Some people have strange ideas about massage. Take my mother. M: “Your sister tells me you’ve been seeing a masseuse.” P: “A masseur, Mom.” M: “You mean he works in a gym parlor? Priscilla, you’re an educated person. You’ve travelled all over Europe. Went to Smith. Lived in Vienna. What are you doing hanging around with a rubber?” Visions of a giant prophylactic filled my mind.

Given that many people’s main exposure to massage has probably been through film clips of beefy masseurs hacking away at someone’s equally beefy back or via the shadow of massage parlour/adult bookstores with their promises of an “all girl staff,” a certain wariness is understandable. But, besides being an indication of how much we’ve lost touch with traditional methods of healing, this type of response, along with massage parlors, is only a symptom of our near-divorce from our bodies, our selves, and our place in the world.

We rush to and fro, often totally unconscious of the waves we make. Simply to be aware becomes a major accomplishment. In addition, our attitudes towards our bodies and our selves are often ignorant and unloving. One might wave this away as some passe form of uptight Victorianism, but this, too, would be a superficial answer. Perhaps, self-hate is only the underbelly of self-love and self-will.

Alienated from ourselves, we are at the same time locked within, being able neither to touch ourselves or one another, and not just in a physical sense. I’m reminded of a Charles Adams cartoon, picturing Narcissus sitting self-absorbed, while his female companion wails, “Is there someone else?” Condemned by the gods to fall in love with his own image, Narcissus is everyman, as we attempt to lose ourselves in our own reflections. In as many ways as there are people, we try to forget our emptiness, to fill ourselves up, to regain the unity we fear we’ve lost just by being born. Idle talk, television, food, sex, drugs, accomplishments, power, even ideas can be examples of this. In our obsessive grabbing for what we think we need, we forget, as my I Ching diary reminded me the other day, that “more can be placed on an open palm than into a clenched fist.”

It’s curious that sex is often used to break down the walls around us and, at the same time, may be a way out of real communication. Groping towards each other, it’s often easier to hop in the sack than to talk to another person or to look them in the eye. We are afraid to see and to be seen, perhaps faintly remembering that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Yet, so distanced are we from our bodies that lovemaking sometimes becomes the less intimate act.

The blades of our senses have become dulled and it’s often difficult to cut a straight path between indulgence and denial. Though I don’t know anybody who is into hair shirts, or secretly flogging themselves in their closets, at the very least we seem to ignore the senses. Do you really see when you look or feel when you touch? We have yet to find a balance between this and the Pandora’s box called “the new morality.” Today, pretty much anything goes from blatant disco sexuality to Manhattan’s Plato’s Retreat, where one can basically pay to attend an orgy. And, if we knew where to aim, what sort of alchemical transformation would be produced? Not a denial, but a synthesis of all we are.

I was told recently about a party at which the hostess remained bare-breasted all night ostensibly because of the heat. Everyone else was dressed. Moving to the living room, my friend sat down in a chair. He could not help noticing a woman sprawled reading on the floor. Her skirt was hiked up in such a way as to make no underwear very explicit. She supposedly tried to cover up, but didn’t quite manage it — until his girlfriend walked in. We try so hard, but sadly, our attempts to be unselfconscious are only feigned and serve to further isolate us.

Watching a koala bear on television the other day, I was reminded that for this creature there is no question of the way to be or not to be, or even whether to be at all. We cannot try to be unselfconscious and succeed. Most of the time, we cannot even really be. Locked in thought, we have forgotten who we are, falsely secure within the shell of our beliefs and hoping (God forbid!) that they don’t crack. As long as we see ourselves as essentially separate, we will be. Making distinctions, seeing two instead of one, we fail to realize, as the Mexican poet Octavia Paz put it, that

“. . . we are all life
—sunbread for others, the
others who all are us . . .”

Groping towards each other, it’s often easier to hop in the sack than to talk to another person. . . . We are afraid to be seen.

Heaven and earth are infinitely sundered when we repeat the act of Adam and Eve. Remember, they did not know they were naked until they had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Whether their fall from grace is seen as a simple sin of disobedience, a dietary error, a sexual transgression or a representation of the fall of spirit into matter, our attitudes towards our bodies have never been the same since. But the Tree of Life lives within us and through it we can regain the unity we think we’ve lost. We can make use of our wits and our will and our breath to go beyond thought and to rediscover those laws of the body temple that will harmonize us with the universe once again. Just as the sun may be seen as a lens for inpouring cosmic energy, so may we transmit that energy to others more or less harmoniously depending upon our attunement. First, we must learn to sound our note, to focus that part of the universal consciousness manifesting through us. “Let thine eye be single and thy body shall be filled with Light.” And, Let thine I be single and thy body shall be filled with Light. But, how to unify ourselves and take a straight aim?

