10/09/2007 08:00 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Epsom Salt Talks: Bathtub Meditations on the Wellness Movement

I am sitting in a bathtub full of hot water, soaking in 10 pounds of Epsom salt, reading supplement labels, sipping the thick and dark red juice of the Brazilian açai berry, handsomely bottled as though it was a very fine French Bordeaux. All the while - and by "while" I mean 90-minute soaks twice a day for five days - I contemplate how I got here. And how the wellness movement got here.

My current circumstance has more irony than I am willing to admit, except to you. My back has gone out - again - but this time it's happened in the middle of a book tour. But not just any book tour. After the publication of my last book, Buddha or Bust, I had joined the so-called wellness circuit, speaking at such events as the Sun Valley Wellness Festival in Ketchum, Idaho. Now I was touring luxury hotel spas giving talks I call "Buddha's Massage: The Ultimate Pampering of the Mind."

In brief, I suggest that despite marketing verbiage touting the wellness movement's obeisance to the holy trilogy of body, mind and spirit, the burgeoning spa movement pays just a little too much attention to pampering the body, but not enough to pampering the mind. My talk is a subversive way to infiltrate an increasingly hedonistic environment and drop in a few tips on how to stay "mindful" in the moment - whether on or off the table. This was the simplest, most non-sectarian of the Buddha's teachings: how to "awaken."

So what did I do but fall completely asleep - go absolutely unconscious - with regard to my own body/mind. At the very least, my mind was not paying attention to my body. My lower back, the cause of so much recent personal disaster it may soon be eligible for FEMA relief, had over the last weeks raised its voice from a murmur of protest to a shout audible to anyone standing close to me. But did I listen? Nooooooo. I jogged, I swam, I did sit-ups as if I could ever - ever - have a six-pack. This after weeks on the road, sleeping in a different bed every third night, schlepping luggage through airports and then long flights in seats designed, I am certain, by sadists.

By the time I reached the Montage Hotel & Spa in Laguna Beach, California, I was waking up with that achy pain familiar to too many of my fellow bipeds. Yet - and here's where I went absolutely unconscious - as a devotee of core trunk stabilization, I felt prepared for a class called "More Than Core." I wasn't. In a pose even those with supple lumbars would find challenging - balancing on one knee on an oversized beach ball, left arm extended forward, right leg extended back - I felt an all-too-familiar sensation in my right buttock muscle. Alarum! Spasm! Cut to: well, exactly where I find myself, in a tub and incapacitated.

* * * *

The legend of the açai berry begins in Belém (Portuguese for Bethlehem), the capital city of a northern Brazilian state covered mostly by Amazonian rainforest thick with thousands of varieties and species of living things. Belém itself has more than 2,000 species of plants and around 600 animals native to Amazonia.

According to local Indian myth, the berry is named after a tribal chief's daughter, Iaca, whose own daughter was saved by the berry. Iaca spelled backwards is açai. For centuries, the indigenous people of this region have harvested the berry as an antidote for numerous ailments. Now, modern science claims to validate its wellness benefits. The açai berry - now identified as one of the top so-called "superfoods" - is said to provide a rich source of protein, healthy fats, and essential vitamins and minerals. Its antioxidant properties are higher than any other edible berry on the planet.

I read all this from the packaging while I sit in my tub. The açai berry juice was prescribed by a Laguna Beach chiropractor I visited while I recuperated. He also gave me a dietary supplement called Pro-Infla-zyme. The label says it contains, among other things, bladderwrack algae, tumeric, rosemary and horsetail.


Millions of people pay very good money - Americans spend upwards of $22.3 billion a year - for herbs like these, as well as echinacea, arnica, ginkgo biloba, St. John's wort and goldenseal. But, I realized, soaking still in magnesium sulphate without really knowing why, they do so without knowing much about the background, history, people, or culture from which so many of these ancient healing traditions descend. They don't know - nor, I worry, care - how this herb or that treatment fits into the greater context of its indigenous traditional medicine practices. Nor do they want to know that this or that remedy probably won't work unless used as part of a truly holistic approach. The fact is we want our healing like we want our everything else: fast, preferably in bullets and 10-second sound bites. Don't confuse me with the facts. Don't make me give up one crumb of my comfort food. And, oh my ______ (fill in your favorite deity there), please do NOT deprive me of my mocha cappuccino or my Grey Goose.

I keep thinking about the Brazilians of Belém harvesting, crushing and imbibing their açai jucie. I wonder if they are all healthy. I wonder if they and all Brazilians dose up before Carnival and that's why they can high-step through the streets all night like a cadre of Energizer bunnies. If so, dose me up, baby.

And then I wonder what they would think if they could see me right now, sipping from this bottle of MonaVie açai berries, at $32 for 32 ounces thankyouverymuch, and then wrapping myself in a Montage terry cloth robe thick as their rainforests, luxuriously enwrapped in a five-star wellness bubble - yet still unwell.

Would they wonder, like me, how we have come so far but moved so little? I decide to Google more about Brazil's healing traditions. After my Grey Goose.