Above All, Make No Reference to Mysticism
An Unscientific Investigation of Magic and Medicine
by MADISON PAULY
“Think of it like this,” said Marni Adhikari. “There’s the emperor. He has his right-hand man, the advisor. Then there’s the general. When each of them is doing their job, they’re in balance. But when the emperor has to do the general’s job, or the general has to do the advisor’s job, what happens? The empire doesn’t function.”
Marni examined me from behind her lenses as she searched for another metaphor. We sat in her kitchen, winter sun streaming in through double glass doors onto Marni’s graceful features and their frame of wild curls. A wisp of steam, smelling faintly of berries, escaped from the spout of a jade-green teapot sitting on the table between us. Chimes were ringing somewhere outside. When I’d emailed Marni a few days earlier, explaining that I was interested in writing about energy healing—what makes a person entrust not just her soul, but her body, to faith?—she agreed to answer my questions about her five elements acupuncture practice. In exchange, I’d help pass the hours she spent at home on maternity leave.
“Fire, earth, metal, water and wood,” she said. “We say that each person has a constitutional element, which is where their greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses are. It’s kind of like there’s climate in Vermont, and there’s climate in California, and they both have four seasons, but the winter in Vermont and the winter in California are completely different. I can be a metal constitution while having all of the elements within me, but they’re all kind of — flavored metal.”
“So what element am I?” My voice was a little too sharp. I smiled to soften the challenge.
Marni shook her head. “I don’t know yet. We have to talk for a while first.”
Marni’s work centers on what she described as the free flow of a universal life force, the Chi of traditional Chinese medicine. “That which moves things,” she said. Later, she added, “It’s that which helps the Golgi apparatus in the cell do what it does.”
Since her earliest memories of grade school science experiments, the human form had fascinated Marni. In middle school she’d asked for a grant to create an anatomical puzzle with layers for bones, musculature and nerves. Later, volunteering at a hospital, she’d sneak away from the lab where she catalogued tissue samples to watch the autopsy technicians handle cadavers. One day, noticing the young woman lingering in the corridor, they beckoned her into their workspace. She learned how to assist with autopsies, until hospital administration discovered she was weighing brains instead of filing papers and asked her not to return. In college, she exchanged the Judaism of her childhood for Buddhism, then Taoism, because she was drawn to their respect for nature. She decided to study acupuncture because it seemed to her the most empirical of all the holistic forms. She could obtain a license. It existed at least on the perimeter of the clinical world.
But soon after beginning her Master of Acupuncture studies, she came to believe that the five element theory taught at her college was the ideal cure for emotional symptoms, spiritual doubts, personality “blips.” Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, including many acupuncturists, use the idea of five universal elements to interpret a patient’s character, diagnose problems and design effective, individualized treatments. To help a patient, Marni’s teachers said, a successful acupuncturist must first examine elemental imbalances within herself. During her first year at the Tai Sophia Institute in Baltimore, her class turned their focus inwards, working on “stucknesses” such as scientific doubt and grief. She conquered shyness, quelled panic attacks, shuttered old resentments, told herself: Allow life to flow. She memorized meridians and learned how to identify a person’s “constitutional element” by his or her personal odor, complexion, emotional tendencies and voice. And yet she was still shocked by just how much her needles, guided by such an abstract philosophy, seemed to affect her patients’ physical health. One boy’s chronic asthma disappeared after a single visit, she said. A cancer survivor lost twenty-five pounds of edema in a week and began to regrow her nails and hair. Each success story, Marni said, showed how her holistic practice – determining a patient’s constitutional element and the imbalances that trouble them, then using that knowledge to individualize their acupuncture treatment, adjust the flow of Chi and restore elemental balance – could have a real, measurable effect on wellness, on health.
“You can use the elements within yourself to get through just about everything, depending on you and your experience. There are things I experience differently, than you experience differently, than—than a child experiences it.”
She smiled at the baby monitor balanced on the counter behind me. Elijah, five weeks old, was fussing in the other room.
“To some extent, you’re just working on faith,” she said.
* * *
When she finished nursing, Marni looked for her needles.
