When we touch someone, we convey and receive tremendous amounts of information through our presence, and through the touch of our massage. Client and therapist influence, or resonate with, one another. As therapists, we have the opportunity and responsibility to be intentional about what we will convey to our clients through touch.
Learning how to develop our ability to be aware, alert and mindful of our state of being, and what we are radiating to others from that state, is an essential aspect of being an effective touch therapist.
Meditation is a practice that teaches us to pay attention to our self—and this skillfulness can be applied to our awareness, alertness and intentionality about the quality of what we are communicating through our presence and touch. Meditation helps us practice mindful massage.
The who we are with our clients is as essential as the clinical what we do with them.
We practice meditation for many reasons: to calm the mind, heighten our sense of perception and observation, and to ease stress and anxiety.
Catholic author Thomas Merton (1915-1968) said, “Our society is such that it has been systemati- cally destroyed by the different modes we have for keeping people outside themselves all the time.”
The more outwardly focused we are, the more empty we can feel inside. We become “out of touch” with our direct experience of life, our sensory reactions to being alive, our innate power as unique human beings. Massage therapy can be a powerful antidote to this devastating sense of being out of touch.
Psychology professor Gary Schwartz, Ph.D., wrote about the spiral effect of attention in both disease and health. Dis-attention to the body’s messages, he said, can lead to dis-connection of the neural pathways that help us manage auto-regulation and homeostatic balance or wellness.
This then leads to dis-regulation, which can lead to dis-order at a cellular level, deteriorating into a state of dis-regulated chaotic physiology, which ultimately leads toward dis-ease.
On the other hand, healthy, focused attention can lead to increased connectedness, which leads to improved regulation and a state of order within all of the body- mind systems, which contributes to a sense of ease, well-being and health.
Meditation is a discipline by which we suspend our habits of distraction, come home to our center, our hearts, our intuitive knowing. There are many pathways of meditation practice, including working with the breath, using mantra, and various methods of focusing mental attention.
Underlying all the reasons that clients come to us for massage therapy is hunger to re-connect with wholeness of self. Mindful massage therapy is a vehicle that can help guide a person, through intentional touch, into a state of at-home awareness and peaceful ease.
Rhythm of the heart
The practice of meditation is the discipline of focusing the attention, of drawing the awareness into the direct experience of the sensory experience of the moment. It has been described as taking up the reins of the six-horse carriage that is the mind.
When the reins are dropped or flopping around with distraction, the horses are running off in multiple directions and it makes for a reckless ride. When the attention is directed by the will, the horses of the mind are brought into alignment.
There has been a great deal of scientific study of what happens physiologically, psycho-emotionally and energetically when a meditator’s attention is shifted inward to sensory stimuli, to the rhythm of the breath or the heart. This referential shift of focus slows the heart’s activity, which in turn sets off a cascade of neuro- physiological functioning that affects all aspects of the meditator’s being.
This shift of information processing initiates a state that heart researcher Rollin McCraty has called coherence. In Harold Buhner’s book, The Secret Teachings of Plants, he quotes McCraty as saying, “It is the rhythm of the heart that sets the beat for the entire system…[It] is the harmonious cooperation among all physiological systems.” Other terms describe this phenomenon, such as synchronization, entrainment and resonance.
Heart coherence is initiated either when the focus of consciousness is shifted from the brain’s linear, analytical processing to the heart, either by focusing directly on the heart itself or on external sensory information and the feelings themselves (temperature of the air on the skin, tempo of breath, sounds entering the ear, the experience of light through the eyelids).
McCraty observed that as coherence is practiced and deepened, the body’s systems all begin to entrain with the slower heart rhythm: The breath slows; there is an average of 23-percent reduction in the stress hormone cortisol; a 100-percent increase in DHEA, a hormone essential in tissue repair; and an increased sense of well-being.
This quality of being is an optimal working state for the massage therapist. When the mind, like the lake, is calmed and still, and a fish, or a thought, jumps, our attention is instantly drawn to it, as opposed to when the surface of the mind/water is choppy. Our palpation skills are heightened and we become more alert to what we are sensing under our touch.
This is also a state of being from which we are able to convey to our clients a sense of peace and well-being, to infect the environment with the virus of relaxation, conveyed through our presence and our touch.
As massage therapists, we are educators for our clients.
We are guides for their process of becoming more in touch, more connected, well-ordered and at ease—and thereby more healthy overall.
State of balance
Meditation can help us serve our clients’ process in two ways.
First, the art of palpation requires a well-developed ability to quiet the body and the mind, to bring a relaxed, alert focus to what is under our hands and a clear mind to assess and interpret what we are feeling.
Author and educator Leon Chaitow, N.D., D.O., in his book Palpatory Literacy, wrote, “Probably the most common mistake in palpation is the lack of concentration by the examiner … There must be a trusting of what is felt, a suspension of critical judgment … Accept what you sense as real.”
Meditation practice develops our concentration, which leads to the creation of a gap between the direct experience of sensation and our habitual inclination to interpret it.
