Healing Energy: Nature’s Way

When I teach energy work at the Arcata School of Massage, I start by saying that nothing that I teach will be hypothetical, metaphorical, esoteric, imaginary or faith-based.  I also say that all of energy work methods I teach are based on my own personal experience.  By personal experience, I don’t mean my thoughts, ideas, beliefs, or fantasies, and I don’t mean ideas or techniques that I’ve learned from someone else – I mean that I will only teach those things that I have experienced directly through my own physical senses. 

reiki There is a commonly held assumption that arises in our minds when a massage or bodywork therapist starts talking about healing energy. We assume that they must be talking about a magical, invisible force that they imagine comes flowing out of their hands and into their clients’ bodies.  The assumption that healing energy has magical, supernatural qualities is so widespread that when I first tell my students that I will not be talking about any of that, I can see the looks of wonder come across their faces.  If energy work isn’t some cosmic New Age idea, then what is it?

Everything in the universe is always becoming something else.  There is absolutely no object, large or small, that isn’t in a constant state of transformation.  Things that seem to be standing still are just changing slowly compared to us, but there is no exception to this rule: Everything in the universe is always changing.

Consider all of the things in the room with you right now.  Someday, all of these things will disappear. These words, the chair you are sitting on, the building that you are in – at first they didn’t exist, and then someone made them.  Now they are slowly decaying, and someday, they will crumble, to become something else.  Your body, every rock, every planet and every galaxy comes into being out of something else, and then gradually becomes something else. Everything is like this, without a single exception.  All you have to do to know this without a doubt is to watch the world and think about it for a few minutes.  It is an indisputable fact.

Not only is every object in the physical world constantly arising, changing, and then ceasing, so is every thought and concept that arises in your mind.  Thoughts arise and cease in your mind like smoke rises from incense and then disperses into space.  No thought lasts for long.  Emotions are the same, coming and going in waves like the tides.  If you don’t like an emotion, just wait, it will change.  Physical sensations run through your body as quickly as a river flows down a riverbed, a constant stream of sensations. Everything that we can be aware of, in our minds, in our bodies, and in the world that surrounds us, is in a constant state of motion and transformation.

This universal movement and transformation gives rise to what we call life.  Life is an interesting form of universal movement, because living things do not transform in the same ways as dead things.  A dead body immediately begins a process of organic decay, and undergoes rapid transformations that we can see progress much more quickly than in living bodies, until all signs of life are gone, and we are left with dirt and water, heat and wind.

Living bodies will eventually die, but from the moment of conception, they transform in ways that prolong their own life processes.  Living organisms maintain their organization longer than would the non-living components they are made of if those components weren’t organized in a living way.  Our cells die, and are replaced by new, living cells, but the organism as a whole maintains a remarkable state of continuity throughout its “life.” In this way, living beings move and transform differently than non-living things.

Noticing this marked difference between the movement and transformations of living organisms compared to non-living objects, human beings throughout history have naturally come up with the idea of life force, or energy.  The story goes something like this: As long as there is life force, or energy, living organisms move and transform like living organisms.  When the life energy of an organism decreases, it gets sick, it moves more slowly, and it approaches death.  When the life energy is gone, the organism is dead, and then it moves and transforms in the manner of all non-living things.  This story corresponds very accurately with what we can see happening all the time in the world around us.

Or we could describe it a little bit differently and say that all living organisms need to ingest and transform the stored energy of the sun – plus a little dirt and water – to maintain our life energy. First, plants take in the energy of the sun and transform it with the help of air, water, and nutrients made of the dead bodies of other organisms and non-organic compounds found in the soil.  In this way, plants capture the energy of the sun, and become food for animals and other plants.  Animals eat plants and other animals, and so we eat the stored energy of the sun.

When it comes down to it, we all eat sunlight, and the heat that we produce as a result of ingesting and releasing that stored energy is the heat of life.  When we eat enough sunlight, we get enough energy, and then we have the energy we need to move about to get more sun/food.  If we don’t eat enough food, then we get less energy, and find it harder to move about.  If we don’t eat at all, soon we cannot move, and when we cannot move, we cannot get food, so we run out of energy and die. Even if we get enough food and water and air all the time, our aging cells will still eventually begin to fail to maintain life.  No matter what, we will die.  We will become dirt and water, heat and wind.  The sunlight warmth of our life energy will disperse into space.