“This is my one-and-a-half inch.” She slid a long silver splinter out of its sterilized packaging and held it up for my inspection. “Basically, there are channels. Fourteen major channels that run through the body.”
“And a channel is—”
“It’s like a river. A river of Chi. They tend to run between bone and muscle, between bone and bone, between muscle and tendon. They run in the spaces between things.”
She placed her right arm palm up on the kitchen table and held two fingers above her wrist, blue veins branching beneath translucent skin. She moved her fingers in a vertical waving motion up the length of her arm. “It runs shallow and deep, and where it’s shallow you can access it,” she explained. “Each point has a particular function. The art of it comes in because you can use them together with each other and have a completely different function than either of them by themselves. Which is cool. It’s like a big river system throughout your entire body. And ‘stuckness’ is like if a beaver came up and built a damn over our channels and there was a lot of Chi backed up there. That’s what symptoms are.” Her laugh was musical.
“Do you know what element I am yet?” I asked.
Marni resettled herself in the chair, pulling one knee up to her chest and resting a bare foot on the seat’s edge. She was quiet.
“I’m thinking yellow, but the light in here is not so good. I’m not really—” She frowns. “I have to be the one asking you the questions.”
I remembered the colors, the complexions she associated with each element. “And yellow is earth?”
“Not necessarily. It just means that you’re asking questions of me from an earth place. Earth is very cognitive, so it could be that you’re deciphering of what I’m saying. Like, you’re taking all the information, and you’re kind of parsing it out, writing some of it down, tossing some of it away.” She gestured at my notebook. “That’s very earthy.”
Scrawl covered the open page.
“I could acupuncture you now if you like.”
* * *
Marni guided me to an overstuffed chair and told me to remove my socks.
“Okay.” I said, trying not to imagine her inch-and-a-half needles piercing and parting the layers of my skin.
“I’ll just talk you through this.”
I leaned back into the chair and closed my eyes. The room was chilly, and the baby had begun to squall again. I could hear a low voice quieting him from the other side of the door. Then I felt a touch on the top of my right foot.
“So this is a point here.” Marni’s voice had turned professional. She pushed the spot between two tendons. “I know it because it’s a little depression. I’ll put the needle on the point. I won’t put it in yet, and then I’ll have you take a deep breath in. When you exhale, I’ll put in the needle.”
I made the mistake of leaning forward to watch.
“Let me know if you feel lightheaded at all.”
"Exhale,” Marni said. I felt pressure, and then nothing. We repeated the process four times: once on the top of each foot and once between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Then she rose and placed an iPod on a cushioned rocker a few feet to my left.
As New Age synths filled the room, I tried to relax and sense any energy shifts. The formation was called The Gates of Buddha, and it’s a catch-all wellness treatment, opening the “source points” for two major channels of energy. Maybe it’s too soon.
“So what’s supposed to be happening now, in terms of my Chi?”
She looked at me for a moment, her expression unreadable. “It’s hard to say.” She paused. “Would you just sit quietly for twenty minutes? And just close your eyes and observe. Observe what, if anything, shows up in your body or your mind.”
She handed me a blanket. The side door squeaked as it swung shut.
I raised my hands and examined them. Each needle, no wider than a hair, made a tiny indent in the big muscle at the base of my thumb, with no more than a millimeter of the tip beneath the surface. I wiggled my fingers on one hand and watched the needle flop from side to side. When I spread them flat again, it rose again into an upright position. Huh. Moving gingerly, I slid my iPhone out of my pocket and snapped a few pictures. I quelled the instinct to check my email and text messages. Relax, I reminded myself, imagining Marni. Allow life to flow.
Through the glass doors, the sky glowed pink between the silhouettes of trees. I slowed my breathing. I listened to the soundtrack’s purr. Shimmering flutes mimicked mountains and early mornings, at least in theory, reminding me of the music my mother likes to play after watching Doctor Oz.
