Mindfulness For The LMT…And The Massage Client

An important value, and activity, in training at Oregon School of Massage is the integration, the interconnecting, of mind and body. On occasion we offer classes that focus somewhat more directly on a mindfulness approach to integration. Here is a piece written by OSM staff member Angus Vail which informs us about mindfulness and massage.

Watch for Angus’s classes at OSM (A MBSR class starts on Thursday)

Working With Trauma
By Angus Vail, PhD, LMT

Recently, Boston observed the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. This tragic event follows closely on the heels of wide-spread remembrances of the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago. Even cursory attention to the news brings us all closer to the seeming inescapability of traumas great and small, near and far, from the seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, from shootings in Texas and Kansas City to escalating strife in Ukraine, from natural disasters to the prolonged and protracted damage done by income inequality here in the United States. Trauma is part of the world we occupy and create. Few of us are glad for its presence, but wishing it away only leads to disappointment, so how are we, as healers and as people, to handle trauma in ways that don’t increase its burden? The answer that Mindfulness provides may seem counter-intuitive, but increasing evidence suggests that it is effective nonetheless. The Mindful approach to trauma is to turn toward it, to embrace it in all of its overwhelming horror. Mindfulness calls us to approach it without fear and see it for what it is. Wishing it away will not help, but embracing it does.

A common adage in recovery circles finds its root in Buddhism and the practice of Mindfulness. It goes something like this: pain is inevitable, but suffering is voluntary. The practice of Mindfulness helps us confront pain head on. It helps us investigate what it is, as it is. It is only through the investigation that we can come to understand the nature of the pain, and only through understanding it can we let it go. The approach that Mindfulness encourages is fundamentally diagnostic and medical in orientation. When pain arises, the mindful person will investigate the pain. Where is it located in the body? Does it have a color or shape to it? Is it gross or subtle? Is it large or small? Does it move or is it stable? Does it have temperature to it? Is there an emotional characteristic or feeling state associated with it? If so, does that feeling state lead to other related sensations? The closer we investigate pain of any kind, the clearer its nature becomes. It is constantly changing; it is ephemeral; it does not last. Because of these characteristics, it is unreliable as the experience we think it is. The experience we thought would ruin our day has suddenly become an opportunity for exploring deep connection to the world. It may even have become beautiful in an odd way. Further investigation with these characteristics in mind makes us realize that it is not personal. “My pain” has become “the pain.” It is a collection of experiences that I am aware of, but I need not take them personally. Once we truly understand these characteristics of sensation—be it painful or pleasant—we are able to let them be. They cease to have a hold over us. In turning toward them and investigating them deeply, we have freed ourselves from their grasp.

This approach should be familiar to any practitioner of a healing art. When a client comes to a massage therapist, for example, the therapist does not—one would hope—spend time or effort wishing the client’s conditions were not present. Rather, the therapist turns toward to the client—body, mind and spirit—and begins investigating the source of pain, Only through deep and focused attention to posture, disposition and palpation will the therapist discover the source of discomfort and thus come up with a successful therapeutic plan. Rather than wishing away the pain in the “stress diamond,” the therapist explores back muscles, and pectoral muscles. Close, nonjudgmental observation (the definition of Mindfulness I use in teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes) of the client’s pain reveals that treating the pectoral muscles is actually the most successful approach. Deep, focused work on pectoralis minor can be painful, but it provides long-term relief in a way that simple attention to the back can never yield.

How do we come full circle, though? What does back pain have to do with international crises and/or natural disasters? How can massaging pectorals minor decrease the suffering of protracted recession? The thread that connects these and all other sources of suffering is our desire that the condition were not there instead of unflinchingly investigating it as closely as we can. How do we experience this discomfort? How is this experience similar to others we have had? What attachments or aversions make us hang on to it? Mindfulness teaches us that turning toward these questions may be inconvenient; it may even lead to more pain in the short run. But only investigation of these questions will help us understand the true causes of trauma. If we never find the cause, we will never be able to find a path to releasing it.

I offer these thoughts for your reflection, in hopes that they will help you confront your traumas, and that the investigation helps you set them free

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