Life Lessons in Vulnerability

“Healing yourself is connected with healing others.”
~Yoko Ono

After several years of practice and teaching massage therapy, I was bored with “relaxation” massage and began specializing in advanced clinical techniques for injuries and difficult cases.

In the late 1980s, there were few massage practitioners working at this level on the west coast in United States and I felt I had quickly climbed near the top of my field as a clinical massage teacher. As much as I tried to be humble, I thought I was pretty hot stuff back then, with many tricks and techniques in my medicine bag.

One day a new client came into my office for a massage for his back pain. He was a soft-spoken, lean-built man in his early 60s. He showed me where his pain was and described how he felt he needed to relax and wanted a healing massage.

His eyes9-15-2016 looked fatigued, but held a gentle and caring quality. I nodded confidently and assessed his posture, leg length and other details to come up with a “treatment plan.”

I’d recently taught these techniques to my clinical students and felt so pleased to have a client who could benefit from this treatment. He obediently followed my instructions as I positioned him in various ways on the massage table to treat his asymmetries, muscle tension and complaints.

I felt confident I would help him with my broad range of techniques. My well-trained hands mechanically kneaded and crisscrossed over the familiar territory of muscles, tendons and joints I could identify by name, origin and insertion.

After fifteen minutes, I sensed something wasn’t quite right. The man’s back didn’t seem to relax or respond the way most clients had. I tried other techniques with him: each one with little effect. Even though I worked with his breathing, he hadn’t deepened his breath or softened his chest.

My mind knew the next steps to take with this client, but I couldn’t seem to find or feel a connection with him.

Even though I was performing my techniques perfectly, he wasn’t relaxing or responding to my work. I felt a creeping insecurity building by the end of the massage, as if all my skill, technical knowledge and accomplishments were useless.

When the massage was over, I felt anxious as I met him after he dressed. His face drooped with disappointment.  I braced myself.

“How do you feel?” I asked with my most positive voice, “Do you have some feedback for me?”

There was a long pause. His face held a look of concern for me, as if something was terribly wrong, like I was bleeding all over myself and didn’t realize it. Or the sad dread of a father discovering his child neglected to feed his pet fish. But, his look went even deeper than chastising me in my performance as a healing practitioner. His look pointed to my humanity.

He took a breath and spoke in a soft, even voice, “Well, since you asked…”

He paused as his eyes connecting with mine. He continued carefully, “I didn’t feel like this was a healing experience… I didn’t feel like you were even in your hands when you worked with me…  Like you were just doing a technique to my body.  I was hoping for a healing massage and I felt I wasn’t touched in a healing way.”

His gentle words broke through the thin veil of my professional demeanor.

I lowered my head while tears overflowed and ran down my cheeks as I replayed the massage in my mind along with my insecurities and adjustments made during the session.

I had “treated” his body but did not connect with him as a person. I could see his point. I had been entirely working from my “head” instead of my heart. My advanced expertise and clinical techniques felt like dry, empty husks compared to connecting from the rich field of compassion he was pointing to.

I looked up at him, holding back more tears.

“Yes, you are right,” I nodded and apologized for the disappointing experience. I said, “It’s true I’ve been teaching this technique-oriented work and have lost my connection as you have said. Please, let me give you your money back or come back for a free massage.”

He sat quietly and shook his head.

My heart kept opening as the tears ran down my cheeks. “Are you sure?” I asked, gulping back a sob.

“No,” he insisted. “It’s OK. I can see you have just veered a little off the path, and if I have helped a little then it’s worth it to me.”

He reached out his hand and held my arm in comfort. “I’m so sorry,” he said. His tenderness anchored me in an expansive field.

Kindness. Healing. My heart.

My whole body shook. I trembled and mustered all my strength to not completely start bawling in front of him. How could I have strayed so far from this connection to my heart in my work?

As if he heard my thought, he pointed to his heart and added, “Just remember to use your intuition in the future.”  I nodded through my tears.

I put my hands together and bowed to him as he left.  I vowed that day to always work with my heart and intuition with my clients, no matter what my head thought might be “the right technique” or approach.

With all the information, techniques and GPS-like gadgets available in our culture today, it’s easy to get swept up in following the advice of experts versus checking with your heart and gut feelings from your body.

I continue to learn about inner guidance while healing from my recent car accident. Sometimes it takes time and gentle reminders to clear old mental patterns and habits to find clear intuitive guidance. I’m so grateful to this man for his kindness with me.

What has steered you back to your heart and inner guidance?  I’d love to hear your story or thoughts about this one. Thanks for reading and sharing my work with friends, family and colleagues. I have more stories to come and appreciate your comments.

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About Annie Thoe

Annie Thoe, GCFP is a master practitioner and teacher of sensory learning from Seattle. She combines her clinical work of the Feldenkrais Method® with her naturalist education to move beyond injury or limitation toward one’s dreams. Her guided audio or video lessons are available at:

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