Sunday, October 10, 2010
Sermons from Last Year: #5 The Art of Massage
ART OF MASSAGE
Delivered to UUSF on Feb 28, 2010
During my second year in seminary, I took a year-long class with Mary Ann Finch at the Care Through Touch Institute in downtown San Francisco. The coursework included much more than massage technique and anatomy for massage therapists. One of the primary goals of the course was to train Care Through Touch volunteers how to be fully present to the oppressions carried by many of the residents in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. As part of the training, we did several hours of field-work each month, at one of the many agencies where CTI has established partnerships.
Whether I’m volunteering at the Transgender health clinic at Tom Waddell or at Martin de Porres soup kitchen and house of hospitality over on Potrero, the opportunity that CTI creates for giving people a safe, comforting massage is a divine blessing. Many of the people who put their names on the clipboard are leery about it, asking how much it costs, or actually really having to come out of their shell to let somebody touch them. Many of them have been abused, disowned, suffer injustices as second-class citizens, or are really really sore from sleeping on concrete or cardboard for the last week, or the last few years, in some cases. At the same time, our culture is in need of more genuine comforting touch. Mary Ann says most people just don’t get enough touch. Yet if one were to massage someone on the BART or another random place such as a G-8 summit meeting, it would be transgressing a norm, and quite likely unwelcome. That is all the more reason that the opportunities CTI creates through these intentional settings are such a blessing. A person in need of touch is able to feel a compassionate connection through the hands of a stranger. And perhaps for the first time in a long time, they can let the tension in their shoulders, neck, and back relax. Not because of something they’ve done, but because they have—as we Unitarian Universalists often refer to it in our first principle—they have “Inherent worth and dignity.”
This form of seated-chair-massage they teach at CTI is a form of ministry. And ministry is a form of massage. And I’m not just talking about professional ministers ministering to the needs of a congregation. I’m talking about shared ministry. Everybody who comes here brings something. Everybody has gifts to share, and there is plenty of work to be done, and connections to be made, in to keep a congregation vital. And I’m not just referring to ministry in the church among the congregation. Your ministry of massage is something you can take with you everywhere, in every relationship. You may not think of yourselves yet as massage artists, so I’ll explain that last sentence a bit further. The interpersonal connections we make are informed by the second UU principle: Justice, Equity, and Compassion in human relations. The massage work is when we are in contact with one another according to that principle. It’s when we are sensitive to whether our connections are indeed just, equitable, and compassionate.
In some circles, the church is seen as the body of Christ. Whatever you may choose to call it, congregations are collective organizations of people that can work together with stronger agency than individuals. By definition, the church is a corporate body--not the kind that has shareholder profits and quarterly earnings statements, but rather it is a collection of cells working together to maintain itself, and to be an agent for justice in the greater world. That corporate body ranges in size from this congregation, the entire Unitarian Universalist Association, all of Christianity, the entirety of the world’s interfaith body of religions, or the entirety of humanity.
Within these corporate bodies of any size, there are knots. There are patterns of behavior where stress and dysfunction have caused the muscles to flex and flex continuously, until they are rock hard. How do we massage them?
Here is the way I learned to do the seated chair massage at the Care Through Touch Institute: First, I say something like, “Hi ___. My name is Joel. What I can offer you today is some massage on your back, your shoulders, neck, and arms. Does that sound OK?” And then there’s the opportunity to begin being pastorally present, “Is there anything going on I should know about? Any recent injuries or events that might be helpful to share?” Sometimes, the issue is sleeping on the street, sometimes medical issues, falls and fractures, and sometimes it’s emotional, or “just carrying a lot of stress here, between my shoulder blades and on my shoulders….” When I started here at First UU, I did my best to introduce myself, and to talk with folks to try and get a feel for recent events and gain an awareness of long-term chronic conditions as well.
After we’ve taken a few moments to connect, I next tell them that I’m going to take a minute or so to ground myself, and that they can take a few deep breaths and make themselves as comfortable as they can, and are welcome to put their head down on the pillow. For people giving massage, it’s really important to be grounded and centered and to be aware of one’s own posture, not getting too lost in the other person’s massage-work, lest you end up gathering tensions of your own from massaging while non-centered. For the people receiving massage-work, this might be one of the few times they get to sit in a chair, or lay their head on a pillow. Sometimes they fall asleep immediately; sometimes they remain wary for the first few minutes, still discerning whether they’ve made the right choice to receive a massage. I’ve come to realize in life that everybody is carrying something. If you look, you will find that each of us has some suffering, some events from the past that we now carry in our bodies. In regards to bringing our individual ministries into the congregation and elsewhere, being centered and balanced, and having our feet beneath us as we do our work is really critical to make sure we remain in right relation to ourselves and each other.