I tried again to open my mind to any sensation, any hint of flowing Chi. One at a time, I focused on my senses, concentrating on the meridians linking each of the acupuncture points. Nothing. No tingling, no warmth, no feeling “like bubbles.” Just stillness. And flutes. The needles began to fade from my awareness. I sank deeper into the armchair, thinking I could understand how some clients must enjoy this each week: the pleasure of sitting quietly and trying not to think. When Marni came to check on me twenty minutes later, I was hovering on the edge of sleep.
The next week I found myself wandering the corridors of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with retired real estate agent, oral historian and Reiki Master Maggie Montgomery.
In modern Japanese, rei ki translates to “ghost vapor,” but in the context of alternative medicine it refers to the life force derived from a universal consciousness. Through the “laying on of hands,” Reiki opens the body’s “auric field” and directs spirit energy to flow freely. To me it sounded like magic. Why was it practiced at DHMC?
During the ride to the medical center, Maggie told me the story of Reiki’s discovery. In late 19th century Japan, a man named Mikao Usui left home to study divination and world religions, traveling to China and Europe to pursue his education. Years later, having failed in business, he returned to the mountain where he had once completed his Buddhist training. He testified that while meditating under a waterfall, he felt a spiritual energy enter through the crown of his head: the chakra, or energy center, that Hindu traditions ascribe to awareness of the divine. According to the story, the energy bestowed upon Usui a deep spiritual understanding and activated his power to heal through touch—real, physical healing, Maggie insisted.
“The whole Reiki thing just came to him,” Maggie said. “We offer it at the hospital as a form of relaxation, to reduce anxiety, but he was actually healing people.”
Usui also began to train others, giving them “attunements.” Only one attunement is necessary to become a Reiki giver, but additional attunements teach a healer new, secret symbols to manipulate energy at higher levels. When you reach the rank of Reiki Master, you can teach others, perform your own attunements and even send energy over great distances. Maggie described how she used a toy as a proxy for a sick relative on the West Coast, performing Reiki on the doll to manipulate energy thousands of miles away.
Though all agree that a woman called Mrs. Takata brought Reiki to America, the question of her integrity has been a spark of disagreement among the Reiki community, and accounts of her history vary even among believers. “She lived on the big island of Hawaii, and when she traveled to Japan she went to his clinic and she was healed,” Maggie’s version went. When Takata insisted on learning how to use Reiki herself, the healers turned her away: no women. Outraged, she returned to Hawaii, sold her land and offered the profits to the healers if they would change their minds. Unsurprisingly, they were convinced.
Almost a century later, individual Reiki treatments can run up to a hundred dollars, with classes and attunements costing several hundred more. A Karuna Reiki® course offered in Maui, New York or Stonehenge—travel arrangements not included—will put the aspiring healer back $875.
But the Reiki Masters at Dartmouth-Hitchcock are volunteers. One day a week they make their rounds, working with cancer patients, same-day surgery patients and parents with newborns in intensive care. On Friday afternoons, Maggie walks the infusion suite, where patients receive chemotherapy and other blood treatments. Station to station, she makes her pitch. Some refuse. Others are curious. A few welcome her every week.
“It’s always surprising the people who say yes,” Maggie said as we walked through the waiting room. (I wasn’t permitted to enter the suite itself.) “It’s not the people you would think, looking at them. People from all areas come to DHMC. Rural areas, I mean.”
Maggie was short, with close-cropped amber hair, glasses, and the sharp, smiling confidence that would have made her a good real estate agent when she was still living in New York. She had practiced Reiki at the hospital for the past seven years, laying hands on hundreds of patients. Her voice was kindly and matter-of-fact. She seemed affronted when I ask her to elaborate on the healing touch.
“Like I said, it’s directing the flow of energy through the body.”
“What are you thinking about when you give someone Reiki? Do you have to be in a certain state of mind?”
She considered. “No, that’s not necessary. Anyone can learn how to do it, at any time,” She paused. “If they’re open to it. It’s a very subtle art, a very subtle energy.”
Only later, when I repeated the question, did she mention symbols.
“They’re a secret,” she said. “Only for those who practice Reiki.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Well—” She stopped, determining how much to share. “I try to be very quiet. And I hold them in my mind. There are certain symbols for different things. Like when I’m giving Reiki to myself. Or for distance, if you want to send Reiki energy to someone you’re not with. There’s a symbol you can use for that.”
