Driving up to Esalen in Big Sur from LA, the road gets curvier and the hills steeper the closer you get. You lose cell phone connection and it's hard to focus on driving because the wild brilliance of the ocean and golden light is mesmerizing. Esalen is one of those seriously beautiful places that everyone should get to visit at least once. The retreat center itself faces the sprawl of the ocean and monarch butterflies litter the air. The gardens are neat and plentiful. The baths open up to the ocean and enormous sky. I could have missed all of this because I was quite nervous on my arrival at Esalen.
I had been invited to Esalen as a writer to cover a workshop with a group called Beyond Words. Beyond Words is a group dedicated to promoting peace in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I knew participants were coming from a wide range of backgrounds - Arab, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze, Bedouin, Mexican and American - just to name a bit of the diversity. They are committed, as a group and as individuals, to dive headlong into exploring the conflict and prejudice that marks so much of their daily lives and find peaceful ways to change it. Unlike the latest peace talks, this group keeps moving forward.
Beyond Words meets regularly in Israel, but they also bring in teachers and occasionally are invited to hold workshops in the US. For part of this workshop, Ann Bradney of the Radical Aliveness Core Energetics Institute in Los Angeles facilitated the group's work. I had originally met Bradney through a friend and was curious about her work in social leadership. In turn, she introduced me to Nitsan Gordon, director of Beyond Words.
Gordon started Beyond Words in 2003 with a group of 8 other women. She was born in Israel and has lived there for most of her life. As a child, her family moved to Tennessee for a time and there she experienced profound prejudice first hand. Through her work as a dance therapist and as a witness to the bias, violence and intolerance at home, she was motivated to create Beyond Words. She describes it this way:
"In any work, if you want to transform emotional pain, the body has to be involved in some way. We're trying to show that this kind of emotional healing work can really benefit people and can possibly, if there are enough people doing it, make a difference in people's ability to live in peace with one another.
People have taken on leadership and done things they never thought they would do because of this work. It started with them meeting through Beyond Words. As an example, people have talked about how it's changed the way they relate to their children and their husbands and how the teachers teach in their schools and how they relate to the children."
Until recently, the focus for Beyond Words has been on empowering women to share their stories and find ways to make changes in the face of the ongoing conflict. Now, the group has opened up to include men. By expanding, the work moves into gender dynamics in a different, more direct way.
I followed Bradney and Irit, one of the participants, up to Esalen. Irit is a Jewish woman from Israel, a therapist, theater group director and mother of two young children. At lunch we talked about our kids. My teenage daughter was texting me updates on her search for a part time job. I couldn't help myself and rattled on about my girl's college applications and now looking for work. Later in the conversation, Irit talked about bringing back roller blades as a gift for her kids and her fear that they'd hurt themselves skating. But as we talked more about parenting and Israel, she brought up that the time will come when her children will be called to join the military. Over sandwiches, fried eggs and tea in a roadside diner, I felt very American.
At our first meeting, Karim, a Muslim man, shared about the beatings his brother experienced because he loved a woman his family didn't want him to marry. The beatings came from Karim's family. Karim was young and there was nothing he could do to stop his father and uncles from beating his brother. I hate to even write this because I know there are people who will use this as a platform to rail against the culture that encourages or allows this kind of practice. But for Karim, telling this story loosened him from the shame, rage and powerlessness that he'd held on to for decades.
Karim was just one person in the group who came forward and told a story that the culture says should not be told. Bradney encouraged other members of the group to come forward to support Karim. MIcha, an Israeli Jew living in the U.S., held Karim as the range of emotions washed over him. I doubt that Karim had broken down in front of 25 other people before and cried in another man's arms. He said that he saw his brother in MIcha.
I came to understand that Bradney's work complements Beyond Words in creating a space where it's safe to tell forbidden stories; stories about what it's like to live next to the person you've been taught is your enemy. Stories about rape, fear and prejudice being used as weapons in every day life. Stories triggered by physical exercises that serve as metaphors for what's been locked away for decades. Bradney's method taps into a place that's raw and vulnerable. It's not easy to describe the work Bradney and Beyond Words does and the trust that's built up in the group. It's an easy trap to just fall into cliché when talking about creating a safe place to share and releasing profound emotions.
