Seeking Mindfulness in Arizona
15 December, 2015
JosÃ©, a 27-year-old from Orlando, is barefoot and photographing my aura. We sit opposite one another in a small room at the back of the Sacred Light Sedona spiritual centre. Between us there is a table covered with a purple velour throw. My hand is hooked up to a bio-feedback apparatus which measures the electric potential along the meridian points of my palm. I don't know what this means, but the results of this test will create a colourful electronic interpretation of my aura, which will supposedly tell me more about who I am.
"The aura around your feet, your foundation, is both purple and yellow," says José. "It means you have a foot in both worlds." He continues: "One in the logical, so within your core you can rationalise what is happening to you; and one in the spiritual, so you can trust that you are being guided."
I've been in Arizona for a week and I'm getting pretty used to this by now - aura photographers, astrologists and even horses telling me things about myself that I hadn't previously acknowledged. To José's credit, he's got a point. Over the past seven days I have suspended my body in silk sheets to find balance, drummed to create inner peace and meditated on top of a vortex. I have optimistically embraced all these activities and willed myself to be 'guided', while quietly making reference to my own reserve of logic and scepticism.
I am in Arizona to learn to be mindful. As a person, I am scatty beyond belief, clumsy beyond measure and addicted to my iPhone. In the past year I have lost four phones and broken three, left my passport at a ramen restaurant and lost two wallets in two days. Over the course of my life I have bumped into numerous poles, doors, and walls. Once I walked into a pool in a hotel lobby, and I fell off the edge of a boat earlier this year. The word mindfulness has been thrown at me more times than I can count. It is the practice of paying attention, of being present, self-aware and conscious - and I obviously need it.
Arizona is most famous for the Grand Canyon, but also hits the headlines every once in a while for its famous rehabilitation centres in the Sonoran Desert. Sierra Tucson, Meadows and Cottonwood have hosted some of the Daily Mail's most tormented souls. I, however, check myself into Miraval, a 400-acre all inclusive retreat and spa dedicated to helping guests live life in the moment. On arrival I sign a waiver: "I understand that parts of Miraval classes and activities may be physically or emotionally demanding. I affirm that I am responsible for all mental and medical conditions."
At its simplest, it is a world-class destination spa where guests can lounge poolside, take exercise classes and experience one-of-a-kind holistic treatments at the Clarins Life in Balance Spa that revitalise and rejuvenate. Mother/daughter duos, married couples and divorcées come to relax, eat well and be well. Delve deeper into its specialist programmes and experiences, though, and Miraval does begin to feel a bit like rehab for the addictions of modern-day life, treatment you never knew you needed.
On my first day, I take part in Miraval's equine experience, and desperately try to get a horse to lift its hoof. Wyatt Webb, the founder and leader of the equine programme here, explains that horses have an innate ability to mirror the thoughts and behaviours of others, which in turn enables us to reflect on how we approach situations and relationships. I try to stay calm while the damn horse refuses to move. Meanwhile the horse trainer tells me I have problems communicating my frustrations.
Next I attend mindfulness at Miraval, where I learn to master the three beginning steps of being mindful which make up the core foundation of the retreat: bring your attention to your breath, an anchor which helps us return to the moment when we are drifting; implement an informal practise of mindfulness into your everyday life by bringing a fuller awareness to your everyday activities - notice your body sensations when you are waiting in line, in the car, on the phone, feel the breeze on your skin if you are outdoors, listen to water, enjoy the sky and clouds, and try to keep your head out of your iPhone. And finally, meditate - take a specific portion of time and dedicate it to your body and mind connection. I will, they assure me, see unparalleled results in my level of awareness.
