Fixing pain, a client story, Part 1

Client, 45f, wealthy looking of Asian descent, with a sharp pain running from the back of her neck down the outside of her left arm. She’d already seen a number of massage therapists, including chiropractic services. She seemed somewhat disoriented, besides herself. She donned a light and short summer dress of black silk despite having come in for a movement lesson – which is just as inappropriate as showing up in Scuba diving gear for a Gala dinner. 

She did not have prior experience with Somatic Education, or anything of the psychological realm. I allowed her two hours, even though she only paid for one hour. After 20 minutes of conversation I guided her through movement explorations and sensory awareness exercises for the better part of 90 minutes. At first she couldn’t lie comfortably on her back at all, so I asked her to assume her favoured sleeping position, which was in side-lying on her left side. 

Within the lesson the tight muscles in her neck and upper back, some of them at first hard like the tires of a bicycle, became soft like the flesh of a baby. Her range of motion in her neck and shoulders increased considerably, I would say in some parts by as much as 45 degrees. Step by step the isolated movements of her shoulders connected to the movements of her spine, chest, pelvis and knees. A strained, isolated movement of a shoulder became a movement supported by and presented in her whole self. “Can you feel the difference?” And last, but not least, her inability to let go of her shoulders was replaced with the ability to confide her shoulders to the pull of gravity. “Now hold your shoulder deliberately, and now let it go. Do you notice how well you can distinguish between the two now?”

However, what would have been an epic session with someone well embodied turned out to make no impression on her at all. The discoveries we made, the views that I shared, the difference the lesson made should have struck her as nothing less than monumental. Yet, she felt nothing special has happened, and perceived no differences.

“How would you describe what you sense right now?” I was sitting behind her, at the head end, like good old Sigmund Freud. She was lying comfortably on her back, with arms and legs spread, needing only half the cushioning she asked for at the start of the lesson. I had to rephrase my questions several times, until an answer came.

“The right arm feels normal, healthy, like it should. The left arm feels painful, not normal.” She was resting unwavering, her answer showing a surprising lack of compassion and sensitivity towards herself. I was not able to get any details, no description with adjectives, no sensory cues, nothing. The game of questions, storytelling and waiting for answers went on for a couple of minutes. I tried many different ways, but it all came down to “the right arm feels normal and the left arm feels not normal.” I asked her if she can sense anything at all, anything, to which she answered, “if someone would pour hot water on my right arm or pinch it, of course I would feel it”.

The situation occurred to me as if her body was some sort of device or machine, like a car with a faulty door she would drive in to a garage and have it fixed. All the while she was sitting in that car and waiting. She had no hurry to drive off. I wasn’t sure if she enjoyed my care, teachings and attention, or if she was merely waiting to finally get her money’s worth.

I’m not sure if she’s done her homework either. After the session I gave her a link to my video, “Good night shoulder circles”, and before the session I urged her to have a look at my Youtube series “Tight Neck? Here’s Help!”, which she did not. She did not look up anything about Feldenkrais or Somatic Education either. I’m still wondering how she found me on Facebook, and why she insisted on having a session with me.

This session made me realise, once again, how very different we humans are from each other. How far apart our ability to learn and differentiate can take us. It made me realise, once again, that we cannot assume anything about another person’s state or abilities. It made me think of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. We practitioners think of mindfulness and embodiment, of movement and culture, of meditation and dreaming and feeling and sensing, we say “people are like this, people are like that”, but are they?

She asked me if she will need another session. I said I leave that up to her. I was thinking, “I’m not going to sell you sessions like the chiropractor you were telling me about.” Besides, why should I tell a grown up person what to do or what to buy? “If you liked it, if you found it interesting or even slightly helpful, come again, why not?” Usually people who seek me know what they want, and have at least some knowledge of developmental psychology… or have read some of the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, FM Alexander, Ida Rolf… or at least have read some articles from the realm of psychotherapy… Freud, Reich, Jung… Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Elsa Gindler, Charlotte Selver, anything really.

A few hours after the session I was thinking: the way she was describing the pain in her left arm, at the beginning of the session, made it sound like a problem of tension and posture, or a nerve impingement from a lump in her neck (which was already ruled out via medical imaging.) But was it? Why could she not feel a difference after my session? My work as a movement teacher is as good as it gets, she will not find any better. Therefore I was thinking, “Maybe her way of sensing and describing her pain was inaccurate?” I recalled that at the very end of the session she lifted her left arm and said, “Stretching the left side eases the pain.” In light of this and her general disorientation I sent her a last message, and advised her to go get a proper cardiovascular checkup. “Or maybe she should get another X-ray or MRI and have it read by a doctor, not a chiropractor,” I was thinking.

Disengage your parking brake before you drive off the ramp, and drive carefully. I will post again if there’s new tidings.