Keynote, AMTA National Convention, Oct 16, 1999, San Antonio, TX

Massage and Recovery of the Soul

I am honored to be here with you today because of the increasingly crucial role you massage therapists are playing at this point in history where the life of the body and the natural world in which we gain our nurturance are in serious jeopardy. In your hands contacting the bodies of so many people, you are preserving, protecting the ancient wisdom that our bodies are sacred. A slightly different punctuation of the title of this conference highlights your historical role at this point in history: Instead of "Touching Tomorrow's Frontiers," it would read:

Touching: Tomorrow's Frontiers

The colon brings out both the important role of touch, now, and the ambiguities we face, a dangerous and unknown territory where we stand at this watershed in history. In the aftermath of this bloody century we have a shared awareness, new in contemporary history in its being explicit and reflective, that violence is the climate of our world: political violence-war, torture; and personal violence-abuse of children, women, and lowerclass men. Part and parcel of this new bringing to awareness of the pervasive atmosphere of violence is our knowledge that this does not need to be the case; violence is not the natural state of things, but a human perversion subject to change. The touches most commonly in use until now, taken for granted as natural, have been pushing, beating, striking, seducing, manipulating. You are in the vanguard of teaching vast numbers of people a different kind of touch and, consequently a radically different way of being together on this tender earth.


I first began my training in massage in 1971 at what was then the Santa Fe School of Massage under the direction of Jay Victor Scherer. It was a very magic time, though then it seemed quite ordinary. Dr. Scherer lived in one of those turn-of-the-century single-story frame houses on De Vargas St in the very heart of downtown, which then was indeed a quiet little town. His house, which also served as his office and school, embodied his blending of technical massage therapy with esoteric spiritual beliefs. The walls were covered with pictures of holy people of every tradition-the Buddha, Ramakrishna, Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Quan Yin. There were electronic purple flames in the closed-up fireplace to signify the healing fires of old esoteric traditions. Dr. Scherer and his elderly women attendants always wore pastels, white, lavender, pink, light green banlon-colors he associated with healing energies. He wore a roman collar with his jacket, suggesting a priestly aura.

There were only a handful of us in this course, which lasted several months. We were all refugees from somewhere else, having arrived in Santa Fe hoping to shape new lives.

Early on in the course, I had one of the most powerful dreams I ever remember. In the dream, I arrived at Dr. Scherer's house with him looking as he usually did-white coat and pants, roman collar-except for the fact that he was wearing an Indian headress. He invited us to sit in a circle on the floor. When we had all gathered there, he passed around a heavy hand-hewn stone bowl filled with small seeds. When the bowl came to me, I took a seed. When I put it in my mouth, I was instantly transported into an intensely powerful mystical journey, a totally other state of consciousness that lasted for what seemed a very long dreamtime. When I awoke I did not remember the content of the many visions which occured on that journey, just the feelings of being swept into another world of ecstatic bliss. When I told him the dream, he did not seem at all surprised. In later months, I was to find out that he had an easy sense of what then seemed to me as a very big gap between the technicalities of muscle manipulation, herbal remedies, and the great bodies of spiritual teaching.

From the very outset of my introduction to using my hands, I got the idea that massage therapy worked in a strange frontierland between two countries that were often in contention. One austere land is the highly technical, scientifically-based set of disciplined practices designed to relieve and relax tired muscles, helping ranchers, dancers, and athletes with chronic pain. The other is that more exotic world where Dr. Scherer's seeds carried me, a world where we sense the vastness of our lives, the depths of our loves and yearnings, possibilities for being much more than we are. I got a sense of the power of skillful and sensitive massage in evoking a fuller sense of the human being, of its capacity to draw the soul out of its tendency to hide from an outside world that is felt to be too dangerous. Touching flesh as a way of vivifying the soul.


I use the word soul here in its street sense: jazziness, the sparkle in the eyes, a sense of resilience and vitality, a lively gait, even courage, heartfulness. You see it clearly in the eyes, expressive face, and lively movement of a well-loved child. You see its diminishment in the blank face of the adult who has given up. You see its ending in the last moments of one who is consciously dying, where the liveliness slowly recedes from fingers, toes, into the head and torso, and then deep into some infinity. Soul, when understood in this way, not as some abstract ghostly being, is clearly dependent for its well-being on the natural world.


