it’s not about us.

Owner’s note: I was invited to speak at the 2015 graduation ceremony for CCRI’s massage therapy program. This is what I said to the assembled newly minted massage therapists (it describes my business philosophy to this day):

Thank you for inviting me to speak, everyone. I am honored.

As you prepare to set out in a new life direction, I’m sure you’re curious about what led me to be where I am, so I will give you a little summary.

I am 39 years old. I have a masters degree in Sculpture from RISD. I spent many years and countless hours in studios in Pawtucket mill buildings, making challenging work but never making a living. I was lucky in that I was able to teach at RISD, but I knew that teaching art was also an unreliable income. I wanted to do something to help make change in health care, so I went to massage school at the Santa Fe School of Massage in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2007, with the intention of teaching art part-time and doing massage part-time. When I returned to Rhode Island, the economy crashed, art schools were not hiring, and the only jobs I found were actually at massage practices.

I worked for other massage therapists for three years. During that time, I received informal apprentice-style instruction in myofascial work from my friend Andraly Horn. When a small office space became available for rent on Broadway in Providence, I made an instinctual but rushed decision to start my own practice. On January 1, 2011, I opened West Side Wellness with zero money in the bank and thousands of dollars owed to a debt repayment program, and therefore no access to business loans. The only cash I had was a couple thousand dollars borrowed from friends and family. The only security I had was that my sister was my landlord at home.

This level of bootstrapping is not for the faint of heart. I don’t advise it! I lived without heat in my apartment for two winters. I don’t think I would have had the will to do it if I hadn’t already lived at poverty level as an artist. To me, starting the business seemed like the only option I had left for survival and growth.

Sort of to my surprise, my business has indeed grown and thrived. One of the best choices I have made is to have excellent massage therapists working for my practice. I try to create a good working environment for them, and in turn, they keep my business in business. Another crucial decision was having someone help me manage my finances. I wouldn’t be in business without the hard work and support of many others.

In 2014, I was able to take out a modest business loan to pay for the buildout of our new office. After so many years of struggling, this makes me very proud. But I am prouder that I have created something that is bigger than myself. My business doesn’t just pay my bills, it is a source of livelihood for others. I have created space for me and my team to help thousands of people feel better. I am excited to say that we have also started to offer community workshops and continuing education for massage therapists. Most importantly, my practice is doing what I set out to do: treat and honor all kinds of regular folks, from people living at poverty level to people who are very high earners, and everyone in between.

Jenny asked me to talk about my journey — well, that’s it, in a nutshell. I am sure you guys are getting all kinds of good career advice from the excellent instructors here at CCRI. I’m not sure how much business advice I can give — I’m just figuring things out as I go, myself. What I can offer is some stuff I have learned about massage in the eight years I have been doing it.

The most important thing to remember is that the practice of massage is not about you.

Although we may not like to frame it this way, massage is service, in the highest form of that word. It’s service in the same sense that doctoring, mentoring, feeding the hungry, teaching, nursing, volunteering, and guiding people through yoga or meditation are service: it is serving the greater good. When you perform a massage, you are serving the needs of another human being. This is an honor and a privilege. When you give someone a massage, it is your humble duty to listen to what they say and listen to what their body is telling you. It’s not about you, your personality, or your state of mind. It’s hard, but it is service. If you accept this, you will help people heal.

Massage is not about you in that it’s not about your name or your ego. For a modest example, I chose not to use my own name when I named my practice. This left me room to bring in other massage therapists, and it left me room to shift towards the role of manager as the practice grew. But more importantly, it made the practice not about me. People come to our practice because of our good work and our welcoming philosophy, not because I or anyone else are gurus. Sometimes practitioners guru-fy themselves to feel important. But guru-fying oneself disempowers one’s clients. Empowerment is what helps people heal.

Conversely, massage is not about you in that the issues you help people with are not your problems. It’s ok to empathize, to temporarily feel their pain, but let it pass through you. You are there to listen, and to do the good work you do, but it’s not your responsibility to take those problems home with you. If you do, you will burn out. A burned-out massage therapist doesn’t do good work. You’re too tired, and you’re sick of peoples’ pain and problems. Your responsibility is to take care of yourself. Figure out how to restore, replenish, strengthen, and stay healthy. If your work environment isn’t supporting you, move on. If you aren’t able to pay your bills, make changes. Diversify your life experience. Seek support. A supported massage therapist with well-grounded professional boundaries helps people heal.

Finally, massage is not about you in that it’s a two-way street: healing through bodywork is a cooperative effort between client and therapist. Massage is a science and an art; it involves knowledge, skill, creativity, and intuition. But the most brilliant massage therapist in the world would be nowhere without a collaborative relationship with his or her clients. This means that healing happens when the client is ready. It means healing happens when the client takes part in the process, whatever that may entail. It also means that healing happens when the therapist is able to communicate to the client, though words or massage, that the client’s needs have been heard, honored, and met.

To close, I’m going to quote some thoughts and statements from the website for POCA Tech, the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture’s new technical school for community acupuncturists. If you haven’t heard of community acupuncture, you should google it. The following sentences are out of order and out of context, so I hope you do check out their website sometime for the full picture. I mainly want to communicate a sense of their philosophy of healing, which is a huge inspiration for me and my practice:

It’s not a glamorous job, but it’s an important one. If worldly success and recognition are important to you, … if validation from “the system” is something you want, this is not … for you. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone. Welcome to witnessing more pain and more courage than you ever imagined the world could hold. Welcome to doing work that you’ll never fully understand. Welcome to failure and miracles. Welcome to worrying about what everything costs and what your patients can pay; welcome to bootstrapping and scavenging and making do; welcome to creativity and joy and frustration. Welcome to being tested over and over, and we don’t just mean quizzes or the national certifying exam.”

Above all, have faith that even as a beginner, as long as you bring presence and intention to your work, you will help people. May you all stay humble while making a decent living. May you all find support. May you all do good, healing work for the greater good. Good luck!

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