As the sun crept up the flanks of the surrounding 20,000 foot, snow-capped peaks, I approached the line of villagers that snaked around the small rural medical clinic in Central Tibet. It was my responsibility to talk to the would-be patients while they waited for their one opportunity to see the doctor this month. I inquired about their main health complaints and asked how the clinic could do a better job of meeting their needs; but most people shyly diverted their eyes and giggled at my broken Tibetan, hesitant to respond. I was feeling rather frustrated and helpless until an old woman emboldened by chang, (barley homebrew) approached me and happily answered my questions.
She explained primarily through pantomime that she had pain in her joints, especially her left elbow. After a few minutes of arm waving and exaggerated facial expressions we had become quite comfortable with each other, laughing, teasing the children, comparing malas (Buddhist prayer beads), and enjoying the stunning view from the “waiting room”.
Then it occurred to me that I had a small pot of tiger balm in my bag and plenty of time to kill, so I offered to massage my new friend Dolma’s elbow. She thanked me with a variety of pleasing sounds that gradually drew a small crowd. When I finished, the women who only a moment ago were too shy to make eye contact were now lifting their skirts to show me their sore hip or knee. Their eyes now boldly met mine and their message was clear.
This is how I learned that joint pain was, not surprisingly, one of the major complaints that people in this nomadic farming community endured. The next day I organized a small class focusing on basic massage techniques for hands, elbows, knees, necks, and shoulders. It turned out to be great fun and we all learned a lot!
For me, it was a strong reminder that touch is a powerful tool, capable of dissolving cultural boundaries and transcending language barriers. The bonds that we formed through an afternoon of compassionate touch were strong and meaningful. We truly saw each other as humans–vulnerable, humble, powerful, joyful–unique versions of the same thing.
This experience in Tibet’s Drikung Valley in 2006 planted a seed that continues to grow and inspire me. I will never forget the peaceful look in the old man’s eyes as I massaged his sore thumb. I wanted so badly to talk to him, learn more about him, his life, his family. I wanted to tell him how much I loved being in Tibet. I wanted to comfort him for it was clear to look at his hands that he had lived a hard life. I wanted to thank him and let him know that I was deeply affected by his presence. I knew, however, that my knowledge of the Tibetan language was very limited and I would fail if I tried to express these thoughts out loud,… so I massaged them. Each stroke carried with it a message of compassion, patience, and gratitude for the moment that we were sharing; and I think the message came through, I believe that we understood each other. I felt witnessed, heard, satisfied, and I think he did too.
In this moment I began to realize that massage, and its message, provide me with a portable, artistic, and inexhaustible medium for exploring my inner and outer worlds. Since then I have traveled to fourteen countries to study, to teach, and to give and receive massage; and I have frequently experienced its power to bring people together on a deeply satisfying and transformative level.
This month I set off once more on a long journey that, in the next year, will take me to Scotland, England, Netherlands, Pennsylvania, California, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Thailand, Bali, North Carolina, Spain, and Brazil. This blog will be a space for me to share anecdotes and insights from my adventures, and to introduce you to healers, practices, and inspirational places that I encounter along the way.
I invite you to share any thoughts and stories that are triggered by what you read here. This is one situation where I don’t want to travel alone!