When I got home and flipped through the packet of educational materials Maggie had compiled for me, I came across the hospital’s guidelines for Reiki volunteers: Use the word “session,” not “treatment”; Reiki is not “alternative” medicine, but “complementary”; “New Age words”—chakra, aura, guru—are firmly off-limits. Don’t draw symbols on the patients. Don’t draw symbols in the room. No “scanning, chanting, blowing air, intuiting, crystals, sound healing, channeling, or praying aloud in the hospital setting.” Above all, make no reference to mysticism; talk about stress relief. If you must, attribute the patient’s sensations to nothing more spiritual than “Reiki energy.”
* * *
Maggie led me to the Radiation-Oncology department where her colleague, Edie, was waiting.
“You’re very lucky,” Edie said as she ushered us into a small, dimly lit room. “You get to receive from two Reiki Masters today.”
Maggie closed the door as Edie directed me to remove my shoes and lay down on the massage table on my back. ”So how do you want to do this?” Maggie asked. At first I thought she was talking to me, but Edie answered.
“Bring that chair over. I’ll start here and you can start up there.” She turned to a small CD player on the table beside her. Whispering synths and strings. I suppressed a sigh.
“So what do we do?” I asked.
“You do nothing. We do all the work now,” Edie said, settling into a chair by my feet.
“Usually I say just experience it, but if you want to imagine something, imagine the energy coming down into the top of your head, flowing through your body and out,” Maggie added. Her voice came from directly behind my head.
Hands covered my eyes and the tops of my feet. I stiffened at first, but their touch was light. They held in place for about a minute, then shifted: Maggie moved her hands beneath my head and Edie held my ankles gently. Working in time, they moved slowly. Position by position, they covered me piece by piece.
Seconds passed like minutes. The rest of the room was still. My body was a chain of tension: the base of my neck, the small of my back, my calves, my ankles, my soles. Maggie pressed my shoulders, Edie covered my kneecaps with her hands and I felt my body begin to relax—adjusting, maybe. If not comfortable, then no longer frozen by my sense of vulnerability. I could hear their slow, almost synchronized breathing, could feel the natural shifting pressure in their hands, the gentle heat from their palms. I decided that Reiki involved not a universal consciousness but a very human energy: The contact among forms.
When their hands met on my belly, Maggie whispered, “Do you want to try it?” I opened my eyes in time see Edie nod. First they lifted my hands to rest on their shoulders, then both slid a palm behind my waist. They rested their other hands on my diaphragm: four points of contact among us, my body the vertex of an infinity sign. Their breathing deepened. We stayed like that for a long time.
“It was a little selfish of us,” Maggie said later, when I asked about the final position.
“It was an energy circle. We would never do that with a patient,” Edie said. She smiled. “But we wanted some energy for ourselves.”
“You were giving Reiki to us, too,” Maggie added.
“And it worked?”
Edie nodded. “I felt some energy from you. I don’t know if that would happen with anyone. But I felt it.”
Maggie exhaled deeply. “Did you?”
The woman on the hillside is frantic. It must be here.
Around her, rocks jut out of the earth like giants’ teeth. One near to her leans off-kilter, and she dashes to it. Beneath? Her fingers purchase on the rough underside, and she strains to lift it, turning red with exertion. The stone will not move.
A little way up the hillside, another boulder overhangs a steeper part of the slope, forming a rocky hollow beneath. She lunges toward it and falls to her knees at its base, scratching at the dirt: Nothing but empty space.
Her eyes grow wilder with each attempt. She zigzags up the slope until at last she has reached the top, where Earth stops. She pulls up short. Breathless, she stares downward into the nothingness at her toes. The ground falls away, an impossible drop, much farther, darker, deeper than her eyes can perceive. It beckons.
Zoom out, pull back, watch the woman on the cliff’s edge shrink. She reduces to almost nothing, a grain of sand perched on the cusp of an abyss.
As the vision fades, Shelly Blodgett becomes aware once more of her office. Steadying her breathing, she stares in shock at the pale, anxious woman on her treatment table, in whose hair she has tangled her hand.