Sitting in the yurt at Esalen with this group, I reflected back on something I'd learned in college. I remembered the phrase, "the personal is political." That had made a lasting impression on me. All through the week, I saw this concept played out. Bradney describes it this way:
"One person taking a stand can open a doorway for everybody else and you can see that. It doesn't take a huge group of people, it takes one person with the courage. Sometimes a bunch of people get killed along the way. We can say this metaphorically and literally. And then, there's one person that speaks up and doesn't get killed and that's the tipping point. Something opens up...
There's a consciousness raising aspect to hanging out with your enemy. You hear too much, you see too much, you get connected, you can't dehumanize the other in the same way. You get up close and up front and things change. I remember one trip to Israel and going to visit Kalila, an Arab woman from Beyond Words. I had to go past the checkpoint, but it's not a bad [or difficult] checkpoint because Jerusalem is there and they allow Jews to go in and out all the time. Kalila and her family were showing me around and then they were driving me back to the checkpoint and they were terrified because [as Arabs] they were driving on a road that they weren't really supposed to be on. Just sitting in the car, I could feel how scared they were. Then, Nitsan and her boyfriend had come across the border so that Kalila wouldn't have to go to the checkpoint. [But as they talked,] Nitsan burst into tears and said to Kalila, 'I'm so sorry you have to go through these kinds of checkpoints all the time.' So you know, there's some kind of awakening to the other's experience that really happens in this group and that's the strength of the group."
Hasna is a Bedouin woman living in the southern part of Israel. While she's been part of Beyond Words for a while, this was her first time coming to the U.S. I could sense her strength even before Bradney told us about the first time she'd met Hasna. The village they were in was being shelled and Hasna got everyone safely out of the bomb shelter and to another town. I learned that attending the group and coming to Esalen carry potential fall out for her when she's back home. I wasn't clear on whether her husband and children supported the work she was doing, but the backlash Hasna feared could come just as easily from them as from her neighbors.
One of Hasna's challenges was to face the limits to her personal freedom that comes through her culture, religion and the ongoing conflict in Israel. The group listened quietly as Hasna struggled to tell us stories from her daily life. Talking about specific details overwhelmed her. With Bradney's and the group's support, Hasna was able to physically push back.
Since Bradney's teaching comes out of Core Energetics, it includes bodywork as well as focusing on personal transformation and social leadership. The men in the group stood together holding large cushions while Hasna and the other women rushed at them saying, "No." The word "no" meant something different for each of us, but also brought us together.
I watched Bradney closely as she lead the group while the room exploded with strong emotion. She stands about 5'7" and it's more than her red hair that makes her noticeable. Her manner and voice are confident, but don't overpower the group. It was obvious that the amount of anger and sadness being released was overwhelming for some people. Bradney moved around the room slowly, touching some people, encouraging people to comfort others. Small groups started forming with people talking. Bradney put on some quiet music and had us move back into our large group to share and wrap things up before lunch.
The history of the people living today in Israel and the Occupied Territories is long, filled with pain, tension and conflict. My initial nervousness about coming up to Esalen centered around the intensity I knew I'd encounter and the fact that I'm not an expert in Israeli-Palestinian history and culture. We all had our personal reasons for coming to Beyond Words -- our aims, fears and vulnerabilities.
Part of the diversity of the group came from language. I spent the time at Esalen hearing a mix of English, Arabic, Hebrew and Spanish. I missed the cadence and rhythms of all the different languages and accents when I came back home. There was a constant delay as the translators put everyone's words into multiple languages. This forced all of us to slow down at the same time that emotion spurred us to keep sharing with each other. The translators gave us the words, the facts of the narrative, but intonation and facial expression became even more important.
People will have the chance to see Beyond Words in action as we had a film crew shooting for most of the time we were at Esalen. They'll be putting this footage together after they spend time filming the group working in Israel. The plan is to bring this work to a larger audience. You'll find updates on the documentary at the Beyond Words website.
Similar to the delay with translation, it's taken me time to get these words down and try to describe how profound the experience was with Beyond Words. We all stepped through the doorway that Bradney describes. Not one of us got killed, but I think we were all changed.
At the last session, Karim showed a bunch of us photos he'd taken in the gardens. He had a good eye for dramatic, close up shots of flowers, revealing the arch, texture and curl of petals. Karim shared the way the beauty of Esalen had moved him. Then, we all talked seriously about concrete ways to bring what we learned into our lives. We stay in touch on Facebook, sharing and encouraging each other. At last report, Hasna has organized smaller workshops for women in her workplace. Beyond Words has met regularly back in Israel and Bradney is teaching there in June. I think we all want what Karim captured in his photos, to see what the beauty of peace and lasting change look like up close.