What Shapes a Life? An Interview with Fascia Pioneer Thomas Findley

By Jason DeFilippis, Certified Advanced Rolfer™
August 2023

ABSTRACT Tom Findley – medical doctor, research scientist, and Rolfer – is interviewed by Jason DeFilippis about his biography and his work with structural integration (SI) and fascia research.

[Editor’s Note: A prior interview with Findley covered his history as a Rolfer, his work with the Veterans’ Administration, his fascia research, and his founding of the Fascia Research Congress. See “Fascia Pioneer: An Interview with Thomas Findley” in the December 2016 issue of Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute®.]

Jason DeFilippis (left) with Tom Findley (right)

Character and Lineage

Jason DeFilippis:

Reading your biography, Fascia Pioneer: Dr. Thomas W. Findley Jr., I learned that your family lineage is overwhelmingly full of people who, in the face of poverty and hardship, were high achieving, resourced, and ethical. There is clearly a family pattern that has expressed itself in you also. In this book, you say that you are led by something. What are you led by?

Tom Findley:

I’m led by what we Quakers call ‘God in every person’, so there’s an internal spirit, be it God, Buddha, Jehovah, whatever, that guides me. I come from a lineage of Presbyterian ministers, and if you go back to the 1700s, William Findley’s portrait hangs in Independence Hall, and beneath it is a brief characterization, “upright, unbending, and contentious.” He was a simple tailor who came here from Ireland, and wound up by serving in the House of Representatives for more than thirty years. He also negotiated an end to the Whiskey Rebellion, so he definitely added to human progress.

JDF: You have achieved a lot in your life, all the while having many adventures and a few near-death experiences. You have had a fierce loyalty and belief in doing what was needed to alleviate the suffering of others. This quality is clearly potentiated by having the cultivation, intelligence, fearlessness, and novelty to get things done. Can you speak to that?

TF: Well, when I was a child, I was small. I wound up skipping a grade, so I was even smaller than most, and I would not tolerate being bullied, or seeing anybody else being bullied. I stood up to people much bigger than me, and stood them down, because that was just the right thing to do. So I learned early on how to do that – not that I had a conceptual scheme in my mind, I just knew it was the right thing to do, and I would just do it. Part of it was that I was surprised that people really didn’t expect that from me, and part of it was just that, I don’t know, I have a way of reading people, and an intuitive reaction to them. I don’t know where this came from, because I can’t say that either of my parents do that. But there is, I know, from my mother’s side an intuitive sense of the future, being able to predict the future, and so that may be part of what I inherited from her side.

JDF: So, in a sense, you seem to know that everything will work out?

TF: Until I was in my mid-forties, I didn’t really know much about emotions; I didn’t know how to analyze them. But, I would be in a meeting, or a conversation, and if it wasn’t going well, I’d recognize this, and I would just do something different. I had no way of knowing what to do different, or why, or how, but I’d usually pull it off anyway. So I have some sort of intuitive skill. I wasn’t taught the basic stuff, so people would assume that if I didn’t do something basic, I was dissing them, because I obviously had the inherent skill. So they would assume that if I missed a basic cue, I did it deliberately, but I had no clue what they were talking about.

JDF: Would you say that an interest in novelty has been very prominent in your approach to life?

TF: Not just an interest, an insistence on it. I never liked to do the same thing twice. I remember teaching myself to sew. I made one moccasin, I made a right moccasin. I never got around to making the left, because I knew I could do it, so I just made one, and then I went on to making other things.

JDF: Not a lot of time or patience for unhealthy repetitions?

TF: Well, I did my practicing. I spent three hours a day practicing classical guitar when I was a freshman in college, so repetition there I had no problem with. But generally speaking, if I’m driving some place, and I go there twice, I’ll go a different way the second time.

JDF: You seem to have a mind that cuts through much of what does not belong to an issue. This quality has, throughout your childhood, your career, and now as you work with cancer, proven to be a very efficient way to solve problems. Can you say something about the way your mind works with respect to novelty?

TF: Well, my mind is like a computer. I put a question in, and I wait for an answer. I can be doing something else while I’m getting the answer, and I don’t know how I get the answer, but I do know that it’s useful just to wait. For instance, when I do math problems, I just look at them and get the answer. My son has the same ability. I had to teach him that “You have to actually list the steps, or the teacher will think you cheated.” So, my brain puts together things from very different sources, and comes up with very unique ideas, as my son’s does. I’ve always done that. That’s just the way it works, and I’ve learned to trust both when it comes up with something and that when it’s humming away, it’s not time to answer yet.

JDF: There has been a lot of pain in your ancestry. Your father is fairly distant. In your own life there was sexual abuse of your sister, and of you. There was also abandonment, just to name two areas of trauma. Yet despite this upbringing, you are interested in emotional process, and in the body as a way into an exploration of the human being. How has this inquiry contextualized your achievements?

