How I Work


In the begining of my career I was rather foolish (actually, I still am in many ways, but maybe that's a story for another time). I believed like many people do with a new skill set, that if I could do something, then I ought to do it. In the begining, every newly skilled person wants to test their powers and see what's possible.

Not long out of Massage School, I was working part time in a physical therapy clinic in Florida when I had the opportunity to work with a woman with frozen shoulder who, despite their best efforts, the PTs of the clinic were unable to help. I was the last resort in the treatment plan for this woman. She was in her late 50's, and I remember my experience of her at the time being that she was a difficult personality and set in her beliefs about what was and wasn't going to happen. Her left shoulder did present with an almost pathologically rigid and immobile aspect--she had almost no range of motion. Needless to say, that after countless PT sessions and home exercises, she wasn't too keen to see me--a fresh-faced kid out of massage school with a big heart and good technique, but limited experience.

It ocurred to me during her treatment, while she lay face-up on my table, that I would try something out-of-the-box. Because she was focusing so heavily on what she couldn't do while we were in session (how much her shoulder hurt, how people had to help her do everything, etc.) I decided to ask her to tell me about what she could do with her left shoulder. She could think of nothing. I then asked her to tell me about a favorite vacation, thinking this would brighten her up and help her relax. That changed everything! With her right, asymptomatic arm she gesticulated dramatically, telling me all about her trip to the beach with her husband some years previously. She smiled. She laughed. It was a complete change in her demeanor. And all the while she spoke, I was doing what had been apparently impossible up to that point in her PT sessions, at home, and in her initial massage treatments: I was slowly taking her arm (in abduction) all the way up so that her left deltoids were two inches from her left ear! She had been completely distracted, and in her distraction, her arm, like a closely watched child who is freed from the bonds of supervision, got to finally have its dance!

Here is where I made my big mistake: I asked her to look and see where her arm now was. I will never forget the look on her face: a withering, scolding and cold look with slanted eyes and a voice that croaked as she jerked her arm back down, "you DIDN'T see that!!" 

Despite her visible, palpable convalescence during our session together, I never saw her again, but she did continue her physical therapy, doing the same exercises as before, seeing other massage therapists, and walking out time and again with the same useless, neglected arm. What happened?

9 years later, I now suspect that whether she was aware of it or not, her shoulder being unusable and painful was her story--the one that induced helplessness in her and, along with it, the security and service of her family and friends. This injury was not just her story, it was her identity. If she had left my treatment room with full range of motion in her left shoulder, her immediate social circle would've changed in ways that she wasn't, I suspect, prepared to deal with. If she knew she was free, she would have had to take responsibility for her life, rather than using her shoulder as a crutch to call on others to protect her. She was invested in her shoulder not changing. But she could say then, as many of us do, that she was at least, "in therapy." 

I write this, because what I just described has important lessons in it--for me and for many of us on the healing path. I believe the main lesson is this: just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should. Just because I could take her arm up, thus proving her true capability, it didn't mean that I should have. In the end, I believe it caused her to protect her shoulder identity even more as she realized, consciously, the embarrassment, shame, and extent of her dysfunction. This was my big mistake.

I can't begin to describe how often what people claim is the reason for their visit with me is not supported by what their bodies are telling me. There's a disconnect in most people between what their body is doing and what they think it's doing. In fact, that very last statement is what Mosche Feldenkrais, in his famous Method, sought to change: by empowering those he worked with to reexamine their relationships with the movement of their bodies.

The aspect of us that is not aware of ourselves is the pain body--the ego body. It grows stronger the more unaware we become (I'm talking about unawareness of everything: eating, moving, grieving, etc) The pain body only thinks in terms of what it can't do, if it thinks at all. This is worth repeating.

The pain body only thinks in terms of what it can't do.

Therefore, I am very careful when people come to me for help and describe what's wrong, rather than what's right. It is almost a guarantee, that whatever is "wrong" is not what's wrong. There is, however another aspect of us that supercedes the pain body, but the pain body has no knowledge of it: the dream body--the story or song body! This aspect is the one that weaves the deeper stories that construct us, that falls in love, that breathes the breath of life. This aspect is the one that moves, as compared to the pain body, which doesn't. One could even say, that where there is no movement there is ego--the idea of what should be, rather than the being itself. In the story above, I inadevertantly called the ego's attention to the song body, and the ego--so enamoured of it's pain stories which often give us so much of our identity--shut it down, drowned by the immovable belief system.

The good news is that the ego body is two-dimensional. There is no movement in two dimensions; mathematicss tells us this is not possible. Therefore, it doesn't even fairly exist. It is just a belief system. The ego body believes in right and wrong, them and us, etc. The song body, in contrast, is three or four dimensional. There is dance, there is love, there is all possibility out of time. It is quite real. It is the free self.

How would I approach this woman now, if she could walk into my treatment room today? My first thought is, that I would have to guage this by being with her. She'd be different today. But for rhetorical purposes I'll indulge the question. I would hold her shoulder and silently ask it how it wants to move. I would be speaking to her deeper self (this deeper self never hurts its physical self) and her nervous sytem, gently querying it to determine what it likes to do in that moment. I would silently, inwardly ask, "who's here?" and "how can I best serve you." Imagery may present itself, and I would play with this imagery almost as though the image itself were a stand-in for the potential that is heretofore too difficult to express in larger movements. I would not tell her what I'm doing or engage her mind in any intentional way. The body listens, knows and communicates just fine without the brain getting involved (think of babies, if you wonder at this). We would only do what she is capable of doing; sometimes that is the fulcrum for releasing the hardships that manifest within the body proper. She would be the boss! Her system would be the boss. She would be empowered to release or hold on. The possiblity exists that nothing would happen (and this is a fact that keeps many good therapists, in a results-driven business, from embracing this approach). But the chance more than equally exists that more change than she could imagine can take root and grow. In working this way, we avoid the ego-body conflicts and life compensations that happen as a result of technically skilled bodywork that doesn't address the spiritual nature of the human condition, that seeks to "relax the body" without bothering to listen and ascertain whether it even should. 

When we don't pay attention, listening deeply to what we need, we end up doing things and seeking treatments that, while they may be helpful short term, offer no long term solutions. We stay in the pain story. When we do this, we stay in therapy, we stay "in-process," constantly seeking what eludes us: the simple act of self-observation. We do things because we can, not because it's what we truly, deeply need. I once met a "shaman"--an American woman, fully attired in Hopi dress!--in Australia who said to an elder, in my presence, "a healer doesn't ask, she just does." No, that's not right. A good healer always asks, and always listens first.

As a licensed massage and bodywork therapist, I seek to listen. And lately, I have come to view myself as something of a professional dance partner. I respond to your movement, but you lead. And if you can't, I will, but always within your way, never forcing, always with all the grace and skill I can muster.  I work with movement, for where there is movement, there is life. If I can help what isn't moving to move again, we've done our work. This is how I work.

As a final thought, I do not work with the past, in the sense of past lives, past hurts, etc. To me, these are the trinkets of the pain body, and telling the pain stories again and again brings no life to the present moment, where all our power is concentrated. One could even say with some truth, that the pains we feel are often the unwitting holdings of our past insults.  What matters is who you are, right now. In the Dreaming, we have an active past, present and future, and that is the only place we can deal with alltimes. But in the waking world, we have now, and there is much freedom in that. 

Brian LoftinComment