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Massage Today
March, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 03

Creating Sacred Moments Through Compassionate Touch

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR

"When we touch another with a compassionate heart, it creates a sacred moment." These are the words that filled my awareness several years ago as I was leaving the care facility after having had a particularly poignant Compassionate Touch session with an elder gentleman suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease. I noticed that in that moment, my heart was wide open and I felt deeply moved and changed in some profound way. The truth embedded in those words has been with me ever since. They guide my way, teaching me about what it really means to touch those we serve. Here is what I've learned so far.

The Nature of Compassion

Compassion is not something we learn how to do, nor is it something we call forth when we think we should. It flows naturally from our humanness and is something we all share. We each may define compassion using different words or phrases: love, empathy, being open to the suffering of others. Although the definitions vary, I believe the experience of compassion is universal. For me, it's when my own healing presence emerges and my heart cracks wide open. I especially like the words of Judith Lief: "Cultivating compassion does not mean injecting some new, improved element into ourselves so we can work more effectively. Instead, we simply uncover the compassion that is already there."1

Helping Is Different Than Serving

I've asked many people, "Why did you become a massage therapist?" Many answer with, "Because I want to help people." Perhaps what is really calling us to this profession is a desire to serve. There is a core difference between helping and serving the elders we touch. Helping implies inequality. When we help, we are doing something to or for the person which places us in a position of power over them. We subtly convey that they are needier than we are, helping perpetuate "separateness" in our relationships. Helping is about doing, and we may cling to or hide behind our techniques or our roles, which actually distances us from the one we think we are helping. I've noticed that when I approach someone with an attitude of helping, the intention and energy flows only one way - from me to the one I am helping. Helping can leave me feeling depleted and burned out.

To serve is to become a part of the experience of the person we are serving. It is a relationship of equality and a dynamic interaction that flows both ways. When we serve, we give and receive. The benefits are mutual and our hearts and souls are expanded in the process. Serving is not about doing; it's about being. It's about being authentic and allowing our innate healing presence to shine forth. In service, we offer our support in whatever way is called for in the moment, allowing our client to receive whatever is needed at the time for healing and well-being. To serve is an opportunity to explore the meaning of the self and what it means to be human. Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us that: "We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected to that which we are willing to touch."2

Relating to the Individual

For more than 25 years, I have worked with elders who require care because of the debilitating effects of aging or illness. Caregiving is certainly complex and there are many things that must be done. Personal care needs, mobility assistance, medical treatment, social activities and safety are all important. However, I've seen that so much emphasis is placed on what must be done that the caregivers often relate more to the condition rather than the individual inside that aging body.

The individual is the core essence of each person. It never changes, regardless of age or the condition of the body or mind. When my attention is focused on the individual, my hands naturally follow to touch with compassion. I've witnessed hundreds of times what happens when I, the caregiver, stop doing to simply be present and touch the individual. In these moments, I truly serve and a space for healing opens. Not healing in terms of a cure, but a sense of wholeness, acceptance and well-being. These are the sacred moments when pain and suffering are eased and we are both uplifted.

A Sacred Moment

For two years, I provided Compassionate Touchsessions for a gentleman I'll call Mr. Edwards. He resided in a skilled nursing facility and his condition included dementia and the residual effects of a stroke, which left him unable to walk. The facility's staff struggled with him because he would become combative when he felt overwhelmed or confused. He only left his room for meals, refusing to attend other activities. He asked to have massage because of back pain, but it became clear during our first visit that he yearned to be touched and to be accepted. He told me about how his mother would soothe him as a child by rubbing his back.

During our sessions, he loved to tell me about his career as the president of a large loan company, while I massaged his back or feet. He often would fall into a peaceful sleep. Although, his physical and mental condition gradually diminished, he consistently seemed to find comfort from massage. One day the facility was having a party. After giving Mr. Edwards his massage, I was preparing to leave when he sat up as straight as he could in his wheelchair, held out his hand and said to me, "May I have the honor of your company at the party?" That was a sacred moment I will never forget. And, by the way, yes, I went to the party and we had a lovely time!


  1. Lief J. Making Friends With Death. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001.
  2. Reman R. "In the Service of Life." Neotic Sciences Review, 1996.

Related Reading

  • Nelson D. From the Heart Through the Hands. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press, 2006.
  • Ram D. Compassion in Action. New York: Bell Tower Publishing, 1992.
  • Remen RN. My Grandfather's Blessings. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2001.

Click here for previous articles by Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR.


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