This short passage from the introduction to Deane Juhan's remarkable book inspired me as a student of massage therapy and still works its magic on me now. I often find myself trying to say what it says, and falling short. In all my reading on the subject of massage and bodywork, and all the writing I've done myself, nothing has ever come so close to expressing why touch therapy can be so profound.
Friction on the skin, pressure on the deeper tissues, distortion of the tissues surrounding the joints — these are the media through which the organism perceives itself and through which it organizes its internal and external muscular responses. As we develop and mature, most of us build up and reinforce a reliably consistent sense of our selves by carefully selecting and maintaining a specific repertoire of movement habits — which generate a specific repetoire of sensations — and by surrounding ourselves with a stable environment with which to interact. This careful process of selection is largely unconscious, and so as long as we are comfortable we are rarely aware of any limitations or potential dangers our cultivated habits may entail. And even if a disturbing symptom appears, we generally do not suspect that our well-worn, tried-and-true behaviour might be its cause. In fact, the very consistency of our normal patterns frequently prevents us from changing our ways long enough to obtain such an insight.
It is exactly this circular relationship between our habitual behaviours and the chronic conditions of our tissues that skillful touching can so usefully penetrate. New frictions, new pressures, and new movements of the limbs necessarily create new sensations, volumes of new data which the mind can scan in search of clues for new habits, new modifications, more constructive conditions. And here we are close to putting our finger on the possible reason why the touch therapies can sometimes produce positive results so quickly, almost “miraculously.” No matter how much I move myself around, my strongest tendency is to move in the same ways that I have always moved, guided by the same deeply seated postural habits, sensory cues, and mental images of my body; but if I can succeed in surrendering to the movements that another person imposes on my body, without my own system of cues and responses interfering, it is possible to treat my mind to a flood of sensations that are novel in important ways, sensations that may well be able to indicate what things I have been doing that have produced my aches and pains at the same time as they have reinforced my normal sense of self.
And even more important, this moment of surrender and new sensation can demonstrate to me that I am not permanently obliged to continue acting out a habitual compulsion. I can see that the habit is a habit, that I am something else, and that for the moment at any rate I can choose to repeat it or not. And if I can drop a compulsive behaviour or attitude for a moment without causing a crisis, then perhaps I can dispense with it altogether. As every physician knows, this kind of insight can often be worth more than any number of drugs or procedures for the reversal of a chronic condition.