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Massage Today
January, 2006, Vol. 06, Issue 01

To Boldly Go

By Raymond Bishop, PhD

I recall a story shared in my first craniosacral class about a middle-aged nurse who attended the class earlier that year. After the student completed the first exercise, she looked at the instructor with tears in her eyes and said, "Oh, I just can't do this.

I feel everything." She promptly left the room, never to return. The point here was not to frighten us, but to suggest that such gentle and passive work could open doors to places deep within our clients, and that such experiences could be powerful and emotionally overwhelming for any sensitive and unprotected practitioner.

Thoughts of such an experience filled me not with trepidation, but rather a sense of connection and profound recognition, although I had hardly begun to learn the rudiments of my craft. What struck me as strange was not that the student left, but that everyone in the room would not feel this way more times than not.

Unfortunately, my initial experiences with this empathic realm were anything but ecstatic. But rather, they were exquisitely painful trance-like states, frequently frightening, overwhelming and debilitatingly painful. These unpleasant impressions were clearly "not me," but some distorted transmogrification of my client's reality, often searing with pain and noxious olfactory assaults initially overwhelming me. Let me say before I proceed that I do not in any way consider these experiences atypical, that their effects were transitory, and that I, over time, learned to process them much quicker than my melodramatic language might so far suggest.

For example, a friend flew me to his home in northwest Montana last year do to some sessions with a woman about 70 years old, with spondylothesis, nerve roots and stress fractures in the vertebral arch that caused the vertebrae to slide forward and painfully impinge on the spinal cord. On my first night there we went out to dinner and (perhaps not entirely coincidentally) met the woman and her family. After meeting and touching her, I received a wealth of emotional and nociceptive information that was unpleasant and hard to filter out.

During the meal, the woman's pain was so palpable I had great difficulty eating. At irregular intervals, I felt excruciating pains shooting up my back into my head. They were searing and rather like sustained electrical surges. They persisted throughout the meal and, since the woman was sitting next to us, I had difficulty discreetly explaining what was wrong with me. When we left, I told my friend about my experience. The next day, I told the client what I felt; she reported that she frequently had the identical sensation, which often incapacitated her for days at a time.

Fortunately, she did not seem upset or surprised by this discussion. Rather, it created an immediate bond between us. Such a reaction is not always to be expected. In general, we must be very careful how we share this sort of information, as we often will be met with confused questioning or outright fear. The fear factor here is huge and should never be minimized. Injudicious or abrupt sharing of personal information you sense can prove very upsetting, and in many instances will send the client running for cover. Just as a therapist must be extremely deliberate and careful in the pacing with which he or she introduces questions and difficult issues, so an intuitive might choose to withhold information that might not be appropriate for the client to receive and internalize. In many cases, such sensitive information retrieval need not be shared.

Having such an awareness and using it to shape your words and techniques might incalculably deepen your clients' experience at a subconscious level. Also, you should never forget that such information might put you in a tricky position of power; a position you must always approach with humility and respect, as the possibilities for inadvertent abuse are rife. Too much information is a very dangerous thing, and you always must put the client's needs and psychological abilities to hear and integrate ahead of any well-intentioned need to share information you assimilated through non-ordinary sensing and touching.

With all these caveats in mind, an empath would certainly learn as he or she worked, it would seem there are certain therapeutic arenas where such sensitivity might prove particularly useful. Once a highly sensitive individual learns how to moderate the input they receive, certain fields would naturally attract them. For instance, those modalities that are more passive and require monitoring and effecting subtle changes in the client's system or the fields emanating from said individuals would be a natural "fit" for an empath; unquestionably, many so wired do choose such specialties and develop loyal clients who appreciate and gratefully respond to their gifts. Such would seem a natural marriage of kindred spirits and fill an important need not met by Western allopathic practitioners. Medical intuitives, shamanic healers, Barbara Brennan practitioners, sound-healing practitioners, energetic healers, and those proficient in certain subtle osteopathic techniques would certainly feel at home in these and similar modalities, ones where their empathic gifts are more likely to be refined and developed. Of course, one need not be an empath to be an osteopath, but when engaging in certain subtle types of sensing, having access to the wealth of sensory impressions available to empaths would certainly enrich the experience and guide the therapist as he or she patiently waited for a healing force to manifest or for some subtle shift in the client's system.

This notion of the wealth of sensory data accessible to empaths leads us indirectly to a connection with a world I find fascinating that world inhabited by autistics. Much of what we know about their world is provided by a relatively small group of high-functioning autistics and those who suffer from the related condition called Asperger's syndrome.

One of the most common experiences described by autistics is their sensitivity to jarring stimuli, whether loud noises, bright lights or too much sensory input. They report having an aversion for large crowds and, in self-protection, retreat internally and might engage in repetitive behaviors to calm themselves. They also have difficulty interpreting ambivalent meanings and social behaviors we accept as normal. One reason for this seems to be an inability to generalize and a concomitant focus on details. They also seem to "see in pictures" rather than process their environment verbally, as most of us do.

