A founder of the Community Wholistic Health Center in Chapel Hill, Stewart Walker is one of a new breed of healers.
He has no professional credentials, or certificates on the wall, but he’s been giving massages for six years, teaching massage for three years. Is he “qualified”? Even Stewart acknowledges he’d like to understand half of what his fingers do. Only someone getting a massage from him can attest to his ability. I’ve been massaged by Stewart and I’d also like to understand his fingers.
Twenty-six years old, Stewart lives in the countryside near Chapel Hill. He graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in religion and has made a living as an ice cream maker, carpenter, and these days installs wood stoves.
He is the health center’s coordinator for education and healing services and can be reached there (107 N. Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514, 919-929-1021).
SUN: What does healing mean to you?
Stewart: On the one hand, it’s going to the person with deep sympathy for their suffering, even sometimes sharing their grief with them, or helping them express that grief, and in the same moment feeling somewhere deeper, beyond where they’re feeling hurt. It’s recognizing the perfection, recognizing this is just one part of their life.
Each level takes a certain kind of sensitivity. There’s a physical, emotional, mental, and psychic or etheric level, and others I can’t feel yet. Healing involves all of these and the way they merge. Really, there are no separate levels; energy is a continuum and what we call illness is some dis-ease in the way that energy flows within and without the body.
True healing is when all those levels are balanced or working together. Health is not static. It’s an ongoing process. Health is moving within our cycles. There are bound to be times when we’re stronger and weaker, more or less mentally alert, emotionally keyed up or relaxed. Health involves those cycles. What sets up repression often is believing that “health” is always good or always smiling. It doesn’t give the cycle the acceptance to complete itself, doesn’t give it time to swing back.
Each of us suffers at the limits of our recognition and from the blockages that hold us from becoming who we are.
SUN: Do you pay attention to astrological cycles or bio-rhythms?
Stewart: I try to be more aware of when vitality is up or down, when I’m feeling physically strong or when I’m feeling vulnerable. If I’m giving that cycle the space to accept itself, I don’t push myself all the time.
Healing is more personal than symptomatic. Our challenge is to help medicine again face the individual because it’s difficult to measure someone’s feelings or attitudes or lifestyles, but they all have a critical role.
Health is a flowing river. Disease is a block in the river. Whenever there’s a block in the river, the water dams up. On one side there is a surplus, and on the other side, there’s a dry space, or a deficiency. Healing is releasing those blocks, and letting the river flow again. Or helping the body release those blocks, because that’s all you really do. Health isn’t something you give to someone. All healers can do is take away the blocks.
Breath is the key on several different levels: the muscles, the emotions, and even the psyche. For example, you realize that the resistance of the muscle, or each muscle in the body, changes with the breath, increases on the “in” breath and decreases on the “out” breath. Our whole energy body works with the breath. You know that when you’re going to lift something heavy, the tendency is to bring the breath in for strength, and then to lift. On relaxing you breathe out, and sigh. A little simplistic, but it illustrates the principle I’m talking about. Literally you can feel each muscle in the body breathing that way.
In massage each of the levels has to be respected. The tension seems to work in layers. It takes a certain amount of time to work through those different layers. It’s rude, in a way, to go barging into the deepest levels, unless there is relaxation and trust. In body work you can go just as deep as trust and the breath will let you. Those two factors govern resistance, and how much that person is holding onto their tension. There’s only so much a masseur or masseuse can do in the way of pushing muscles, unless there’s a really intense cooperation from the person being massaged. If they aren’t relaxing, the muscles aren’t going to relax.
SUN: Would you say, then, that someone could be hurt by getting a massage in which there is insensitivity or rushing?
Stewart: Yes. Going too fast sometimes violates that delicate trust. That’s really the final line on whether you’ve gone too far, or whether hurting somebody — that, and how they’re feeling the next day. If they’re feeling bruised the next day, it’s really questionable how effective the therapy was. I think if you’re working right at their level of resistance, there doesn’t have to be the bruising.
Sometimes you can feel in the body where feelings are locked up. Different emotions are stored in different places, and often it’s this emotional level that’s setting up the physical tension. And, often, tension is merely a facade for holding on to those emotions. It’s not true in everybody, but during massage I encourage the person to be in touch with whatever feelings come up. Not to interpret them particularly, but just to notice them, just to be aware of connections.
It’s also important to not have any expectations about that person expressing anything. This emotional dimension to massage is very important but it’s important to respect those limits. If they’re not ready to express certain feelings, it’s okay. All those emotions have their own cycles.
