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Mind over matter: Down desert roads and metaphysical pathways, a journey to alternative awakening

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From the Integratron to salt caves, one skeptic embraces holistic healthcare in preparation for the new year.
Karin Miller

The car flew down the freeway, a sparkling orange fireball only stopping when something caught our gaze: a graffiti-covered building with a rotting La-Z-Boy out front; a vast and empty salt flat; two giant marble Chinese lions standing guard over the nothingness. Our imaginations ran wild with what they might be protecting.

We were on Route 66, journeying three and a half hours from Las Vegas to tiny Landers, California, home of the Integratron, “a resonant tabernacle and energy machine” in the middle of the “magical Mojave.” 2015 was a difficult year, and some deep meditation in a sonic bath on top of a geomagnetic vortex seemed like a perfect way to embrace the new one.

As we drove I thought about the odd tradition of resolutions—things to fix or rules to implement every 365 days, mostly variations of the same: work harder, spend less, read more, work out. I pictured the gym in January, full of people set on achieving that perfect six-pack. By February, those glossy new membership cards are lost along the bottoms of duffel bags, swallowed by the dark abyss until next year.

What if something could help us manifest our New Year’s goals? What kind of mental power would it take to really read every book on that list, or achieve those chiseled arms? Perhaps we’d follow through on lofty resolutions if we started by making our minds fit rather than just obsessing over physical stuff—and maybe healing from within would lead to better health on the outside, too. Although I consider myself a skeptic, I resolved to put my jadedness aside for a few weeks and become a holistic guinea pig, even if the reward was just the experience.

*****

Advertised as a place for “relaxation, rejuvenation and introspection,” the Integratron surprisingly didn’t feel like a retreat just for the incense-burning, chakra-balancing types. The land the 38-foot-tall sound chamber sits on is a work of art, a sandy refuge with droplets of color and scrap-metal statues sprinkled throughout. Beyond the entrance, a cozy, bright hammock village floated in the air and sofas with hand-woven blankets sat quaintly among desert foliage, most of it decorated with twinkling holiday bulbs and snowflakes. In the yard I noticed a bundle of amethyst-colored flowers peeking from the ash of a fire pit just as the Traveling Wilburys sang about purple haze over the radio.

A big red bow hung by the door of the dome, welcoming us inside. We took off our shoes and climbed a ladder to the top. There were rows of mats and blankets, people eagerly claiming their spots and nestling under wool sheets. Overhead, beautiful wooden beams arched and curved perfectly, meeting at a hole in the center where the sun glinted, and glass windows allowed the natural light to trickle in. The man responsible for this great architecture was the late George Van Tassel, an aeronautical engineer who claimed to have been contacted by aliens from Venus, and that upon their spaceship he was given “a formula for a proprietary frequency for rejuvenating living cell tissues.” According to its website, the Integratron was created over 18 years, finished in 1977 as an “electrostatic generator” in which to perform these rejuvenations.

Inside the dome, our guide Dan told us he’d be playing crystal quartz bowls with a mallet for 25 minutes, each bowl keyed to the body’s energy centers. The sound could be overwhelming at first, he warned, but soon we would feel extremely relaxed, allowing for a meditative state unlike any other. Some of us might even fall asleep.

Instead, I entered a hazy state I can only describe as limbo-dreamland. Not knowing anything about chakras or energy centers, I paid attention to my breathing and the swelling sounds of each bowl as it sang its deep frequencies. My mind raced, then eased as the sound washed over. The light behind my eyelids dimmed, and I saw red fibers dance in the darkness.

Dan had said we’d reach a deep level of relaxation, but not being experienced in the art of meditation, I never fully achieved that calm. Still, I left the Integratron feeling it was the right place to start my trip, and it got me in the mood to embrace Nevada’s metaphysical outskirts.

The sun set behind us like a golden flame, nothing but sand, Joshua trees and the mountains tiptoeing on the horizon as we drove back toward the city of lights. I could still hear the hum of the quartz bowls ringing softly, echoing the desert’s howling winds.