The entire universe is always moving and organizing itself into life, and then disorganizing that life back into dirt, water, heat and wind.  While there are some differences in the movements and transformations of living beings versus non-living things, it is the whole movement of the universe that ultimately gives rise to life.  Life is made of non-living things.  In this way, we can understand what people mean when they say that all things – living and non-living – are moved and organized by life force.  This concept of universal life force describes how non-living things become living things. All human cultures have stories, myths, and healing traditions based on the idea of universal life force.

Some conditions are not conducive to life.  Living organisms need the right amount of air, water, heat, food, and movement in order to stay healthy.  Living organisms can be damaged, so that the organism as a whole has a more difficult time maintaining its life force.  Stress, injuries, diseases, and poor nutrition all have this effect.

Beautifully, all living organisms have the ability to self-heal as part of their natural function.  The ability to self-heal is an indispensible aspect of the life process.  In fact, the ability to self-heal is the characteristic of life that makes life possible.  As soon as an organism loses its ability to self-heal, it begins dying.  We call the organized universal movement and transformation that creates the self-healing activities of life “healing energy.”

The concept of healing energy describes the capacity of living organisms to continuously transform and organize non-living things into forms and structures that sustain their life. Our cells die, but our remaining living cells replicate just as quickly. Our tissues are damaged and deteriorate, but our living cells make new tissues.  Our organs filter and transform nutrients and eliminate toxins, to make life energy available for our cells. To accomplish their healing work, our cells consume life-force-sunlight-food, mix it with air and water, and turn it into new cells and tissues.  This self-healing is called cellular catabolism and anabolism – the processes of breaking down food and then recombining its components to form new tissues, sugars, and fats.  Self-healing is also clearly seen in the processes of inflammation – the process of building new tissue when old tissue is damaged or deteriorated.

When you cut your finger, your finger self-heals.  When you get a flu virus that disrupts the functionality of your cells and organs, your body destroys the virus and repairs its damaged cells and organs.  If you don’t eat enough protein, your body metabolizes its own protein to use as energy for continued cellular life and function.  Your body does all kinds of things to keep itself alive and functioning well. Science has a name for this: it’s called homeostasis.  Homeostasis means, “stays the same.”  Living organisms have many ways that they move and transform the elements in order maintain the balanced state conducive to life, and we call those movements and transformations “healing.”

Human beings are unique among living organisms in that we need a great deal of physical contact with other humans in order to maintain homeostasis.  Newborn babies left untouched quickly perish, even if they are given proper nourishment.  The bones, muscles, and nervous systems of newborn human beings are not fully formed, and require the stimulation of touch and movement in order to develop properly.  We are born without the ability to walk or talk, and require direct contact with other people in order to properly form the physical structures that will ultimately allow us to walk and talk.  We form our bodies and our minds in response to the world around us – and specifically in response to our contact with other people.

Once we are viable on our own, our need for physical contact diminishes, but never disappears.  A perfect example of our continued need for touch is found in the delightful sigh of relief that washes through us when another person touches us in a comforting way.  There is just something about being touched in a comforting way that makes it easier to relax.  I believe that this phenomenon harkens back to our primate ancestry.  Monkeys only groom each other when they feel safe.  So, when humans engage in similar kinds of touch, it indicates to the primate-like aspect of our central nervous system that we are safe.  This sense of safety de-activates our fight-or-flight response and activates our rest-and-recover state.  This shift from fight-or-flight, or sympathetic dominance, to rest-and-recover, or parasympathetic dominance, is the primary reason that all healing modalities work.

