I lay down on the table, still wearing my underwear as requested, still unsure how I feel about being pointedly asked to wear my underwear for my massage. I like to have as few restrictions, pullings, and bunchings as possible. I lay face up and wait in this room with too loud lighting. My head aches, my shoulders feel as though they are pulled up to my ears in tension.
A knock and M enters the room, the faint smell of cigarette smoke following behind him. He is a large man, both tall and wide, and he begins speaking as soon as he comes in. “An author, eh? So, you sit a lot?”
“Yeah, definitely. But I’m also a powerlifter because apparently I like extremes.”
“Oh!” he exclaims with grin, “That throws everything into question!”
“Well, I’ve got chronic muscle tension so basically you can do anything you want and it will be a win for both of us.”
He begins by vigorously rubbing my skull. I like this. I hold so much tension in my head and face and I can feel the blood surging, lifting a bit of my headache from me as though it is a dissipating cloud. I close my eyes and he speaks again.
“What you need to do is breathe deeply from your diaphragm and exhale through your mouth, like this.” I hear a loud intake of breath and a sudden release followed by the smell of his last cigarette break. “It’s called diaphragmatic breathing. You’ll want to do this the whole time.”
I’m not keen on this. Breathing deeply for long periods always induces anxiety in me and I usually confine it to just a few minutes before my daily meditation or at moments of intense pain during my regular massages. I don’t really want to experiment with an hour of it. I just want to relax after my nine hour flight yesterday. I have a regular massage therapist who I see once a month. She deals with the shitty part of massage – the pokings, proddings, kneadings, and other painful things that go along with therapeutic massage. All I wanted today was to walk into the equivalent of Massages-R-US and relax with some light tension release. M has other ideas. In fact, it turns out that he has lots of ideas in general.
“God helped me get through college,” he says, “and through massage school. I told him, ‘I need your help because I want you to work through my hands.'”
I expect him to go on but he doesn’t. We sit in silence for a minute. It’s not awkward though. It never is for me when religion comes up. I think about asking him a question about this but he suddenly orders me to keep up my deep breathing. I’m already reaching near panic stage with my anxiety but I decide to trust him. So I take a few more deep breaths as he begins energetically rubbing my face, causing my entire body to shake on the table. Finally, I find my chance to prod him.
“You mentioned God. I’m really interested in hearing more about that. I’m a theologian so I find other people’s experiences very interesting. Do you go to a certain church?”
M tells me that his parents are Hindu but that he doesn’t believe in the “twelve Gods”. “My girlfriend is a born again Christian and that’s what she calls me too. I work six days a week so I don’t go to church. She goes for me and then tells me what they said.”
M tells me that though he is born again, he believes in reincarnation. “I like that I’m from two different cultures. It let’s me see what they have in common which is actually a lot. I think reincarnation makes sense in Christianity.”
“The thing I can’t figure out-” I begin.
But M interrupts me to tell me about reincarnation. I generally have a hard time with men who explain basic concepts in my field to me, especially when they interrupt, but he’s now working on my arms, squeezing them painfully, so I just let him go on and continue when I find my opening.
“The thing I can’t figure out though is this idea within reincarnation of having to learn a particular lesson or set of lessons. Why those lessons in particular? I mean, even when a person learns those lessons, they are still a flawed human so what is the actual criteria for moving beyond the cycle?” This is a genuine question for me because I have never heard an answer that makes sense. M goes on, not really giving his perspective but that’s okay. I’m just interested in hearing about how he thinks about his life. It’s clear he thinks a lot and the conversation is clearing up the anxiety.
“I’ve had a lot of near death experiences”he says. “That’s how I know there is an afterlife. In one of them, I looked back and saw my body and didn’t even realize it was mine until I got up close to it.”
I think for a minute and say, “That is an interesting detail. I wonder what it says about us and about our belief that our bodies are what make us ‘us’.”
“Our bodies are just a shell,” says the massage therapist. “And I’ve seen demons. I invited one into my house.”
“That must have been a trip.”
He laughs. “Yeah, it was. But I’m not crazy.”
We talk for a bit about the nature of truth, about whether it is confined to facts as we understand them in our post-enlightenment age. He tells me more about his family and the contrast between their Hinduism and his Christianity, about how his living in two worlds allows him to ask questions about both. I tell him about my research focus on the imaginary line between theism and nontheism and how I love how Hinduism negotiates this. He begins to tell me about his three near death experiences when we realize my time on the table is up. I thank him and tell him to keep asking the hard questions.
My anxiety is gone now.