How Do You Measure Compassion?

By Robert Chute
[Practitioner Parables]

I felt my awareness shift as I massaged a client who was undergoing cancer treatment. After 18 years in practice, sessions often go down by the numbers: one protocol advances logically to the next, all standard operating procedure.

But not this time. Glancing up at her bald head, I felt a fresh wave of compassion for her brave struggle. My experience of giving the massage deepened. I slowed, pausing to palpate the heat release as the fascia at her calf spread out beneath my hands. Her muscles turned to warm butter as her bone pain slipped away. There was something unquantifiable going on here.

Massage procedures, as outlined in textbooks, seem cold and calculated compared to actually giving a massage. Did this wave of empathy somehow change the effect of soft-tissue manipulation? How do you measure compassion? Is there still room for art in a profession often obsessed with its science? How can present-day science be our sole legitimacy when humans have so many variables?

I have more unanswered questions than pat, happy answers.

For a profession to be regulated, we must often err on the side of the easily measurable. But to arrive at “best practices,” will MTs be forced to hold their noses and conform to textbook responses that fail to take their intuition into account? The natural response is often to label something as “wrong,” when in fact it’s simply new or outside the objector’s experience. In this research and regulatory environment, will visionaries rise? Would Ida Rolf or Milton Trager get a fair hearing if they were coming up now?

Can regulation really make us better—or just less bad? Is it even possible to enforce conformity without straitjacketing excellent clinical outcomes?

This is not a rant against regulation per se, but against the fear it fosters among good therapists. Limits imposed for the common good can restrict aspirations among the uncommonly good.

Back at the table with my client, I hold her ankle as I slip into a tai chi stance I learned 30 years ago. I feel the energy flow. Her body elongates and relaxes.

I will miss this. 

 This is my last column for Massage & Bodywork. My thanks to the editors and the many readers who made me feel like such a pretty bunny. Say hello at or visit where I’m off making a new me—writing books full time and repairing old promises.