Bodywork as Spiritual Practice

Meditation is not restricted to the mat. 

We can turn bodywork (therapeutic massage) into meditation, too. 

Going on traditional meditation retreats gave me the necessary techniques.  

I learned to notice the sensations associated with breathing — the feeling of cool air drawn up into my nostrils.  

The gentle rise of my belly with each inhale.  

Warm air exhaled as my belly falls. 

Bringing mindful awareness to such sensations brings me into the present moment.  

And when past and future disappear, so do my problems. 

During bodywork I work with stronger sensations — the experience of being touched rather than the experience of breathing.  

When a massage therapist’s hands move, my awareness follows. When her fingertips meet my skin, my attention goes there. 

I sink into pure sensation, become a body, and see where that leads. 

***

Our lives are the story of how we relate to pleasure and pain.  

We cling to comforting sensations and we resist discomfort, but these primal strategies never yield more than passing satisfaction. 

The alternative is to cultivate a mind that does not cling or resist.  

This bright, shining awareness is able to witness the rising and passing of any sensation without a sense of suffering. 

Both pleasure and pain can lead us to this high plane of realization, say the meditation teachers.  

But pain is so oppressive and hard to learn from. Pleasure can also teach us. 

Perhaps the path of mindful pleasure will take me to nirvana as readily as silent and solitary sitting meditation.  

I’m not sure I want to spend so much time firmly parked on my butt. I’d rather be on the massage table — supine, serene, and caressed. 

Why not use bodywork to take pleasure to its limits and then die to it?  

Just feel whatever arises without limitation, without longing or loathing.  

Beyond that is the peace that passes all understanding. 

***

My body will die soon — today, tomorrow, or years from now. (From the standpoint of eternity, it makes no difference).  

All the more reason to make it the vehicle of my practice. 

Many spiritual practices are slow to tap into our energetic core. Bodywork offers a direct path. 

Let’s begin with touch.  

Let flesh meet flesh and spirit meet spirit. 

This is how God enters the world — through a human body. 

***

Bodywork is pure paradox. It is intimate and distanced, professional and personal, private and public. 

These qualities exist as opposites only in my mind.  

The bodyworker’s touch erases all distinctions.  

They are not part of the body’s vocabulary. 

***

During sitting meditation I have an intuition that there is more to “me” than a physical body.  

Paradoxically, the body itself is a path to this knowledge. 

While on the massage table, my eyes close and my mind settles.  

Thoughts are not needed. Words are crude instruments, too blunt to be used.  

All the necessary information flows through the bodyworker’s hands. She writes entire books on my body. 

Our edges blur. Our boundaries soften.  

There is only motion and sensation — one unfolding event with two poles, her and me.  

The two of us are not so separate.

***

As the bodyworker’s fingers tunnel deep into my tissues, I am complete.  

I fear nothing and want nothing. I feel empty and full at the same time.  

The need for effort and meaning and self-definition drops away.  

Life is simply a given — empty, meaningless, and immense. 

***

Undress.  Climb on to the massage table.  

Close your eyes. Be quiet. Silence your mind.  

Surrender your clothes and your categories. 

See the whole world in a single moment and understand everything at once. 

“Stop talking and thinking,” Seng-tsan wrote, “and there is nothing you will not be able to know.” 

***

What are the boundaries of the body?  Where do I end? Where do you begin?  

Bodywork raises these questions. 

I talk about my body, my hands, my legs. My words set me apart from you.  

You touch me while I lie on the table. At that moment, sensation arises “inside” me and “inside” you.  

But these events are simultaneous, and we are in direct physical contact.  

Where does one flow of sensation end and the other one begin? And who owns those sensations? You or me?  

Are we really solid and separate entities? 

***

During bodywork, I am aware of sights, sounds, aromas, tastes, feelings — five senses, five streams of experience with no visible boundaries.  

You, me, yours, and mine are not present in any of them.  

Self is a concept that we layer on top of raw sensation. 