Whether a therapist calls their service Healing Chi Kung, or Polarity Therapy, or Reiki, or God’s love, or whatever, in most cases the room is warm and quiet, the client is comfortable, the tone of the therapist’s voice is soothing, their movements are measured and predictable, their touch is skilled and changes in response changes in the client’s state, and it isn’t likely that fast-moving, loud and unpredictable people are going to come bursting into the room.  In other words, it is a safe time to engage in some primate grooming.  Ahh…

The beneficial effects of this shift into parasympathetic dominance are widespread, and at times, awe-inspiring.  An hour or two of skilled touch by a sensitive energy worker can relax muscles, change hormone production, move stagnant fluid, change thought patterns, change movement patterns, change our very sense of self, and transform our habitual responses to stimulation from the outside world.  In the state of parasympathetic dominance, the efficiency of cellular metabolism increases, tissue repair happens more quickly and produces less scar tissue, and organ function improves body-wide.  In other words, skilled touch directly supports and enhances life’s capacity to self-heal, and that is certainly energy work.

In a larger sense, a therapist who is “doing energy work” is fulfilling their natural role as a social organism, and allowing himself or herself to become part of the naturally perfect and life-creating movement of the entire universe.  We are nature being nature, life being life, form being form.  The universe is always moving in ways that support life and healing, and we are part of that universe.  This is why so many energy work modalities guide people into understanding that there is really nothing to do.  Life heals.  That’s it.  And for some reason, human life heals better in the company of other human life – especially under the effects of caring touch in a safe space.

There is one more aspect of energy work that needs mentioning.  It has to do with the fact that we are no longer monkeys.  We have become storytellers. The human mind, with its capacity to form mental concepts and images, has developed the ability to create worlds of ideas that seem very real to our primate bodies. With our storytelling minds, we create conceptualized mental imagery that we label as “VERY IMPORTANT!” With these thoughts and images, we constantly trick our bodies into thinking that something actually important is happening – even when most of the time, nothing of much significance is happening at all.  Keeping this job is very important.  Staying in this relationship is very important.  Looking this way is very important. Likewise, we create stories about things that are “VERY BAD.”  Losing this job is very bad.  Losing this relationship is very bad. Looking this way is very bad.  In all cases, our bodies believe our minds.

Movies are amazing examples of how strongly our bodies believe stories and images.  We sit in the theater and flood our senses with lights, sounds, and stories, and our bodies respond as if what is happening on the screen is really happening. We get happy, sad, scared, and even fall in love. Whenever we tell our bodies that something wonderful and exciting is happening, or that something terrible and frightening is happening, our bodies obediently respond with joy or fear, or whatever we tell them to feel.  We don’t need movies to do this.  We do it all the time in the silent solitude of our own imaginations.

I’ll tell you a story from my own life that nicely illustrates the point. For some reason, although I am of average build, I have always thought of myself as being short.  Once, while standing inside a bus in India, I had to stoop down so that my head wouldn’t hit the ceiling.  Looking around, I noticed that I was the only person on the bus who was having this problem.  Everyone else could stand up straight without hitting their heads. I immediately felt very tall! In fact, I felt tall and happy for the rest of the day. It was a wonderful feeling. I felt relieved of the low-grade stress about the mental self-image of shortness that I had created and then carried with me for many years!  All of it, from feeling short to feeling tall, was completely made up in my mind.  While nothing at all had changed in the world, my body got very excited about the new story I created in my mind.

The human body believes our mentally fabricated stories about what is good and bad – like self image and the importance of owning objects – and responds to those stories in exactly the same way that it responds to real good and bad things – like healthy food and physical pain.  The body responds to our so-called “good” stories with reward responses. Yes! I got the job!   And it activates the fight-or-flight response when presented with so-called “bad” stories. Damn! I lost the job!  In most cases, our good stories are about getting pleasant stimulation and positive social recognition, and our bad stories are about losing pleasant stimulation and getting negative social recognition. Feeding off of the neurochemistry of reward and loss, human societies have organized themselves primarily around stories about objects and ideas, and secondarily around actual physical reality and relationships.

When it comes down to it, we need only adequate nutrition, water, exercise and shelter to stay physically healthy, and we need only caring touch and positive social engagement to stay mentally and emotionally happy, but due to our incredible storytelling abilities, and the phenomena that our bodies believe the stories we tell ourselves, we have built up massive societies and economies that deal more in stories about the imaginary value of ideas and objects than in real healthy food, healthy families, and healthy work.  Most of the stress that is widespread in human societies today is stress about our ideas and concepts.  From a purely physical perspective, modern humans in developed countries like ours should be experiencing very little stress.  Most of us have plenty of food, good shelter, and tons of social interaction.  And yet stress is the hallmark of our modern civilizations, and most of it is in response to stories made up in our minds.

