Keynote Speech

The Human Factor in Healing
By Brita Ostrom
World Massage Festival
Pensacola, Florida
October 21 2007

Welcome! I love seeing so many fresh young faces eager to take on massage work as a life path.

I have been a massage practitioner since 1970 at Esalen® Institute. This festival has brought home the scope of this changing field today. Many of you have learned tools and methodology that I don’t know anything about, like aura-balancing and aromatherapy and psoas stretches.

Let’s take a moment to review in our minds this past weekend, with the opening wonder of tornado force winds, the experience of meeting so many friends and colleagues, the ah-hah of sensible and crazy new approaches. I want to thank our dreamer, Mike Hinkle and to extend my congratulations to the other members of the Massage Therapy Hall Of Fame. What a concept! Thanks to Mike, we have a history, we have become a part of that history, and our history will continue to refine itself in the future.

What I am here to address is a common basis that underlies our work.

What brought you here, to this festival, to bodywork? Was it your “good hands” or maybe you liked to receive massage? In my early days, massage was a seriously alternative career, with sexual overtones, questions about legitimacy, and not a lot of demand. Americans not only had not heard of massage, but when they did it was with a giggle. Even many who tried it remained convinced that anything that feels that good can’t have much redeeming value, it was frivolous at best.

Most of us were rebels. We saw massage practice as a way of countering the prevailing culture, of taking back control of our bodies, of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness and really getting the feel of body and spirit. We worked our own way, our own hours, set up our own department at Esalen®. The benefit package was personal, intangible. And we were proud of this new way.

Nowadays, thirty years down the road, some of you work in spas and some work in retreat centers and some work for chiropractors and PTs, and you are paid regularly; some of you even have benefits. As a field, we have become real professionals, and treated with respect, rather than with a smirk. The healthcare industry is buying in, and physicians prescribe specific massage procedures for car accident victims. The public loves us, and complementary healthcare usage is skyrocketing.

Yet my question remains, what brought you here, to this field of bodywork and massage? As I talk to you, one mysterious concept hovers in the air: health. “I want a healthier career.” “I want to help others be healthy”. Heath. Good health. What can be more elusive? Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle included a sad headline; the 57-year-old CEO of a non-profit that partnered wholesome food and education in public schools died suddenly of an aneurism. Good food, helping kids. How can this go wrong, how can this be?

In another way, Florida’s own Tiffany Fields opened up an immense question with her research. Yes, premature infants thrived when held by the elderly neighbors, but just as significant is her finding that those very same seniors got as much out of the experience in terms of positive health results as the babies! What happened here with Grandma? Ten years later the implications of this have been poorly explored.

Undeniably, good health remains beyond the reach of ordinary science. Some folks seem to have it, and some folks don’t. Of course we can influence it; yet good health seems to involve something more than the measurable. It’s “out there” someplace. This is exactly where we as massage practitioners can step up to the table with confidence and excitement. We are not bound by the mandates of scientific accountability; we can think and feel with our own bodyminds, our intuition, our responsibility, and our connection with whatever spiritual guides we can conjure up.

Most importantly in massage, effectiveness seems to involve becoming a good listener, a listener through touch, with my hands. If I, as a practitioner can get quiet enough so that I can hear you, the receiver, I can hear your vitality, and I can hear where you cannot allow your energy to flow; it’s too dangerous or too damaged. I can hear your quiet, too. As I become aware of your peaceful core, you start to pay attention to it, too. Suddenly the world is not such a lonely place because now you are hooked up to spirit, or something bigger than you.

And now is the magical moment, because you begin to change. Waves of neural electrical energy start to wake up and flow. Those deep internal regulators of breath, blood, hormones, a sense of ease, all reset themselves, on their own. Because that is the way nature is, striving toward health and wholeness, toward life and its full expression. All I had to do, as I offered you this massage, is listen and channel my awareness so that you could get it. Some great universal energy does the rest.

Deep in my heart of hearts I sometimes dream that I am a healer, that I possess some kind of gift. Maybe I was born with it; my grandmother helped heal animals. How many of you share that dream with me? I’m a healer! Of course, I also fully understand that I am not a healer. I can tap into the miraculous potential for healing and if I pay close enough attention, I can help set up the stage. The real healer is the one who is healed. Think about it.

One of my teachers said that the true work of any health professional is to fully develop his own human potential so that he can inspire that in others. This is where the loop comes back home: As a massage therapist or wellness practitioner or whatever I call myself, I am continually called upon to do my own homework. As my co-leader Tom Case said last week, “I’ve never worked on any other job as I work on this one. I can’t go out and get wasted the night before, and next morning come in and give massages. It’s not like that. I have to take care of myself all the time to really show up.”

Taking care of myself can also mean developing my inner ear, response-ability to myself. This allows me to really hear my intuition about my own actions, as well as intuition about how to touch others, about you. Taking care of myself means sensing into my body and noting how a conflict at work really has come home, this time to my belly. Taking care of myself means noting the love I have in my heart for you and my discomfort at having it slashed by thoughtless words. Taking care of myself means speaking up about this, and even writing my congressman occasionally. Taking care of myself means learning how to really communicate, with words as well as with my hands. Taking care of myself means being willing to look at what is really out there, and to honor the miracles as they happen.

This is a realm that we as bodyworkers and massage therapists and craniosacral practitioners can enter with more ease than the medical profession because it is the field beyond, the field of the unknown. While the medical world is one we join with, and whose support we covet, it is also a world that can cut us off from our own resources and our own potential.

Deane Juhan warns about medical massage: “A largely grass roots phenomenon is beginning to institutionally encounter one of the most prosperous and prestigious—and most heavily regulated—organizations in the United states and…careful thought will be required as to just what this may mean.”

I had a student who took a short course in Esalen® massage and loved it. He was inspired to go on to fulfill the rigorous training requirements of the Canadian RMT, registered massage therapist. He returned to my course after graduation, affirmed in his excitement to be a full-fledged bodyworker. But he added, “I feel like I have to start all over now,” and when he touched his partner, I saw what he meant. He had lost the ability to feel, to receive feedback from his patient/partner through touch, and what he had learned was how to treat. What’s more, he had learned to treat illness, not to treat people. His final test had been to outline treatment for a MS patient. And god knows, MS patients sorely need massage. But what he had learned was a protocol to be administered quickly and efficiently within the 25 minutes allowed. The human factor had been ruled out. And that is exactly what we as massage therapists need to excel in: the human factor.

Deane writes, ”What we could lose is the very basis of open-ended inquiry and exploration that have made us “alternatives” in the first place.”

Our ongoing mandate as massage practitioners and bodyworkers is to excavate our humanness and to develop it in ourselves to the full potential. This has been the mission of Esalen Institute, on the California Coast, since its inception in 1962. Beyond the sciences and meditation, it could be it ESP, or love, or singing forth your appreciation every morning, or learning all about the muscles and bones. One of my heroes, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, has personally entered and experienced most of our major so-called physiologic systems, such as the glandular system. What a good time we had dancing the thymus! Now she is studying the first few days of the embryo, that starting spot for each of us. It turns out we are never just one cell. This is an example of the kind of rigorous living that is demanded of us if we are to offer full-capacity bodywork. And the final question is: how fully are you willing to go into this evolving process?

Who would want to offer less?

In conclusion, I step with you into this world of healing and touch, intercommunication and beauty, like a web we spin between ourselves that reaches out and spreads to others and further others. Yes, we never are just one.

© Brita Ostrom 2007

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