The healing festival, a happening of the late '70s, is an arresting sideshow to the spectacle of modern medicine. Being more a celebration of bodily perfection than a study of disease, it is a naturally exuberant affair, quite unlike a conference.
Rather than sitting in auditorium chairs listening to a drone of research paper, the new-age healers come together in workshops to kneel in circles and touch and chant; to float away on guided meditation tours to visualize robust white blood cells; to summon up ancient spirits and test the latest theories of biomagnetic force fields; to revel in their own "high energies."
They take the holistic approach -- that we are irreducible beings, our minds and bodies working as one -- that good health is mainly an attitude and that, likewise, an infected toe reflects a more general malfunction. They focus not on the symptoms of illness but on the principles of wellness. Instead of regarding disease as an alien invader to be combated with drugs, they believe the cure lies within. In these days of inflated doctor and hospital bills, their message is: Patient, heal thyself.
The celebrants at healing festivals (most of them younger than you and I) radiate a cheerfulness that seems downright inappropriate to a time of compound national fracture. They gorge themselves on whole grains and veggies, dance like animals under the full moon and massage each other to sleep.
So it was late last month when the Rocky Mountain Healing Arts Festival convened at a mountain guest ranch near here for a six-day run. Far from the din and crisis, 300 health professionals and students gathered to whip up their own little energy surplus.
Hoping for an inside-out perspective, I attended the festival as a member of the work crew. Some of the scenes that follow may require a leap of faith to appreciate; however, that is precisely what this healing movement is about.
Alberto Villoldo, following in the tracks of the author Carlos Castaneda, has spent much of the past 10 years hanging out with shamans in South America and elsewhere, learning the magic of the primitive world. Tall and boyishly handsome, he appears to be a rising star in the guru establishment.
His series of workshops here was entitled "Trance State Healing," but Villoldo told us straight off that the deepest trance of all was the "cultural trance" that kept western man from experiencing reality in the raw.
Most of us, for example, are unable to see the energy fields around the human body, he said, "because we're trained from birth to see only objects." These energy fields of auras (which have, in fact, been photographed) occupy the space around our bodies, and we can see them, said Villoldo, if we can focus on that space.
To demonstrate, he asked us to hold up one finger at arm's length; to focus on the finger, and to notice how an object in the background appeared as a double image on either side of the finger. "Now," he said, "withdraw your finger and maintain the double image." For most of us, that was a difficult task. Our eyes, instead of remaining fixed on that point in space where our fingers had been, immediately refocused on the distant object, realigning it into one image.
The ability to see space was "a very powerful diagnostic tool," said Villoldo, for the aura revealed the human essence.
For the next demonstration he needed a subject, and he chose your reporter. He had me lock my arms together in front of me, then tested my strength by pressing down on my wrists. "My, he's quite strong," he told the crowd with a sly little grin.
He took one finger and drew it ever-so-lightly across my midsection, on the right side, just above the belt. "Now," he said, "let me test your strength again." He pressed down on my locked arms, and they gave way like I'd been socked in the groin. He'd sapped me, zapped me, rendered me impotent. I was astonished, the crowd delighted.
Once more Villoldo took his finger and brushed it through my midsection, as if to erase the previous line. He tested my strength again, and it had been restored.
What he had done, he explained, was to sever -- and then reconnect -- the three "meridians," or channels of energy, that run through the torso. It turned out that, among healers, this was a common phenomenon of the field known as kinesiology. When he repeated the demonstration with a woman, she was equally astonished to find her strength mysteriously dissipated.
Villoldo warned that this was not a party trick, but serious business. "There's really no difference between healing and black magic," he said. In Haiti, he had witnessed people struck down from afar by voodoo spells. Healers, he said, were distinguished only by "a sense of ethics, but the techniques are the same."
