Living in Difficult Times – Sanctuary in Bodywork

Massage in Frankfurt, Germany

These are uncertain and unsettling times. It’s not just what is played out in the theater of world politics but the very nature of modern life with its ever-present shadow of uncertainty and threat that has produced a continuous low-grade “fight-or-flight” anxiety as the basal pulse of our normal human condition. Psychologist Miriam Greenspan describes the wounded spirit as our status quo: “One by one, we in the psychotherapy profession see the common suffering of our age: The depressed and suicidal, chronically anxious, psychically numb, attention-deficient, relationally-impaired, multiply-addicted, spiritually-wounded men, women and children who come to us for help and healing. In increasing numbers, at ever younger ages, we Americans are finding it impossible to sleep without Ambien, to work without Prozac, to live without alcohol, nicotine or heroin, to be without our endless array of techno-toys.”1

Greenspan suggests that the dark emotions of grief, fear and despair are inevitable in an atmosphere of global threat and insecurity, and it is precisely our inability to “be with” these feelings that has created our “dis-ease.”  She writes, “Aborted or suppressed grief easily devolves into depression, anxiety and addiction. Benumbed fear often turns into panic, phobias, irrational prejudice and violence. Overwhelming or unconscious despair can lead to severe psychic numbing or express itself through destructive acts to oneself and others, including suicide and homicide. Sadly, these patterns play themselves out on the world stage as much as in the individual psyche.”2

Grief, fear and despair are as much a part of being alive as are love, joy, compassion and hope. The problem is not with feeling these emotions but rather with seeing them as somehow “negative” and to be avoided. We respond to life with a full palette of emotional feeling, not just the colors we like. Each of these so-called “dark” emotions has its own value and purpose and can impart its own unique wisdom to us if we let it. The challenge is in learning not to be swept up in their intensity — all wrapped up and identified with them. Greenspan suggests three basic skills for working effectively with emotions: attending, befriending and surrendering. Attending means to shine the light of attention, to develop a mindful awareness of emotions as in-the-body energies and to notice what triggers them and what dissipates them. Befriending means to settle in, to hang out with the emotional feeling, to be willing to experience it deeply and clearly. Surrendering is to allow it to be and to run its course, without feeding or inflaming it and without trying to, in some way, do something about it.3 Just let it be, stay with it. Mindfulness, not control, is the key.

When we begin to recognize that our dark emotions are common to us all (they are not “me” or “mine”) we may begin to understand that we are all interconnected in a larger ecology of emotion and mind. As Greenspan says, “Because we all feel sorrow, fear and despair, because these emotions are universal, we are all intervulnerable, for better or worse.”4 I like that word, “intervulnerable.” In these difficult times, the recognition of intervulnerability is a good place from which to begin healing.

Bodywork As Sanctuary

We all need “time out” — the personal space to step outside of our routine activity and settle into a quiet healing time alone with ourselves. Whether it is a physical haven or an inner refuge, it is a safety zone to which you can retreat when you feel out of balance, overloaded or stuck, a place where you are not judged, criticized or pressured, a place where you feel supported to let go and to be “you.” We all have this need for sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a safe container — a place where we can be authentic and vulnerable. In a world that appears increasingly unsafe, we need this. Whether we are weary in body, mind or spirit, or we are feeling in some way wounded or afflicted by anger, grief, fear or despair, sanctuary is a womb we can retreat to for support and rest. It can be restorative, helping us to once again find renewed balance within ourselves and our world.

Sanctuary is a place of sacredness. In it, we reconnect with the vibrancy, the beauty and the wonder of life. It can inspire deep communion, a celebration of relationship with nature or another being. In sanctuary, we remember our interconnectedness.

Sanctuary is a place of healing. Here we attune to truth, to wholeness. We are able to turn inward for reflection and insight, spiritual renewal and creative regeneration.

An important criterion is the feeling of emotional safety. This is an emotional, somatic and spiritual experience. When we feel emotional safety, we open. There is a sense of peace and of connection, as well as the ability to let go and breathe freely. Feelings of warmth, joy, trust and belonging are common. When we do not feel emotional safety, typical experiences include feelings of isolation, hopelessness, wanting to hide or disappear, a sense of impending doom or threat, physical tension and the inability to relax, a visceral sense of unease or distress, feeling overwhelmed by dark emotions, and a mind that works overtime. For these latter symptoms, we often turn to pharmaceuticals, psychotherapy, medical treatments or immersion in activity in our search for relief.

Massage is one way we can experience sanctuary. Clearly, not all bodywork has the intention of creating a container for emotional safety, but when so desired, massage therapy can be an invaluable sanctum in the midst of a spirit-eroding urban environment of conflict and turmoil.

Linda Marks, founder of the Institute for Emotional-Kinesthetic Psychotherapy in Newton, Mass., and author of Living With Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart, highlights five factors that contribute significantly to establishing emotional safety.5 Acknowledging that every person has their own individual tempo of relating and engaging that must be respected and supported, pacing is very important in cultivating trust and establishing emotional safety. Creating space in a relationship is to welcome all aspects of a person, known and unknown, comfortable and uncomfortable, spoken and unspoken. Accountability is both the alignment of a person’s actions with their words as well as a sensitivity and attentiveness to the consequences of one’s actions and words. Clear and appropriate boundaries help to create the safe container, the welcoming environment for vulnerability and authenticity in which both turning inward and reaching out can inspire healing. Presence is the capacity of complete attentiveness to another while being fully grounded in oneself. Empowered through the therapist’s presence, the client has more space to feel their own experience and to learn to be present with themselves. Presence is spacious yet focused, allowing and without judgment. These five factors are important building blocks for sanctuary, as well as for a healing massage environment.