On the mental level, massage is a framework for helping a person discover an inner space, where they just are relaxed. It’s similar to sleep, or maybe it’s just on the borderline of sleep. It might be compared to a hypnotic trance or meditation. It’s a space where I can feel there is no tension. They can really let go, and I can tell that by the breathing which is deep and slow, and they go a lot into the lower part of their breath. And I can tell when the movement of their eyes, underneath the eyelid, slows down and becomes calm. Their facial expression just drops. Sometimes, I believe that’s the most important thing about the massage, if you can help somebody to get into that place where they are deeply relaxed. In a sense, that’s where they connect with their healing. They connect with a sense of their being, with a presence. It’s a place they go in their mind, but it isn’t intellect. It’s an openness, a space. That’s one of the goals, if there are any in massage.
SUN: What do you try to teach in a massage workshop?
Stewart: That massage must be authentic. I try to encourage students to take the techniques and to make them into something of their own. I try to find a balance between techniques and intuition or feeling. I think that both are important. If one has to be more important than the other, it would be the feeling. Because the techniques will come through the experience of feeling all on their own. There are getting to be so many different kinds of body therapy and body work. Different kinds of therapy work at different levels. I usually begin class with the frank admission that I don’t know much about massage, that the whole secret of touch is in my fingers who are constantly a mystery to me. If my mind could only figure out half of my fingers, it would be great.
Touch may be a little different from the other senses. The organ of touch surrounds us. The instrument that we use to touch is our skin by which we are covered, enclosed, protected. It’s a very primal sense. In the womb, one of the first things we’re conscious of is being bumped from one side to the other, or the way that we float around in the fluid.
Touch is very direct. It’s hard to avoid people when you’re close enough to touch. There’s something about touch that makes it either scary or comforting. In our culture we have a phobia about touch, and in our business, our day-to-day touch experience is most often confirmed by “excuse me.”
Each sense is a communication, a participation with the object. With touch this is clear. You can feel it and you can feel it. You can feel it in giving, and in receiving, Both the out-going sense and the in-going sense of touch are clear. They go together. That isn’t so obvious about the other senses. In addition, touch often affects a person somewhere in between those levels that we call mind, body and emotion. There’s a level that might be called the psychosomatic dimension where all those levels interact. Sometimes touch can reach right into that.
SUN: What problems does the Center face in developing standards for practitioners?
Stewart: Often, people that are very skilled in these kinds of practices may or may not have the kinds of qualifications that you can look at traditionally. They might not have an academic background or they might not have training in an accredited school. I’m a perfect example. If I was trying to join a wholistic health center, it would be a real problem for them to know how to accurately assess what I do, unless they directly experienced it.
SUN: You talked about changing values. It seems that many people who are open to wholistic health are a part of the counterculture, or are younger people. How do you talk to older people and those who are distrustful of these ideas?
Stewart: We’ll attract the right people from whatever age group, whatever background. It’s been interesting to watch the people that have come to the Center. In one workshop that I had last Spring there were people from 17 to 62. We’re trying to bridge the gaps. We’re establishing good relations with the professional medical establishment. We want to work with them instead of against them. They are a part of us. Wholistic health isn’t simply an alternative approach to medicine, one that excludes medicine. Our center is trying to include different disciplines and approaches and philosophies.
Life is multi-dimensional. Healing is multi-dimensional. That’s the whole basis of wholistic health. There’s a continuum of energy that exists and can be perceived. Each sense is a doorway to the secret essence of life. Each level reveals the next. Whether we’re able to know these levels depends on our ability to perceive them. You can’t find an acupuncture meridian with a scalpel. Perception is more than a passive reception of nervous information. It’s a participation with the world. We perceive through the senses, not with them. Wisdom is not so much knowing a lot as it is having the power of perception, to pierce the veils, to sense a more subtle reality. I guess I’m suggesting a rather radical view of senses.
There’s a missing factor in the way we often look at health, about our predisposition to disease, about our resistance. That’s one of the challenges we have ahead of us in medicine and in wholistic health, understanding that resistance factor. If you’re overstressed, it will lead to decreased resistance. They’re finding that out in all kinds of studies. Sometimes a masseur can literally lift that tension off for a while, and enable people to get a clear perspective on what’s happening to them in their lives, without the tension.
We already are what we seek. The perfection of being already exists, yet there’s such an unexplored depth. Each of us suffers at the limits of our recognition and from the blockages that hold us from becoming who we are. To heal is to help remove such hindrances, to ease the suffering, to facilitate one’s communication with being.
To heal is to love. To me that’s the central theme of wholistic health. Love is the energy of wholeness, of being. It’s from that whole that love comes, and it’s toward that whole that love brings us. And it seems this is the test for the Community Wholistic Health Center: to remember love within our hearts, within our community at the same time we create a center. With myriads of meetings, objectives and bills to pay, living the continuum is really a challenge.