I also that crossover between skillful touch and mystical vision clearly mapped out among groups of Catholic nuns. A Franciscan nun from a healing center in Minnesota was enrolled in our Somatics graduate program some years ago. For her thesis, she did a before-and-after study in which she took ten nuns in her community over a period of six months and investigated the effects of massage and body awareness on their practice of prayer. The results among all the group were very dramatic, strong shifts in the depths of their engagement in their prayer practices. But the most dramatic result was in the case of a nun who was nearly 80-years old. She had had an early history of sexual abuse as a child, and lived her life in a completely disembodied way, hidden behind the veil. During the six months research period, she found herself undergoing a classical medieval mystical journey, centered on ecstatic body experiences, culminating in her being infused by the Holy Spirit with visions of Jesus entering her body in orgastic delight.

I was eventually invited to that healing center to give a week-long seminar in body-awareness. The participants were some 30 nuns from around the world, recuperating from their considerable commitments as heads of hospitals, religious orders, missionary clinics, schools. They were severely stressed out by their work, in some cases having serious problems with addiction or depression. Their religious orders had sent them all here to do a three-month recovery program, in which each nun had a massage daily as part of the regimen. Having being raised by nuns and having been a priest, I was a little disoriented by the regular sight of them coming downstairs in their robes from their bedrooms to the basement for their daily massages. As I got to know them, I was struck by how central massage was in their tapping into the depths of their spiritual sensibilities. Many of them had been drawn to lives of celibacy after early histories of abuse. Then, in the convent, they were subjected to the bossiness of priests, bishops, and the pope. I was deeply moved by the depths of their commitments to serve people in need-the sick and dying, the elderlya, young children. At the same time, it was painful to see how wounded they had been by all these obstructions, how dampened their spiritual passions had become. Massage awakened a vitality for them, a sense of groundedness to support them in carrying on their humane and important tasks.

Around that time, the editor of a national journal asked me to give a one-liner about what I saw as one of the year's most significant stories about religion. With little pause, I replied, the widespread use of therapeutic hands-on massage among communities of nuns as part of their spiritual practice. He said, that is a story!


Partly as a result of my work in that healing center, I was inspired to seek funding, which I got, to bring together body-workers and religious leaders in an attempt to rethink the very negative attitudes towards the body found in many religions. One of the members of our group, which lasted for three years, was an African American social worker in Denver. She is an active member of the freedom movement, formerly a neighbor of Martin Luther King, Jr, her husband a historian of the passages from Africa to America. As a girl, she learned traditional hands-on healing practices from her grandmother. She gradually developed an extraordinary holistic method of working with families who are in serious trouble. She goes to the home. She first gets the house in order, cleaning up, straightening things out, seeing that food is available. She helps various members do what they are supposed to be doing: kids going to school, adults going to work, handling cooking and cleaning. She deals with the interpersonal conflicts through group dialogue. And only finally, she does hands-on healing for those in the house who are sick or in stress. She sees all of this as a spiritual practice, and radiates a sense of deep compassion in her work at the very edges of a damaged world. In her compassion it is clear that hands are the closest to the life of the soul.


Nearly 15 years ago, I began to make connections with the international network of people working with survivors of political torture, which eventually led to our establishing a clinic to serve this community. At one of my early meetings with a group of Cambodian refugees in San Francisco, I was struck that they described how they managed to survive Pol Pot's brutality by saying their souls left their bodies-and, they said, they had never returned. They seemed that way: absent, little movement in their bodies, some of them unwilling to leave their rooms. While indeed they were concerned about physical results of the torture-crippling of limbs, intestinal problems, headaches, etc., they were more concerned about recovering their souls, particularly in a new culture where their spiritual healers no longer were available, if even alive.

In the studies over the years of how to work with these sadly huge populations of people from all over the world, it has become clear that massage is a central part of the recovery. And not only or even primarily to lessen the physical results of the torture, but to restore the sense of liveliness that enables one to get up each morning and work slowly to create a new life, a recovery of soul.


