This weekend, after a day of snowboarding, I was talking to my friend Johnny Cooke, a physical therapist/trainer at Precision Human Performance, about tightness in my back. At some point I said something about getting a massage.
Johnny shook his head. Most massage therapists, he said, make a fundamental mistake: they see the tightened muscle as the enemy, and the relaxed muscle as the hero. He said, It's the opposite. The tightened muscle is overworked, trying to compensate for the weakness of other muscles. The goal should not be to pound the tightened muscle into submission; it should be to strengthen other muscles so that they do their job.*
Many people, in other words, get hooked on a regular massage without ever addressing the problem that makes the massage a (temporary) relief: an imbalance in the body's muscular strength.
An obvious idea, once one hears it.
Perhaps because I'm from California, where the line between physical health and mental health is regularly dismissed as a false dichotomy, I later considered how this principle might apply to the life of the mind.
An obsession with cleanliness, for example, or an addiction to running, or a passion for rollercoasters, or a terror of home, or fanatical religious devotion, or the need to write—each of these impulses might be our private psychological hero, protecting us from something we cannot name: our feebler self, trembling, desperate, alone—or, as likely, already dead.
* I can only hope that my dear readers will take this language literally.