Stories about keeping what we have, not liking what we get, and wanting what we don’t have all produce stress.  It is unfortunate that human beings have become so fixated on telling ourselves these kinds of stories, since it is obvious that in a universe of constant motion and change, we will never keep what we have, and we can only get what our actions and our circumstances provide.  In contrast, stories about accepting loss and serendipity as unavoidable and even valuable aspects of existence reduce stress, since they counteract our stories about keeping and wanting things.

We use positive kinds of stories as part of our energy healing work.  When both therapist and client think that healing energy is flowing in from a benevolent universal source, our bodies believe this story, and respond accordingly.  For millennia, human storytellers have seen the powerful healing effects of caring touch, and have made up many wonderful stories about how it works.  This essay is one such story – one of many.  We need not argue amongst ourselves about what is real or not real.  From the perspective our bodies, what we think and what we sense are exactly the same.  So listen reverently to our stories about healing – be they about healing energy, life force, Chi, Qi, Mana, Prana, Polarity, Reiki, angels, cellular metabolism, or spirit guides.  Let your mind give these stories to your body as precious gifts, and feel your body respond by healing itself.




Caring Touch: A Fundamental Of Therapeutic Massage

Very often, when new students start practicing massage for the first time, they assume that massage involves rubbing, squeezing, and pressing on tight spots on client’s bodies to make them relax.  Also, both givers and receivers tend to assume that if you find a tight spot that is also tender – so that when you press on it, it hurts a little bit (or even more than a little bit) – then that’s a good place to press harder.  Since most of the time that “technique” is fairly ineffective and people don’t seem to relax from it, then it is assumed that to make it more effective, you have to press even harder.  A lot of friendly shoulder rubs turn out this way, with the receiver breathing through the mild to moderate pain as the giver’s thumbs dig into the tightest, most tender places on their shoulders.

Many people really do enjoy this approach to massage, and there are reasons for that.  One reason is that the pain produces endorphins, which are the body’s natural opiate pain modulators.  An endorphin-high does feel nice, but the body only releases endorphins when it is in a stress state.  In that case, the mild to moderately painful sensations produced by the massage trigger a stress state, and the body releases endorphins to modulate the pain.  In other words, the body says, “Uh oh, that hurts, and hurting isn’t good, so I’m going to release some pain modulators.”  It is not a state of relaxation – it is a stress response.

Another reason why many people enjoy painful massage is because the strong sensation helps you to pay attention to your body.  Because muscles are under our voluntary control, the principle way to get them to relax is to pay attention to them.  Muscles don’t really relax – they just contract or don’t contract, and the signal to contract comes from the nervous system. A tight muscle is a muscle that is getting a sustained unconscious signal from the nervous system to contract, and the sustained contraction makes it sore.  In order for the muscle to relax, it needs the signal from the nervous system to become conscious, and then it can consciously deactivated. When someone presses on the sore, tight muscle and produces pain in the tired, inflamed tissue, a side effect is that the receiver’s attention goes to that place.  Since the muscles we massage are voluntary muscles, once a person pays attention to them, they can begin the voluntary process of relaxing them.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: While you are receiving a vigorous shoulder rub from a friend or massage therapist, it hurts (not too bad, kind of good, or just on the edge of tolerable), and you find yourself concentrating all of your attention on that area, maybe enjoying yourself (maybe not so much), and also kind of looking forward to when it’s over.  One way to get it over-with more quickly is to relax the muscles that are hurting, and since you are concentrating your attention on those muscles, you may be able to relax them a little bit.  Then, when the shoulder rub is over, you feel pleasantly refreshed from the endorphins, and more relaxed because you voluntarily relaxed your muscles.  In that situation, the person giving you a shoulder rub has stimulated your fight-or-flight response, caused and endorphin rush, and focused your awareness on a particular area.  That is the style of many massages given in the world today.