In 1983, I founded the first graduate degree program in Somatics, now located at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. It was not too many years into the program when I became aware that people who entered our program without a training in massage were serious problems: they didn't have a feel for the actual body, though they had expressed interested in it when they applied. What they meant by body was not this sweating heaving breathing reality, but some abstraction. For that reason, we introduced massage training as a prerequisite for entry into our program. And that has served us very well.

It is hard to explain to people outside our community what this means. It's not that we feel it is important that people know how to massage because they will be using this in their future professional lives. Many of our graduates never or rarely use touch in their practice. It's that there is a privileged understanding of the human being that is accessible only through touch. We have found that training and practice of massage makes a psychotherapist more sensitive to the nuances present in people's non-verbal bodily messages; it gives a therapist a fuller sense of a feeling-filled connection with his or her clients. It is in this and many other instances that I have come to think that training in massage should be part of everyone's education, more important than geography and algebra.

I would say that about two-thirds of our graduates over the 16 years of our existence have come to our program out of massage practice. They, like myself at Dr. Scherer's School, are taken by the challenge of dealing head-on with the crossover between tense muscles, held breath, and problems of the soul.

In my role as developing job opportunities for our graduates, I became involved with the Calif State Legislature as member of a 3-person consulting team drafting a new law governing the practice of marriage, family, and child counseling. I was able to establish the legitimation of the use of hands-on work within the context of psychotherapy, given a publicly authorized program of study, open to scrutiny, that engaged in addressing the problems of working in this strange land between sore muscles and damaged souls. So our many graduates are now spread thoughout the land doing exactly that, and we have a clinic in which the problems of living within this strange frontierland are supervised by senior practitioners.

The strange thing is that even with this public authorization, every day I hear psychologists saying that it is illegal to incorporate touch within the context of psychotherapy, even in our own Institute our students are challenged by professors and students in other programs. The fear of touch in any intimate context outside of a mechanistic physical therapy context is enormous.

The natural world is in serious jeopardy. Many of its elements-animal and plant species, human languages and subcultures, are already gone; others-clean water and air, topsoil, forests-teeter on the edge of extinction. You, with ecologists, appropriate technologists, small groups of natural scientists, and a few others, are among those who are perserving ancient and neglected wisdoms. At this point in our difficult history, the survival of many life forms depends on how strongly the voices of all these communities can be joined to resist the forces of destruction, how clear you can be about the deep and wide impact of your important work.

And those dangers to our soul sustenance come not only from the depradations of commerce and politics whereby technologies, wars, and the demands of jobs unrelated to place have increasingly eroded our being at home together in a familiar world of seasonal variations with its wild animals, birds, flowers, vegetation, and young children at play. There are some powerful intellectual and scientific voices at work that diminish our common valuing of the natural soul, creating a deep sense of homelessness.

New astrophysical interpretations of telescopic knowledge of the heavens would have us whirling about in unimaginably vast impersonal spaces with no direction that has anything to do with human purpose. The old cosmologies that gave us a sense of being meaningfully situated among the stars and planets are ripped asunder.

Advances in the enormously significant human genome project and in the field of artificial intelligence have greatly increased the dominant notion of the human body as an elaborate electronic mechanism whose old messy forms are steadily being replaced with supposedly more effective prostheses. Behavioral problems are increasingly treated with designer drugs. Scientists like Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec argue that in less than 20 years we will be able to download human consciousness into a computer and be done with the body, a poorly designed mess, they say.

You massage therapists exist in the heart of this challenge. You, who together are touching an enormous population, are in your very work giving the lie to those who would argue for the triviality of these basic human realities. You are subject to the great tensions of being on the front lines of this challenge. And like anyone on the front lines, you don't have an easy time of it, emotionally or financially.


During the 30 years since my first massage class with Dr Scherer, therapeutic massage has moved from the margins of handfuls of therapists here and there to becoming a major fixture of our communities.

Then, people smiled knowingly if one said one was a massage therapist, since it was commonly associated with erotic massage. There were very few massage therapists then, in New Mexico or anywhere else. Mostly located in spas like Truth or Consequences, Ojo Caliente, and in gyms. Our little class in Santa Fe were among the few who were the first to be licensed in New Mexico when the State Massage Board was legislated in 1972. Since then there has been a breathtaking expansion of therapists and schools. In Santa Fe, last time I was there about five years ago, there were at least three schools, all much larger than the original, and the city was filled with notices of massage therapy, just as is now the case virtually anywhere you go.

