In 2005 I gave this speech at my graduation from massage school. All these years later, I am still happy with my decision to become someone who helps people by doing ‘this special kind of rubbing thing with my hands… kind of like magic.’ Juliette, who first said it like that, is a teenager and I have my very own massage practice, which still, often, scares me but I do it anyway and I love it. I find it hard to put what happens on my table into words, but I am going to try… I hope for this to be the first in a series of posts on what I do.
Muscular Therapy Institute / Cambridge, Massachusetts
Sunday, 26 June 2005 (RJUN05) Graduation
I am often amazed by the number of people who’ve never experienced massage. I was thinking about this as I was gathering my thoughts for today and so I decided to have a talk with my friend Juliette, who might be 5 but is a wise old soul who puts things that we adults can get all complicated about in the simplest of terms. Juliette’s mom, Cécile, also happens to be graduating today, hence Juliette knows a thing or two about this thing we are becoming: massage therapists.
Over chocolate milk and stories our conversation went something like this:
Me: Who is your mom?
J: She is a French person. She is nice.
Me: What does your mom do?
J: She gives people massage.
Me: What is that, massage?
J: She does this thing where she heals people… there’s this special kind of rubbing, with your hands, and people are lying down on a table with a cover over you and you do different hand moves that are supposed to heal. It’s kind of like magic and hands and it feels like a ball rolling around but it’s really just hands.
Me: Why would someone want to heal?
J: Some part of their body is hurting and you try to heal the sore-ing part.
A bit later, while coloring and telling fairy stories, Juliette brought up the subject of being scared, and since fear has been much on my mind —heck! when is it not!— my ears perked up. I asked her what a person should do when they are afraid to do something and she told me,
“It’s OK to be scared but then you can do it anyway – if you just try it you might like it – it’s hard to just think about something and not try it.”
When I woke up at 5:30 this morning, nervous about giving this talk and panicking about taking this leap of a career into an as-of-yet completely empty appointment book I remembered her words:
“It’s OK to be scared but then you can do it anyway.”
A few years ago, at another time of fear, indecision and instability, I was trying really hard to figure out and “fix” my life, impatient to attain the things I thought I needed for security and happiness. You know when you keep trying to make something happen but try as you might the pieces just won’t fit? It was like that. At the time, and now, I take courage in the words of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet:
“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday… you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” (Translation by Stephen Mitchell)
So I tried as best I could to love the questions and not search for answers at a time when my mind was so muddied by fear. And at some point I started getting a stirring inside to become a massage therapist. It’s amazing what can happen when one becomes still. (Or at least, stiller).
When I fist started mentioning out loud the possibility of becoming a massage therapist, people asked me why. Probably these were people who knew I’d been to graduate school not so long ago and would be repaying those loans for many a year to come. The best answer I could give them at the time was a sheepish, “because I love getting massages–” and my voice would swing up a bit at the end, making it seem much more a question than an answer, even though it was utterly true. Some people smiled politely. Others raised an eyebrow as if to say, “Who doesn’t!” And, being a doubter who’d been taught to give much more credence to my intellect than to my gut, I doubted my intuition. You can ask Joleen Barren, MTI’s director of admissions, how many intro workshops I came to… not one, not two, but three… My head kept clamoring for sureness, some guarantee that this was the right thing to do. I was only just beginning to learn what creative genius and filmmaker Stanley Cubric knew: “The truth of a thing is in the feel of it, not the think of it.” Coming to massage school has been all about listening for the feel of things and living forward from that.
Often, way before we know something consciously, we know it in our bodies. Our bodies don’t lie. They say it like it is. Pain—physical or emotional or whatever kind—is a great motivator and when I was in enough of it, I began to look more deeply inside myself. But it can be hard to look inside when you’re in a lot of fear and pain—I think most of us keep running away (we all have our ways) until by some grace we stop and turn around and have a look inside at what’s actually there. Looking anywhere else really doesn’t work in the long term. Usually what’s there, what we were afraid of, when simply looked at and felt as it is, isn’t so bad after all. In the light of day we can see that the snake in the corner, the one we stayed up all night chattering our teeth over, was really just a curled up rope. The rope didn’t scare us, our thoughts did.
But anyhow, back to our bodies, it can be painful in our bodies not to be who we are, not to live our truth. In the words of Jungian analyst and writer, Marion Woodman:
“This is your body, your greatest gift, pregnant with wisdom you do not hear, grief you thought was forgotten, and joy you have never known.”
It is no coincidence that I wanted to help people by working with their bodies. My body has been my most direct path to feeling better. And my body not feeling good has been a lighthouse telling me I’m getting too close to the rocks. My body signals me in different ways that something is off in my thinking or in my actions and it tells me through things like stiff necks or a contracted piriformis (more commonly referred to as a pain in the ass!) that maybe, just maybe, I am being a bit unyielding in my beliefs about the ways things “should” be rather than accepting them the way they are. Or a sense of unease might let me know that it might be helpful to stop scurrying about and simply sit still and listen, to be and experience what is there to be felt.
Our bodies are like the canaries miners used to carry with them as they descended deep into the earth: when the canary stopped singing—or worse, died—they knew that Oxygen was getting too scarce and that it was unsafe to proceed. But we don’t need to let any canaries die to tune into our bodies — the more we listen the more we can learn the very distinct language of the body’s wisdom.
While each of us is different and each of our bodies speaks its own language, with its own expressions, dialects and accents, there is one way that is my favorite way of living the truth of who we are. It’s so simple, as truth usually is. Kids, before they’ve been schooled and conditioned too much in the ways of adults, are naturals at this way of being.
There is a poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese” which says it beautifully:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
It is probably the most simple and yet the most courageous thing you can ever do: Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
My wish for every one of my stellar classmates today is that we may love what we love with no apologies or regrets. That we know in our very bones our place in the family of things. And that we feel empowered to live our lives from our place of integrity, being true to who we are first and foremost.
As people who, in Juliette’s words, “heal the sore-ing parts,” most of us have a high degree of compassion for suffering, for pain. As we have learned over and over in these two years: it is a well-nourished self that can best nourish others –nourishing others when we haven’t taken care of ourselves doesn’t hold up for very long. Putting the life preserver on yourself before helping your child, as we are reminded to do on airplanes, can just as well be applied to our work with clients. May we make taking care of ourselves a daily practice. Here are some ideas:
Get curious about what the soft animal of your body loves.
Let it play. Let it work. Let it move. Let it rest.
Help it stay grounded, whatever grounding might look like for you.
Listen to music.
Watch and listen to a thunder storm.
Get drenched in the rain.
Go skinny dipping.
Spend time with people who feel like family.
Watch kids run through the fountain at the park.
Sleep under the stars.
Sing out loud.
Sit downwind of flowers. (Thanks to Tara Brach for that image!)
Sit under the trees and watch them: Notice how they change. Notice how they stay the same.
Trust the tides of your breathing.
Take comfort in the change of seasons.
Come back to your breath again and yet again.
And, in a panic or when you get lost, as Tamar Myers, our beloved Technique teacher always said, “go back to ‘basic back’ and ‘heart'”—the names of those techniques say it all.
My practice, Heidi’s Table, is located in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Come see me! I am open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.