***

During bodywork, we settle into the experience of being touched. Eventually, thoughts stop.  

No thoughts, no self. 

***

Bodyworker, your touch dissolves my disguises and distinctions. You take me back to the world before words.  

When you touch me, time stops and nothing belongs to me, including this body.  

It was never even mine to begin with.  

To be fully embodied and to have no body; these are the same. 

Who am I? 

I’m no body. 

We’re one body. 

***

Removing shoes is a primal gesture.  

In monasteries and meditation halls across the world, this simple ritual signals a transition from the profane world to sacred space. 

The Bible tells us that God appeared to Moses in the form of a blazing bush. The flames rose and yet the bush was not consumed.  

When Moses approached for a closer look, a voice emanated from the flames: “Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 

When entering the bodyworker’s studio, we also stand on holy ground. And in deference to spiritual tradition, we remove our shoes along with everything else. 

Undressing in preparation for bodywork is a ritual and sacrament — the “outward sign of an inward and invisible grace.”  

To remove my clothing is to remove my armor, my uniform, my façade. 

The bodyworker accepts me unconditionally. She harbors no judgements about my body.  

In her presence I can lower my defenses, present myself without artifice, and surrender to transformation by touch.  

During bodywork, I am passive and plastic, ready to be molded and reshaped. 

What if it were possible to live this way all the time — not caring about people’s judgments, not worrying about appearances, not needing to look good? 

To be free of psychological draping and the need for approval lightens our load. 

***

A bodyworker’s presence is everything.  

Some of them come to you from a stance of compassion, of I-Thou.  

Others from boredom, resentment, and I-It. 

You feel the difference the moment that they touch you. 

For the best bodyworkers, therapeutic touch is the default mode, as effortless as breathing. They do more than merely massage me. They baptize me. 

I call them dakinis, bodhisattvas, high priestesses of touch. 

***

The challenge for the person on the massage table is the same as a challenge for the person sitting in meditation: distraction. 

During bodywork, my mind proves that it has a mind of its own. Even during blissful sensations, my thoughts often take me elsewhere. 

How many things have I thought about while lying on the table with eyes closed?  

Here are a few:  

  • The size of my feet.  
  • The size of my belly.  
  • The size of my buttocks.  
  • The size of my penis.  
  • My grocery list.  
  • My to-do list.  
  • My plans for lunch.  
  • My plans for dinner.  
  • My plans for my next massage. 

This is the infinite capacity of the mind to wander.  

The horse breaks through the fence and runs amok. 

***

I am no stranger to this mechanical mode of living.  

I drive home from work via the same route day after day. I do this unconsciously, mechanically, like a robot programmed to execute a task. Then I pull into the driveway, park, suddenly and wonder:  

How did I get here?  

I don’t remember driving home. I was in thought. Lost. Dead to the present moment. 

More than once I arose from the massage table at the end of an hour and realized that I had yet to show up for the session.  

My mind drifted for the entire time. 

Then suddenly there’s a thought: Where am I? How did I get here?  

And I barely remember being touched. 

***

During bodywork, my practice is simply to bring my attention to physical sensation and let it rest there — and to do this a hundred times each hour. 

When I can maintain that focus, time fades away, no more real than a dream.  

I wake up in my body.  

I incarnate.  

My heart is a little more open.  My mind is a little more clear. 

Hey you, come join me on the table, I say to myself when my mind drifts during a massage.  

Your back, butt, and legs are here. Why not you? 

If we can stay awake for an hour of bodywork, then we can stay awake for anything. 

***

No resistance. 

The whole of meditation practice reduces to those two words. 

No matter what thought or feeling surfaces in your awareness, just greet it. Just notice it, register it, and observe it. Don’t judge it, indulge it, or repress it.  

And if you notice that you’re resisting any thought or feeling, then just notice that resistance.  

Any thought or feeling that you allow to arise and pass without interference will take you to deeper peace. 

Remember this when you are dying on the massage table.