Deepening the Healing Relationship, Part 1
Integrating human developmental issues into the massage practice
The World of the Infant
By Deborah Allen, Scott Bader, Dan Buffo and Timothy Marshall
Sarah gets on the massage table every week. And every week, she cries. She never says why she is crying, and she always comes back. As she feels the warmth of the massage therapist’s hands and the consistent tone of his voice, Sarah begins to relax. Sometimes, she curls into a ball and only lets him touch her back. By the end of the session, most often she says she feels “put back together” and goes out to face another week in the world.
This contact between Sarah and her bodywork therapist is not casual. They are in a healing relationship and it is only through relationship that human beings thrive. Literally, touch is imperative to survival. From conception, we are a set of potentials being molded and remolded, responding to a constantly changing environment. Our early caregivers are that environment and we depend on them to provide a safe container for healthy development. We come to know ourselves through being known by others.
In the beginning of life, the nervous system is still forming. Our spinal cord, functioning much like an antenna, continually receives information from the surface of our bodies, registering all that is occurring around us. As we grow, our skin continues to be the critical interface between our experience of the inner and outer worlds. The skin registers basic trust. Am I safe? Will I be hurt? Is the world safe? Can I relax? As practitioners of touch, we hold a powerful, yet often unrecognized opportunity. Through safety and contact, we send messages of hope to the places within our clients’ bodies which hold old limited patterns established when the primary care taking relationship was disturbed or untrustworthy.
Sarah was adopted at birth. She lived in an orphanage for the first six months of her life and received consistent but impersonal care. Her adopted mother was a kind woman, but not physically affectionate. Sarah never fed from a breast, and was never rocked in a great warm bosom. Sarah held together until she hit her mid-thirties. Then, the marriage she was counting on to contain her emotional life began to fall apart. For many of our clients, a large stressful event at mid-life will have the effect of “disintegrating” the fragile adult self. At that point, the strong, overwhelming needs of the infant’s world rush forward to be met. Whenever Sarah comes to see her massage therapist, some part of her is still longing to be held and mothered. As she lies down on the table, these youngest parts of her begin to emerge hoping that this will be a safe place to heal those powerful overwhelming forces from early childhood. While these needs may not be conscious, this moment is an opportunity for healing.
Most bodywork therapists, whether they are inviting this kind of intimacy or not, trained to understand it or not, find themselves involved in their clients’ lives at this very deep level. We need to know something about our clients’ intra-psychic life in order to be helpful, and to, as best as we can, “do no harm.” We also need to know quite a lot about ourselves to ensure our own stability in the helping-healing role.
Visionary philosopher Ken Wilber utilizes one map of human development, which he calls the Great Chain of Being through which we may navigate this mysterious fluid territory of relatedness. All of the world’s great wisdom traditions include a version of the Great Chain of Being. In these perennial philosophies, there is a core tenet that says that reality is composed of several different but continuous dimensions. As human beings, we have the potential to grow and evolve all the way to realizing spirit. Ken Wilber divides the Great Chain of Being into three major stages that we ascend and descend throughout our lifetimes. The first, the pre-personal (or pre-egoic), is the land of sensation and feeling. This is the early experiential world present before language, the infant world and its early nervous system, merging with mother, the constant flow of emotional integration and disintegration. In this article, we will simply call this the world of the infant. The next stage, the personal (or egoic), includes the development of a conceptual and symbolic world, language, conscious relationship, the ability to act on our own behalf, to navigate in the adult world, and the formation and development of a “self”. The third stage, the transpersonal (or trans-egoic), brings us into contact with our spiritual nature, our longing for a relationship with the divine.
This journey, from the infant to the adult and then to spirit, is not traveled in a straight line. We have the opportunity to cultivate these three stages, day-by-day, moment-by-moment. Even the most sophisticated thinker must pass through all the stages, with great regularity. It is through repeated experience that we develop our own awareness of where we are along this continuum, ultimately empowering more choice and possibility in our lives.
Each time a client enters our healing practice, both healer and client tend to operate from one or another of these developmental stages. Sometimes, our robust adult is available for our client’s distraught baby. Sometimes, our transpersonal strength helps the client move closer to God. On a bad day, our healing room can feel like two crabby babies vying for attention. Our ability to serve can be greatly enhanced by recognizing where we are, moment to moment; along the Great Chain of Being, and which part of the client is receiving us.