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Massage Today
April, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 04

The Importance of Remembering Gentleness

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS

I focus my hands-on work with people with cancer or cancer histories. My massage therapy practice is small but earnest, edged out a bit by other professional activities, but nevertheless a vital part of my professional and personal life.

I spend part of Tuesdays in my massage therapy office. Tuesdays are sacred. Some have suggested I give up my practice. But no, I say, these clients need the work. Couldn't they go to someone I've trained? Of course, yes. They do, sometimes. But I recognize, too, that I need to do the work. I need to offer up my hands to them. It is a calling as much as it is a vocation.

My clients come battle-scarred. They have endured countless needle sticks, scalpels and markings. Beams of radiation have crossed their tissues, from front to back. They have swallowed strong medication, counted days until the end of treatment and endured unimaginable side effects. They have survived endless tests, re-tests and long waits. They teach me about grace during uncertainty, and trust amidst the mystery. These clients lead me by example. In offering them skilled touch, I am reminded of the body's vulnerability and strength, all at once.

Twenty-two years ago, I completed my massage training with Ben Benjamin and his staff at the Muscular Therapy Institute. I remember one particularly important moment, close to graduation, when I was learning one-on-one from Ben. He brought me back to the first strokes I'd ever learned. I practiced them, over and over. He said to me, "It's more important to learn to work gently, than deeply." His words still ring true, today. They ring true because working gently is working deeply. Our kind hands touch people on the surface, in the muscles, but they also touch deeply.

This truth overtakes me each time I supervise an oncology massage clinic. Watching a roomful of massage therapists work, I see deep engagement in every exchange. Therapists train for four days, earnestly preparing for this clinic of client volunteers with cancer and cancer histories. It's a massive amount of work, plenty of paperwork and information, and not a little bit stressful. But once everyone is interviewed and settled in and the hands-on work begins, a great peace settles over the clinic classroom. I look around and take it in. I can tell that, for each therapist, for that hour, the person on the table is their whole world. Nothing matters more than this person.

That kind of focus is a rare thing, and our clients notice it. One client left me a voicemail message from the parking lot, right after bidding us goodbye. As is sometimes the case, she had been interviewed and massaged by two therapists working in tandem. She spoke of a heart filled with gratitude. Of her two therapists, she said, "they touched a chord in me that nobody was able to touch." That kind of experience of massage cannot be forced, it can only be welcomed when it occurs. It can be invited in by a therapist's gentle work, which, according to the client whose chord was touched, is deep work. It is called forth by our full attention, and our hands of kindness.

At times, such kindness elicits a flood of feeling. I recall one client who would weep every time a member of her health care team was kind to her. It was not that she wasn't used to it — she had many moments with compassionate health care professionals. But each caring gesture or kind word reminded her of how badly she needed it, and how alone she felt. Another client had a hard time scheduling massage because it involved stopping long enough to feel something, when it was easier to just keep going, getting through the months of cancer treatment. She told me she couldn't stand the kindness of skilled massage, she just wanted to press on and get through. We honor and respect these needs, as well as all others.

It's a bit circular, but I suppose even our resistance to kindness deserves kindness. People with cancer are not the only ones to appreciate gentle depth of work. I've worked with robust clients and strong muscles, I've followed muscle tension around after athletic injuries, and I've noticed how all of us seem to appreciate hands of kindness. Many times, I have circled back to Ben's words, and always, they have sent me forward again, into territory that is achingly real, ripe with connection, and deeply satisfying.

Click here for more information about Tracy Walton, LMT, MS.


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