Facing Down the Mystery

By Tracy Walton , LMT, MS

Facing Down the Mystery

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS

In my clinical work with people who have cancer, and my classroom work with massage therapists, I am periodically faced with not knowing enough. We don't have a complete picture about how massage affects the body, and the research is still evolving into a solid base of evidence. We do know that our clients report symptom relief after massage, and that is enough for us to continue our work, but we don't know, for sure, how and why massage works to bring this about.

In massage therapy, we are still sorting out our own clinical thinking about which modalities and techniques work best for which clinical presentations. Even the language we use about massage is not universal: two therapists or two teachers can describe the same modality very differently, and work differently within it.

We also don't know as much as we would like about cancer. Medical science is an evolving body of knowledge, as well, and is still filling in the gaps about how cancer begins, how it spreads, and the best cancer therapies to use.

Spend Time in the Unknown

In oncology massage, we work at the edges of what we know about these things, and this can be unsettling. This not knowing can actually lead to deeper understanding. The realm of not knowing can be a fruitful place to spend time. Sometimes I ask my students, directly, "Have you spent time in your confusion? And if so, what have you learned there?"

The question inspires sacred silence and thought, and it invites a reflective rather than a reflexive answer. The answers I get are many and varied, and they come from the deepest places. Even without a clear answer, sitting with the question gives us good pause.

I ask this question because it is worth asking, and because the experience of being lost and confused can serve us and deepen what we have to offer our clients. I have noticed that my own confusion comes in cycles, or seasons, and that each time that it comes around, the pain eases once I've surrendered to it. I give up knowing what will happen since knowing this is relatively impossible, for any and all of us, even on a good day. I even give up understanding everything. In this process of surrender, I follow and mirror some of my clients' and students' experiences.

A student of mine, reflecting on her own experience of cancer, told me once that her experience was one of being lost. Each day, she lived not knowing what her future would be, or whether she would become sick or well, or die from the disease. Later, she lived not knowing whether it would come back. She said that as painful as it was, it opened her up in ways she hadn't imagined, and she had become stretched out in the process, able to accept and even embrace the mystery of it all. Her words have reminded me, again and again, how much we can learn in the face of how little we know.