Massage as a Spiritual Journey – A Path with Heart Study

In more than a decade of teaching, I have seen two primary motivations for why people decide to study and practice massage and bodywork — they are looking to heal themselves and/or they are seeking a change of livelihood, a “path with heart.” Starting from either point, an inward journey ensues.

Bodywork education is more than simply learning a set of techniques, especially if one wishes to be other than just a technician. It is a process of awakening, opening, unfolding, not unlike a spiritual path. From contemplative spiritual traditions, many useful tools can be found to assist in the bodyworker’s journey. In Buddhist practice, there is much focus on the skillful cultivation of attention and intention.

Dependent Origination
The principle of dependent origination (paccayakara) explains the interdependent nature of things as a chain of causal factors. Looking at one link in this 12-fold chain, intention (cetana) determines, or conditions, consciousness. What we see, hear and experience is influenced by our intentions.

In a crowd, an anatomist sees muscles and bones. An esthetician sees skin. A merchant sees potential customers. A pickpocket sees only pockets. The context from which we experience is also influenced by intentions. Looking at the same object at different times, in different mental states, and thinking different thoughts, it happens that different features of that same object will predominate. Moreover, consciousness, conditioned by intentions, goes on to condition body and mind. In an angry mood, the world feels negative, confrontational or irritating. The body consequently takes on a hostile appearance, the jaw clenches, muscles tense and blood pressure rises. According to P.A. Payutto, “When consciousness takes on any particular feature repeatedly and habitually, the subsequent mental and physical properties will become the corresponding bodily and mental traits of bearing and character.”1 Once we understand the relationship between intentions, consciousness and embodiment, we can begin to develop skills for “choiceful,” or discerning, living.

We have universities to train our minds, but no such institution exists to help us train our hearts. Ayya Khema, a German-born Buddhist nun, often said that “to train the mind only is like hobbling along on one leg. You need to develop both heart and mind.”

In the Pali language, heart and mind are not separated. The term used for these mind-states or mind-feelings is citta. “Citta refers not just to thoughts and emotions in the narrow sense of arising from the brain, but also to the whole range of consciousness, vast and unimpeded,” writes meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg. “As we open to the experience of citta, we come to an understanding of who we are, with an ability to care for ourselves. Through the force of love, the presumed boundaries between ourselves and others crumble into ash as we touch them.”2 Metta bhavana, the cultivation of living intent, is one tool the bodyworker may use in the education of the heart.

Cultivation of metta is of benefit personally, as well as having positive benefit for the client and for all beings. “Intention (cetana) and sustained attention (manasikara) produce the experience of conscious motivation,” said Ajahn Sucitto, abbot of Chithurst Buddhist Monastery. “Motivation in terms of giving and love and intelligence will incline consciousness toward more positive states.”3 The more regularly the mind is inclined toward positive states, the more this becomes the norm, the new habit. These Divine Abidings (Brahma Viharas) are attainable here and now. When your mental state is one of boundless love (metta), you are living where the gods live. The four Brahma Viharas are metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy) and upekkha (equanimity or evenness of heart).

Understanding Metta
There is no equivalent word in the English language for metta. It is often translated as friendliness, goodwill, unconditional love or loving kindness. Ayya Khema referred to it as impersonal love, distinguishing it from the love between persons, in favor of a conditionless love for all beings, a natural generosity of the heart. Karuna and metta go hand-in-hand. “Metta sees the good in beings and wishes for their happiness. Compassion is the kind of love that sees the suffering of beings and wishes for their release from it.”4 Ajahn Sumedho talks about metta as simply being the state of non-aversion. You do not need to like someone in order to feel compassion and love toward them. According to Sumedho, “Metta is not a superman’s love — it is the very ordinary ability to first be kind and not dwell in aversion toward something or someone.”5 Dhamma teacher Joseph Goldstein said, “Metta makes no distinctions among beings…Unlike desire, metta has the capacity to embrace all, no one lies outside its sphere.”6

The classical teaching on metta bhavana is to begin by wishing yourself well. It is difficult to genuinely extend love to others unless you are loving and accepting of yourself. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and free. This formula is extended next to a being who has been good to you, a benefactor to whom you feel gratitude and respect. It can be any being — an animal or a person. Picture the being in your mind. Allow the natural feeling of gratitude and love to well up in the heart. May they be happy. May they be healthy. May they be safe. May they be peaceful and free. Contemplate each phrase, allowing yourself to feel the warm abundance of the heart. Next consider a neutral person, someone for whom you have no particular feeling, and finally contemplate a person with whom you have some difficulty. Each new contemplation takes the feeling of love from the personal to the more unconditional. Finally, you can wish for the happiness and well-being of all beings.

