A man who sells boiled peanuts in Georgia for a living travels to a village in Mexico. He was sexually abused as a child and has lived ever after with a crippling sense of shame. Now—under the intensely blue-eyed gaze of a sexual healer named Sasha Cobra—he taps into a well of self-compassion that brings profound relief.
A Boston woman whose body is becoming excruciatingly rigid, an effect of the disease scleroderma, turns to the psychedelic medicine ayahuasca and gradually finds herself released from both her wheelchair and her intense despair.
These are just two of the compelling stories from the new documentary series (Un)Well, which Netflix released in mid-August. Each of the six episodes, not quite an hour long, begins with the words: “The Wellness Industry has become a global industry worth trillions of dollars. Does it bring health and healing? Or are we falling victim to false promises? Are we really getting . . . well?”
The series explores a smorgasbord of healing modalities, from tantric sex to essential oils. The rather eccentric selection piqued my curiosity—in a way (I confess) that yet another exploration of yoga or mindfulness might not. At the same time, I was aware that the very choice of subjects seemed designed to elicit a skeptical attitude on the part of the viewer, as in: “Wow! There are some kooky ideas out there. I had no idea there were male athletes who drink breast milk to build muscle strength. Did you?”
Since I have a skeptical nature to begin with, I decided to start with two of the healing modes that I knew were rooted in long-revered traditions, rather than watch the episodes in order. The first of these is a form of sexual healing based in tantra, a system of religious beliefs and practices that first emerged in India in the fifth century CE—and, as we hear from several critical voices, has now been appropriated by New Age healers. Sasha Cobra is one such healer. She works with individuals, couples, and groups to help them release whatever may be blocking the joyful vitality of their sexual energy. From her village in Mexico, the documentary travels around the globe, presenting us with a range of healers, a range of people seeking their aid—and a range of outcomes. At the end of his visit to Sasha Cobra, the man from Georgia is able to look at himself in the mirror and feel love for the face looking back at him. But two women at Agama, a healing center in Thailand, had a very different experience. They recount feeling extremely violated by the presiding swami, a man named Narcis Tarcau, and the special form of sexual massage that he offers to some of his female students.
From tantric sex I turned to ayahuasca, the psychedelic brew that belongs to the indigenous shamanic tradition in the Amazon. As in the tantra episode, this episode also included a pointed critique of people who appropriate a healing practice without fully understanding or appreciating its cultural heritage. As the ethnographer Carlos Suarez Alvarez explains, traditionally it is the shaman who ingests the ayahuasca, and then—from the midst of his altered state—channels a healing song from the spirit-allies to the person who is suffering from illness. But, he says, “people don’t come here [South America] paying $2,000 to lie down in a ceremony and [listen to] a shaman sing. . . . It’s not enough.”
Certainly, the episode makes us understand why desperate people are willing to travel far and face the risks of ingesting this potent medicine. Along with the woman who from the first dose she takes begins to emerge from the terrible rigidity of her scleroderma, we meet another woman who has been faced with devastating circumstances. Eleven years prior, her husband shot and killed both himself and her 15-year-old daughter. Having tried ayahuasca once before, she is now coming back for a second healing journey—and the results for her are quite spectacular. Through a visionary experience of vast space and boundless love, she is able to release the crushing weight of grief that she has been carrying. Returning to her daily life, she continues to marvel at the lingering sense of peace that the experience has given her.
Just as in the tantra episode, however, this episode presents outcomes both ecstatic and excruciating. A woman in Florida ends up having a severe seizure not long after taking the ayahuasca and has to be rushed to the emergency room. Most horrifying of all, the journey of a Canadian man to the Amazon ends with two deaths—that of a beloved shaman-elder who is shot outside her hut and of the man himself after the townspeople accuse him of the killing and hang him. With extraordinary vividness, we are shown that powerful healing modalities often bring with them an equally powerful shadow side.
Of the four remaining episodes—which included fasting, essential oils, and the benefits of breast milk for adults—I found the one devoted to bee-sting therapy especially moving. It is focused on the quest of a young woman who has suffered from Lyme disease since early childhood. Kerri travels from New Jersey to a healing center in northern California, where, under the gentle and encouraging guidance of a woman named Brooke Geahan—herself a survivor of chronic Lyme disease—she learns how to place stinging bees at various points on her body. Though this episode is not nearly as dramatic as the tantric sex or ayahuasca segments, it draws us deeply into the plight of one person’s struggle—in the face of lifelong pain, fatigue, despair—to find a glimmer of hope.
Over the ages, seekers from across cultures have said that we find our way by failing, again and again. “Not this, not that” is the ancient Indian phrase for this principle. Many of the people in (Un)Well, too, are traveling the via negativa, the path that leads from one disappointment to the next until finally—for some of them—the door to healing opens. As different as their stories are, in the most powerful moments of healing there is a quality of release from stuckness, whether it involves the rigidity of the body in scleroderma, the lingering shame of sexual abuse, or the stasis of overwhelming grief. In each of these cases, the combination of time and the intensity of pain created for the sufferer a strong sense of identification with their suffering—what some Buddhist teachers call “the suffering of suffering.” It was this identification that seemed, quite mysteriously, to get interrupted in the process of healing.
The makers of (Un)Well don’t offer a simple explanation as to why the same treatment fails for some and succeeds for others. Rather, the questions are left to reverberate. “Only don’t know,” one of my Zen teachers used to repeat as the core instruction for meditation. For me, all six episodes confirmed the value of the path that teaches us, with every breath, to remember “I am not this. I am not that.” Not my grief. Not my shame. Not my fatigue or my aching bones. Whether well or unwell: Who am I? Only don’t know.
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