The Middle Way

When Clients Vent

By Carrie Jones
[Mind of an MT]

Let’s have an open discussion of what it means to live life in the middle, also known as the Middle Way or the Way of Zen.

The Middle Way is a term used in Buddhism that, in its simplest definition, means a balanced approach to life. But to some, the Middle Way approach is just another way of saying “riding the fence” or “playing both sides.” I want to look at this from the angle of our profession.

I have been a massage therapist for over 15 years. Ideally, we want our clients to relax and receive their massage for both the emotional and physical effects it can have on the body-mind connection. However, I am seeing a rise in clients who want to talk throughout their treatment. I have listened to just about every topic from my clients. No issue is off limits (within ethical boundaries) and I don’t do much of the talking; I just listen. Sometimes, I respond slightly to let them know I am listening and I only answer when a direct question is asked. The problem with so many world issues today is that they come with a high level of passionate opinions.

Are people so stressed about the world today that as soon as I begin treatment, their emotional turmoil surfaces to the point of needing to express it? As therapists, how on earth do we diffuse stress levels within our scope of practice and not become responsive or feel the need to defend something we may not agree with? How we respond as a massage therapist has the same outcome as how we respond in general to these intense and opinionated topics.

Some of my clients who like to vent might assume that I agree with what is being said. But do I agree? In order to form a judgment or opinion, I feel it is my right to first get the facts. It is also important to point out the likelihood of damage that can take place when someone forms an opinion based solely on what other people say, without thinking for themselves. It shows me that what they see is what they choose to see, not the reality of what else might be going on.

I had a client who was fired from her job because she was caught taking money from the business in a money bag to her car at the end of the day. The reality of the situation was the manager went home sick and asked if she could do a bank run. But the owner of the business fired her on the spot in the parking lot and didn’t ask one question. Some people might wonder why she didn’t explain herself. My question was why she would want to explain herself. I would not want to work for someone who formed an opinion that easily.

Having the Middle Way approach doesn’t mean we can’t have our own opinions, but it does have the potential of being misunderstood. If I verbalize that I don’t take a side one way or the other, does that make me the ultimate guru or can it be misinterpreted that I disagree with them? If I tell them I don’t form opinions, will this make them feel uneasy? The Middle Way allows me to fully “take in” and educate myself on the topic of concern. I ask a lot of questions before I develop an opinion, if I develop one at all.

It is only when we inspect both sides that we can truly form an educated opinion. Imagine for a moment if all the extreme thinkers stopped arguing and disagreeing and simply listened without the intent to respond or change others. Would they be more or less likely to have stress? Would this Middle Way unify such divided people?

In session, our clients vent or just zone out. But the rise in stress levels also increases the need to vocalize opinions. What kind of therapist are you? I had a student in my ethics class answer that question, stating they would agree with the client, regardless of the topic, because people have so much passion that if you don’t agree, they won’t come back. Other students said they would stand their ground, perhaps try and get them to see their side of a topic.

That is a lot of talking, and consequently, it creates more stress. Taking the Zen approach to the world and its issues is the least stressful path. It does not mean we are indecisive; it simply means we view life from the middle out and not the other way around.

What we know is that some of the best lessons in life are not in what we speak or hear, but in what we see and do; it is how we respond to havoc and chaos.

The Middle Way is more about asking thought-provoking questions than it is to form a black-and-white opinion. It is the ability to see both sides of an argument and understand that there are qualities of a law, a person, or a situation that can’t be judged. Picture for a moment if we all took this approach in topics we are passionate about. What would happen? This doesn’t mean we can’t form our own thoughts about something; it simply means we have a greater understanding of why we feel the way we do and why others feel the way they do. In doing this, we eliminate the hate, anger, and stress that comes with having opposing viewpoints. 

Remember, coming from a place of middle ground does not mean we justify actions. It does not mean we agree with any kind of wrongdoing. When viewing the world from center, we are able to establish emotion from a place we can understand. It allows us to see the human condition for what it really is, and instead of attacking from a place of judgment, we can come from a place of heart even if we disagree with the actions or words.

I have a very dear friend who is in prison for capital murder of two people. He will spend the rest of his life in prison. It is very easy for people to make a fast assumption of him, or even me, a person who can call him a friend. This man’s two children were kidnapped and sold into a drug and sex trafficking ring where they were bought, raped, beaten, and mutilated daily for eight months. The children were found malnourished with heroin needles in their little arms. He killed the two people who were at the root of this crime knowing he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

This story raises questions of our own human instinct. Of course, taking the life of any human being is considered wrong under most people’s moral compass; however, knowing more about it allows us to have empathy or at least sorrow for the entire situation. When we comprehend the mind-set of the situation or person we are criticizing, we build a platform of asking questions. In this scenario, what would I do if it were my children? Even though I believe I would make a different choice of actions, I am at least asking the questions. I am trying to understand the mind-set and emotions of his decisions, and in turn, I am able to find a place in my heart to understand the tragedy of the entire scenario. This is how we can see the Middle Way in so many situations and issues.

When clients come to us and want to talk about the things that stress them out, want to vent, we have a choice in how we respond. We have the same choice in our daily life. With our clients, regardless of whether they are chatterboxes or snoozers, we owe them our highest self, from a place of balance and center. Our energy, our love, and our positive emotions and feelings radiate through us. However, so do anger and negative emotions. We as therapists play a critical part in the success of a session and facilitating the direction of the outcome. How we see the world and how we respond to world issues can be the catalyst of change.

The next time a client starts to vocalize their opinion or needs me to validate their opinion, I can honestly respond by saying, “I am hearing you, my friend.”

I might not be hearing you because I agree or disagree, I might not be hearing you because I feel the same way you do. I am hearing you because my heart has paralleled with yours. I hear your passion, I admire your passion, and I am not going to take that away from you. I am allowing your mind to let go, to vocalize your fears or concerns, and I will remain open to a higher level of personal understanding and growth. I will do this by learning from you, but above all, I won’t add stress. I can facilitate the ability to release it because I am living in a place called center and I have the capability to stand firm in the middle. Therefore, I am loving everyone for the light energy they permeate and not the opinions they carry. I am a safe place and I will be listening, learning, and loving.