Putting Metta into Practice
Learning to cultivate this feeling, we can include our clients in our well-wishing. It is important to stress that in radiating metta toward one’s client, one is wishing them well from a loving state of mind and heart. It is not directing feelings of love at them or filling them with love, which can feel invasive and inappropriate. There is no doing involved, no force. It is simply allowing the natural, radiant quality of the heart to arise.

You can also practice metta walking down the street. Rather than avoiding eye contact and being absorbed in getting where you are going, slow down and simply wish for the well-being of each person you pass. It is a dynamic and transformative force.

In the beginning, it may feel like a catechism, a rote recitation, but continue to practice. It is planting seeds which will mature and blossom in their time. Goldstein points out, “Metta is a factor of mind, not some mysterious thing we have or don’t have…If you practice, it gets stronger, if you don’t practice, it gets weaker.”7 If you don’t notice immediate feelings of boundless love, don’t give up. “Thoughts aimed in the right direction eventually produce the feelings,” said Ayya Khema. “All our sense contacts produce feelings. Thoughts are the sixth sense, and even if we are only thinking metta, eventually the feeling will arise.”8

When someone prays for the welfare of another, it is love, compassion and empathy that is being extended. According to Larry Dossey,9 almost all types of spiritual healing make use of a prayerful, meditative consciousness, wherein the practitioner dissolves in a pervasive feeling of love and compassion. The well-known Spindrift10 studies have documented for over a decade the effectiveness of prayer with a variety of beings, from microorganisms to humans. While both directed and non-directed prayer provide beneficial results, it has been shown that non-directed, open-ended prayer works more reliably than prayer which is specific in its intended result. In non-directed prayer, the outcome is always in “what is best for the organism.” This may not always be what we would personally like the outcome to be. In some cases, what is best may be death. Metta meditation functions in the non-directed mode, wishing for the being to be happy and peaceful, whatever that may be.

In Thailand, the practice of Nuad Bo’Rarn (traditional Thai massage) and other healing work is considered to be a practical application of metta. Considered a form of meditative practice, with benefit to both the practitioner and the recipient, Thai massage embodies mindfulness, compassion and loving kindness. “Every movement, every procedure, every breath, every posture and every position is an opportunity for the practitioner and recipient to achieve clear intent and mindfulness. Working toward and in this state of awareness opens the perception and intuition of the practitioner. This allows for an acute sensitivity to subtle shifts of energy and change in the client’s body and mind. This can lead to a deep therapeutic effect.”11 It is also typical to begin a Nuad Thai session with a short prayer of gratitude to the Father Doctor Shivago, and for the well-being and happiness of the client and all beings. Similarly, in Insight Bodywork12 this conscious intention of metta is an integral factor. While it may seem more natural to think of meditation or metta in relation to Asian bodywork, such practice would enrich any bodywork.

Integrating metta bhavana as a conscious intention in one’s bodywork practice is bound to produce positive results. Even if you’re not convinced of the healing power of prayer, it will do no harm. In so inclining your mind toward positive thoughts and mind states, your consciousness becomes conditioned as loving consciousness, and the nature of loving consciousness will be of happiness. As the consciousness becomes habitually one of loving kindness, the body becomes radiant as well. The traditional list of the benefits of metta bhavana include: sleeping and waking easily, having pleasant dreams, having the love of people, devas (celestial beings) and animals, protection (by the devas) from external dangers and harm, having a sense of radiance and serenity, and experiencing an unconfused death and a rebirth in happy realms. With metta consciousness, you truly live in the heavenly realms, the Brahma Viharas, here and now.

By Barry Kapke, ACST, CI, the program director of Asian Bodyworks at San Francisco School of Massage and the founder of Insight Bodywork. He can be reached via e-mail at

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2000.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

1. Payutto, P.A., Dependent Origination: The Buddhist Law of Conditionality (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), 45.
2. Salzberg, Sharon, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Boston: Shambhala, 1995), 21.
3. Bhikkhu, Sucitto, The Dawn of the Dhamma. (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1995), 40.
4. Goldstein, Joseph, Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom (Boston, Shambhala, 1994), 147.
5. Bhikkhu, Sumedho, Cittaviveka: Teachings from the Silent Mind (UK: Amaravati Publications, 1984, 1987, 1992), 99.
6. Goldstein, 144.
7. Goldstein, Joseph, The Experience of Insight (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), 130.
8. Khema, Ayya, When the Iron Eagle Flies: Buddhism for the West (UK: Arkana, 1991), 23.
9. Dossey, Larry, M.D., Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993).
10. Spindrift can be contacted at Spindrift Inc, PO Box 3995, Salem, OR 97302-0995.
11. Gold, Richard, Thai Massage: A Traditional Medical Technique, (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1998), 11.
12. Insight Bodywork is a bodywork system based upon Buddhist, yogic and Ayurvedic principles, originated by Barry Kapke.



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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