledge, we support new and more effective postures and movement patterns. Through our effects on the autonomic nervous system we can relieve stress, including its negative effects on digestion, elimination, respiration, heart rate, circulation, lymphatic flow and the formation of trigger points. All this and more constitute the mechanical consequences of massage. Were that all we could do, we would indeed be practicing a wonderful and largely medical modality.
Now let’s look at energy. Frankly, we make people happier. We help them let go of short-term stress and confusion. With sufficient knowledge and sensitivity, we help clients let go of long held tensions sustained through chronic emotional postures and beliefs. We encourage more flow and balance within — take your pick of language — the meridians, chakras, nadis, energy centers. We enhance the person’s experience of the pleasure in being alive. Through the explicit connection of touch, we help people know that they are not alone in this world. Often during a massage the client has a direct experience of psychophysical health that gives him a new vision of how different this life could be, how each and every one of us could participate in a heaven on earth. If you want to follow your bliss, you often could do no better than to follow your massage therapist into her treatment room.
Touch is Miraculous
Human touch is the most sophisticated physical tool in the known universe. We can not synthesize a material that functions like the skin of the hands, let alone something that operates with the sensitivity, intelligence and motor complexity of the human neuromuscular system through the hands.
Touch is also the only way to bring two energy systems into direct contact with one another. Michelangelo’s image of God’s and Adam’s hands approaching has the enduring power to remind us of the literal sharing of that spark of life.
Every time we lay our hand on the human body with pressure and with consciousness, we are uniting the worlds of structure and the worlds of energy in the only possible way for this to be done. Human touch is the only context in the known universe in which there is a simultaneous and conscious contact of both structure and energy.
Touch is Ecstatic
Touch is by definition the most ecstatic (from the Latin ex-stasis meaning “out of stasis”) form of medicine and healing. It uses movement to help us out of stasis, out of being stuck.
It helps take us beyond our usual sense of self. A person cannot change without new experience. The therapist, by helping us let go of tensions we ourselves have not been able to relieve, opens us up to new experience.
I once saw a T-shirt that read, “Forget your work, forget your boss, forget your name.” Many is the time I’ve laid on a massage table and within just a few minutes I have entirely forgotten all my problems. On the table we take a vacation from the usual self and the usual world. The great English psychotherapist Marion Milner said, “All real living must involve a relationship, recurrent moments of surrender to the not-self.” How clearly and dependably massage results in this relationship.
There is a deep unmet need for ecstasy in our culture. Unfortunately, we provide mostly debased forms, and many are addictive: Drugs, alcohol, TV, food. Massage is one of the only socially acceptable contexts in which people can experience deeply ecstatic states. It is our task and challenge not to let this remain underexplored. And it is our responsibility to let the ecstatic journey that bodywork often provokes not be merely a narcissistic “trip.” The ecstatic power of touch must be something for everyone to be delighted and educated in, something for us all to pick up, not just a few to carry.
Touch is Art and Science
In so far as we interact with the world of structure, we are engaged in an applied science and require the knowledge and respect for the world of anatomy and physiology. In so far as we engage inspiringly with the world of energy as well, we need knowledge and respect for the world of psyche, spirit and the mysterious.
“Haptic” is the term given to the kinesthetic sensing of reality — it involves our direct experience of the world through pressure, temperature, proprioception and balance. We are used to thinking of art as being something we see or hear. But ultimately art is a bodily-felt experience manifesting in chills up our spines, in the heart-lifting effects of melody, the inspiration and exhilaration of a beautiful sentence. As creative bodyworkers we have the great privilege of working directly with the human mind, body and spirit — not paints, not tones, not turns of speech.
We are artists and our medium is the greatest living organism in the known universe. A case can accordingly be made for massage being the highest of all art forms.
Touch is the Art of Manual Evolution
The acupuncturist J. R. Worsley described healthcare as addressing three realms: Disease, disposition and destiny.
As healthcare practitioners we work amelioratively with anatomic and physiological disease. We impact as well the challenges of disposition. For instance, we can help re-set the autonomic set point of the “Type-A” personality. We can take the puffed-up personality and help them establish a more grounded sense of self. We can help a person — with compassion, touch and the right timing — heal the chronically broken heart.
Finally, we can be the midwives to destiny. Who is it that you at your most healthy will become? Each therapist hopes their client will not only feel better but will have the restraining forces to their self-fulfillment removed.
Destiny is collective as well as individual. As each person becomes more fulfilled they also become naturally less self-centered. In this way, the spread of health begins to result not just in individual health but in the growing health of the community. Curing disease depends on immunity. But fulfilling destinies calls for and amplifies community.
It is the destiny of humankind to use the gift of embodied consciousness to evolve. We are still fighting our way through a difficult pre-history. May we use the gift of conscious touch to help people evolve their societies into prioritizing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness over the desire for profit and material gain. Touch reminds us again and again that joy lies in relationship, not in acquisition. The evolution of relationship is part and parcel of the highest role of bodywork.
What Can We Do?
We need to overcome the separation of energy work from structural work. It is neither in the structural realm nor in the energetic that the real power, the evolutionary leverage, of bodywork lies. It is precisely in their union. Let’s share our stories about more-than-incredible experiences of both givers and receivers with one another. The struggle of new experience to find its way into language and into collective consciousness is an important one.
Being self-critical will also be an asset. We will not be good scientists until we are willing to defend energy work from the overly wishful thinking of some of its devotees. Correspondingly we can restrain the clinically minded from allowing our scope of practice to be defined by insurance companies.
We can develop energy curricula based in Western psychology, science and the wisdom traditions of the East. For instance, the chakras have tangible correlates with basic existential functions. No one should be graduating from massage school without classes in the role of the heart area in healing.
Finally, we can resist the tendency to identify health as a property of the individual. Let us combat the somewhat narcissistic, vitamin-pushing orientation of the so-called health magazines. Health is behavior, and it largely depends on how we treat one another, as well as how we treat ourselves. We need to take the necessary steps to make this a healthy world.
The Biology of Heaven on Earth
We are a dream that matter has had throughout eternity. With the miracle of human touch we effect the union of art and science, the integration of energy and structure in touch, and the conscious experience of ecstasy. It is our responsibility as massage therapists to know the heavenly and earthly dreams that touch holds for us. It is our job to make these dreams come true. As William Blake said, “Art and science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” I hope that this article acts as a call to action for all of us to even more imaginatively and systematically contribute to the art and science of being a human.
Author’s Note: In this article, to avoid the awkwardness of always saying “massage/bodywork,” I use the terms massage and bodywork interchangeably for all the various therapies that utilize touch and/or movement.
David Lauterstein is the co-founder of The Lauterstein-Conway Massage School in Austin, Texas. Having been involved in bodywork for nearly 30 years, he is the author of Putting the Soul Back in the Body, editor of the manual, “The Alchemy of Touch,” and author of the pathbreaking article series, “The Seven Dimensions of Touch” (see www.tlcschool.com under “Articles”). Lauterstein teaches in Austin, throughout the United States and in England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512/374-9222.
- Field, Joanna. An Experiment in Leisure. New York: St. Martins Press, 1937.
- Johnson, Robert. Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.
- Lauterstein, David. Putting the Soul Back in the Body. Austin: Lauterstein-Conway Massage School Publications, 1984.
- Lauterstein, David. “The Seven Dimensions of Touch,” see www.tlcschool.com — click on “Articles”