On the other hand, you may have also received a massage or shoulder rub that was too light, too weak, and not as effective as the deeper, painful kind.  In that case, there wasn’t enough pain to cause your body to release endorphins, and there wasn’t enough sensation to help you focus your awareness.  Thus, many people who have had both of those experiences (deep, painful massage, and light, boring massage) naturally tend to prefer the deep, painful approach, because at least it gets something done.

But something about this doesn’t seem right. It’s the part about the fight-or-flight response.  Stress-related diseases are the leading causes of preventable death in the United States – and by stress we mean the fight-or-flight response.  Massage that stimulates the fight-or-flight response is counterproductive.  We’re supposed to reduce stress, not add to it. So, the question is, do you want to be part of that problem or part of the solution?  Of course, that’s a rhetorical question.  To be part of the solution, you’ve got to carefully and attentively study touch and its relationship to the fight-or-flight response, and learn ways of touching that stimulate the rest-and-recover response instead.

We call the kind of touch that stimulates the body’s natural rest-and-recover response “caring touch,” because when we come from a place of caring, we are naturally sensitive enough to notice the effects that our touch is having.  If we touch a person in such a way that they breathe a sigh of relief, relax and smile, then we must be using caring touch.

Caring touch can have the same effect as painful touch in that it can help a person focus their attention on a particular area, so that they can voluntarily relax that area.  But instead of pain, the sensation that we use to help a person focus their attention is pleasure.  The benefit of pleasurable sensations is that they don’t necessarily stimulate the fight-or-flight response.  To be accurate, it should be said that all touch initially stimulates a small fight-or-flight response, simply because the fight-or-flight response is the body’s natural reaction to all new stimulation from an outside source.  But just after that initial response, a person can relax into pleasurable sensations in a way that is completely different than what happens with pain sensations.  So, to help a person focus their awareness and relax, caring touch relies on pleasurable sensations, rather than painful sensations.  This is especially true in the beginning of a massage when the client is settling down into the rest-and-recover state.  During some treatments, an experienced therapist may use stronger, pain-like sensations for various purposes, but only after they are familiar with the whole relaxation process and the anatomy of the area.

There are important qualities of listening and responding that go into creating caring touch.  These qualities are most easily described by using the example of a conversation between friends.  If you notice that your friend is very stressed out and upset, and you walk up to her and abruptly say, “You should relax.  You should let go of your worries,” she’s not very likely to say, “Yeah, you’re right,” breathe a sigh of relief, instantly relax, and stop worrying. If you’re good enough friends that she’s willing to tolerate your rude behavior (let’s pretend she is), then she might say, “It’s not that easy.  I have real problems, and big decisions to make!  I can’t just let go of my problems.  I have to deal with them.”  At that point, if you step forward, raise your voice a little bit, and say, “No!  You should just relax!  Don’t hold on to your problems!” then, even though she was willing to tolerate your rude advice once, this time, she just shakes her head, says, “Whatever, man,” and walks away.  Raising your voice certainly won’t help your friend relax and feel better.

Now let’s consider that situation in terms of the conversation that a massage therapist has with their clients on a physical level.  If the woman in the story is not your friend, but instead your client, and otherwise everything else is the same, then let’s look at what that conversation looks like when you put it into the context of the therapist’s quality of touch.  The therapist notices that the client is very stressed out and upset.  The therapist finds evidence of this from the way she talks, the way she moves, and the way her muscles feel.  The therapist quickly finds the tightest place on the woman’s shoulders, and begins to press hard on that place.  It is moderately painful, and the client is immediately aware that she is very tight in that area.

