How to heal heartache: what I learned from Thai massage

On the final day of Thai massage school, four of us listened as our teacher talked about herbal medicine for treating common ailments. How do you treat heartache? One woman asked. Shed recently broken up with her partner over the course of our ten-week training. His name was still scrawled in ink on the top of her right breast. Her face was heavy with resignation and sadness but her voice pleaded for an answer that would relieve her pain. Is real relief so simple as the synergy of a few tropically grown herbs? We always want the easy answers, the what to do and how to do.

Consider this when you feel broken,” my Thai massage teacher explained: In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold, an art called Kintsuji. If a bowl breaks, gold is used to fill in the cracks, rather than casting it aside as a spoiled object, or replacing it with a new one. The flaw is seen as unique, an indelible part of the objects history. The flaw is perceived to add to the objects beauty rather than mar its design.

The cliché goes, whatever doesnt break you makes you stronger. Im not sure I believe this. Like broken bowls fixed with gold? Are those seams stronger then the original whole piece? Like broken bones, long since healed? That part of the bone is stronger than before the break, yet sometimes you notice an dull ache, like the background hum of a refrigerator or the muffled rush of distant traffic in the night as you try to sleep. Is this what strength is? Coping through such reminders of those things that have brought us to our knees in sorrow or rage? 

I spent nine weeks with a bunch of strangers in massage school. We dug under each others’ scapulas, thumbs-pressed each others’ asses, and moaned each others’ names as we learned about our trigger points and blockages, our painful spots. We talked a LOT about sex and love and heartache. We yelled at each other, insulted each other, and cried together almost every day at the grief and sadness that can be squeezed out of sore, tired muscles. We saw each others’ strengths and insecurities every day because unless youre deaf and blind to emotion, ignorance to such things in close company is impossible. Out of all the hours spent massaging each others’ bodies, the heart might have been the muscle that received the most attention.

It was one of the most intense and peculiar formal learning experiences Ive ever had. We experienced more conflict in our small group than can be witnessed in the final hours in a Walmart on Black Friday. It is the inevitable result of putting together different people and having them touch each others’ bodies everyday for ten weeks. Its only natural that such an experience is going to create some pretty intense exchanges of energy. But it also incited compassion and concern for each other borne of, although different, a mutual pain.

This happens when you travel for an extended period of time, when you spend a while in one place and meet ex-pats or drifters. You meet broken people, misfits, those whove been cast out or have cast themselves out of a place they dont feel they belong to anymore. People brave enough to enter a new fight instead of resigning to a long-tired one. Or people trying to shield themselves from the battles they continue to face. You discover that were all broken on some level.

Many of us in the program were beginning a journey of reinvention, of discovering some new something to love, to devote ourselves to. One day during our foot reflexology course I shared a somewhat painful personal story with a beautiful Indian woman. I rubbed and poked the soles of her feet as she listened. Her dark eyes leaked pools of compassion for me. She reached her hand out to gesture that she understood pain too, and as I later learned, far more intimately than I could ever imagine. Her pain relieved my own as my heart opened to collect her grief and tuck it away.

Shed had her children taken from her by an abusive ex-husband, a man who treads far out beyond any definition of evil. A man who nearly broke her, who forced her to face a lifetime without her children. The grief this woman experiences every day is unimaginable, the rage intolerable. She no longer suffers physically under his hands or beneath his violent mouth, but her suffering will never subside in the absence of her children because everyday a visceral piece of her is missing. He ground her heart to powder and I cant believe such sorrow ever goes away. Perhaps the anger dissipates and acceptance replaces anguish, but that pain does not reduce to the dull, aching reminder of a once-broken bone, its real and fresh every day.

As I listened to her story I thought of all the walking tragedies around me every day. The people I pass in the street who may be tormented at each moment by an unchangeable past, by irreversible words spoken in a moment of anger, by uncontrollable events. How they continue to get out of bed every morning and go through the motions of fixing the coffee, making the bed, wiping away the dust or letting it collect in the dark corners of their homes and hearts. And about how much of the past we carry around with us every day, stuffed into our pockets, tucked away in the sleeves of our coats, settled into the creases that line our mouths and eyes. How much we show to others and how much of it soaks into our muscles and bones, stagnating and sending us to the drug store for false relief. How much of it do we stack up around ourselves, as if to punish life for all it has doled out, much of which has been into our open, greedy hands? 

That is one of the most significant things I will take away from this experience. Im now trained in the ancient art of Thai massage and a teacher of it as well. But more importantly, Ive learned that we are exquisitely broken, as we are meant to be, as the result of a life lived in full, as an inevitable part of the human experience. I havent suffered any great tragedy, unless you consider a broken heart such a thing, but my pain is personal, relative, of the grand mal variety some days. It has made me appreciate joy a hell of a lot more. And where Ive been broken, a layer of acceptance has grown. With time, grace will create the golden threads of my healing. I believe this is the case for anyone who chooses to receive pain and heartache not like a court order but rather like the setting sun, knowing it will rise and set again over and over and over.

What makes that broken bowl beautiful in the end is not just the aesthetic appeal of twisting strands of gold but the effort required in such a process. It takes a great deal of time and patience to fix something with gold. Most importantly, it takes accepting that something has broken and will never again be what it was. No expectation exists that such things can be fixed quickly or easily. If that were the case, the object would not be so special. Im not suggesting that we treat our hearts carelessly, throwing them into the wild in favour of short-lived thrills with risky consequences or into situations where the only possible result is regret or self-torture. But I also dont think we should encase them in iron either and try to chain ourselves to a life without uncertainty or sadness or pain. To break gives us the chance to mend, not to restore our original selves but to create something even better than would have been possible. To release ourselves to others to help heal each others’ pain. To grow compassion and acceptance. To break means we have loved.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you… But if in your fear you would seek only loves peace and loves pleasure, then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of loves threshing-floor, into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears. – Kahlil Gibran.

Originally published in

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