The woman I'm about to drop $100 on to help me get closer to my bliss does not look like an energy healer to me, nor does the room she works from seem fitting. I don't actually know what an energy healer or her office would look like, but I expect her to be more of a nu-hippie working out of something like an ashram. Instead, she is modernly beautiful — like a glowing Tori Amos with a pixie cut in dark skinny jeans, suede ankle boots, and a black afghan shell over a tank top. And we are sitting in the back corner of a French organic cosmetics store in Beverly Hills.
Let me back up. Ever since moving to Los Angeles a few years ago (westside — an important distinction) I have been running into people who mention using something loosely referred to as "energy work" the same way I'm used to people mentioning hitting the bars or going shopping — a casual thing they do to blow off steam. And they believe it has a tangible result: feeling better.
Their practitioners are a mixed bag of not-doctors who are called psychics, spiritual healers, mediums, astrologers, channelers, or energy healers. To be clear, it isn't that everyone I meet here is into it, it's that the people who are into it seem really unabashedly into it, and this, coupled with the ubiquitous celebrity-does-new-Eastern-spiritual-thing trend that trickles down faster into this ecosystem, makes it seem like way more of a thing.
It is also easy to mock, as is much of the alleged Los Angeles "lifestyle." This excellent essay Louis Theroux recently penned on moving here from London sums up the perception perfectly:
It's "faddy" - there is always a new ludicrous self-help regimen which involves drinking "kale smoothies" while "soul cycling", then spending the afternoon in your dojo studying the Kabbalah and getting a butt-wax.
I confess I have done two out of four of these things — but never at the same time, swear. But for the other stuff? I have a Western doctor, and I go to talk therapy. So what do I need energy work for? Isn't managing my vibes on me? If I want good ones, I will rent a bicycle and ride down the beach path through Santa Monica on a nice day, and I can pick any single one of them at random and be sure it's going to be more pleasant than I could have even imagined.
Speaking of vibes, if there is an unofficial motto in Los Angeles, it's one provided to me by my husband, who noticed it when he first moved here years before me. It's "Don't blow my vibe." Move here for the near perfect weather, fresh produce, staggering cuisine, influx of new things and ideas. Then go to the energy healer when the reality, traffic, taxes, crime, and harsh urban environs are a little bit less amenable than you expected. But still, man, those bike rides.
Let's get to the point: Energy healing sounds, depending on your particular persuasion, either totally like how things work or like batshit quackery. Sometimes both. Maybe we all DO have a life force, called qi, or chi or prana, and maybe that force DOES run through pathways, called meridians, and maybe it really DOES HAVE centers, called chakras. And maybe all the stuff you experience and think and feel and dwell on can make those things can get very out of order. And maybe someone else, ostensibly, can get a read on this and make you feel better by redirecting that energy, or cleansing it, or realigning it.
Or maybe not. Maybe all that was only useful before we understood how the body and disease actually works. Maybe someone is simply listening to you, and sending you positivity, and being empathic, and that is an overwhelmingly nice thing that is real. Just like getting a massage, going to a sauna, petting a nice animal, or riding a bike along a beach path. And no, that would not be reproducible by the scientific method in a consistent or significant or definitive way (except the touching/exercise part).
To be clear: I am not talking about giving people who promise false cancer cures or anti-vaxxers or any of that fraudulent shit the thumbs up. I also understand that all these energy healing methods have been scientifically tested and fail to stand up to the scrutiny. I am saying that I think if something makes you feel better and it doesn't harm you and you see tangible results, get your healing on.
I know people who do: A guy I know really likes this one psychic he goes to for $30 a session. A lady sees a channeler who conjures a spirit from the 1800s for only $120. A friend has better luck with astrologers than channelers. A friend who recently visited a shaman in Venice said she went into it as a kind of sociological experiment, a palm reading at a carnival, (and notably, as someone who fears big medical bills and hasn't had insurance) but found something altogether different:
But the experience was sort of transformative. I spent about twenty minutes talking with the healer, whose name was David and he was very normal, only a few years older than I, sort of handsome and wholesome looking. We talked, I focused mental energy on these rocks, then picked one in particular that he put on my solar plexus while I lied down and he put some acupuncture needles in my feet and legs. Then he just hovered his hands over me while my eyes were closed, shook some rattles and went into a shamanic state. At this point, Tracy, after about twenty minutes of just lying there enjoying the sensation but not thinking much of it, my eyes started spinning under my eyelids and rolled around like I'd imagine they would in REM sleep. It was a fucking trip — I've never experienced anything like that, and had no idea what to do. When I told him about it afterward he smiled with this curious expression like he wasn't completely surprised but hadn't expected that to happen either. He told me he'd gone on a shamanic journey and found a spirit animal for me — a gazelle. I loved that because they're native to Africa where I had lived for a few months in my mid-20s.
