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Holistic Healing and Funny Peculiar Signs of the Times

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.'

Belongil Beach Dreaming

The bush was dew-drenched, tinselled with spiders’ webs and ringing with euphonic birdsong. My cheerful anticipation was well-founded, for the morning produced some rich encounters. During the mere hour I spent tramping through the wetlands, I came by willy wagtails, whimbrels, galahs, a grey-tail tatler, pied oyster catchers and pied stilts, heaps of seagulls, wattle birds and the ubiquitous miners, a little egret, a striated pardalote, a scarlet honeyeater, two fig birds, a flock of barred godwit (recently arrived from Siberia), black spoonbills (looking like can-can dancers with their feathers ruffled), elegant white-faced heron, pelicans, eastern curlews, little black cormorants, a mangrove gerygone, Lewin’s honeyeaters, bar-shouldered doves, a grey fantail, a variegated wren, white-cheeked honeyeaters, brown honeyeaters, a pied butcherbird (with its flute-like notes, one of my favourite songsters), a southern fig bird, and a consternation of crows.

And then there were the ultra-shy birds I heard, but did not see. The distinctive whipcrack voices of eastern whip birds shot through the trees. In fact, this is antiphonal singing. Typically the male calls the first “whip” notes and the female responds with the final emphatic “choo-choo”. This duet is so perfectly timed that it sounds like the performance of a solo singer. Occasionally when I listened patiently I would hear a delay in the reply, and this holdup, I learned later, was possibly because the female was swallowing an insect when her mate had called. Sometimes, when the female’s reply is insufficiently prompt, the male will render the final notes himself.

I was also fortunate enough to see a pair of ospreys -- the female roosting in their huge nest of sticks on a man-made platform atop a disused telegraph pole, and her mate flying in with some slippery prey seized in his talons. Each river estuary can accommodate only one pair of osprey, which, these days, are endangered. Their numbers have been drastically reduced through the use of DDT which ends up in the sea and ultimately in the fish on which the birds feed.

Even a couple of yellow-faced honeyeaters, a formerly common species, which is now disappearing, put in an appearance. In the 1960s, they flew over this region (which for much of its geographical history was a refugium for flora and fauna) in flocks of ten thousand. Now they, like so many creatures, are slowly disappearing, beleaguered by habitat loss. All is not entirely well in the estuary itself, either. From the 1980s onwards, fish kills became common and the local council in conjunction with the community are now reviewing how to “manage” the estuary.

Passing through melaleucas, banksias, wattles and hare’s foot ferns defined and gilded by columns of morning sunshine, I lingered beside a cluster of paperbark trees in which dozens of rainbow lorikeets were feeding on the blonde blossoms. (Seeing lorikeets I often smile as they remind me of the locals’ term of endearment for Rod Gibson --the Poet Lorikeet of the Bay). The birds were inverted, their violet heads and their deep coral red beaks tucking in to their provender, their lime backs rounded; they hung superbly camouflaged like so many ripe avocados, except for their relentless shrill chatter.

But even their screeching was soon eclipsed by a large colony of Laughing Kookaburras whose full-throttle cackling was so raucous and prolonged, it rolled over me like a wave. A spontaneous laugh gurgled up from the low country of my own throat, and in that early morning mirth, in the thick of all that rowdy singing and wanton profligacy, those wild birds hit the bullseye of my joy, making a mockery of the “modern prejudice that clarity cannot arise from profusion,” making me realise that a sky without birds would be a barren sky.

Although “very few birds share exactly the same markings,” they do share something physical in common with humans: except in the hand region, the essential structures of the avian wing and human arm bones correspond exactly.

Plant life also shares a striking biological similarity to us. Or should we cite our similarity to them since, according to science’s view of how and when we all lobbed here, they preceeded us? Annie Dillard tells us that a molecule of chlorophyll comprises 136 atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen “arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring.” At the ring’s centre is one atom of magnesium. Extraordinarily, haemoglobin is identical to chlorophyll, except that its central atom is iron. Which means that we red-blooded beings are “kissing cousins” to the green growths all around us.

It would have been dicy to try smooching up to one of those big-billed kookas, but I did not hesitate to wrap my arms around one of those tall, flaky cousins, a melaleuca. The bark fragments, fair tokens of the tree’s benignancy, clung to my jumper, caught in my hair, and I gave thanks -- for the life within me, for the healing I’d experienced (psychological therapy has “no monopoly on the power to heal,” as anyone who has lived close to nature will attest), and for the fact that the monolithic, international holiday resort formerly proposed for this site had not gone ahead, and the rich, natural lifeforms around me had thereby won a stay of execution.