TF: Well, I determined not to pass these on to my children, so when my daughter was about eleven and my son was eight, I realized that there was work to be done. I offered my son weekly lessons on dealing with people. What would take me weeks to realize would take him hours. I offered my daughter the same thing, and she refused. So instead I offered her cooking lessons, and in the guise of these lessons, I rolled in all the lessons about dealing with people. What do we cook? When do we serve? What kind of meal do we have? Who gets to go first? All of those things got rolled into cooking lessons. Later she was just aghast when I told her that, but she learned it.

I guess this came from when some of my childhood memories, which were blocked for forty years, started coming out. Dealing with them, [it] worked best [to go for] a Rolfing® [SI] session, and then the next day go for a Core Energetics session; which is psychotherapy with movement, and that’s how a lot of these things came out. So of course the body and the mind are very much related.

Cancer Journey

JDF: You were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. The cancer was caught late, and there were metastases. It’s been a very challenging time for you. You seem to have remained curious, mindful, and vulnerable. Since you retired from your practically full-time jobs (researcher, Rolfer, and clinician), you seem to have turned your attention inward, to the present moment, in some novel, nonclinical ways. Can you talk about that?

TF: Yes, it’s probably most evident in Robert Browning’s poem “Grow Old With Me.” I won’t quote it here, but basically “grow old with me, the best is yet to be.” He says it’s a journey, and towards the end of the journey, we turn inward to the spirit, and look forward to the next step. I don’t want to take the next step now – I’m a scientist, I’m sort of curious, but one only gets to study that once. Turning inward to the spirit is something that I’m leaning more towards as I get more time on my hands. Well, I can’t say I have any more time than I used to; I don’t know how I ever managed to carve eight hours out of my day to go to work. I’m busy, but I’m able to use some of those things for more internal endeavors; for reading poetry, and exploring in that sense.

JDF: Who are you reading other than Browning?

TF: Anna Silver, a poet who had a Guggenheim Fellowship last year. She dealt with breast cancer for fourteen years, and her poetry is good. [Some of her poetry] incorporates her perspective on the process of being sick. There’s a lot of people who’ve written books about the process of dying, and a bunch of it is crap. Her stuff is real.

JDF: What makes the other stuff not useful?

TF: Well, it’s the classic stuff, you know; clean up your room, be a good boy, and life will go well.

JDF: Yes. If there are two things you would share with someone going through a life-threatening illness, what would they be?

TF: The mantra that I said to myself in medical school is, ‘the best approximation of the person you will be in the future, is the person you are today’. When I start straying, I get back to that, what do I want to be like tomorrow? It’s hard sometimes to force myself to do one day at a time, because my mind moves forward in drastic jumps. I have to kind of put a brake on it, to say; sometimes you just need to stay here, in the present. I’m sure a new grandchild will do that – my daughter is delivering in January – because that’s the way kids are; they’re in the present.

Our Work in SI

JDF: What are we doing as structural integrators?

TF: The short version is we are helping our clients become more integrated in the field of gravity, to paraphrase Ida Rolf. Even though we work on them lying on the table, we are aiming for a change when they are standing up.

JDF: What’s the mechanism of change?

TF: That’s a good question. Next question?

JDF: I’ve heard you answer this question before.

TF: The mechanism? There are numerous things that we certainly have glimpses about, but to actually be able to test it is still coming. [There was a study on massage with muscle soreness, where the [subjects] exercised two legs until they were sore [and then received massage on one leg]. The study actually showed changes at the cellular level and gene transcription on the massaged leg; that happens right away. Two hours later, the anti-inflammatory stuff is moving around much more in the massaged leg. So there are clearly deep changes that can come from contacting the skin surface in various ways. We just don’t know how to measure those yet.

JDF: Do you think that the capacity for the body to self-organize is one of the primary things that’s happening in a structural integration session?

TF: Oh yeah. In my Advanced Training, the patient came in, we all did our analysis of what was wrong with the structure, and she laid down. Then the instructor, Bill Smythe, put his hands on her head, and forty-five minutes later he took his hands off her head, she stood up, and she was different. Then we said, “Well, that’s why he’s the instructor, and we’re the students.”

Nuances in the Body

JDF: Is there anything else that you want to talk about?

TF: Well, it’s difficult, embarrassing to kind of put myself out there. A lawyer friend of mine, Brian Held, said “You have a life that people want to know about” – and he actually hired a biographer, Suzanne Becker, to sit with me. In the process I’ve learned more about my heritage. If we were to do it again, there would be many more chapters, as my sisters and I are digging up more and more of our heritage. Right now my sister is looking to see how those things in our heritage get carried down through emotion and habit patterns, which I think is very interesting, and to some extent that’s what we do with structural integration. I guess the best example is that for years I had sort of a knot in the middle of my chest, and no structural integrator could ever get to it. Then my mother came as a model for my Rolfing training, and when she was getting work on her chest, I got the release, and it went away. It wasn’t my stuff. I’m sure those patterns [exist]; sometimes the patterns are obvious, and sometimes they’re not. When you achieve a sudden change in somebody, it may be because it wasn’t their stuff. So I would say, pay attention to that, pay attention to the lineage.