In the Bates Eye Training class that was held at 7 the next morning, Peggy Taylor told us that poor vision was all a matter of stress. Whereas traditional optometry taught us that bad eyesight was a result of weakness in the eye muscles, she said, the Bates method regarded it as a result of muscle tightness. The remedy was not to wear glasses, but to learn to relax.
Taylor, the editor of New Age magazine, was an eyeglass wearer for 18 years and was diagnosed as having 20/250 vision. By practicing the Bates method for five minutes a day, she said, she restored herself to normal vision in three weeks.
She asked the students to remove their glasses, gave us each an eye chart and began a series of focal exercises designed to help us start relaxing our seeing habits.
"Most people haven't been looking at the world," she said. "We've been staring at the world. The only thing that's going to allow you to see is to stop trying to see . . . and let go."
Those of us who didn't wear glasses might imagine we had perfect vision, she said, but there were no limits to how keenly we could see. Certain tribes who had accustomed themselves to looking across vast distances, she told us, had developed an "incredible vision" beyond our normal understanding.
My staff position, meanwhile, landed me in the bowels of the kitchen as a breakfast dishwasher. There is a certain zen to the pearldiving trade, but I quickly learned that industrial dishwashing machines are not prepared for the new age: chopsticks kept getting caught in the gears and fouling up the cosmic rhythm.
As I washed away each morning's remains of granola and yogurt and creamed wheat, I would watch the happy vegetarian cooks preparing huge platters of beans and tofu casseroles for the communal lunch. They would sing along to a tape deck and dance through their motions like so many mice in a childhood cartoon.
There were two serving lines for each meal -- dairy and nondairy -- both stocked to prodigious proportions. By week's end the healers would eat through 250 pounds of granola, 75 gallons of yogurt, 250 pounds of rice, 150 pounds of tofu, 120 pounds of honey, 100 pounds of beans (causing an epidemic of flatulence) and 20 cases of herbal tea.
However, some fell from grace. Two of the festival organizers stole out of camp one night and drove to the nearest roadhouse for cheeseburgers. Another night a gang of healing professionals sneaked into the kitchen, found a tub of ice cream in the ranch freezer and went at it, spoons flying, like kids at a Fourth of July picnic. The kitchen manager herself was heard to remark to her husband after the last night's dinner was down the gullet that she wanted to go out the next day and get "a greasy hamburger, some french fries and a great big root beer."
Well, perfection can be a bore.
Sound nutrition, particularly vegetarianism, has been a cornerstone of the self-healing movement. Yet for some it has become an issue to give lip-service -- honored as one would an aging leader whose teachings have lost their novelty.
Any healing movement that did not deal with the haunting presence of cancer wouldn't amount to much. In this movement, the guiding light is Dr. Carl Simonton, medical director of the Cancer Counseling and Research Center in Fort Worth. Simonton believes that cancer is created in the mind and can be cured there, and last year he published impressive results of his work with 159 supposedly incurable patients.
Simonton didn't attend this festival, but a recent associate, psychotherapist Peggy Roggenbuck, did and she presented a workshop on the subject.
The idea, in a nutshell, is that thought processes affect the autonomic nervous system and endocrine glands on a subconscious level, and that emotional stress creates an imbalance, lowering the natural immunological resistance of the body. Thus certain personality types, said Roggenbuck, seem to be prone to cancer -- those who often feel helpless or hopeless; those who are heavily dependent on others or their jobs; those who hold in anger and frustration.
Odd, for example, that, although prison inmates tend to be heavy smokers, studies have found an extremely low incidence of lung cancer in prisons. Simonton's answer is that prisoners are not the kind to hold in their feelings, but rather act them out (even if an antisocial ways).
Simonton believes, said Roggenbuck, that cancer is "a passive form of suicide," a giving up of responsibility, like "being sick to stay home from school." So the first step in therapy -- a prerequisite, in fact -- is to help the patient gain a willingness to live and to set goals. Through meditation, biofeedback techniques and guided imagery, the patient is taught to relax and to visualize healthy white blood cells multiplying and healing.