I picked up a dead branch and headed for the beach. Although there was no sign of whales, they could well have been “out there” in force for, as Rod has written: “They sing to each other with eerie noises beneath the membrane of the sea.”

Walking the shoreline, I became aware that I was expectant, on the alert for something -- movement, action, a flicker, a flash, a glimpse, a curiosity or distraction, a heart-expanding display, a defining moment. I have savoured the tonifying effects, the ephemeral highs of such “trips” (one overcast afternoon on my local beach I was thrilled to see a silver fish leap forward five times in high arcs; one evening, lying on the same sands, I saw a stunning succession of falling stars; one dawn a swarm of cobalt-colored bees blanketed the orange trumpet vine out back, and one sizzling spring day on deserted Tyagarah beach I was rivetted by a wallaby in the surf) and occasionally pine for more. In this grabbing mindset, how much of nature’s subtle refinements and graduations can I appreciate, or even notice? Or more pertinently, how much do I miss? To how much am I oblivious?

During my perambulation, trailing the branch in the soft sand behind me, I caught myself humming, an aimless spill of jaunty notes that filled me up and at the same time made me feel lighter. My thoughts turned to the Aboriginal songlines, those invisible pathways meandering across Australia: ancient tracks made of songs which tell of the creation of the land. It is an integral part of the spiritual fabric of tribal Aboriginals’ lives to ritually travel the land, singing the ancestors’ impassioned songs; singing the world into being afresh. In this way the land in all its guises, moods and incarnations floats through the plasma of their culture.

The Aborigines who still sing their land, sing not only to animals and plants, but also to the celestial bodies “such as the sun, the moon, the Pleiades and some of the stars, and also to such natural phenomena as sun-heat, frosts, wind and rain.” Perpetuating the universe in this manner, the singers embosom not only those things which give life and gladness to humankind but also those things which create adversity and distress. “Centipedes and scorpions, mosquitoes, flies and fleas, bull-ants and processional caterpillars, and the whole tribe of venomous snakes” are cited, too. As are dust-storms, whirlwinds and droughts.

Sharing in this unceasing work of renewing the universe, the whole tribe (and not just an elite group of holy ones) gains a sense of having a larger intention, a fixed design to bring to their own lives and to eternity. They believe that all the efforts of humanity are essential to maintain nature’s harmonious functioning.

These days, many Westerners are hungry for such Dream Time songs, stories and myths, but tragically, in the genocide that took place after the white settlement of Australia, so many of the Aborigines’ stories were lost (1). Still, white Australians are overdue to discover our own ways of relating to the land, to find our own forms of spiritual transcendence. Wholesale “lifting” of Aboriginal myths and totems from their original “cultural soil vitiates their power” and is merely another form of plundering; it violates the indigenous peoples as it diminishes the “thieves,” but not their estrangement from nature and its living spirit.

This set me wondering again about a riddle I’d been mulling over for some time: Have certain stories, songs, wisdoms, always existed a priori in the earth’s landscape or are they the projections, the inventions, of peoples throughout the ages? My instinctive response was that the former is true, a belief which I discovered (towards the end of writing this book) had been confirmed by James Cowan, an Australian poet and writer who has spent many years in the Outback with tribal Aborigines. Cowan maintains that the landscape is imprinted with its own metaphysical or mythic data, waiting to be invoked. Even if we are wrong on this score, there are Eastern masters and Western theologians who maintain that projections during one’s spiritual journey are essential, that without them the spiritual life (like love affairs) would not generate the heat to get started.

On the other hand, modern man’s imprints and physical projections onto the planet are only too scarifyingly real -- in the scouring of the land for metals, of the seas for food and oil, in the decimation of the forests, the poisoning of the waters with toxic waste, the staining of the sky with pollution and acid rain.

The poet and conservationist Judith Wright said way back: “As Aborigines know, we live as part of a great interwoven net of dependencies, which cannot be broken without serious results to the whole, and in which we have acted as the destructive rogue factor. The Law which Aborigines recognise is one of kinship with the natural, and the environmental disasters which we have invited are disasters to that whole community of beings...

“However unpopular the word has become, I suggest that we need a recognition that we are part and parcel of a sacred organic order of kinship in which, whether we know it or not, we were born and live.”

This text is an extract from Love Letters from Mother Nature: A Meditative Journey, available from Byron Books, Fletcher Street, Byron Bay or online from Bruce Sims Books. Email: [email protected]


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