With their abrupt and direct quality of touch, therapist is effectively saying, “You should relax.  Let go of this tension.”  But for the client, it’s too soon in the massage, and the pressure just hurts and reminds her that she’s really tight.  She says, “Wow, that’s really tight and sore right there,” which is a form of body awareness, and can in that way lead to relaxation.  But have you ever just had a place that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get it to relax?  Well, given her stress level at the time, let’s say this is one of those places.  By not relaxing into the pressure, and stating that it feels tight and sore, the client is saying something similar to, “It’s not that easy.  I have real problems.  I can’t just let go.” Since she is unable to relax, the therapist pushes harder into the tight, sore area, ignoring the fact that the technique really isn’t working, and instead just “raising their voice,” so to speak, by making a strong physical demand.  At that point the client is experiencing real pain, noticing how tight she is, and getting frustrated with herself for not being able to relax.  Since the therapist is in the power position in the relationship (unlike in a friendship), often clients in this situation give up their power, and resign themselves to whatever the therapist wants to do.  In the best case, the pain produces some endorphins and the body awareness helps with some voluntary relaxation, but that’s not an ideal outcome by any means.

Reading this story, it may seem like I am pointing out the obvious, and describing a bad scenario that anyone with a shred of common sense would avoid, but the fact of the matter is that I have just described the communication between therapist and client in a surprising majority of professional massage interactions.  The reason that this kind of interaction is so widespread is that standardized, institutionalized Swedish and Deep Tissue Massage training programs place too much of an emphasis on technique, and not enough emphasis on sensitivity training and the fundamentals of relaxation.  Add to that the basic cultural preconception that harder is better, which is an expression of the even broader cultural attitude that you have to push (and stress out) in order to get things done as quickly as possible, and you have the perfect recipe for fairly ineffective massage technique that is bad for therapists’ hands.  Just because McDonald’s is the most popular restaurant in the world doesn’t mean that the food is good, or good for you.  Just because painful massage is popular doesn’t mean that it is the best way to help people relax.

Let’s look at this scenario again, but this time, change the attitude.  You notice that your friend is stressed out, and very upset.  You walk up to her with true caring in your heart, place your hand gently and supportively on her shoulder, and ask, “How are you feeling?”  She sees your caring, and slumps into you with an exhausted sigh, and says, “I am so stressed, and so tired.  I have so much going on right now, and I just feel like I don’t get a moment’s rest.”  You let her lean into you, and you use the hand that is on her shoulder to gently massage her in a way that feels simple, caring and pleasant.  She sighs again, not from exhaustion this time, but from relief and a feeling of being supported by a good friend.

In the context of a massage, the interaction between therapist and client is surprisingly similar.  You greet your client with care, ask her how she’s feeling, and listen to what she says.  She touches her shoulder when she talks about how stressed and tired she is, so you decide to start the massage there, but instead of pushing straight into it, you place your hands there in a supportive, soft, caring way and give enough pressure for her to feel some genuine pleasure. After a moment of settling and focusing, she breathes a sigh of relief.  As her muscles relax, you massage them in a way that feels great – not so hard it hurts, and not so gentle that it isn’t interesting.  Her muscles relax even more, and soon she begins to drift in that wonderful not-quite-asleep state (the rest-and-recover state) that will leave her feeling serene and refreshed when the session is over.

We use caring touch to give our clients the sensations of support, pleasure, and peace.  We use caring touch to communicate that we are listening to our client’s feelings and needs.  Rather than pushing hard into sore, tight areas in ways that produces pain, rather than reminding clients of their tension and forcefully requiring them to relax (if they can), we push respectfully into responsive, good-feeling places in ways that produce pleasure, and our clients are reminded that relaxation is possible and enjoyable.

Sometimes, since such a strong emphasis is placed on caring, respect, and sensitivity, and abrupt painful techniques are shown to be less effective, students swing to the other extreme, and become too gentle, afraid to really get in and get the job done.  But the technique is called caring touch, not wimpy touch.  If you care, then you’re going to want to get the job done.  People make an appointment for a massage because they want something to change, and oftentimes, change requires some kind of force.  But the force we use is appropriate, pleasurable, and responsive to the immediate and unpredictable needs of our clients’ bodies in each and every moment.

Sometimes, we will discover that our clients’ bodies are saying, “I am so sick of holding on to this tension.  Will you just break it all up and wash it away?  I’m ready!” But a person will only trust a therapist to break up their tension and wash it away if first they have established that they care, and that they are paying attention, and not just rubbing around doing some pre-conceived routine.  When we start with caring touch, it makes the deeper changes possible in a way that is easier on the therapist and more pleasant for the client.

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