* * *
At least, this is how I imagined the story Shelly told me at our first meeting about journeying through the psyche of a patient the previous day.
"This is her pattern of energy all the time,” she recounted, leaning forward to be heard over a rising hum of voices. It was the lunch rush at The Local Buzz, and the people of Bradford, Vermont, swarmed around us. Shelly smiled over my shoulder at some of them. Other times, people crossed to our table and greeted her in voices tinged with—something more than respect, I decided. Almost like reverence.
The website for Shelly’s practice read “Integrative Energy Medicine.” But I wasn’t clear on exactly what that meant. What went on in her office, a small, blue, windowless room tucked above the café, at the top of a narrow stairway? From what I’d gathered, she seemed to be a talk therapist, an expert in perception, in ritual, a woman with an extraordinary capacity to believe. But Shelly’s vocabulary was more akin to Marni’s or Maggie’s than mine, and she preferred a different job title.
“Shaman,” she said.
* * *
When I first arrived at the café, I didn’t recognize her. She wore a white windbreaker, neat blue blouse, jeans and sneakers, with blue-beaded earrings dangling beneath a short blond bob tucked behind her ears. I chastised myself silently, watching her balance a chai latte and a bowl of noodle soup on our table. Who was I expecting? Grandmother Willow? A crone with crystals, hand-woven shawls, and feathers tied into wiry silver braids?
Shelly used to run a life skills program for single mothers at a center a few miles down the Connecticut River. It was her son Ben who’d inadvertently set her on a path to mysticism by running away when he was fifteen. She’d known he’d been drinking and smoking; then she’d found he was dealing. She’d contacted a family counselor. That was when Ben disappeared, leaving behind no phone number, no address and zero leads. Months passed before she or her husband heard anything from him.
With no crack in composure, she described herself, her struggles as a mother and her breakdown during those months. But when it came to Ben she halted. “He was incredibly angry. He was a challenging kid anyway but without getting into his whole life story—” She stopped, redirected herself. “I realized I was a wreck; I had to fix myself in order to help him.”
It happened by coincidence. On her boss’ request, she spent a weekend in Montpelier at a professional development workshop called “Healing from the Inside Out.” There she remembered the experiments with mysticism she’d performed in her teens. She’d returned with a referral to an energy healer. Over the next few years she worked with a revolving cast of such healers. One day she stepped into a new office and she felt her eyes grow wide. The room’s energy—anchored by Peruvian artifacts and a strong scent of flowers--resonated with her. The healer’s therapeutic style, based on the practices of a native Andean tribe, seemed natural. “I just knew I was home.”
“I remember that session. In the process of what he was doing, it just came out. This is what I need to be doing.” And so she began to study healing techniques described as Incan.
When she next mentions walking between the worlds, I ask again about the woman on the hillside.
After the first vision, she performed a clearing ritual, using the sound of rattles to release the woman’s negative energy. “I saw in the vision that she just turned and walked away from the cliff. It doesn’t mean she’ll never have these thoughts again, but the energy moved out. Whenever you release stuck energy, a new energy comes in, and that is the life force. It just kind of permeates—everything.”
Shelly gave me a new word for the life force: prana. “People say your heart needs to be beating, your brain needs to be working, your blood needs to be flowing. In any tradition of energy medicine, the belief is that the energy also needs to be there. That life force is what gives rise to and sustains your physical form, and it gives rise to all the systems in your body—your circulatory system, your respiratory system. Energy becomes matter. It manifests.”
One third of her patients suffer from diagnosable psychiatric disorders—like the woman on the hillside, who became depressed when her husband refused to consider adoption after she discovered she was no longer able to conceive. Other patients seek relief from chronic pain, like illnesses, headaches and even serious diseases. But for everyone, the greatest pain comes from the past.
Shelly avoids town whenever possible. It’s an act of self-preservation, she said. The chaotic energy that patients reveal to her is emotionally painful when it manifests as visions—when they pass on the street, chat in line at the post office or cash checks at the bank. Or say hello in a café, I added silently, thinking of all the people who greeted Shelly at the beginning of our conversation.
