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The Pendulum

My wife and I just returned from a visit to New Zealand, where we hiked in several national parks. New Zealand is working hard to protect its beautiful natural resources, especially from predator species and wildlife brought in from other countries. It was a story we heard several times- some animal was brought in from a settler’s home country because it looked like appropriate habitat. Because there were few natural predators, the population exploded, wreaking havoc on the local landscape. A predator was then imported to check the population, only to have that new predator also take another indigenous animal or bird to the brink of extinction. What followed were more restrictions and the introduction of new measures.

As crazy as this seems, it is a narrative that happens frequently in many contexts. We like to think that we are rational beings, but the evidence is to the contrary. As a result of our actions, the pendulum swings wildly from one extreme to the other. The middle ground is sparsely occupied; all the loud voices are on either end of the spectrum. Even in the world of science, these swings occur with research endeavors. My friend Neal, a very celebrated neuroscientist, used the analogy of children playing soccer. When the ball squirts out to the left, 22 children go running after it. Conversely, in an adult game, each position has a defined role, and even if the action is somewhere else, the player stays in their lane to execute as expected when appropriate.

As someone who has been in the field of massage therapy for decades, our field is no exception. I have seen various modalities arrive on the scene to great fanfare, only to be ridiculed or abandoned years later, replaced by the next shiny new thing or ideology. The pendulum swings wildly from one direction to another. Early days of structural approaches suggested that if you balance the structure, symptoms will disappear. Now we have people suggesting structure is irrelevant. I could cite many more examples, but you can probably populate the list yourself with little difficulty.

When I look back over the multitude of teachings and approaches that I have been exposed to over the years, there are often principles and approaches that remain part of the fabric of who I am as a practitioner today. I learned something from each of them and let go of aspects that didn’t hold up over time. In truth, many therapists have probably done the same with my own teachings, especially those who took just one seminar years ago and have not seen the progression of change. Hopefully, they found something of value that still remains part of their approach to the work.

With regard to the pendulum in our own field, I would caution that we should be careful, cautious, and thoughtful about our ever-evolving collective understanding. What we assume is true today will likely change over time. As I describe in my seminars, I take full license to be incorrect in my current understanding. That’s why we emphasize process over technique. If I didn’t cringe a little over what I taught ten years ago, I haven’t learned very much. That knowledge also makes me a little less confident in what I teach now, and that’s a good thing. It’s important that people know that knowledge is always undergoing change. We learn, we grow. That’s why we print the PNMT manuals for every seminar as they are updated constantly, albeit with small changes each time. People who retake a seminar years later are often quite surprised at the changes that we instructors barely notice. That’s the process of learning and for us, much of this is driven by our experience in the clinic. Clients don’t care how clever your argument is, they just want results. That’s true for us as an organization as well- a commitment to results is what guides us. Yes, we comb the literature to constantly learn. We experiment with new approaches and learn from each other. In the end, the metric is whether it helps our clients or not; we are therapeutic pragmatists. I think that’s why we also attract a certain attitude, a culture of therapists as well- dedicated to life-long learning and humbled by their clinical experience. It is a great honor to be on a learning journey with people who share our passion for this field.

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