What particularly struck me in the many books I have read on the subject were autistics' problems with sensory input, their visual processing of incoming data, and their penchant for focusing on details. All of these features sounded profoundly and disturbingly familiar to me as I suspect they might to others similarly wired. Dealing with the sensory input surrounding us is painful for sensitives and autistics in part because we both have poor filtering skills. However, this sensitivity which distances some people for survival also might act as a bridge between individuals with kindred processing problems. This unconventional insight might have some implications for sensitive neophytes who might be drawn to autistics without quite understanding the attraction.

Potential advantages of empathic practitioners working with autistics became clear to me in my work with two young autistic boys last year. The more profoundly impaired of the two was a 10-year-old with apparently minor brain damage who could not speak, and had poor coordination and profound learning and processing difficulties. The first time he and his parents came to the office he was extremely agitated and acted out so badly - rocking, screaming, shaking - that his father had to remove him from the waiting area and hold and comfort him several times. What gradually became clear was that he was overreacting to a group seminar taking place in the back of the center where some intense emotional work was going on.

At one point, these folks broke for lunch during this protracted emotional outburst. As they paraded by, I suspect their emotionally raw state was "read" by my client who panicked because he could not filter out all this unresolved leaking distress. I explained my insight to his parents, who were not entirely convinced. Yet it seemed I was correct since, once the participants in the seminar left, he calmed down and we were able to get him in the room and begin the session. Of course some damage already had been done, so this settling took some time, but generally, the session went quite well.

Several minutes into the session, I started observing patterns of behavior that did not seem random and seemed to indicate some sort of communicative effort on the part of my young client. As I moved from area to area in a generally planned manner, I noticed certain responsive patterns in the boy. Some were subtly withdrawing and some seemed more clearly a moving into me, as if my client were guiding me in choices of where to work and for how long. The child was never static and seemed to be constantly resisting, redirecting or assisting me. At first, I suspected I was looking for meaning where there was none - that my desire to "prove" I was effecting change was coloring my perceptions, offering deceptive suggestions of implicit meaning, and that his actions purely were random and a function of either involuntary responses or chance coordinations between my work and his self-directed movement. And yet, there it was, over and over again. I tentatively remarked on this seeming pattern to the child's parents, who seemed totally mystified by my suggestions. Their skepticism seemed to throw a wet blanket on my insights, yet I found it harder and harder to see these patterns as random. I sensed the boy was broadcasting an ever-stronger signal on some unfamiliar yet resonant frequency.

The kicker came at the end of our short session, some 20 to 25 minutes in duration. He seemed restless and began making sounds that seemed disapproving or perhaps irritated; it was hard to tell. I quickly removed my hands and said, "So we are done for today, are we?" He did not respond directly but slowly began to sit up and soon got off the table. Then a most remarkable confirmation of my observations occurred. Instead of walking back to his parents, he slowly leaned over the table and pushed his butt out away from the table and stood there expectantly. I was totally floored by this action. In an instant I understood he wanted me to work some more on his hamstrings; he somehow knew this would be a perfect way to both tense and present them to me so I could easily and directly work along their taut bellies. When I expressed my surprise to his parents, they seemed so confused both by his actions and my interpretation of them that they just sat watching in stunned silence. I did perhaps two minutes of moderately direct work on these chronically hypertoned hip extensors. When he had had enough, he simply stood up and watched me. "Done for today," I announced confidently.

I had one final surprise. Now he began to slowly walk towards me and seemed to want more direct contact. I was confused and asked his parents what they thought his intention was. His mother said he wanted me to hold him. After getting his parent's permission, I allowed him to climb up onto my lap while I held him firmly, until his curiously distressed dad abruptly picked him up and took him out of the room. Apparently, such behavior was extremely unusual for him, particularly with a new therapist. A deep connection had been made and he was expressing his gratitude. It was a very special moment for us both.

After the child left, I told his mother I did not believe he was retarded, but in some ways incredibly intelligent, and that his kinesthetic awareness and communication skills were exceptional; in fact, more highly developed than in any child with whom I had worked. Unfortunately, this proved too odd an observation for her to accept. It blatantly contradicted all her previous experiences, since all other therapists had not said any such thing in her several years of seeking treatment for this exceptional and gifted young man.

When she asked me why no one else had ever said or observed the things I had, my immediate answer was that they just didn't know how to listen to him. I believe the unconventional nature of my work created much confusion in these loving parents, yet they continued the therapy for a few months. Also, I have no specific answer as to why other skilled and perhaps better-trained specialists failed to interpret or manifest the behaviors I watched unfold.

The sessions were special for me and my young charge. He soon became more happy and communicative in his special way and also experienced some interesting improvements in his walking and coordination. I suspect my ability to connect to this child largely was a result of some deep connection between us, and the nature of this connection seemed to have more to do with problems of processing sensory input and communicating our discomfort to others than some special skill my excellent training afforded me. I had no fear of feeling or suffering too much. Rather, accessing through my naturally distorted lens some fractured dimensions of this child's jumbled reality felt more like coming home than some alien fantastic voyage. For those of us who live with the often-painful reality of processing the world empathically, the trade-offs are huge, particularly once we learn how to entrain with others without becoming a prisoner of their painful reality.


  1. Temple Grandin's and Catherine Johnson's Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (New York: Scribner, 2005) and in Grandin's earlier Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism (New York: Vintage, 1995).
  2. "The Pattern Conundrum: or, What Is the Sound of One Hand Rolfing?" Structural Integration, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter/December 2004): 20-24.


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