I'd do it again, no question.
I am going to do it, not because I'm in the market for a spirit animal, but because I have a legit thing I'm working on in therapy and am curious if this approach offers a different kind of respite.
Also, energy healers are the new therapists. A magazine piece at W from May of last year lays it bare:
So when the fashion-brand consultant and girl-about-town Annelise Peterson told me over lunch that energy workers (also called energy healers, or movers) were the new therapists ("everyone has one," she assured me) and that I was in desperate need of one, I was skeptical. I have plenty of energy, I insisted. Peterson gave me a pained look and handed me a piece of paper with a few names scrawled on it. "Definitely call Olivier Bros. Valentino's right-hand man, Carlos Souza, introduced me to him, and he changed my life. He's superhot, too." Maybe she was right. I'd recently lost my mother, I was about to shift career gears and start my own business, and my love life was in its usual shambles. An energy tune-up couldn't hurt.
Energy healing isn't a new concept, of course. Most people are acquainted with some form of energy work, whether it's Reiki (developed by Mikao Usui in Japan in the early '20s and introduced to the West via Hawaii in 1938) or acupuncture. While not exactly mainstream, energy healing has morphed from a crunchy New Age concept into a highly practical, effective way to address the needs of mind, body, and heart. Consider it the new New Age.
In this new New Age, we might learn that Jemima Kirke has painted her medium's portrait. Or that Khloe Kardashian has gone and declared herself a healer. UCLA has a center for East-West medicine, which claims to have "helped thousands of patients by blending the best of both modern western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine."
And this is a long time coming. A decade ago, the LA Times tracked emerging research showing that energy healing, already being implemented then in integrative medical centers, at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital, and being funded in trials at the National Institutes of Health, does…something: "findings suggest that energy healing produces results in certain cases. Scientists don't know why or how."
Finding a place to get it going is not easy, not because there are not enough of these places hanging around, but because there are so many. My friend recommends a sound therapist but the woman is studying in Southeast Asia until May. I keep looking, and finally settle on a woman who does pranic healing, which I learn involves no actual touch and will help locate blockages in my aura and cleanse my chakras.
I email her for an appointment. She tells me we can work on anything I would like. I am honest: I tell her I have been in grief counseling for a little while but still feel a palpable heaviness. She says we can absolutely focus on that, and that she is glad I'm utilizing talk therapy, too.
In my car on the way to the appointment, I am already seeing things differently: The first several billboards advertising TV shows and films all seem to speak this new language I've just immersed myself in with titles like Believe, Oculus, Witch.
Every other strip mall I pass offers at least three or four forms of what is more or less escapism: Liquor, tanning, yoga, holistic acupuncture and massage, a Thai restaurant, or the best hydroponic weed on the west side. Out of the corner of my eye the breeze flaps a streetlight banner: It's for a musical featuring Barry Manilow tunes called Harmony. Message received, universe. I'm ready for this session, and also I did nothing to get ready — the only thing mentioned was to not wear a leather or metal belt (or jewelry), as they can transfer the energy.
In Beverly Hills, I realize I have never been inside a French organic cosmetics store, much less during off hours. With its polished concrete floors and raw wood shelves, the giant portrait of two mud-caked lady asses, it is like the gentlest museum of beauty artifacts ever.
My healer is soft spoken and very nice. She asks me if I have done any healing before. We talk about my loss. "How long has it been," she asks empathically. She asks me to rate my grief's impact on my life and describe how it is affecting me. This is not so different from the counseling sessions where I explain how it is has altered both my view of the world and my view of myself.