The second way that meditation can support our work is by learning to cultivate a state of balanced relaxation that translates through our touch to convey deep peacefulness and ease.
Jack Liskin, in his book Moving Medicine: The Life Work of Milton Trager, M.D., wrote, “The practitioner enters this state before beginning to work…and seeks to stay in this state throughout the work. In such a state, the practitioner is able to be intuitive, creative, dynamic, alive, and vibrant, peaceful but not passive. “The practitioner loads the atmosphere with the ‘virus’ of relaxation, peace and flowing movement. Every … touch is filled with it, until the receiver catches it and ‘comes down’ with it … It’s like the measles, you catch it from someone who has it.”
To remain focused on the client and the session, hour after hour, day after day, no matter what is going on in your life, is a discipline and a practice. This is the fruit of meditation practice, as we are more able to consistently bring our developing attention as a practice of daily living—professionally and personally.
Fresh, spacious observation
The interface between client and therapist is a rich source of two-directional dialogue of touching and being touched. Zero Balancing developer Fritz Smith, Ph.D., teaches a specific quality of contact in his work. He calls this “essential touch.” Meditation develops our ability to skillfully shift our reference of awareness simply by paying attention to that which we are aware of through our senses, with clarity and non-judgmental openness. We can change channels from what we are aware of internally through our sight, hearing and touch channels to what we are aware of in the environ- ment, such as the quality and temperature of the air, the sounds of traffic, the ticking of the clock; to the nearly limitless layers that we move through in our palpation—from skin, to muscle, to connective tissue, to energetic, to organ to circulatory flows.
Meditation helps us to develop choice-less awareness: a gap between our direct perception and our reactions to our perceptions. We learn to listen through our touch without distortions or distraction. We practice softening of our habitual attachment patterns so we can bring fresh, spacious observation. We support our clients’ well-being and personal development without attachment of our own agendas.
Meditation is essentially the study of the self. The practice is the laboratory where stability of consciousness is explored and developed. We practice withdrawal from the world of distraction in order to heighten and rejuvenate our ability to more fully engage with the world around us, from a more compassionate place.
Meditation practices have evolved in all cultures. In ancient India, the ancient yogic masters developed a system of practices that was first written in texts like the Bhagavad Gita, in the third or fourth century BC, and the Sutras written by Patanjali in the first or second century BC. Paramahansa Yogananda was one Indian teacher who brought the teachings of yoga and meditation to the West in the early 20th century.
Integrate into daily life
There are several basic elements required to establish and maintain a meditation practice. It can be valuable to find a teacher or a sangha (a community of meditators), at least to start off with best practices, as well as having support from like-minded practitioners.
- Regularity and prioritization: It is important to practice in small increments initially (10 to 30 minutes at a time), with well-disciplined regularity, in order to develop skillfulness.
- Breath practices: A basic and simple practice is to follow or watch the breath, maintaining slow and full inhalations and exhalations of equal length, observing the sensations generated by the flow of breathing. This requires returning the mind to just the breath, each time it wanders off, with kindness, just as you would train a puppy.
- Yoga can be a profound meditation practice if sitting still is too challenging at first. Yoga focuses our attention on the movement of the body and breath, as a gateway to the more subtle worlds of our mind and emotions.
We can start to integrate meditation into our daily life practices, finding moments when we can sit in stillness and bring attention to our breath and our present state of being in that moment. We can withdraw from the busyness and distraction of the world around us, and gather and re-align our wholeness, in order to return to the day well-nourished and at ease.
Open to bigness
The practice of meditation cultivates the benefits of coherence, and this begins to affect the way that we think about ourselves, our feelings and our choices. As we practice calming and quieting the mind, we can cultivate gaps between our thoughts and feelings, and our reactions to them.
We can develop an attitude of loving kindness toward all parts of ourselves, which can then expand into greater compassion for all beings. We can regain our wholeness, our ease, our delight, our ability to open to the bigness of who we are and the life that flows through us. It is from this state of being that we can best convey optimal therapeutic wellness through our massage work.
Meditation teacher, author and mind-body clinician Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., wrote, “Perhaps it is time to make the suspension of distraction a way of life.
Imagine how healthy it might be for us personally, and for the world at large. “We might truly come to know peace because we would be peaceful. Not naïve, not weak, not powerless but truly powerful, peace-embodying and peace-appreciating, in our true strength, in our true wisdom.”
Find your strength, your wisdom and your peace in meditation.
About the Author:
Linda Derick has been a massage therapist and educator for 30-plus years. She is director of the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy. Her leadership weaves together academic studies in movement from Wesleyan University, contemplative education from Naropa University, and her evolving avocation as a certified yoga instructor, specializing in stand-up paddleboard yoga. She has written regularly for MASSAGE Magazine, including “The Interplay of Ethics & Self-Care: Compassion for Self, Compassion for Others” (September) and “Public Speaking for Introverts: Promote Massage to the Public” .