Byron Bay

Holistic Healing and Funny Peculiar Signs of the Times

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In India, they say that if you drop a pebble off any building, it will land on a philosopher.

In Byron Bay, a more appropriate claim is that if you shake any tree, a hundred healers will fall from its branches.

The Greek peripatetic philosopher, Theophrastus maintained that every living thing has an oikeiostopos or 'favourable place,' where all the energies and conditions are suitable to its flourishing. There's certainly a strong consensual belief that Byron Shire is such a conducive locale. This contention I do not dispute. My queries, after decades of my own idiosyncratic and diverse range of healing experiences, are otherwise.

The longer I live, the longer I live here, in particular, the more I find that my experiences, observations, explorations and esoteric curiosity nudge me towards an ever-broadening embrace of the concept of healing.

Healing, it seems, need not be restricted to those occasions when you enter a room and pay a practitioner a fee (or if you're a local around here, you may barter almost any kind of healing modality known to humankind for, say, some gardening, home maintenance, computer lessons, or home-birth support).

As I write in Love Letters from Mother Nature, psychological therapy has 'no monopoly on the power to heal', as anyone who has lived close to nature will attest."

And as I continue to insist, let us not undervalue the regenerative potency of the landscape, the light, the weather and the site-specific unravelling of the seasons. Personally, I revel in our annual wet season with its capacity to wash the world, including me, clean of our dusty psychic encumbrances. (As I write this, we are desperately overdue for this atmospheric cleansing on account of El Nino and other disturbing weather phenomena.)

What happens to our physiology and our general outlook when we wrap our arms around a gum tree (having first checked, of course, that no one's looking) or lean our body against the massive trunk of a fig tree? Don't laugh dismissively, cynics. When I give public talks to community groups about Love Letters, I often ask the audience members if they have ever hugged a tree or two. The sea of raised hands always carries the nature vote by a country mile, whether the audience is in Pitt Street or the back of Bourke.

To what degree do the feeling tones of a place, its pace and rhythm, its prevailing mindset, community preoccupations or social consciousness, play a part in our healing, or harm? How restorative is it, for instance to live in a small, close-knit community in which friendships are dependent not upon what you do for a living, which suburb you live in, how extensively you've renovated, whether you wear Country Road or which private school your kids go to, but upon non-materialistic bindings such as shared kindnesses, senses of humour, worldviews?

And what about the healing power of humour? Laughter is the best medicine, etcetera... A while back, along with a couple of hundred other motley local crew members, I enjoyed The Blue Healers, a comedic night of escape from the peak summer season overcrowding and vehicular invasion in the Bay (The Cars That Ate Byron). The shaggy dog stories and one-liners came thick and fast at the Bangalow Catholic Hall, dispelling our collective crankiness, opening up our heart chakras and, judging by our rowdiness, loosening our lymph drainage systems ... all for $15 admission. The laughing allowed us to focus on our shared communal ligature, our shorthand for local issues, values, events and personalities. The evening was MC'd by the Bay's favourite comedian Mandy Nolan, who recommended that we try driving down traffic-gridlocked Jonson Street in January with a vial of rescue remedy at the ready.

Have you ever enjoyed or administered the soul-salving art of active listening? Oi vey, in the city, who can spare an hour or three to listen to another's troubles? In the Big Smoke, spare time has a shelf life somewhere between raspberries and rocket. Well you know what they say about time being the greatest healer...

And then there are the stories. Stories we hear and tell one another; stories that can awaken, soothe, satisfy. Here are a couple of lighthearted ones I'd like to share with you.

A Melbourne friend who came to the Shire for a few months R&R to recover her health, and ended up living here for two years (a not uncommon development) was staying in the Paterson Street holiday home of friends. Certain points of the walls and door frames, she noticed, were punctured with metal needles which she puzzled over and eventually took to be extra-long, thickish hat pins. These, the owners duly explained by phone, were feng shui acupuncture needles stabbed strategically into the home's key energy points to stimulate chi! My friend recounts: "I was highly amused and delighted. I had chronic fatigue at the time and I figured I needed all the healing help I could get. If this meant living with needles in the walls instead of in me, then so be it! When in Rome..." This woman, incidentally, recovered her vitality and good-humouredly attributed this to a combination of surrendering to a pastiche of local healers, swimming every day in the surf at The Pass and allowing time to pass without constantly angsting that it was being "wasted" by her apparent non-productivity.