Cancer with a positive twist: It is seen as a message, a symbol of unmet needs, an opportunity to set life straight.
Said Rick Ingrasci, health director of the Interface Foundation in Boston: "I've had people say to me, 'Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me . . . I woke up . . . I realized I wasn't living the way I wanted to.' It was a slap in the face from the cosmos. And from then on they started taking responsibility for their lives."
If mind influences body and body influences mind, then one can gain access to the whole through either doorway. In the healing movement it seems as though the older generations, those beyond their early 30s, prefer to lead from the head, while the young folks enjoy working with their bodies.
Many of the celebrants here were graduates or students of the Boulder School of Massage Therapy, which began these festivals four years ago. I couldn't help noticing how they liked to touch each other -- hugging, kissing, kneading each others' backs over the dinner table, disappearing into the pinewoods two by two for, presumably, a message.
This sort of intimacy can be a little threatening to those of us who aren't so free with our bodies. What does all that touching lead to? Where do you draw the line? What would my wife say?
A lady who practices Shiatsu massage, and who used to work in a studio that dispensed sexual favors, told me there was no real difference between the two jobs. Everybody needs to be touched, she said; it's a basic human need. Some people aren't able to get it in their private lives, so they have to pay someone else to touch them, to one degree or another.
She admitted, of course, that the same could be said of the body-people, like her, who are on the other end of the transaction. "I was uptight about my body all my life," she said, "until I was 27 -- and then I busted loose. And now I can't get enough of it."
Christina Sells, an instructor at this festival, gave a similar assessment: "I went into massage work because when I was a child nobody touched me. Then I became a therapist, because nobody had ever recognized me as a person."
Sitting atop a lookout tower with some bodyfolks one afternoon, I was told this about the question of sex: "We were taught in business-ethics class that if you feel yourself getting into something, you know, with a customer, you're supposed to at least go out the door and come back in again."
What an amusing irony, then, that the guest ranch here was owned by the puritanical Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and that consequently the festival staff would get all uptight at the slightest sign of public nudity.
To help us understand "Medical Astrology," instructor Chuck Bebeau drew his own astrological chart on a blackboard, indicating the positions of the planets at the time of his birth. Stepping back from the zodiac, he declared, "What we're looking at here is the unfolding of human experience." Using the chart to illustrate, he then began unfolding his life story.
He told us he'd had a "macho" upbringing and "it wasn't until my late 20s that I got in touch with my emotional life." Now, he said, he had "gotten in touch with my feminine energy" -- and, sure enough, standing before us he was a regular Mr. Softy -- a pink flush to his face, a voice like honey, a sincerity unabashed.
He went on to inform us that his grade-school teachers had instilled in him a fear of opening his mouth in public. But later, he said, through pranayama breathing techniques, he eventually learned to relax, to overcome respiratory problems, and thereby to unblock his fear of speaking in public. "It was the greatest understanding of my life," he pronounced.
To Bebeau, the positions of the planets had revealed these life-patterns. To me, it seemed just as likely that he was imputing to astrology what others would call normal self-perception. But I was happy for him -- happy that he'd conquered his fears and could stand in front of us spilling out his traumas. Astrology, it seemed, had given him a form for expressing himself, a confidence.
A lot of bright people are shaping up careers for themselves in the new-consciousness movement. Formerly traditional psychiatrists or electronics engineers or masseuses, they have experienced a creative rebirth in their lives, and now get paid to tell other people how they did it. They travel expenses-paid to the festivals and conferences -- the superluminaries like Ram Dass and John Lilly and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross -- the lesser-knowns who are trying to crack the big time. They get to know one another out there on the guru circuit, and exchange secrets of the trade and the universe.
Leftover instructions on a blackboard from a self-massage class:
"EARS -- press, pinch, pull.
"HEAD -- press, bang.