Touch can be a powerful friend — allowing us to let down our normal defenses and to feel, clearly and directly, the experience of the present moment. In the moment, in our sanctuary, it is safe to be real.

In the safety and stillness of sanctuary, we may find the things we struggle with most rise up to stare us down, refusing to leave us in peace. If we can step back from our habitual responses, loosen the tight grip of identification and acknowledge these difficult emotions with kind regard, there is peace in that. They belong, too. “Ah, anger, here you are again … Hello, fear, what have you brought to me today?” When our attitude toward the feelings that challenge us changes, often the character of the emotions will change too — softening.

Learn to trust vulnerability. Our enemies are our teachers. Dharma teacher Catrona Reed confides, “When we turn away from the difficulties in front of us, we may do violence to ourselves. When we are patient and trust the dynamics of our own heart, we are made whole.”6

Bodywork as Peacework

Peace is an equanimous relationship with reality, with how things actually are. It is not the absence of what we don’t like or the predominant presence of what we do like, but rather the understanding that both are a part of the whole and recognizing the harmony in that. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the skillful management of conflict. Peace is a state of being — fully responsive to the present experience but without a desire or need to control or change it. Peace is not only an experiential state, but it is also an active expression or way of being, a practice.

Bodywork is a gracious opportunity both to experience peace and to practice peace. Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, teaches the importance of embodying peace, of being peace. “We cannot do anything for peace without ourselves being peace. If you cannot smile you cannot help other people smile. If you are not peaceful, then you cannot contribute to the peace movement.  If one person is a real person living happily, smiling, then all of us, all the world, will benefit from that person.”7

Bodyworkers are fortunate to practice a livelihood where when we are working on ourselves we are helping others, and when we are helping others we are working on ourselves. The philosophy or principles that inform our work incline us to a sense of wholeness and peace, which inclines us toward service. When our work nourishes us, it offers a great sense of peace and our world appears a little more sacred.

As a somatic or bodywork therapist, we need to walk our talk. It is from our own grounding in peace that we are able to reach out to the peace within our clients and help them connect with it. Through our calm and clear reflection, they may be able to better see and experience themselves.

Our work is transformational. The outcome is greater than merely what transpires between two people in a 50-minute therapy session, as there is a continuing “follow-on” effect. A client potentially walks out of a session more balanced than when they came in, empowered with more self-knowledge. There is a sense of calm, of elation, of connection with life. The client then goes to work, her colleagues notice the peaceful clarity around her and a little of it rubs off on them. The workplace becomes a little nicer that day. There is a little more kindness in their interactions with customers. Customers appreciate the friendly service. The seeds of peace nurtured on a massage table have taken root and blossomed. The repercussions of balance and attunement ripple outward in ever-widening circles. This is how peace grows.

Through cultivating thoughts of loving kindness (the Buddhist concept of metta), our ability to meet experience with greater openness and less identification grows. It dissolves separation and nurtures connection. To work with this intention toward ourselves and our clients (and all beings) — “May you/I be at peace. May you/I be happy” — will allow us to respond in a very different way. It nurtures a sanctuary within ourselves that is always with us, developing our capacity to be in the present moment with balance and spaciousness.8

The most fundamental peacework is the all-important softening and disarming of the heart. When we encounter people who are suffering, or if we ourselves are in pain or distress, the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen is one way of skillfully dissolving the fear and aversion we hold towards suffering and awakening the heart of compassion. Tonglen, which means “sending and receiving,” is essentially to breathe in another’s pain with the intention of alleviating their suffering and then to breath out, sending them happiness, relaxation, love, spaciousness or whatever you feel will relieve their pain.9 Like the peacock, we take in poison and transform it to medicine.

In difficult times, rather than closing our eyes, hardening our hearts and retreating from the world, we may instead choose to open to what life offers us. When the intense emotions of fear, anger, grief and despair confront us, invite them in as guests. In a world rife with war, intolerance and greed, understand this is what we have to work with. It’s all grist for the mill. Peace begins with you. This is your practice.

Bodyworkers are ambassadors of peace. I tell my students upon graduation, “Go out and change the world. Go out and touch people.”

By Barry Kapke, A.C.S.T., program director of Asian Bodyworks at San Francisco School of Massage and the founder of Insight BodyworkTM. He will teach a seven-day residential Thai Massage intensive at Heartwood Institute, Nov. 8-14, 2003. He can be reached via e-mail at
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2003.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
1. Greenspan, Miriam. Healing Through the Dark Emotions In an Age of Global Threat. Tikkun Magazine 2003 March/April.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Marks, Linda. Living With Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart. Fort Collins, CO: Sigo Pr., 1991.
6. Catrona Reed. Five Practices. Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism. 2003 Spring.
7. Thich Nhat Hanh. Being Peace. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988.
8. Sharon Salzberg. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness Boston: Shambhala, 2002.
9. Pema Chdrn. The Wisdom of No Escape and The Path of Lovingkindness. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.


The Hands of Faith Holistic Healing Centers into a peaceful retreat that offers a variety of healing modalities including, Naturopathy, Digestive Health/Enzyme Nutrition, Therapeutic Massage, and Energy Healing. We specialize in Detoxification/Anti-aging issues, and will work with any patient who is looking to optimize their health and get to the bottom on their chronic illness. Whether you are seeking help with a specific condition or unexplained symptoms, we will provide you with a comprehensive evaluation and treatment plan to return you to optimal health. We would be honored if you would allow us to assist you along your healing journey.

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