*****

It looked like something from a bad sci-fi film. Inside, everything was pitch-black except for a bright halo near my feet. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been inside the chamber, but after what felt like only a few minutes, I was so relaxed I fell asleep. It was the comfiest bed I’d ever lain in, but there were no sheets, no pillows—not even a mattress. I was floating in 10 inches of water, filled with 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt, rendering my body virtually weightless.

According to the website for Float Sanctuary on Main Street, “the anti-gravity benefits alone permit decompression of the spine, elimination of pressure points on the body, and allow for blood to flow efficiently throughout your extremities,” making flotation therapy a great way to heal the mind and the body. Prior to my float, I anxiously wondered how long it would take before I started feeling claustrophobic. Would my mind fall into an “It’s a Small World” loop, playing the same song over and over before I went completely mad?

I assumed my thoughts would race inside the tank, but the opposite happened. Once inside, I left the door open so I could adjust to the space, but shut it soon after, acclimating to complete and utter darkness and silence. “Sensory deprivation” sounds intimidating, but floating provides the perfect environment for your psyche and senses to be completely at ease. I left feeling refreshed and balanced, as if I’d woken from a deep sleep.

*****

For my next experiment, I cozied up on a lounge chair in a room that looked like the inside of a glowing pink Himalayan salt lamp–the kind sold at health-food stores and touted for magical healing properties. For the next hour, I’d sit in this recliner inside Summerlin’s Salt Room LV, relaxing and breathing pharmaceutical-grade particles of sodium chloride.

Halotherapy, also known as salt therapy, is said to benefit those suffering from allergies, bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, even the common cold. In Europe, halotherapy is widely accepted as routine healthcare by the medical community, Salt Room LV owner Ava Mucikyan says, and it’s often prescribed to patients with respiratory problems prior to trying medication. Because it isn’t recognized by the FDA here in the States, halotherapy is seen as a holistic treatment—thus its popularity among the “granola” crowd.

A lamp provides illumination in the Salt Cave at the Salt Room, a spa and halotherapy center in Summerlin, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015.

I dropped in hoping to relax my eyes and mind between deadlines, but to my surprise, it was the one day of the month Salt Room LV hosts a sound bath. Flashing me back to the Integratron, a woman named Jenny played a quartz bowl, gradually adding chimes and a rain stick. In the clean, fresh air, Jenny invited us to ruminate on the good things that happened in 2015, encouraging us to let go of negativity as we entered our hour-long meditation. The wooshing of the rain stick sunk me deeper into my relaxation, until someone began snoring. At the Integratron, we’d been advised to gently wake snorers. Here, without the pass to nudge a complete stranger, the lone snorer was left to honk throughout the session, making it hard to reap the room’s benefits.

Those effects purportedly come from Salt Room LV’s simulation of “the microclimate of a salt cave,” and when the session was over my seasonal allergies weren’t as problematic. Breathing was easier, and my cough had mostly gone away. I dusted myself off, as a thin layer of salt had stuck to my face and clothes. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for—perhaps on a different day I’d be the one sound asleep.

*****

I’ve always been drawn to Native American cultures. Not in the, I have a dream-catcher tattoo and wear headdresses to festivals kind of way, but through family members who appreciate tribal and spiritual traditions. When I was 6, my aunt made me a medicine bag with handcrafted beads and leather, something I cherished and wore around my neck with pride. She read my tarot cards when I was a teenager, using a deck with Native American imagery—deer, buffalo, horses, birds and the powerful forces they represent. So when I saw that the Enchanted Forest Reiki Center on Jones Boulevard offered Native American Shamanic Healing with Cree healer Sean Wei Mah, I knew it would be a meaningful stop on my journey, a rare glimpse into hundreds of years of sacred tradition.

Hoping to get a sense of it before my session, I checked out the description on the reiki center’s website: “Not every healing session will be the same. It can range in pain level, so be aware. This is a hands-on practice as clearing sickness, energy and evil can involve physical methods.” Pain? Sickness? Evil?!

