Beyond the Immune System: Making History with Massage

A Talk Presented by David Lauterstein at the first National Conference for Teachers of Massage and Bodywork


To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was”.  It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

                                            — Walter Benjamin – Illuminations


The above quotation may serve to remind us – we are living in a potentially dangerous time.  Not to be a spoil sport, but we know that it is reasonable, given the unresolved psychological and ecological issues of humankind, to wonder how and whether we will be around 50-100 years from now.  In addition to possible future global dangers, massage therapists and educators are themselves at a great crossroads defining, as we become more accepted and accessible, whether we are really to become part of the medical-industrial establishment or to retain our maverick, holistic feet-in-both camps- status.  Frankly, I’m staunchly in the latter camp, believing in the precious natural and spiritual healing legacy of Pehr Henrik Ling, Andrew Taylor Still, Ida Rolf and other great teacher/therapists throughout history.  I am firmly convinced, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, that even the dead will not be safe if the reductive medical model is victorious.

Years ago there was a famous issue of National Geographic magazine containing a lengthy article on the immune system.  It aroused in me some sneaking suspicions.  It depicted the immune system as an intense and formidable military apparatus with T-cells as tanks and B-cells as anti-personnel weapons, the good solider lymphocytes, the valiant white blood cells all amassed in do-or-die battle against the dreaded pathogens, the NON-SELF substances, the foreign invaders threatening our very boundaries!  I thought – just wait a minute!   This is b.s.  Is health really to be defined as an organism’s success at defending itself against foreign invaders?

At that time I postulated in jest and in hope a much more interesting system, one based on nourishment and love, not on division, conquest or repulsion.  This is a complementary system with its own specialized cells, molecular dynamism and organs which splendidly welcomes “outsiders”.  I imagined the foreign visitors being offered refreshment.  “Some DNA or maybe you would like a phosphate?  Or a massage in the interstitial baths or would you like to experience the sublimity of being rocked in the cerebrospinal fluid?”

These thoughts acted as seeds for years of questioning and reflection.  Where and how might be this opposite of the immune system?  It is still a question which is very much with me.

Sam Keen, the philosopher, said something like anything you can accomplish in one lifetime is probably not worth doing.  The most important questions are those in fact which are posed by evolution itself, those which are taking generations of humans and perhaps the evolved spectrum of life millennia to survive, let alone answer.  These are truly great questions!

Anyhow, a few years ago, a chiropractor somewhat patronizingly claimed to me that chiropractors were more effective than massage therapists because with their adjustments they worked faster than the stretch reflex could kick in.  Somewhat defensively I countered that our work was at least as powerful because we worked slower than the stretch reflex could kick in.

Years later this conversation lit up a big light bulb for me.  I was searching for an explanation as to the nature and efficacy of the main touch tool of Zero Balancing, called the “fulcrum”.  This is similar to what I and others teach as “melting” or myofascial release in which the therapist presses into the body until he/she feels the beginning of resistance, then waits attentively for a further opening, then adds, as feels appropriate, two or more additional gentle vectors of force.  Explained anatomically, I thought, one might say the therapist enters until just the beginning of the stretch reflex, waits for it to fatigue, then softens and lengthens the connective tissue in some relevant directions.

Then suddenly I began to see the stretch reflex as primarily a response to entry into the body, not only as a mechanism designed to prevent the overstretching of joint.  A whole new world opened up.

Seen from this perspective, the stretch reflex is a way for the body to repel from its surface things that bump against it too hard or too fast.  It serves, in other words, to repel non-self substances.  But isn’t that an immune function?  Exactly.

The stretch reflex is an immune mechanism repelling non-self input but on such a grand scale that we may want to consider it as part of what I call the “macro-immune system”.

Let’s take a moment for reverie.  For a minute just imagine that you are receiving an incredible massage.  Not just a good massage – an incredible massage, anywhere in or out of this universe, from anyone or anything.  Enjoy imagining receiving your most ideal, incredible massage.  (Please breathe and pause).

My guess, from having talked now with thousands of students, clients and therapists, is that some elements of what you experienced may have included feelings of total safety and a letting go of anxiety; a sense of unimpeded being; a sense of being un-isolated and easily connected to all of yourself and the environment you are at home in.

Massage is not a very revealing word for what we do.  From the experiences people report, it is certainly more accurate to describe it, for instance, as re-connection therapy.  Virtually everyone you ask, when they are freed to imagine what is or has been most extraordinary about receiving massage, report this sense of deep self-acceptance and a deep sense of being at home in this world.

Yet something about the concept of immunity kept bugging me.  I decided to look it up in the dictionary.  It means, get this, “exempt from public service.”  AHA!  I felt at once the glee of discovery and the tragedy imbedded in the very root of the word.  By placing immunity, “exemption from public service”, at the center of our healing ideology, our society has hitherto made disconnection, successful isolation, as the sine qua non for health.  Everyone’s an island!  This isn’t a definition of health.  It’s a prescription for loneliness and dis-ease!

So now of course it all came together – what’s the opposite of immunity? – COMMUNITY, meaning to “serve together.”  Let’s look and see what may be the beginnings of a community-based model for health.

What happens in a great massage?  We get a direct and extremely thorough experience of being beyond an immunity-based orientation.  The macro-immune system shuts down and we let someone else’s being contact us.  We step beyond immune-based living, beyond isolation, literally into community or, if you like, communion, an experience of oneness with another being.  We are one, if only for moment which feels like an eternity because in oneness our everyday sense of time and space is gone.  This touch of communion takes us out of our narrow selves and restores us to a larger, saner whole.

Insanity can be seen as the world-view based on the belief that we are fundamentally separate isolated beings with no connection to each other.  But even on a rigorous scientific level we encounter primarily connection and community:  atomic – there is no atom belonging to or defining me as opposed to the environment; ecology – the science of the environment in which interdependence and co-evolution are the rule; sociology – studying the intricately interwoven tapestry of culture requisite to civilization.  Please look around at the world we share!  Not even to mention our connection in time – evolution and history.  As a matter of fact, from a scientific standpoint it is virtually impossible to prove the existence of separate beings!  The fabric and interweave are what’s obvious.  On this common sense level then science and religion agree in saying there is no separate self-existing self, except as a more or less conveniently held fiction for the definite but limited benefit of certain “self-conscious” organisms.

In a precise sense we are rescued from isolation by massage.  We are, in other words, saved.  It is no accident that God’s saving grace, his life-giving touch of Adam, is so commonly used in therapists’ logos and literature.  “Salvation” comes from the Latin root meaning, “whole, unbroken.”

Eating of the tree of knowledge really has been rough.  With our enhanced cortical capacity to draw distinctions we divided up the world into you/me, good/evil, us/them, friend/foe ever since and it has nearly killed us!  At the same time in the spiritual realm and recently in science, we see a striving for wholeness.  Gustav Schwenk in his incredible work, Sensitive Chaos shows how water inherently strives to form a circle – that’s why it meanders as a river, to try to re-unite with itself in circular form.  Sometimes I think human life is just striving for re-union on the basis of its fundamental water nature.

In massage we are redeemed by inspired touch from the sense of being isolated.  We remember our larger self.  We are not fundamentally separate.  Our deep need for community is fed.  The community, literally nourished, grows and we are more alive.  While still getting permission from the person’s being, and protecting the person from harm, we affirm a new, more united experience of being.  This is the second coming.  Coming home to oneness.

This is what we have to teach.  This is what we have to learn.