Sunday, November 23, 2014

Zen and the Art of Massage Therapy

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [1], Robert Pirsig chronicles his quest to understand Quality. As I consider my attitudes toward my careers, software engineering and massage therapy, Pirsig's Zen has helped me to understand and to crystalize my my goals in becoming a massage therapist.

Zen's Quality

As we follow Pirsig's daily chatauqua on Quality, we encounter a variety of near definitions.  One that hits home for me describes a craftsman's relationship to his work.  We can recognize quality craftsmanship, but what is it about the craftsman of Quality  (in this case, a mechanic) that distinguishes him from the mediocre?  It is caring. The caring is not about the machine, the object, but for the wellbeing of the machine and its owner. 

Caring is the Key to Zen's Quality

The Quality craftsman cares in a way that allows him to merge with the object as he practices his craft, without the stuttering interruptions of a novice consulting a manual.  He changes as his work progresses, flowing smoothly and naturally from one tool or technique to the next, changing in synchrony with the changes taking place in the object of his craft, until both emerge from the process. The subject-object relationship fades to nothing, and there is only the Quality of the work creating the result, the wellbeing of machine and owner, and of the craftsman, too. 

Software Quality

When I began work as a software engineer in the 1980's, the watchword of industry was Quality.  The definition of Quality was tightly constrained, to permit clear understanding by the engineers who were expected to work to that definition, engineers, many of whom live in a classical, subject-object relationship with their work and with technology. 

Fitness is the Key to Software Quality

The engineer's definition of Quality is simple. Quality is defined as fitness for an intended purpose.  A product's purpose is not only to serve the needs of its end user, but also to generate revenue and goodwill for the company selling the product.  The purpose of the product is captured in technical specifications, schedule, and price. An engineer produces a product that can be tested against specifications.  When all tests pass on schedule and at an acceptable price, you have a Quality product. 

My Journey From Software to Soft Tissue

I began my career as an engineer building to specifications.  I progressed to writing the specifications.  I crafted Quality specifications.  For years I cared, but not in the way Pirsig describes caring.

I didn't care about the product.  Consumer electronics hold little interest for me.  I cared about the process, attention to the details, and about producing Quality specifications.  Ultimately, that wasn't enough.  It reduced to seeking Excellence at something with no purpose for me, something that did not result in wellbeing.

When I came to Massage Therapy, my engineering self found comfort in the structure of anatomy, the processes of physiology.  I became enthralled in the beauty of their combination in kinesiology, and with the utility of its laws. 

But what sealed my decision was learning that I care about what happens in a massage session.  I care about the wellbeing of the machine and its owner, the muscles and the client, in a way that lets me see and feel a condition of imbalance, excess or deficit.  Posture, gate, range of motion all offer clues.  The way the skin fits, the ways a muscle feels, all add to the analysis.  Working with my hands, I adapt what I know to address muscular issues without an owner's manual, and I change as I sense the changes occur in layers, from skin temperature and tension, to muscle density and tautness, superficial to deep.  The muscle isn't object.  To be certain, the client isn't object.  And my sense of myself as subject disappears. There is only the Quality of the work, caring for the wellbeing of machine and owner, creating the result.

Quality in Massage 

In massage we use the phrase Quality of Touch.  An article on the subject says it is not so much an innate ability to attune oneself to the client, but a skill which can be taught, learned and constantly improved.[2]

It is the attunement to which I refer when I liken my experience in a massage session to the fading of subject-object relationship.  The ability to attune, and to learn and improve Quality of Touch, all arise from caring.  A would-be therapist cannot develop Quality of Touch without caring for wellbeing.  It is the caring, not the ability, that must be innate.

Understanding and Goals

Can we learn the skill, Quality of Touch?  I believe I have learned it to some degree already, and I believe that it can and will be constantly improved.  Today, as a graduating student of massage, I can recognize some common syndromes, and can sense some conditions of soft tissue and their changes as I work.  My new life goals are to learn more, to sense more, to attune more, and if possible, to care more.


[1] Pirsig, R. M. (1974). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values. New York: Morrow.