I spent the night in an awful dive of a motel. I had cleared my client schedule and headed out of town, eager to attend the workshop.
It was worth the sacrifice.
About 20 MTs were gathered in a massage school flanked by woods. It was the early 1990’s, and it might have been the first CE course I took as a massage therapist. I was one of the greener members of the group.
I can still hear the instructor’s quiet, reliable voice guiding us through lessons in massage therapy for people with AIDS. She was Irene Smith, and her work was radical for the time, still early in the HIV epidemic.
It was one of many paths she cleared for our profession. Since then, she has forged ahead with massage for people with dementia and with cancer. Massage for elders. Massage in hospice.
Her words changed everything
I remember her voice being luminous, but her words, even more so:
“This work is not about healing others. We can’t heal another human being. We can only heal ourselves until our presence is healing.”
I scribbled it down.
Later, I would tell my students, “Beat a clear path to one of her courses. Then follow her around, write down everything she says. It’s like meeting Mother Teresa. If you cannot train with her now, then someday. Her message is important.”
The words that kept giving
I’ve read her healing quotation in every single foundational oncology massage course since. I’ve shared it in tiny seminars and large groups. After that training in the woods, I purchased her VHS videotape about the emotional impact of working with people with AIDS.
I showed that video to every pathology class. Some of my students from 20 years ago still remember it. Her words had a huge impact on our discussion.
Yet the larger impact was on my practice
Among the clients I’ve seen since, there have been many with cancer, HIV, and diseases of aging. Others facing loss of a child or another loved one. On top of it, any number of hard situations: a headache, back pain, a neck that won’t turn. A body worn down by grief or fear.
These travelers to my office have opened my heart and honed my craft, over and over again.
Throughout, Irene’s words have reassured me: I don’t have to heal any of them. Serve them, yes, to the best of my ability. Help with the neck pain or the headache. Be present for the rest, as fully present as I can be.
But I don’t have to heal a single person.
That took some pressure off, right there.
I have only to heal myself.
Pressure back on.
Now I have to heal myself. The focus was back on me and my healing.
I learned, early on in my career, that by being with someone in pain, my own pain is often nudged into my awareness. I learned that my grief mirrors another’s grief. My fears flare when I am with someone who is living them out.
I began paying attention. As Adrienne Rich also tells us to do, I’ve “made my life a study.” In the off hours, I’ve searched out my troubles, and sent them some affection. I’ve held my pain, softly in my hands. Wondered at it.
I try to run with people who do the same.
I learned some math
At some point, Irene also observed, “If you stuff your own pain, if it remains unexpressed inside you, there is less room for other people’s pain.”
This insight has been expressed in many different ways, and most people learned it long before I did. But for some reason, when she said it, it moved my earth. It stuck with me. The math was simple but brilliant.
The really largest impact? On myself.
The converse of the stuffing equation? The rewards of un-stuffing. Remove some stuffing and take a look. Turn it over and examine it. Appreciate it. Feel some of that pain, fear, and emptiness. Feel it, perhaps, for the first time.
On the other side of the pain, fear, and emptiness is deeper connection.
After holding my suffering up to the light, after giving it a little love, I am a bit more free.
I am less afraid of others’ suffering, because I’m cozier with my own.
Not a reality show reveal
This process runs in the background, without fanfare. It’s not a single, dazzling, made-for-TV discovery. Sometimes it is a tiny little shift, and that’s on a good day.
But even small increments of healing have their rewards. Before, I came by my numbness and disconnection honestly. Now, in moments, I lean into my pain, rather than exhaust myself by dodging it. In moments, I am open to whatever comes up. I remind myself: It’s just weather. It overwhelms the landscape in the moment, but it’s just passing through.
Then the worst is over. Move along, nothing to see here.
“We can only heal ourselves, until our presence is healing.”
Her words lit a quiet path to my heart, and now when I stray, I can find the way back by feel. I arrive and re-arrive, broken and whole. Hurting and healing. Alone, but not really.
Massage therapy may be a healing path for clients, but in my case, as a massage therapist, it’s been my healing path, too.
A single teaching.
For about 25 years, this teaching has guided my work and my life. A single phrase, a simple call, it rang out clear the first time I heard it. Then it echoed, again and again. Heal yourself. Heal again. And again. The weather keeps coming, relentless at times, but punctuated by peace.
Irene Smith has plenty more to teach about hospice and touch, about dying and living. From time to time, we have sponsored her course, An Introduction to Massage in Hospice Care, in Boston. Check it out on the course page .
I took her course here in Boston, thinking, 25 years? Maybe it was time for another dose. It was wonderful. And I didn’t have to cross a continent, or stay in a dive.