Aloha my dear readers,
Since receiving the above note last week, reflections of money and spirit related events in my own life, and my sometimes mixed feelings related to accepting money for spiritually grounded healing work, have floated like clouds thru my mind.
Work & Money in my Childhood Home
I grew up in an upper middle class, suburban community outside of Boston. In my home we had abundant food, books, clothing, health care, fun activities, and much more, as well as plenty of loving attention; I never knew lack. Each morning my mother dropped my father off at the train station for his trip to Boston where he worked as a text book editor, a job which provided the wages my family lived on. I never actually saw my dad doing his paid work. At dinner time Dad might share, “I had lunch with Jerry today at the outdoor café where I was able to get bowl of soup and a sandwich for less than a dollar”, but I don’t remember Dad ever talking much about what was to me his invisible work. In contrast, I saw my mom work every day caring for me and my three sisters, cooking our meals, cleaning our home, wallpapering the walls, sewing our clothing, volunteering at various community events, helping other people, and much more. Mom’s work contribution in our family was tangible, visible and appreciated … and unpaid.
(photo of my family in 1973. I'm second from the right in the back)
I was raised in the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, where passing a collection plate is not a part of our worship services. Instead, we send our donation to the Meeting when we pay our bills, or people might discretely slip donations in the payment slot in the door of the business office. Guests at our worship services are not invited to make a financial contribution. As a youngster my experience was that our worship services were “untainted” by money. Like my dad's earnings, monetary donations my parents and others paid to the Quaker Meeting were invisible to me.
My Life as an Artist and Student
During my 4 high school years I attended wonderful, elective art classes every single day; afternoons and evenings found me doing even more art on my own. I loved drawing and painting!! As graduation approached I pondered whether to continue my education at an art school or at a liberal arts college. I chose college over art school because I didn’t want to contaminate the spirit of my artwork with monetary influence and pressure. I didn’t want my creative artwork to be dictated, or even just influenced, by the whims and tastes of the art buying public.
I moved to the west coast to attend The Evergreen State College in Washington State; all four years at TESC as I studied whatever classes caught my interest I gave little thought to how I would earn a living when I graduated. Most of the classes I took were directly or indirectly related to health care; I took no art classes, but continued to create art on my own.
(drawing of my sister that I did in highschool.)
Money during my First Marriage
After graduating from The Evergreen State College I married a loving yet also moneymaking and prestige driven, Chinese-Vietnamese man. For many years I focused much of my life energy on earning money for our family. I worked as a bank teller for 6 years, I stayed home with our two infant children for only about a year, and then for 10 years I joined my husband working as a highly paid computer programmer. With our substantial joint income, and our hard work and determination, my husband and I bought and maintained 5 rental properties in Seattle.I remember the rushed, go-go-go, rat race pace of that period of my life, and the sensation of feeling like a head without a body. I remember treasuring time with our children and family, and I also remember the ongoing pressure of too- much-ness. For Christmas one year my husband and I received cash from my sisters to go on a romantic dinner date; by the time the following Christmas rolled around we still had not made time to go out to dinner together. Sad. Our marriage ended. However, in spite of our loss, I appreciate the opportunities that having a home and a retirement account continue to afford me, and I am grateful to my former husband and his drive for setting the stage for these resources to be in my life today.
I remember during this rat race era of my life the comfort and relief that I found in doing artwork at the end of the day when the children were finally asleep. I created a series of paintings on the theme “unity in diversity” which show people from different backgrounds loving each other, carrying children, working with their hands and playing music. Sharing the message of our shared humanity via my artwork became my life’s true work at that time and it gave my life direction. I’m still glad that selling my artwork has never been my path.
(a charcoal drawing I did of our son and a family friend.)
Receiving Massage from Claude
While I was still working as a computer programmer I received my first professional massage from my close friend Claude. I was a member of Claude’s mostly Quaker care committee, a group of about eight of us who helped him navigate his life and eventual death from AIDS. This experience created close emotional and spiritual bonds with amazing speed! Although I’d been doing massage as a hobby for many years, I’d rarely if ever heard of professional massage therapists.
The first time Claude gave me massage he told me, “The going rate for professional massage is $50. Please pay whatever feels right to you.” I gave him $25 for the massage. Later that week, and again the following week, I secretly and anonymously slipped him $50. I later asked myself, “What was that all about?” Myself replied, “Spending $50 to pamper yourself is not ok, but giving $100 to someone in need is a very good thing to do.” hmmmm….. Interesting judgment, and interesting values. Claude soon figured out I had given him the secret gift, and I eventually became willing to both spend more generoulsy on self-care, and to be more open with monetary gifts I gave.