She demonstrated how to release pent-up bad energy by blowing into a stone. Taking a deep breath, she pressed it to her lips and then released the air with a loud sound. She said that when she returned home for the evening, she would trek out to a pond on her property, the smooth river rock cradled in her palm. At the water’s edge, she would stand for a moment, ground and center herself. Then, breathing slowly, she’d cast the stone into the pond, where it would tumble down and come to rest in the silt among the others, the trove of secret traumas she’d collected from the town.
* * *
Somewhere in the Peruvian wilderness, twelve tourists laid motionless on the jungle floor. Some had their eyes closed; others stared up into the dark vegetation, waiting, the taste of ayahuasca burning rancid in their throats. The chanting seemed to come from all around. Their guide, a shaman, watched them with a careful eye. Even before the drug began to affect their systems, their minds intervened, and they became aware of a heat spreading from their throats to their fingertips. It burned, then fluttered up their spinal cords, ascending to the brain in confusing combinations of sense and sensation, sweeter pitches and higher swirls. The minutes passed. Their hearts raced.
And then came the part they had only read about, the part nobody seemed to be able to describe to them in words. For Shelly, lying among them, it would be her truest and most powerful experience of journeying between the worlds.
Every sense sharpened. And then they understood.
“It takes you out of your mind and really shows you we’re only limited by our thinking. Because the experiences you have with that are just—they’re out of this world,” she told me, eyes wide. “You’re transported to these different realms, these different ways of being that make you realize, ‘Wow, I’m not just this human body with this little brain.’ You experience other ways of being.” She shook her head slowly, as if still in disbelief.
“You can have a bad trip. What happens is you get so far out of your mind, out of the reference of what you know as your mind, that you don’t know how to get back. Not only was I incredibly physically sick, I thought, ‘O.K., I’m just going to die here in this jungle in South America.’ But then I thought, ‘You’re in this other place, you’re not connected to your body anymore, and you don’t know how to get back to that reality. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, but also the most strengthening, because I had to find my way back. It was just me. I had to get myself back into my reality.”
“How do you do that?”
“It took every ounce of willpower and strength that you can imagine. At one point I was just hurtling through these tunnels. These bright lights are just flashing and you can’t see, and you’re twisted upside down, and it goes on and on and on forever. And then you encounter these nasty, evil beings, and you have to get away from them.”
“Were they a part of you? If this is all happening inside your head?”
Shelly nodded. “That took a really long time to determine, actually. It wasn’t until I was back in the States that I realized. Deep seated fears. I don’t think they were from this lifetime because I haven’t experienced a major kind of trauma, you know, not like some others, but I had some really, really deep fears. At some point they were actually in my body. There was one who just kind of sat right here.” She patted the side of her neck, below her left ear.
“Starting to do energy work, I started getting rid of these fears. Because you know, it felt like I was being strangled. I don’t know if I was suffocating because I wasn’t living who I really was.”
* * *
We stood in the dark, awash in a piquant odor: bergamot, cinnamon, orange flower, clove. Shelly turned on a lamp and gestured for me to sit. The office was smaller than a dorm room, its walls a deep blue, hung with handmade Andean textiles, engraved proverbs, and on one wall a shallow drum like a pale, beaming moon.
On a low table was an assortment of objects: palm-sized rocks from South America; bold, striped feathers brought to her by patients; and an aged, plastic baby doll whose background she seemed reluctant to explain.
She uses most of the objects to help her clients express their problems. “If you want to do it, I could have you do it,” Shelly said.
I nodded eagerly. Though we’d been talking for a long time now, the actual mechanisms of Shelly’s work still remained a mystery to me. “Please!”
“If you want to—just think about something that’s going on right now for you. I don’t know if there is or not, but, is there something that’s a little challenging for you, or maybe that you feel stuck in right now?”
Stuck. I thought of Marni and Maggie, with their stories about free flowing energy. But this would be different, I realized. Their treatments involved needles and light touch: passive, physical engagements. Shelly, seated on the other side of the room, had already asked for a different kind of exposure, for vulnerability. Feeling alarmed, I ran through the list of possible answers and, to my chagrin, chose the safest. “Well, it is finals period,” I laughed nervously. “I have all that stress on me right now.”