What is different is that she sets a bowl on the floor full of water and dumps a basket of salt crystals into it. This is where the negative energy will be absorbed. She wheels around a small cart, pulling out a three-pronged metal device to sit on top which I can only assume is a very important piece of ancient, yet futuristic machinery that will wave my bad energy away. Then she produces an iPad and places it directly on the metal device. It is an iPad stand. Good one, universe. She pushes play on a track of oms.
She has me sit across from her in an orange chair in the corner. And there, in natural light, I am instructed to keep my palms open and my eyes closed while she clinks crystal, sprays something, whispers prayers and sometimes breathes deeply.
We work on my heart chakra, where she notes it is underactive. Minutes into the session, when she instructs me to silently repeat an affirmation that I am releasing the grief, in spite of feeling totally neutral, tears stream freely down my face, the calmest cry I have ever had.
Then we work on my forehead, where I am holding some "dense thought" over my left eyebrow. As we move down to lower chakras, I learn that I am releasing a lot from just under my left rib.
The rest of the hour goes by in a blur. She tells me where she is cleansing, and where she is reenergizing, asking me to imagine myself in a pale violet light with gold streaks. Some chakras clean easier than others, and when I've released negative energy quickly, she tells me with a simple "you cleaned up well here."
As we move through my head, between my shoulder blades, around the heart, at the solar plexus — maybe it is the fact that I have agreed to simply sit still for an hour, maybe it is the cleansing spray that smells like mint or eucalyptus, maybe it is this cosmetics store in off hours, maybe it is someone very nice and beautiful using all their energy to make my sadness evaporate, but I feel calm and relaxed and almost trance-like. I have released something, and it is more than $100. I am starting to buzz.
Something happens when you get really quiet and only focus on your body and your feelings. You notice that you are clenching here, straining there. Your brain feels foggy, there is the strangest tightness in your lower back. But all this, and the need for coffee, dissipated after sitting for an hour and doing the opposite of talking.
When it's over, she gives me feedback. She says I am sensitive in a good way. That with many people it is like pulling teeth to get them to let go, but that I was like, "blech" — she makes a motion like vomiting.
So I vomited out my bad energy. That is so me.
She tells me to not drink any wine that night. Reminds me not to immerse myself in any water if I can for 12 to 24 hours as it can neutralize the effects. This is not a problem for me. To let the energy healing work, and to take it easy. That I might feel a bit nappy. And that the energy will keep working for me for the next few days. She also puts a shield on my chakras for seven days, which I can't even begin to try to explain.
But as I walk back out into the Beverly Hills light, the buzz is the only thing I feel. I too do not want anyone to blow my vibe, which is something like two beers without the beeriness. It is something like a bike ride along the beach on a perfect day. I realize as I get back into my car what it is. I am in a Washed Out song. The first minute and a half of this Washed Out song, to be exact.
What happens next is weird. Unlike my usual self, I do not scoff in the slightest when my friend Sandra — the one who sees the channeler — calls me and says she is lunching right now at Café Gratitude and to come join her to talk about energy healers. Café Gratitude is a restaurant on Rose Ave. in Venice that is notorious for making lists — lists of top reasons to absolutely despise Los Angeles because it is the worst place ever:
This is the menu at a place called Cafe Gratitude. All of their dishes have "positive affirmations" rather than "names," so when you order you're supposed to be like "I am beautiful" to the waiter, and then the waiter will look at you all sincere and go "you ARE beautiful!" *shudder*
This is the sort of thing that would normally make me barf-city2000, too, and maybe it's the light or something, but everyone in this place seems radiant and clean. There is a kind of warm buzziness about it. I find my friend and order the Ecstatic, which is a $10 bowl of Brussels sprouts in miso sauce. The server accidentally brings a coffee to my friend instead of the chia smoothie she ordered, and this is the exchange:
My friend: "This is Courageous?"
My friend: "This is not Courageous."
Server [confused]: "Oh."
Then another server appears and deposits the Courageous smoothie on the table. Everyone sighs with relief. Realigned, we can now discuss the Thing about Energy Healing.
"What did you just do? You look great," she said. I have no idea how I look, but I feel chill and calm. Not magically healed or anything ridiculous, but calm. Floaty. And as we talked about how to choose different types of healing for what circumstances — she has been seeing healers since the mid-90s, and would, for instance, never use massage when she was getting sick because it brings all that out, but instead would do sound therapy to get a tune-up — I realized why energy healing was such a huge contrast to talk therapy.