I’ve been thinking lately about postural alignment — my alignment with myself, with the earth, and with the universe. The yogis of India and Tibet maintain that our mental and spiritual state is more dependent on the condition of the spine than on any other body part. Am I being straight or crooked? What aim do you take?

Because the whole of creation is contained, however fuzzily, within the tiniest part, it doesn’t matter where one begins. There are many paths and all eventually lead to the same destination. But, it’s wise not to look too far outside ourselves. Better to remember: “Thou wilt never make from Others the One which thou seekest, except there first be made one thing of thyself.” The art of healing may be seen as a path toward unity. In fact, “to heal” means “to make or become whole or sound.”

Massage is one of the oldest forms of healing. Ancient Hindu and Chinese texts describe well-developed systems of massage as part of their medical practices. Some form of bodily manipulation was used by the early Persians, Egyptians and Greeks, including Hippocrates and Asclepiades, the Roman physician Galen and the hermetic philosopher Paracelceus in the sixteenth century. In this country today, the only medically accepted practitioner is the physical therapist, who is licensed and generally employs a version of Swedish Massage (see accompanying article).

Massage affects many body parts and functions: the skin and fatty tissue, the muscles, organs, glands, nerves, the circulation of the blood and lymph, and breathing. It can promote healing, relieve pain or muscle spasm, and act as both a stimulant and a relaxant. By releasing tension, which is thought to require tremendous amounts of energy to maintain; massage can also increase one’s energy level.

As a child, I kneaded my father’s back as I now knead bread and traded back-rubs with my best girl-friend during weekend overnights. By college, “back-rubs” had metamorphosed into “massages.” Now, the hip terminology is “bodywork” or “mind/body work.” And not without good reason. With the abundance of techniques available today, it’s often difficult to say that this is massage and this is not, like trying to define the phrase “objective waking reality” or exactly delineate the colors of the spectrum. At which wavelength does green change to blue? Types of bodywork run the gamut from what might be called straight massage, such as Swedish Massage, to those that include some sort of psychological counselling or exercises for bodily realignment, to dance or the martial arts. In one type of “massage,” hands do not even touch the person, after an initial contact has been made, but are simply held over the body, perhaps working through the surrounding energy field.

Basic techniques include some form of rubbing, kneading, stroking and tapping of muscles, joints, or other body parts. Massage is usually done with bare hands, but sometimes mechanical devices such as electric vibrators or whirlpool baths are used. It can be seen as a form of the laying-on-of-hands, so often employed in spiritual or psychic healing, whereby energy is transmitted or drawn off to promote balance. Experiments with Kirlian photography have shown that a negative effect is also possible: the green thumb vs. the black thumb phenomena. So, buyer beware!

The human body is not an opaque solid mass to be lugged around until it’s traded in for wings.

It’s an energy field that is constantly changing, a living sculpture, a mirror of ourselves. . . .

The type of bodywork or health care we choose mirrors our beliefs about the body. Is it simply the physical organism which is buried at death? Is it the machine that we occupy? We are taught to see ourselves as separate from the rest of the world and to fear, in a certain sense, what is taken to be outside. We try to prevent being infected by germs and talk about catching cold. So, it’s not surprising that, when ill, we take our bodies to someone for a repair job, often done with drugs or surgery.

Orthodox medical practitioners generally work toward alleviating or suppressing symptoms, rather than understanding the causes of distress. This is known as allopathic medicine. Localized areas of the body are treated, often by removing them, instead of considering the state of the whole person and why disease manifested in that way. I read recently that more and more people are electing to have coronary bypass operations as a preventive measure, rather than altering the lifestyle that led to heart disease. And such techniques are hailed as a medical advance!

However, our healing practices will only be as enlightened as we are. By lampooning allopathic medicine, I don’t mean to throw the baby out with the bath water. Everything has its place. But, I welcome the growing trend toward more “wholistic” forms of medicine, which try to take into consideration that the whole is more than the sum of its interacting parts, and which tend to accord us greater responsibility in our own health care. For, unless we work at understanding what causes disease, and what leads to health, the same problems are liable to occur.

Bodywork, too, may be used as a bandaid, but it can also be used for greater self-awareness and heightened sensitivity toward all parts of our being. Examining our beliefs about the body can be a means of understanding our beliefs about the universe, for the body can be seen as a metaphor of all that is. “As above, so below.”

As science and religion begin to merge, there is a growing recognition of the powers of the mind over the body. We are beginning to see that we do indeed create our bodies, and our state of health, with our consciousness. The human body is not an opaque, solid mass to be lugged around until it’s traded in for wings. It is an energy field that is constantly changing, a living sculpture, a mirror of ourselves, an instrument that may be more or less in tune.

Do you see a solid, separate object or atoms and molecules vibrating and spinning out their Shiva-like dance of creation and destruction? Or both, and more?