"NECK -- squeeze, bang, press, knead, rotate . . . "
Phoebe, aged 40, was diagnosed last spring as having the early stages of multiple sclerosis, a slowly debilitating disease of the nervous system. At a workshop here she was examined by a traditional MD, who confessed that western medicine did not have a cure for her.
Then she was examined by Dwight McKee, a Boulder-area physician who has been practicing "alternative modalities," as he put it.
McKee told Phoebe that diagnoses of chronic conditions such as hers "can do a lot of damage, especially with our strong cultural belief systems." We are "plugged into certain beliefs" about disease that are "very much self-fulfilling prophecies," he said. "That's why western medicine has so much confidence in its diagnoses. They say a patient will be dead in six months and -- sure enough, right to the day." Holistic medicine, he told her, meant "learning to expand our belief systems."
In an attempt to get a preliminary idea of where Phoebe's problems might lie -- other than her state of mind -- McKee had her recline on a massage table and tried a bit of applied kinesiology, the mechanics of movement. In this field, McKee explained, organs and glands were seen as being related to certain muscle groups. So if a particular muscle proved to be weak, that would indicate the related organ was working under stress. The muscle was a window into the interior.
In the same way that Alberto Villoldo tested my strength, McKee tested Phoebe's, applying pressure against her arms and legs while she touched a finger to various muscle groups.
At one point, sensing muscle weakness that indicated a liver problem, McKee opened a pharmaceutical case and drew out a bottle of pills labeled "Raw Liver Concentrate." It was concentrated cow-liver, he said, and he placed one small pill in Phoebe's hand. He placed two pills in her hand, tested again: Stronger still.
The principle was simple, McKee said. "Liver heals liver." If Phoebe were his patient, he would have her take raw liver. The approach would be organic, liver to liver, rather than synthetic or combative.
But how could those pills have worked by merely being placed in the woman's hand? That's not really known, said McKee. "But that's true about a lot of things in allopathic [traditional] medicine, too." If the pills are taken orally they have a biochemical effect, he said. If they're placed against the skin they have an electromagnetic effect that's nearly as strong.
At the end of the class we formed a circle around Phoebe, closed our eyes, and focused all of our best intentions toward her, our healing energies.
Diana Velasquez, a 40-year-old counselor at a Denver mental-health center, likes to describe herself as a "dumpy, middle-aged housewife." Except that she happens to be trained as a Yaqui Indian sorceress. And in her spare time, she told her workshop, she reads auras, heals by laying-on hands, hexes and dehexes people for a fee, removes ghosts -- "and, occasionally, I do killings."
She told of an old woman in a hospital who lay dying, but refused to die. The doctors had pulled the plugs, so to speak, but the life-force remained in the comatose body day after day. The woman's relatives, believing the time had come, called Diana Velasquez, and she came right over with her little suitcase of ointments and potions.
She gathered the relatives around the unconscious woman, and asked each of them to give permission for her to die. "I anointed her seven chakras and put my hand on her forehead, and I whispered, 'Go . . . let's go,' and she closed her eyes and died in two minutes."
"For me," said Diana Velasquez, "that is healing, too."
At lunchtime on Friday, one long table was occupied by clowns. Their faces were painted, their costumes from a madman's theater trunk, and they were mute. These were the 10 or 12 students who were attending the all-day "Fool as Healer" workshop put on by a member of the National Theater of the Deaf. They were having a great time acting like nincompoops, and I envied them.
One clown ran up and whipped out a felt-tipped pen as if to paint on my face. I tried to resist: "No. Really!" I had to go to a serious workshop; I didn't want to look like a . . . fool. But the clown did it anyway -- big purple lashes of mock surprise around my eyes.
And I was glad: I decided I could drop my self-important mask for one day, at least.
Outside, after lunch, the clowns were having their pictures taken, making idiot faces and draping over each other like rag dolls. I turned to a 10-year-old boy and remarked: "That's the class we should have taken today."
"Naww," he said, waving his hand, "that's kids' stuff!" Which was exactly the point.