In talk therapy, you pay someone $175 to sit down in a room with a stranger and painstakingly lay out all the cards of your bullshit. Together, you turn them over, and look at them, and think about what they mean. Then when the hour is up you scoop them back into your arms and take them with you. These are your cards after all — they won't be staying behind. At a healer, you spend about five minutes showing them your bullshit cards and the rest of the hour trying to get them the fuck out of you.
Later, my healer emailed me some helpful documents about affirmations, reminded me I could check in with her if I had any questions and to please let her know how I was doing in a few days. My therapist typically just takes my money and says thanks.
Back at Café Gratitude, my friend has returned from the bathroom, and mentions she has just run into an old high school friend from Dalton, Sarah Brokaw, licensed therapist, Tom Brokaw's daughter, author of the best-selling Fortytude and noted Accomplished Empowered Woman. She was having lunch with her healer — would I like to be introduced?
Sarah Brokaw and her healer are lovely and radiant people with extraordinary cheekbones and lightly tanned, relaxed faces. Her healer is named Lauren Roxbrough, and she does something called Hellerwork, a kind of tissue manipulation that helps realign and restore the body. Her work focuses on alignment health, the mind-body connection, self-healing. Posture, she tells me, and its impact on our health. I stand up straighter.
She's been doing this "Structural Integration" for seven years, and says she's noticed more people are looking to energy work due to the faster pace and increased stress of daily life. Later, she emails me to explain that to her, energy work is very simple and effective. It "acknowledges that emotions and energy in the body do exist and should be nurtured in order to feel our best daily and to prevent disease."
To me, this is not an outsize claim. Her clients are top athletes, celebrities and surgeons, people, she says, who want to "live their lives in balance and become more in-tune with themselves." She believes in integrated medicine, and that conventional medicine is essential. But unlike my friend who saw the shaman and feared high medical bills, Roxbrough's clients have access to the top Western medicine available and still crave a kind of balance that only energy work seems to provide them.
As we are talking, they point out that at the diagonal table is their friend — who is also a healer. I should stop by her table and say hello, they say, and as we look over to her friend to see if she is available to speak, she is weeping openly at the table while still smiling radiantly.
I look around and realize that I am standing in Good Vibes Central. The entire outside patio of Café Gratitude is comprised of serenely glowing professional women who are talking intently about their feelings. It is like being in the giant oneness of the sisterhood of the Courageous chia seed smoothies. Anything is possible. I suddenly realize I would like us all to be the very best of friends who ride bikes together along the beach path in Santa Monica in our free time and babysit each other's children.
Hours later, the buzziness wears off, but back in a more manageable vibe, I want to know if my friends are into this, if they know about this, do they know how it FEELS? I want to check myself, what I have just done and see how it stacks up to other women I know and trust. Fellow former Jezebel scribe Laura Beck says she "loves all that hippie dippie shit." Friend Zone advice-giver and awesome book writer Sara Benincasa says she does, too.
Energy healing is incredibly enjoyable to receive. It's also bullshit, but it's fun bullshit — people don't have auras of different colors, no one is full of ch'i or what have you, and chakras do not exist. That said, people do need physical touch and affection and attention, and even if you're just hovering your hands over my body while telling yourself you've got Jesus powers, that's close enough for me. I was attuned for Reiki I when I was a college student, and it was fun to pretend I was Dumbledore. Ultimately, what we get out of energy healing is not a cure for any physical ailment but the cure, at least temporarily, for loneliness. As long as you don't claim to eradicate cancer with your hands, you're alright by me, energy healer person. There have been times when I've sought these folks out because I just needed some kind personal attention and I didn't feel like inhaling the scent of nail polish at a spa. Also, like everyone else, I want to believe in magic.
Maybe it is a cure for loneliness, or a heightened sense of connectivity. A contact high without the contact. Either way, I will probably do it again. It feels really good. And anything that feels this good without drugs, is, to me, just as good as magic. Feel free to disagree with me, just don't blow my vibe, please — I paid a lot for it.
Image by Sam Woolley.