A couple of years ago, I took a pair of boots for repair. When collecting them, the local bootmaker and I struck up a friendly banter. He asked me what sort of work I did. I mentioned my writing and my hands-on healing work. He responded by telling me that he and his partner were in a healing group. Once a month, he explained, several people got together to lay on hands for individuals in need of healing. He and I marvelled at the seeming mystery of how such healing works. As Larry Dossey writes in his book Healing Words: "Our understanding of the relationship between spirituality and healing is vastly incomplete... If we are ever to understand the relationship between spirituality and health, we shall have to grow more tolerant of ambiguity and mystery. We shall have to be willing to stand in the unknown."

I paid for the resoled boots, put them on and strode away thinking: now here we have a quintessentially Byron business -- run by a spiritually oriented man mending souls (soles) on both sides of the counter.

Around here, where "biowisdom", "astro-aid", "metanoia", and other assorted New Age neologisms are quickly absorbed into the local lingo, where feng shui practitioners advertise themselves as "house whisperers" and the local rag weekly offers The Australian Cannabis Cookbook for purchase, the healing, like the beat, goes on, rippling out in ever widening non-crop circles.

Byron (the word "Bay" is frequently dropped in newspaper headlines, just as it is omitted in cool, "Yeah-I-know-Byron" conversations) has become a byword, virtually an identifiable brand name for "alternative" healing in Australia.

It sounds fine and dandy, but of course it's not all spiritual sunshine and super-self-awareness in our midst, as I was reminded a while back when I placed a classified advertisement for my spiritual healing work in The Byron Shire Echo Health Notices. These notices traditionally do not contain sex ads. My ad was headlined: HEALING CHANNEL. The text ran: 'Gentle, yet profound sessions for those in need of loving assistance.'

Within 24 hours of the paper's publication, several men, whose voices I would say put them into their late fifties and older, phoned to ask for appointments. One asked in raspy tones how long the massage took, although the word 'massage' did not appear in the ad. Another, with a quavery voice, asked if I did house calls. I explained that I did spiritual healing, that I worked intuitively and clairaudiently with blockages in people's energy fields and that I did not physically manipulate the body. Suddenly, these blokes didn't require appointments. My advertisement, however, clearly did require a rewrite.

Phrases such as 'loving assistance' have been misappropriated by the multi-billion dollar sex and pornography industry, and in this remorseless theft, their wider appreciation and expression within a framework of compassion, spirituality and healing have been largely annihilated and lost to our Western, patriarchal culture. This is a tragedy of massive individual and cultural proportions -- for women, for men and for the children we raise into this grossly distorted, yet largely invisible framework of belief. A framework in which the myth of the loving prostitute apparently refuses to die.

But I digress slightly... In this town, where coffee shops are a lifestyle preoccupation and the rush hour starts at 11am, if you eavesdrop on enough conversations among the locals, over time you will hear, from those who have not yet mastered or bothered with the essential privacy-preserving art of speaking sotto voce, a roaring sea of psychobabble pertaining to personal healing. 'I have Neptune on the descent; so yeah, I'm struggling with my authority issues.' 'My life lesson number is five, so yeah, I'm a free spirit.' 'I was a premmy baby, so yeah, I tend to get ahead of myself.' Etc, etc, ad nauseum.

It is easy to take cheap shots at the self-discovery phenomenon that has been building up amongst ordinary people across the planet since the baby-boomers hit the adult scene. It is simplistic and convenient to call people's preoccupation with self-knowledge and healing 'narcissism". But, as Theodore Roszak points out, those firing the shots 'hear the desire to be treated as special and unique and they call it self-indulgence. They bemoan the buzz-words on the surface, failing to attend the desperate need beneath.'

Sometimes I cringe at the crass marketing of mind, body and spirit, at the bizarreries, the psychobabble, the distorted distillations of deeper truths, at the proselytising New Age neophytes (and they are as rampant as lantana around here) who, uninvited, lay their poultices of newfound 'wisdom' -- slap! -- on the psyche of the nearest living being. Like the satirist said: 'A little learning is a dangerous thing.' Yet in this pervasive shift in societal direction, I share Roszak's view that is it of 'great political, personal and ecological value... It is the brave beginning of a project that both the person and the planet require ... If this be narcissism, [Byron-style or any other style] make the most of it.'

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