An interview with Erin Eichenberger
Erin Eichenberger is a licensed massage therapist who practices in Portland, Oregon. She is also an attender at Multnomah Friends Meeting. Erin spoke by phone with Western Friend on October 14, 2016. The following text was excerpted from a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. To read the full transcript, see: westernfriend.org/media/alignment-body-and-light-interview-transcript.
Western Friend: How did you come to Quakers?
Erin Eichenberger: I was brought up in
Newberg Friends Church, an evangelical, programmed church in Oregon. Then I went to Earlham for two years, and after that, I took a nice, long hiatus from Quakerism. I just didn’t feel like I connected with the faith any more.
My journey back to Quakerism started with a massage class I took in 2010 – craniosacral massage. It was a really rough class for me because it asked me to “dismiss my disbelief.” Craniosacral massage involves following this subtle, really vague rhythm. We all have cerebrospinal fluid that goes around the brain, down the spinal cord to the sacrum, and then back up to the brain. It does that about six cycles per minute. It’s pretty slow, super-quiet, and it’s a rhythm that’s far less palpable than the heartbeat.
WF: It never even crossed my mind that there would be a rhythm in the flow of our spinal fluid.
EE: And I’m really kind of on the fence about it because there really hasn’t been much research done on it. As a therapist, I can feel this rhythm in the body; but honestly, I am not convinced it is a physical flow of cerebrospinal fluid that I’m feeling. The rhythm seems more energetic to me now.
So going back to the question, when I came back to Quakerism, it was through this craniosacral work. I had this realization that something connects us, and that opened me back up to Quakerism.
WF: Was there a particular incident?
EE: I was doing a trade with a guy in my class, trading massages. He was being the therapist, and I was being the client. I was lying on the table, and I went into this incredibly relaxed, almost unconscious space, and then I just kind of woke up, had that feeling like when you “snap out of it.” At that moment, when that happened, my classmate said that he was feeling the “still point,” which is a specific craniosacral technique where you stop the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid, and then let it restart. And so he had done that, he had stopped it, and I had that waking up, “aha” moment when the cerebrospinal fluid started flowing again. So that was the “aha.”
WF: And conceptually, the “aha” was about . . . ?
EE: I think it was about me letting go of my disbelief. My dad became an atheist when I was nine. So all throughout my work in this craniosacral massage class, I was really wrestling with a lot of the stories that my dad had told me about what’s real and what’s not. With the craniosacral rhythm, I felt pretty sure that it wasn’t a real thing. And then I had this experience where it was like, “Oh! This maybe is real!” So I developed more of an acceptance of the unexplainable, an acceptance that I don’t have to have all of the answers.
WF: So tell me about the spiritual aspects of bodywork.
EE: I think probably the strongest connection between bodywork and spirituality for me is craniosacral massage.
When I’m in meeting for worship, the way that I ground is that I put my hands on my legs and feel my own cerebrospinal fluid articulating the joints in my legs. Or whatever it is that I’m feeling. To me, the craniosacral connection is what we are working with in Quaker meeting for worship. We are encouraging our central nervous system to go into its parasympathetic state, which is the resting and digesting response. This is different from the sympathetic state, which is the stress response responsible for fight-or-flight. The parasympathetic state is the goal of any form of meditation. So for me, the craniosacral connection is really important in meeting for worship. This means that in my massage practice, I am practicing worship by encouraging this parasympathetic state and inviting God to enter and heal.
Quaker meeting is all about coming to stillness, and from there, being moved by the force of Love to speak and act. But I actually don’t think Quakers are very good at working with our physical awareness, though I think that we could be. As I’ve become more in touch with my body, I’ve come to understand the chakra system. I think this kind of knowledge is missing from the Quakerism that I know. I’ve been trying to get myself confident enough to teach yoga at my meeting. But I don’t know.
Quakers have a tendency to be mainly in our heads, our head being the third eye and the crown chakra – the last two chakras. Granted, those chakras are the most evolved, they are the “highest,” but if we don’t have a connection to our ego, which is the root chakra, the “lowest” chakra on our physical plane, then we’re cutting off a piece of ourselves and why we’re here on the planet. It’s fine to keep our egos from being in control, to keep our animalistic selves from being in control, but we’re human for a reason. If we ignore that fact, then we’re ignoring a big piece of the puzzle. And we can end up with physical symptoms if we ignore that piece.