Money for Massage
irst, beneath the surface I felt wary knowing that while massage can be a wonderful, healing experience for almost anyone of any income level, I also realized that finanically well-to-do people can more readily can afford to get massage than those who are less financially well-to-do. This felt wrong. Second, I felt a little bit uneasy charging for massage because, like my artwork, my ability to sooth, support healing, and connect with people - even total strangers - on a very trusting and physically intimate level using massage is a spiritual gift. I wondered, “Is it OK for me to charge for sharing a spiritual gift?” Finally, I also felt a bit off base charging for massage with roots in the indigenous Hawaiian culture.
Yet this discomfort with receiving cash payment for massage was so vague and undefined that it was beneath the surface. In hindsight, I know that my mixed feelings showed up in the subdued and somewhat tense voice I used when I talked with people about my fees and when I accepted their payment at the end of a massage. I liked it best when clients left my payment on the shelf and we didn’t have to talk about it!
One day in perhaps my 10th year in private massage practice my vague yet deep reticence with accepting payment for massage transformed in the wonderful blink of an eye. Kathy, a Quaker lady I had just given massage to, looked at me with bright eyes and asked me, using the tone of an excited and delighted child presenting a very special gift to someone dear, “How much do I get to pay you today?” Wow! My world shook for a moment as I took in the energy of her question, and my uneasiness about receiving payment for massage vanished, never to return.
From that very moment on I have received payment from my paying massage clients with easy and open appreciation as the freely given gift it is. Likewise when I pay other health practitioners for their services, I pay them with delight that I am able to make these payments.
But you may wonder about those people who need massage but can’t afford to pay the going rate, and about the massage therapists who wish to take my classes but can’t afford them. Once I was able to gracefully accept payment for massage, I found ways to offer sliding scale payment options to both clients and students. When I first started offering my services sliding scale I was a bit nervous because I wondered, “Will I be swamped with low paying clients and students and either become overworked or have trouble paying my bills?” This has not been the case. During the past ten years, I have offered as much sliding scale work as I can, and my overall business flow has consistently been good for me.
Now let’s explore my discomfort with charging money to provide massage grounded in the indigenous Hawaiian culture. In traditional Hawaii less than 200 years ago people skilled in healing arts provided their services as needed without charging money. ahhhh…. this is an attractive idea!! Likewise my own hula teacher whom I cherish and respect even today does not accept payment for teaching hula because she honors the commitment she made to her grandmother many decades ago not to charge money for sharing Hawaiian culture. So you may wonder, “Why is it ok for ME to charge for sharing a piece of Hawaiian culture?”
Hawaiian culture, and indeed I suggest healthy living in general, requires a big picture balance between giving and receiving. Traditional Hawaiian society didn’t use money, so of course their healers were not paid with money! The traditional society was run with structured cooperation and teamwork. Fishermen supplied fish to everyone, farmers supplied vegetables, weavers supplied mats and baskets, healers provided healing services, and so forth.In contrast, today we live in a society that is structured to use money as a medium of exchange. Having a balance between giving and receiving is powerful on many levels, and money is a medium which our present society uses to create options to facilitate this balance. While the use of money can be abused, we always have the choice to use it fairly and effectively.
When I receive health care services myself, such as massage, acupuncture, chiropractic and/or mental and emotional health counseling, I am very happy to pay my health practitioners. Paying leaves me free of any spoken or unspoken expectation that I will someday be expected to provide something in return to these health practitioners or their families. It’s emotionally clean and lets me freely receive in an open and expansive way.
Likewise, I find that receiving payment for the massage I do and the massage classes I teach minimizes unwanted emotional entanglements between me and my clients and students. Every day I touch people’s bodies with special healing expertise that blends curiosity, love, tenderness and deep listening with skillfully applied pressure and movement. One reason that my clients’ bodies are able to relax and trust me the way they do is because the payment exchange helps them to receive my special touch with absolutely no strings attached. This is a different situation than the touch shared by family members and friends which comes with multiple layers of connection and expectations. To me, the experience of powerful, loving touch with no strings attached is a huge gift!!! Money helps make this possible.
Like the massage therapist I quoted at the beginning of this essay, I still occasionally enjoy giving massage as a gift, without receiving payment in exchange. Also true for me is that receiving payment for massage makes it possible for me to provide massage to far more people than I would otherwise be able to, both because it allows me to support myself so I don’t have to spend my time doing other work to earn a living, and also because it effectively creates a balanced flow of give and take which is good for both me and my clients & students. Balanced giving and receiving helps me avoid caregiver burnout, and helps me thrive.
Thriving as a clinically focused yet spiritually grounded massage therapist is what I am all about!
Thank you for sharing my journey with me today. Perhaps my story touches you and in some way helps you with clarity on your own life path. That possibility lights me up!
Barbara Helynn Robles