Monday, June 02, 2008


I have deeply mixed feelings about doing intake interviews. I have the forms I made up, a long checklist of things (diabetes, warts, asthma, etc., etc., on and on for two pages) for the client to fill out and sign. Legally I have to do something of the sort. I'm often glad to know about the stuff people fill in. But it feels aggressive and intrusive to me, and an unfortunate way to start a therapeutic relationship. I soften it by saying, "this is just a checklist, to remind you if there's anything you want me to know about." But it brings the air of the medical office with it, hints at the capricious authoritarian rule of insurance companies, brings in the whole label-and-dismiss atmosphere that has displaced healing in our world. I hate it. It says, "you might sue me, and God help us both if you do."

(As it happens, massage therapists are very seldom sued: the cheapness of my liability insurance was a pleasant surprise. But still, that's the world we live in.)

One of the reasons I dislike it is that it throws a wrench into things right at the beginning. In general my policy would be, if the client says something about it, they want me to do something about it. But do they? If they put "bipolar disorder" or "depression" under "major illnesses" -- should I assume they just wrote it down because they're conscientiously filling out a form (or possibly even under the impression that they're legally obliged to mention it?) Or should I say -- "where do you feel that in your body? How can I lay hands on it and ease it?" -- which seems to me a perfectly rational thing to say, but would probably strike a lot of people as nonsense, if not mockery.

The information is genuinely useful, and people wouldn't bring most of it up if they weren't nudged by the forms. Still I'd like to find a good way of saying, "if you feel like it's none of my damn business, then it's probably not. Don't tell me anything you don't feel like telling me." I don't feel that being someone's masseur entitles me to know their whole medical history. The whole medical model of massage -- the idea that massage is a treatment for a disorder -- seems to me a very unfortunate, ill-fitting one. Every once in a while, sure. Someone will get off the table and say "wow, my back pain is just gone." Which makes me very happy, although I know that it will probably return, and that half an hour in a hot tub would very likely have had the same effect. What makes massage special is not its medical efficacy, which is not particularly impressive, but the fact that it's shared; a physical intimacy, but one that doesn't make demands and provisos. We're just so damned lonely in our bodies, stranded in them. Nobody cares about the tension in your shoulders, not your doctor, not your lover, not your friends; not unless you're very very lucky. Not the way a massage therapist cares about it. Not so as to take it on, to feel it as their own business, to want to know it with their own body, undo it with their own hands. It's not so much that we can make the tension go away. Maybe we can and maybe we can't. It's the fact that we're interested, that we want to know all about it, that it's worth all of our attention and love. That's what makes massage special. For once the body is getting its due, for once it's being treated as if it was something important in its own right, as if its comfort and pleasure was something that mattered.

I am glad that Buddhism gives me a place to stand, here. I'd feel this way anyway, but the Dharma gives me a vocabulary for it. That every person is infinitely precious, a buddha. I want to bring the same attention and devotion to every massage that I'd bring to washing the Buddha's feet. Because that's really what it is, really the truth of the matter. Every thing that lives is holy. Contempt and disregard aren't realism, they're ignorance.

I think what I love about massage is that I feel that, during a massage, I am able to attend to people with the reverence and intensity that makes sense to me, that has always made sense to me, but which is generally considered inappropriate in the (sogenannt) real world.

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