Just in the past few years, therapeutic massage has enjoyed dramatic biomedical breakthroughs. Dr. Tiffany Field at the U. of Miami's Touch Research Institute has initiated many research projects demonstrating the efficacy of therapeutic massage for otherwise intractable problems ranging from the treatment of prematurely born infants to workers in the factory. Her studies are grounded in lab research and animal experiments in many universities, which have demonstrated the profound effects of touch on immune functioning. David Eisenberg of Harvard has carried forward his epidemiological studies which have demonstrated the unguessed-at widespread use of therapeutic massage, along with the discovery that virtually no one tells his or her physician about it. His studies, which continue, have been central in opening up the National Institutes of Health to the importance of this practice for public health.

But there are dark sides of this now widespread interest in massage. In this late postcolonial phase of our history, there are few exotic lands, peoples, or species to satisfy the restless urge to find out about something relatively unknown and capitalize on it. When something does arise, there is a rush among the bigtime gamehunters to get there and figure it all out. Much of the excitement at the National Institutes of Health surrounding David Eisenberg's study concerned the fact that people were not telling their primary physicians about their use of alternative therapies. The medical community was concerned that these practices needed monitoring, scientific investigation, control, and incorporation into the medical networks under the direction of physicians.

One result of this new biomedical interest in massage is that the therapeutic efficacies become paramount, because these are what biomedicine is designed to investigate. But the profound effects on one's sense of being human, of revitalizing the soul, are obscured. Therapeutic massage comes to be contextualized as providing additions to existing models of physical therapy, brought under the intellectual and financial control of physicians.

It is useful to ride this wave of interest, cleverly profiting from it in the spirit of old coyote, but not being swept away by it, maintaining, articulating your unique voice about the meaning of this work, not allowing that voice be diminshed by the overwhelmingly powerful language of instruments and mathematics.

Remembrance and Burnout

I know that dealing with burnout is a major concern of any therapist, of whatever kind. There are many aspects of dealing with it; I want to focus on one: remembrance of who you are and why you are drawn to this profound work, the ancient wisdom you guard. This is not easy, in the midst of hard work in clinics, with people who are just wanting a quick fix or the relief of a sore muscle. And yet forgetfulness leaves its physical scars.

Some of you may know Charlotte Selver and her work. She will be 99 this April, the pioneer in the United States of Sensory Awareness which she brought here from Germany in the dark days of 1938. I was once working with her doing an exercise where she asked us to place our hands on the shoulders of our partners, simply letting them be there, sensing what was given. One of the young women in the group complained that placing her hands in that way was too uncomfortable, she couldn't find the right posture. Charlotte replied, so what?

Within the context of that work, at a time when I was constantly struggling to get comfortable in my own work by altering the height of my table, adjusting the angles of my hands on my clients and my feet, I found her works like the blow of a Zen master. I realized it was my ambivalence more than postures or table design that for many years caused me physical discomfort. If one is deeply grounded in one's vision, one is not so occupied with comfort, because the juices that are evoked by consciously dipping into one's deepest sense of being able here and now to enrich life carry one through the tedium of everyday work, making it easier.

Hard to do. . . you need support, you need to create that support if you don't have it, small groups of people who share your vision who will engage with you in remembering why you are here.

Since 1967, I have been close to members of the massage crew at Esalen Institute. They are an extraordinary group of people, many of whom have lived and worked at Esalen since its beginning 35 years ago, and who have consistently had the opportunity to study with the many gifted people who come thru there. Their work reflects this patient and long attention to the development of skill with gifted teachers in a visionary environment.It also reflects a plight and challenge for the practice of massage, which have to do with language, with giving voice to the significance of your work.

The international stars who stand out in the public eye as the mainstays of Esalen-Fritz Perls, Alexander Lowen, Charlotte Selver, Ida Rolf, Stan Grof, and most of the well-known workshop leaders-have their seminars structured so that there is not only direct experiential work, but also a great deal of talking about the various works: their significance, their relation to other works, how people experience them, etc. There is a great deal of training in these sessions on how to speak close to the flesh, articulating the truth in a way that moves one forward, and enriches the community.

