Body Language


This is what I recommend: When you talk about a symptom, make it the pain instead of my pain–the pain in my head, the pain in my stomach, or the pain in my back. At the same time, you should own your body parts–that is, my head, my stomach, or my back. But don’t say my arthritis, my multiple sclerosis, or my Parkinson’s disease. When you do, you’re just solidifying dysfunction as being a part of you. 

–Dr. Darren Weissman,
The Infinite Power of Love & Gratitude

The other day I winced during physical therapy, not so much because my PT was rolling a hard stick (cleverly deemed The Stick) down my IT band like a rolling pin on cold dough, but because of what she said to another patient: You’ll want to bend toward your bad leg.

“Your bad leg,” eh? After all this time, I’m still mentally editing other people’s words. How about that.

I have the tendency of being overly cautious when phrasing certain things. Stuck between two religions as a young girl, I balked at both and became superstitious for a spell, careful to form my wishes as air-tight as I possibly could. No way was I going to be the fool who accidentally conjured up a frog instead of a cute boy to kiss. (I got neither.) Since that time, I learned about cause and effect in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism; we make causes with every thought, word and action we create, and every cause has an effect. Between that former practice and my current one, I sometimes get tongue-tied trying to word certain things in the best possible way.

A big chunk of my life was spent dissecting words for a living. Being a cookbook editor meant I had to read recipes from a couple of perspectives: the chef who wrote the recipe into words and the home cook who would be turning those words back into food. I had a strict mentor who invited me to delve deeper, taking nothing for granted. If we used “whisk,” for example, would that lead the cook to pick up an actual whisk to do the deed? I believed so until we brought a few office workers into the test kitchen to prepare some recipes. Sure enough, we had a spoon-whisker in our crowd, to the smug satisfaction of my boss.

Words divorced themselves from me a couple of years ago. When I lost that position, it was the beginning of a strange time for cookbooks and publishing in general. Books started to compete against the many forms of web recipes. Language in general seems to have taken a hit over the past few years, hasn’t it? More and more I found myself putting away my editing eyes, tolerating the lol’s and lack of punctuation that we see in status updates and text messages. Similar to the result of some bad breakups, I ran into the arms of something else, leading me to the tangible power of massage therapy.

But my estranged words found me anyway. As I dug into my anatomy books, I was led to books such as Dr. Darren Weissman’s The Power of Infinite Love & Gratitude. In it, he writes about neural-linguistic programming, or NLP, which asserts that the language we use has great impact on our nervous system. Owning pain, my arthritis or my bad back sends a message to the body. It correlates with the law of cause and effect, too. What are we putting out there? Who or what is listening? How can we be sure the result will be as innocuous as we assume? Circling back to my PT and how she so casually phrased her directive, I’m wondering if I should try to catch and correct her the next time I hear something like that. The physical therapy facility is a healing environment, after all.

The other week I wrote a bit on pain and how some people deal with it so bravely. It may not always be that simple, though. In comparing notes with my sister about back pain (notice I didn’t write our back pain), I realized that she’s lived with it for so long, she’s almost taken pride in it. I worried that pain has become part of her identity. And maybe it has; that seems only natural when it’s been such a big part of her life for so many years. But then she said something that gave me hope. I see this pain as a guest that’s overstayed its welcome. I laughed. Maybe it’s finally time for it to go. And maybe she’s ready for what happens after that departure. As for me, I’m slowly getting to the bottom of why my healing, resilient back happens to hurt me right now. One carefully selected word, one PT exercise at a time, I will get there.


The Secret World of Pain

I should spare you the boring details and simply write “Ugh,” or better yet, not post at all. As this blog takes shape, it seems to be more about what goes wrong for a massage therapist than what goes well. I’m looking to change that as I grow into this role, but in the meantime…about a month ago I became a statistic and cautionary tale, joining the ranks of so many injured massage therapists. Apparently it’s not shocking that this happened to me just over a year into my practice. It’s been found that 80% of massage therapists and bodyworkers drop out after their first two years due to injury. So from that perspective I guess I’m tracking right on time….

When it happened in early February (while putting on my pants! Sheesh!), I lightened my workload for a few days, kept pushing forward and worried. Things stabilized somewhat, but pain persisted. Certain strenuous techniques came out of my massage toolbox. Compensating took place when pain would flare. Crash landings onto chairs became expected. Standing during breaks provided marginal relief.

Last Friday, it happened again. My back spasmed violently at the beginning of a massage session. I limped through the hour and was amazed that the client didn’t demand his money back. After the session I waved the white flag. Money, shmoney; staying the course was a disservice to my clients, the spa and my own body.

Two years ago, before I started massage school, I had a sobering talk with a financial counselor. He took down my history, chewed on his pen for a bit and told me that what I was about to embark on was a very bad idea, fiscally and otherwise.

But stubborn me, I went and did it anyway. And obtuse me, I ignored my body’s whispered signals. And complacent me, I kept going and going without seriously pursuing a career path that I could sustain. Now crumpled on a couch, unable to do my job, I’m buried under palpable shame.

Considering my environment, maybe it’s natural to feel so guilty about hurting. My sister has experienced severe, chronic back pain for at least 15 years. It’s limited her daily activities and changed her life. A dear friend suffers frequent migraines, yet she still manages to show up at her job and work through the pain. Both of these strong women have been compassionate as I’ve shared my recent struggle with back pain, but I know I can be tougher. I’m the whiny little sister, acting like I’m the first person ever to have gone through this.

Is it a sign of weakness to disclose exactly how bad we feel? Is it ego or survivalism that’s taught us to keep the bulk of our suffering secret? Maybe it’s more of a socially driven thing; we’ve all encountered the unfiltered acquaintance who taught us why true honesty is a no-no. And then I think about my clients. How often do they downplay their symptoms? Many come in with herniated discs, scars from back surgery and other obvious signs that they’ve been through traumatic events. I consider the times I’ve given self-care tips like “Soak in Epsom salt” or “Forward bends are great for stretching the low back and hamstrings.” Now that I have trouble getting into and out of the tub and can’t lean forward without a frightening twang of pain, I’ve vowed to be more sensitive to my clients, to read them more carefully for the unspoken.

As a matter of fact, as frustrating as this experience has been, I aim to take all of this as a lesson. I saw a doctor, took this week off and went to physical therapy as prescribed. After all, the only way to shake the shame I’m experiencing is to right my personal wrongs, right? Buddhism teaches that no effort is ever wasted, that every cause has an effect, and that effects can become causes toward victory or defeat depending on what we do next. It’s our choice. I’ve decided that this experience will make/is making me stronger, wiser, more compassionate and more effective in helping others, and I’m backing it up with appropriate action. To view it any other way and backslide might make me part of that dreaded 80% within the next year.

I can’t give up.

“What kinds of causes am I making right now?” “What actions am I taking?” The answers to these questions are what will determine our future.

-Daisaku Ikeda