I was once talking with someone, and their cat came in. I said, “Somebody hit that cat right here,” and when I moved my hand, the cat just flew out. How did I know that? Well, you look at somebody, you look at the way they move, and you just have a sense that something physical has happened in the past. You don’t have to describe it, you don’t have to work on it specifically, you just have to know in a global sense how it is incorporated. I use my body as a sensor. When I look at my client, when they walk in the room, where do I hurt? It’s not my hurt, its their hurt. That’s how I know that their left lower back hurts, because mine is hurting just there. Trust your body as a sensor, just as when somebody walks in the room, if they’re depressed, or they’re happy, you know where they are within seconds. Well, it’s the same kind of knowledge working with structure. We all have our own particular talents for working with people, and they’re different, and I’ve been blessed with talents.

Fascia Research Congress

JDF: You drew on a lot of your talents over the years in shepherding the Fascia Research Conference.

TF: At this stage in my life, I’m really delighted to be handing off the torch for the Fascia Research Congress, which is going gangbusters for the next conference in Berlin. It’s been over ten years [that we’ve had the conferences], and it’s great to watch the younger generation coming through, taking charge, and moving it forward. This time it’s not my show, but I get to advise.

Ongoing Webinar Series

JDF: I’ve always known you as a humble person, and you’re also a very good teacher, so thank you for letting the biography be written, and for doing this interview. You’ve done so much for structural integration – in terms of the Fascia Research Congress, your research papers, and your work with the Veteran’s Administration bringing structural integration into the hospital.

TF: A skill I have is taking complicated things and explaining them simply. So what I’m starting to do now is three or four times a year give a webinar on how clinicians can find articles on topics they are curious about. I’ll help you jump into the literature, and find something that will help explain that topic.  I’ve probably done 15,000 literature searches in my career. It’s just a skill I have, but then I can take that information and make it simple for the clinician to understand. And so I welcome you to watch those. And they are recorded and archived through the Fascia Research Society, so you can go back and watch the others. I’ll be doing this in November 2019 at the Fascia Research Congress in Berlin, and I’ll keep doing this as a way of helping clinicians who want to explore some of the principles behind what they’re observing.

The theme for one of the fascia conferences is, what do we notice, and what do we know? It’s really always an interplay between clinicians who notice something and scientists who try to figure out what we know about that. So, those are the two themes in my life that I like to pass on to others.

Reason and Intuition

JDF: This kind of bringing together of opposing forces has always been important throughout history; faith and reason, heaven and earth, thinking and being.

TF: That’s right. It takes both. People sometimes make a distinction between intuitive and rational, they think of scientists as rational and others as religious, as intuitive. Now, scientists have to be intuitive. There are too many things to explore, and too many variations; they have to make intuitive choices. Some scientists know they do, and some don’t, but they all do. So it’s a combination in both categories.

JDF: You’ve really cultivated your intuition. Is this part of what has made you so successful, and efficient?

TF: Yeah, and I’ve been blessed with a lot of horsepower.

JDF: Thank you for the interview.

Tom Findley is Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Rutgers University, New Jersey Medical School. He received his MD from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Minnesota under the guidance of F.J. Kottke, a pioneer in the field. He went on to earn a PhD at Minnesota in physical medicine, and received state-of-the-art training in physical therapy, exercise physiology, psychology, and anthropology. He has extensive training in complementary medicine and until his retirement in 2016 was an active clinician (Certified Advanced Rolfer) as well as a researcher at the VA Medical Center East Orange New Jersey, which is a member of the Planetree Network of hospitals incorporating integrative medicine. In his retirement he no longer sees patients, but continues to do research on exercise and cancer with a team at Rutgers.

He is the founder of the Fascia Research Congress, and served as CEO and executive director from its inception in 2007 through 2013. As a physiatrist he treated many disorders of the musculoskeletal system. As a scientist he strove to understand their pathophysiology in order to develop focused treatments and prophylactic regimens. Fascia, part of the connective tissues that permeate the human body, may be the unifying structure and concept that is essential to elucidate the mechanisms of these dysfunctions. The links between fascia and cancer were proposed more than 100 years ago by A.T. Still, the founder of osteopathic medicine. Dr. Findley is the recipient of the prestigious 2009 Northup Award from the American Osteopathic Association for his paper “Three-Dimensional Mathematical Model for Deformation of Human Fasciae in Manual Therapy.”

Jason DeFilippis began his Rolfing SI practice in 2004. Since then, he has been a curious student of the healing arts, studying in the realms of manual-therapy, perceptual/emotional, and spiritual paradigms. His approach to work is to focus on health as the primary mover of the client, often using SourcePoint® to contextualize his manual work. Jason’s sessions are an elegant blend of subtle bodywork practices with very direct manual intervention. He lives and practices in New York City. His website is www.cityrolfing.com.

Article from edition:
December 2018 / Vol. 46, No. 3
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