I grew up in the 1980s, when some of the most common insults we used were “homo,” “faggot,” “queer,” and “gay.” Clearly, we were deeply fearful of what we didn’t understand – and the ostracism that went with it. Even though I wasn’t gay, this uptight culture caused me to avoid doing anything that might be construed as gay – like touching other males. It wasn’t until college, when we all relaxed a bit, that I recognized how much I enjoyed casual touch.
Given my past, it didn’t come naturally to me. I knew warm people for whom touch was easy and comfortable. But anytime I was in contact with another human, my attention would be drawn to that point of contact. If we were talking I might just stop mid-sentence if the other person rested their hand on my shoulder (people tend to think that’s weird).
Maybe this inability to multitask with touch was a product of my American socialization. There was a fascinating study of touch done by a psychologist named Sydney Jourard in the 1960s. He watched friends in conversation in cafés in different countries. In England, there was zero touch over the course of an hour. In the United States, friends touched an average of two times. In France, there were 110 touches in an hour. And in Puerto Rico, friends touched an average of 180 times! Doesn’t it seem like Americans and Brits are missing out?
In grad school, as I practiced physical exams and bodywork techniques, I had a forum to safely and thoroughly explore the potential of touch. I got a lot more comfortable with it, and for the first time in my life, people told me, “You have healing hands.” My professor of Zen Shiatsu (a Japanese form of massage) noticed this aptitude, too, but saw it merely as a prerequisite. “You’re pretty good at finding the jitsu,” she said. “Now you need to work on the kyo.”
She explained these words, jitsu and kyo, in terms of an amoeba. The amoeba, she said, departs from a state of balance through the emergence of a need – hunger, for instance. This is its kyo – an emptiness, weakness, instability, or deficiency. In response to this kyo, the creature bulges itself toward something it perceives to be edible. This bulging, the action of attempting to acquire and consume, becomes its primary focus and drive, its jitsu. Jitsu is also translated as hardness, protectiveness, fullness, or stagnation. When the amoeba’s bulge encompasses the food, its kyo – and the jitsu that arose in response – are resolved.
Humans aren’t that different from amoebas, we just like to make things more complicated. We mostly see each other’s jitsus, which are the outward responses (tension, volition, drive, armor, etc.) to an inner kyo. At best, the things we’re prompted to do are accurately connected to our kyo, and we achieve something that restores balance – at least temporarily. More often, we feel an urge (jitsu) without an understanding of the kyo beneath, and we deal with it in a misguided way that never truly heals the core issue.
In the context of massage, my professor was trying to convey that the places that are begging for attention – the knots, like the amoeba’s bulges – are expressions of jitsu, a hardening of the surface in response to an inner weakness. Pressing on them is a bit like pushing that bulge of the amoeba back inward. It makes things look more balanced from the outside for a little while, but it usually doesn’t get to the root cause.
If we’re exhausted from stress (kyo) we might mount tight shoulders (jitsu). When our lower back locks up (jitsu), it might stem from weak abdominal muscles (kyo). While most practitioners work exclusively on the jitsu – the tight shoulders or back – my professor emphasized the value of addressing both the jitsu and the kyo. When a shiatsu practitioner works on a patient’s kyo, specifically intending to fill it up and stabilize it, this causes an immediate softening and opening of the jitsu.
I went through a recalibration period as I learned to look deeper, and I saw that this dynamic goes way beyond massage. It could be expressed, for instance, as a relentless pursuit of money, food, or possessions due to a deep inner void. And of course, it might show up as boys perpetually attacking each other as “gay” because of their own insecurity.
This learning process affirmed my belief in the value of touch and humans’ need for it. And, despite my training, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting those shoulders or back massaged – even if the practitioner knows nothing of jitsu and kyo. But I would like to encourage you, the next time some part of your body is screaming for attention, to look inside and see if there’s an even deeper place that needs to be touched.
Stay tuned for more.
Dr. Peter Borten