Two Drops of Oil
Our thoughts are shaped by metaphors born from stories. Coelho's idea of noticing and delighting in the beauty that surrounds us without spilling the spoonful of oil is an image that guides me in many contexts.
An obvious application of the moral of this story is to allot time and energy to both savoring joy, as well as to taking care of the mundane chores of a functional adult life. This is important, of course, but not all that interesting to write about.
What interests me more is the balance of forcing and allowing within the development of a specific skill. When it's a physical skill, it's about brute strength and refined technique. For example, the better my skate skiing form gets, the amount of effort it takes to ski a mile drops. And the stronger I get, the easier it gets for me to keep going when my balance and coordination are compromised.
The same is true with rock climbing, partner acrobatics, swimming, walking, and many other endeavors.
However, focusing on the grit of getting stronger can take away from attention given to improving graceful technique and vice-versa. If every time I practice a skill I push to exhaustion, forcing myself to do the thing no matter how uncomfortable, it's likely that I'll form muscles and muscle memory around poor form, making it harder to improve my technique. It is as if the force of awe that floods me when I gaze at the Persian tapestries has knocked the spoon of oil out of my hand.
If, on the other hand, I never go out and ski trails because I insist on staying in the practice area doing drills until each piece of my form is perfect, I may never develop the strength to maintain that perfect form for more than a couple minutes.
In general, the way I work with bodies as a Rolfer™ helps people to better balance the oil in the spoon. I help people refine the subtle techniques of breathing, walking, sitting and generally being upright so that their basic daily activities help heal their bodies rather than wearing them out.
In general, the way many physical therapists work with the body is by developing strength in the area of the body that hurts. Knee pain? Strengthen your quads! Shoulder pain? Exercise each rotator cuff muscle! This is frequently effective because overall, the stronger you are, the more stress of misalignment you can handle without pain.
What's tricky is that strengthening without aligning does't stop the wear and tear on your joints and soft tissues that may have caused the pain to begin with. The problem is that many people only seek help when they're in pain; they only care about alignment when brute strength isn't enough to meet their goals. So if they're strong enough to withstand a lot of strain without pain, it often takes incapacitating injuries to get them to try something different.
For example, I work with a lot of people who are frustrated by shoulder pain. The shoulder joint is optimized for mobility rather than stability, for throwing and reaching rather than walking on our hands. This means that if we want our arms to move powerfully, we need to use muscles to stabilize our shoulders, rather than just resting into the shape of the bony joint. Most people I see habitually stabilize their shoulder blades by using the upper trapezius and pectoralis minor muscles. This pulls the shoulders high and forward, tightening and shortening the neck and chest. It also limits the range of motion of the shoulders (especially in the direction of reaching upward) and makes normal arm movements put uneven strain on the joint itself. In the same way that neglecting to rotate the tires on your car makes them wear out faster, this consistently unbalanced strain on the rotator cuff makes injury more likely (rotator cuff tears, tendonitis, bursitis, dislocations, eventually arthritis and bone spurs). Ideally, serratus anterior supports the shoulder blade in a way that keeps the chest open, the neck relaxed, and optimizes shoulder mobility. Unfortunately, activating serratus anterior while relaxing pectoralis minor and the upper trapezius is a tricky thing to teach, not accomplished by doing mindless repetitions of a set of exercises.
So, if you strengthen all the muscles around your shoulders and get rid of the pain, but keep the dysfunctional stabilization pattern, how will your shoulders feel and function in 20 years? How will they feel as soon as you stop your regular shoulder-strengthening routine?
The Secret to Embodied Happiness is both enjoying the beauty of big strengthening movements and attending to the spoon of oil by refining the alignment of your joints.