“Okay,” she said, in what I imagined was a knowing manner. “So just sit with that for a minute, and just drop into your body and think about upcoming finals you have, or maybe you have papers due. Do you experience that in a certain place?”
If I thought about it for too long the question would make even less sense, I knew. “Right here, I think?” I placed my hand below my collarbone. “A lot of pressure here.”
“Okay, so now just tap into this place, and by that I mean just take your focus to this place and breathe into it a little bit.”
“But let yourself really, fully experience that place,” she added. “Get a really good idea of what it feels like there. Is it a tightness, is it knots, is it a heaviness?”
“It’s like a heaviness, I think.”
“So focusing on this place, I want you to create it there.” She gestured toward pile of palm-sized stones on the table. “Using the rocks.” What? “A physical representation. You could use all the stones, or one of them, and try not to think about it. It’s not a head exercise.”
Pre-exam anxiety made of stones. I grinned a little too quickly, stifling an inappropriate giggle as I turned to the table. It held about a dozen rocks, all of different textures, colors and sizes. Moving at random, I fit them into a sort of crescent shape, higher at one end.
“Maybe like that.”
Shelly examined the mess. Without saying anything, she began to lift some stones, checking under them, moving others aside before replacing them in their original positions. “What are those over there?” She pointed to four rose-colored stones that I’d set aside.
“Those aren’t part of it.”
“They have no significance at all?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Maybe they do, I just haven’t thought of it.”
“One thing I would say here about this is that you have the dark and the light here, side by side. That’s something coming up a little bit. We are both dark and light, right? We have both aspects of dark and light within us, but they’re just a little obscured.” She indicated a gray stone I’d placed atop a piece of white quartz and another, darker piece I couldn’t identify.
“And also, the other thing is that this is a heart stone.” She removed the quartz from the bottom of the crescent so I could better see its shape. “So there’s a little bit of a weight on your heart.”
She returned to her seat, still holding the heart stone, and fixed me in her gaze. “I don’t mean physical heart, and it can just be falling from this pressure.” She pressed her hand against her collar, mimicking my movements from a few minutes before. “Do you have anything that could be weighing on your heart?”
I thought back to the previous week and again took the safe route, settling for a noncommittal murmur. If you have any psychic powers at all, I thought, please drop this. I tried to redirect. “When Ben ran away,” I asked, “what was your place of stuckness?”
“What do you mean?”
“The first time you went to an energy healer, I—I assume this is what came up for you.”
She nodded, understanding. “I think it was loss of control, that my family was falling apart and I couldn’t do anything about it. But that gave rise to a lot of other things. It was a real coming clean.”
A crystal hovered above me at the end of a slender chain. Shelly anchored it between her third and fourth fingers, watching, keeping her hand very still.
“You can see your chakras aren’t moving,” she said, and I craned my neck to look at the clouded stone hanging over my abdomen, motionless, stuck. Naturally.
“See how it’s just moving like—” The pendulum began to shake slightly, then faster when she shifted it above my solar plexus and then my heart. “Your chakras should be moving in a clockwise direction. And—now you’re going counterclockwise.” She sounded amused.
She moves to my throat chakra, the spot I had pinpointed earlier. “Here your energy’s at a standstill. Which is not uncommon, trust me,” she added. “If we tested everybody off the street, most people would be just like this.”
Over my third eye the crystal swayed a little more fluidly, but at my crown chakra it stopped.
“Should I be worried?” I asked.
“Nope. No, you know, sometimes if you are under stress like you are, or finals—or whatever your situation is—your energy will just lock down. So.”
She replaced the pendulum in her bookcase and picked up two carved rattles from the same shelf. “I’ll just do a simple thing,” she said, lifting them. At once the room was overwhelmed with the noise of falling pebbles, rain on a windshield, TV static with the volume up too loud. As Shelly cleared the energy, almost dancing, I exhaled and let myself get lost in the sound.