I was once being interviewed by an author who was doing a feature article on Esalen's 25th anniversary. He asked me what I thought was the most significant component of Esalen's history. I told him the massage crew. He seemed puzzled, listing all the famous people who have come thru Esalen over the years giving workshops. But, I replied, only the massage crew has remained; they have studied with all these teachers, they are the integrators, they are the ones carrying on something of lasting importance. He paused and said, now that I think about it, massage has had a huge impact on me, it's really the main reason why I keep coming back to Esalen. And he proceeded to tell me some memories of the extraordinary effects of massage over the years, improving his relationships to his loved ones, opening him to the depths of spirituality, releasing powerful feelings, etc. I asked him if he had ever told any of this to his practitioners. No, he said, I never had the chance.

In contrast to what happens in the widely publicized seminars, there is little talk between the massage therapists and their clients, nor much discussion about the impact of their work. For that reason, I adopted a practice whereby at the end of a seminar I have conducted in which massage has been experienced by all the participants, I invite the massage therapists to a final session to discuss the work. Inevitably, the conversation becomes juicy and rich with meaning. Given the opportunity to express their own approach to the work, the therapists speak with inspiration about their sensitivities to these particular people, the richness they have intuited under their hands. In their turn, the participants are able to verbalize the deep experiences of imagination, relief, vision, that they experienced during the sessions.

Here is a perfect example of how silence can stifle the unfolding of soul. As therapist and client work to express what each brings to the encounter, there is an expansion of soul in both. Language is not only a pale photograph of a much more colorful and nuanced reality; it can, when it is close to the heart, be the vehicle for expressing the full and deep meaning of those delicate appearances of spirit that otherwise may easily diasppear from consciousness. In many job situations, it is impossible to introduce meaningful language; you may have to create your own support groups to deal with this challenge, with like-minded therapists, perhaps even a few interested clients, who want to struggle with giving voice to these primal ancient wisdoms that are embedded in connective tissues and bodily fluids.

At the end of the Neolithic Age there were some 20,000 languages; now there are 6,000 of which 300 are being taught to children. And in each of those, the vocabularies are greatly diminished. There are so many fewer words to describe accurately what you and your clients experience in this rich interchanges. It takes a work of recovery.

Moreover, even without talk, your remembrance has a non-verbal effect on the wakening of your clients to deeper regions of their own souls. I think most of us here are aware of that phenomenon which is so strange to those who do not use touch as we do: that touch, without words, evokes in our clients the worlds of experience to which we ourselves are open. Our own beings are communicated through our touch. Your lively remembrance of who you are and why you are doing this work, the wisdom you carry and transmit, evokes something deeper in your clients, without words. Perhaps putting in their hands the seeds of dreams that will lurk in their sleep, like Dr. Scherer's seeds.

Massage is an integral part of my daily life. I have a five-year-old son. When he was born at home, my wife and I massage him daily from the outset. We didn't discuss this, didn't do it because research or self-help books told us it was a good idea. Being with each other in this way had become part of us, just as much as thoughtful feelingful verbal conversation. We just did it, just as we massage each other in times of stress or just to communicate. I'm sure many of you do the same. It is this daily incorporation of sensitive touch into our lives and larger communities-not just reduced to a speciality practiced by a few therapists-that contains a modest hope for a more humane world. You are the bearers of this touching hope, its vanguard of teachers, as we approach tomorrow's dimly lit frontiers.

In that spirit of a vision of incorporating touch into daily life that I conclude with this poem:


by Naomi Shihab Nye


These shriveled seeds we plant,

corn kernel, dried bean,

poke into loosened soil,

cover over with measured fingertips


These T-shirts we fold into

perfect white squares


These tortillas we slice and fry into crisp strips

This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl


This bed whose covers I straighten

smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket

and nothing hangs out


This envelope I address

so the name balances like a cloud

in the center of the sky


This page I type and retype

This table I dust till the scarred wood shines

This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again

like flags we share, a country so close

no one needs to name it


The days are nouns: touch them

The hands are churches that worship the world

from "Words Under the Words" Far Corner Books/Eighth Mountain Press1995.