After the introduction and the centering, finally the massage begins. It begins really gently, basically like brushing. First, laying one’s hands on the person’s head, then down to their shoulders, then to their elbows, and then working a few very light circles on their back. This is about establishing rapport, saying, hello to the person’s body—I’m here with you, and these hands will be present with you for the next several minutes. This is the check-in’s at the beginning of meetings, this is the person who comes to our worship services for a few months, perhaps heading straight out after the service, or getting to know people a little in the Starr King room afterwards, but not yet signed the membership book, or on committees, or in the choir. It’s still just saying hello.
We still haven’t dug deep and are not ready to find the knots yet. Next, we start to warm up the muscles. This could be done in advance with yoga or exercise, a heating pad or a hot tub. But we don’t assume that, so we use good old-fashioned friction. First, we do a smooth stroke up along the lateral part of the back, then a smooth stroke down just inside the spine, and then the other side. Then, we rub a series of circles working downward on each side. And then smooth short strokes outward along the lats, and the shoulders. The shoulders can have a lot of tension in them—sitting at keyboards and working at workstations where we’re facing forward can put deep tension in the shoulders and upper back, so it’s important to warm up. In our communities, this warming up is when we start to share ideas and feelings, and start asking questions. It can be in small-group ministries, in committees, on the board, or anywhere else that will accept a conversation.
After all of these steps, introduction, being present, and warming up, we’re finally ready to go searching for knots. With a medium amount of depth, one works their thumbs and fingers around on the muscles that support the spine, going both downward from the heart and upward to the shoulders. Here, we’re feeling for knots and points of stress. The person may now start to vocalize “that’s the spot,” or “go easy there.” And we’re starting to do some work now. In our congregation, this is when we start looking for places to make changes or to add energy, asking the “what-if’s” along with also recognizing the structure of the muscles—the polity, the covenants, and bylaws—that hold us together in beloved community (or at least in the hope of beloved community). Our quest for being in beloved community is what compels us to find those knots. And we know there are knots, in this congregation, in Unitarian Universalism, and in the world at large. The knot of racism exists within our systems--anyone who’s read the news this last year knows racism is alive and well—both overt individual acts of racism as well as institutional and systemic forms that continue to grant privileges to people with white skin. It exists out in US culture, and it exists in our association and even in this congregation. Likewise, the knots of classism, heterosexism, ableism, and more—these are patterns learned in our collective cultural muscles that run deep. A light brushing or a gentle warming up isn’t going to be able to put on enough pressure to melt them.
But those steps were necessary to get to the point of unlearning the patterns. First, an honest introduction and centering on our authentic persons, then gently establishing rapport, then warming things up, then determining where the knots are. And finally, we get to the deep work, if we can. When I start out a massage with anybody, I tell them to let me know if any of the pressure I’m applying hurts, either in a good way, or if it has a sharp sting. If it’s a sharp sting, it’s important to ease off, because that combination of touch to the knot is not going to be healing. And the person knows that the sting happened despite my best intentions that they may feel comfort. If it hurts like an old ache, that can mean things are getting loosened up. Depending on the person, or the corporate body, the deep work can mean holding a thumb or finger on a spot, or increasing the intensity by leaning in with all your weight on an elbow. It’s a steady pressure, moving around just a little, that’s key. The knot knows you’re there, centered on it and applying pressure, asking it to allow you in, for it to melt and give way.
And usually there’s a line of people waiting for these massages, so each massage is limited to 15 or 20 minutes. We may not get that deep in that amount of time, and even if we do, the old habits, patterns, and injuries may bring those knots right back, and another massage would be a good idea in a week or two. In the time-frame of congregations, it can take five or more years for a new minister and congregation to meet each other and establish a rapport. Only then, can the conversations about the knots begin to happen. My concern for this congregation is that some of the internal knots—patterns of congregational dynamics—may make it perennially difficult to get to the deep knots. When ministers are overloaded, it’s hard to remain in one place on a knot, and each time a congregation calls a new minister, the knot has the potential to go back underground and get lost. When a congregation has sensitivity about a knot, and the work stings instead of aches, it’s hard to get the tension out, so more warming up time may be necessary.
In the world, our historical stories show that those deep knots have been here since humanity’s fall, and there’s been dysfunction ever since, with muscles pulling needlessly, in need of massage. For those kind of knots, it takes more than one set of hands. If you look at the cover of your order of service, there are pictures of Eastern gods Avalokiteshvara and Shiva, with their many hands. My understanding is that they were drawn and sculpted with all those hands to indicate how much power—how much agency—they have in the world. I think it’s important to remember that our efforts of getting to the knots in the congregation are so that we can help it be a more functional agent of presence in the world at large. The old adage says “Many hands make light work,” and I believe that when those many hands all work toward a common cause, they are capable of doing divine work.
So,… with these hands, with these voices, and with our very soul, may we remember our commitment—to touch the world gracefully, and to bless it with love.
pax hominibus,agape to all,joel