WF: Right. . . Talking about chakras, I’m interested in what you have to say about this in terms of energy and body.
EE: Is there a difference?
WF: Well, talk about that, the false dichotomy.
EE: Yes, I totally do feel like it is a false dichotomy, that they are exactly one and the same. I experientially believe that any traumas we have – including judgments, fears, mental traumas, physical traumas, emotional traumas – all of these things go into our bodies, and we hold them there. So the energy gets stopped in whatever compartment our mind-body-spirit puts them into.
When I’m doing massage therapy, I’m not sure that what I’m feeling is a physical thing. I do know that what I’m doing is working, whatever it is that I’m doing. How it’s working, I don’t know for sure. I’m not convinced that, when I’m laying my hands on this body, that I’m actually affecting the cerebrospinal fluid. I describe my work using Western words, the explanations that I’ve been taught by my craniosacral teachers, but I don’t feel like those explanations are necessarily accurate. This isn’t so much an issue when I’m actually doing the work during session, unless I’m talking to someone who has that brain style that needs to understand it in terms of black and white, right or wrong. But I just say, “Let’s play with it.”
WF: And you’ve had experiences of people finding healing.
EE: Yes. And I have found in my work that when I start with craniosacral, I am much more connected to the person. I have had experiences where my hands are on the base of the person’s skull, and I just visualize down their spine, and I can tell, I can just tell, where the dark places are. So that’s where it gets really gray, trying to distinguish between body and energy. It’s the body that’s telling me, but I’m not physically touching the parts of the body with the dark places. But it is physical sensation. My guess is that I can tell through some sort of electric impulses. But I can’t think about it in black and white terms. Instead, I know it through the touch.
WF: On your website, you say that you use a range of different techniques. So are there other parts of your work besides craniosacral work that we should cover?
EE: I’m probably known best for my deep therapeutic work. But I think that’s largely because that work rests so strongly on my craniosacral work.
WF: Could you explain why you think that?
EE: A lot of massage therapist will just “dive in.” They will start with cross-fiber friction massage and other specific techniques that they’ve been taught, thinking, “OK. This fixes that. If I rub this really hard and dig in there really hard, that’ll fix it.” However, a technique only fixes if there is both a calmness and a trust between the therapist and the client. They have to be in community. I feel that I get so much further in my work because of the reverence I feel for the dyad, for two people approaching the work with the intention of healing. We can’t just get in there and make it hurt with a bunch of deep-tissue work.
On the other hand, I don’t believe we can just work with energy either. Usually, a therapist needs to have enough of an understanding of the physical components of our bodies and of our lives for the energetic stuff to be effective.
So by starting with craniosacral work, by getting to that place of stillness first, then we can step into healing in a way that is informed by the stillness. As opposed to trying to fix the “problem” before we really have a deeper understanding of what the problem truly is.
WF: So what is your diagnosis for the Religious Society of Friends? What’s the treatment plan?
EE: The closest thing I can come up with is that we need to let go. I don’t know how to do it in reality, though! We need to get out of our anxiety-based, fear-based habits. We need to get out of our habitual stressors and come into stillness. But it’s hard because we’re humans. And we do need to communicate. We do need to talk about it.
WF: So how do we be, in our daily lives, as social animals, trying to be the beloved community together?
EE: Maybe just a little bit more stillness between our words? This is something I am not very practiced at. But it is something that feels accurate. . . . A Holy Pause. Having more pauses in what we say and what we think – that’s what we Quakers have as our belief system, but we don’t always follow it.
But I don’t think that Quakers are in dire straits, honestly. I think we’re just humans. We go through our depressed moments, and we go through our moments of pain, and we might have disease in the sense of feeling “dis – ease,” in the sense of not feeling easeful at all times. But if we can find ease with the pain, then that makes the pain heal much faster.
I think that is what we’re doing as Quakers – saying, “OK. What is our highest good? What is our Light telling us?” And when we come together . . . Meditating on your own is great, but when you do it with other people, with the intention of finding that Light, things happen. The Spirit moves. We have an alignment. But we have to be open to it. ~~~