When I arrived, Sean was in a corner room burning different smudges—herbs and medicines lit as part of a blessing. A stocky, soft-spoken man, he had a long, beautiful black braid running down his back and talked in a way that immediately calmed me.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a boy, 8 years old, growing up on the reservation,” Sean said of his childhood in Alberta, Canada. “You don’t really ask to be immersed in this kind of lifestyle, in this knowledge. You just are, because it’s part of your life to learn the protocols of ceremony.”

He explained the smudges—fine powders of cedar, white sage and sweetgrass, resins, saps and mugwort, Peruvian copal, Palo Santo, diamond willow fungus and a mixture of blessed herbs Sean called “head medicine.” He said each element is a medicine on its own that can be ingested in different forms. As a smudge or incense, however, the smoke becomes a holy medicine to cleanse the body.

“Because of all that goes on here and the history of Vegas—the gambling, the addictions of every kind—people come here bringing their garbage, bringing their energy, bringing their personal demons. You have all this energy here not going anywhere. Everything is connected,” he said, blessing the air inside the small studio. It resembled a spa, with a table and pillows in the center and shamanic tools—drums, handmade rattles, a pipe and paintings—along the walls. “When you walk into a room, it can be beautiful, but there can be an energy there that’s just so blah or malevolent or unwelcoming. You take the same space and bring in good feelings, good words,” he said, as the room swirled with earthy, intoxicating scents.

Sean dimmed the lights as I took off my shoes (so I could connect with the Earth) and then lay on the table. Traditional Cree healing, he said, works on a mind-body-spirit level to help people refocus that fight-or-flight mode. “In ceremony, once you’re purified, you take custody of your body and your mind; you pretty much put yourself back in the driver’s seat.”

The next hour and a half saw the burning of more smudges and tobacco from Sean’s pipe. He never inhaled the smoke, but blew it in four directions to summon the ancestors, guardians and spirits. He told me I was visited by two birds—both good for protection. Then he placed a heavy rock known as a grandfather stone in my right hand and a sacred pipe in my left and blessed me with four songs. As he beat his drum, chanting and singing in Cree, colors and images exploded behind my eyelids.

Before he began his last song, Sean asked me to thank the ancestors and the Creator for allowing the healing to occur. As a conduit, he also urged me to ask the spirits to rid him of any residual energy. Once the song was over, Sean said, the door to that world would close, so this was our last chance to cleanse ourselves. The drumbeat climbed as Sean’s voice got louder and louder. I traced my memory of 2015: faces of lovers, moments of mourning, the past piling up inside my forehead. The beats felt hot and my limbs weightless until—wham! Everything stopped. It was intensely silent.

As I rose from the table, I felt light and lifted. I felt clarity. On the way home, I smiled in disbelief.

*****

Looking back on my wellness journey, I realize one thing played into the experience more than any other—allowing myself to go all-in, no matter my preconceived notions. I approached each treatment with no expectations and one goal: to see if alternative healing could help fortify me for the new year ahead. Through the assistance of a shaman or the music of crystal bowls or by simply incorporating mindfulness into my daily life, I found myself appreciating the benefits of meditation. A different kind of tune-up than the gym, deep relaxation now seemed like routine maintenance, essential to ensure all the gears are working smoothly. When I trace over the desert roads and Joshua trees at the beginning of my trip, the immersion in darkness and sound and pink light, I feel less stressed—excited, even—knowing these outlets are there if I need them.

For nonbelievers, perhaps being “healed” has little to do with the spiritual world and more to do with the decision to let painful things go, to accept what we can’t change and open our minds and bodies to moving forward. Holistic medicine can’t replace mainstream healthcare, but I’ve found it can encourage that kind of growth and action. Manifesting your dreams requires more than just meditation, but finding a process that works on an individual level—that can kick-start a positive transformation. After all, we’re all on our own journey. Maybe, with some focused effort, I’ll finally stick to my resolutions.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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