I try to practise these throughout my stay and genuinely cultivate a calm I thought was reserved only for sleeping. Here nature and wellbeing are intrinsically linked, and I begin to realise why Arizona, with its mind-blowing landscapes, is the perfect place to reconnect. I sit on a creek and paint at their art station; with no one to snigger with I start to see the activity's therapeutic efects. I take a class in aerial yoga in a studio with large open windows that face onto the powerful Catalina Mountains. As the silk sheets balance my weight, I become aware of every tension in my body (and my subsequent camel-toe) and still manage to let it all go. I hike through the Sonoran, where the saguaro cacti have learned to weather extreme conditions and grow strong and green out of the dirt. And finally I am reminded, constantly, to please put my phone away in public areas. After a few times being banished to the 'raindance courtyard' where they are allowed, I realise my phone isn't that important, and vow to create my own makeshift raindance courtyard in my flat in London.
As a person who finds it hard to take a psychic seriously and gets the giggles when someone farts in yoga, there are definitely moments which test my ability to keep a straight face. But I learn early on that Miraval is only as therapeutic as you make it. I embrace every experience with 'an open mind and open heart', and a dose of logic for good measure, and I leave changed for the better. Despite the fluff (and the occasional mention of a medium) the general messages of being mindful and present are consistent and stick with me long after I leave. Just in case they don't, the staff at Miraval ask me to write a letter to myself spelling out exactly what I have learned, which they will forward on to me three months later.
Armed with a newfound calm and fully immersed in nature's holistic hold, I head to the spiritual centre of the Southwest. Sedona, Arizona. At 113,909 square miles, Arizona is the sixth largest state in the United States, with large, open highways that wind through some of the most impressive landscapes our planet has to offer. Geographers have called Arizona one of the most diverse geological provinces in the world, and its famous locations - the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the 100ft Havasu Falls and the best-preserved impact crater on Earth, Barringer Crater - are fascinating results of the earth's movement over the past 2 billion years. Visitors call it supernatural, otherworldly, magical and mind-boggling.
The landscape demands your attention and appreciation, and driving across the state is itself a lesson in meditation. I coast along a stretch of open highway through the Sonoran desert to Scottsdale, Phoenix past Camelback Mountain and out the other side onto the Interstate 17, where dry, flat land resembling Mars suddenly drops away to reveal vast mountain ranges. I take the Red Rock scenic byway towards Sedona, known as one of the best road trips in the USA, which winds through the famous red-rock country. As the sun begins to sink, I catch my first glimpse of the towering deep-orange and red sandstone formations. A sound escapes my mouth I have never heard before, it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
The red rocks of Sedona are home to four main vortex sites - Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, Boynton Canyon and Airport vortex - which have been labelled some of the most powerful healing and spiritual centres on earth. Described as spiralling masses of electrical energy and documented by human experiences - faint vibrations, a rushing feeling of tranquillity, magical healing, spiritual rejuvenation, psychic enhancement and the odd astral being - they have become Sedona's top attractions and a pilgrimage site for new age followers, metaphysical believers and those looking to be healed.
"Do not intellectualise the vortex," says Tom Dongo, author of The Mysteries of Sedona, The New Age Frontier. I pick up the book at The Centre for the New Age, along with a bag of crystals, a 'positive energy' chakra candle and hand-drawn Native American tarot cards. This store, like the one where I meet José, my long haired aura photographer, is just one of many businesses in Sedona that have been growing ever since the new age migration in 1987. This was the year of the Harmonic Convergence, the world's first synchronised meditation event, organised in correlation with the Mayan calendar by José Argüelles. Believers flocked to spiritual centres across the globe and 5,000 of them went to Sedona. They stood on Bell Rock vortex, waiting for a global shift or the birth of the fifth world. Many of them believed this would appear in the form of a spaceship that would carry believers to the outer world.
The UFOs never appeared but Sedona's spiritual history (Native American tribes such as the Yavapai and later the Tonto Apache had been visiting this land as early as 1300 AD, most believing it too sacred to inhabit) as well as the undeniable energy of the vortices were enough for the new age believers to settle in this small town. I laughed too, before I visited Sedona. And while I am no new age convert after my visit, I understand quickly on a trip to the Airport vortex why people have come to this otherworldly conclusion. I climb, with many others, to the top of the rock at 5.30AM for the sunrise, which threatens not to appear through the hanging clouds. The clouds have also ruined my chances of taking a decent photograph and I soon give up, remembering instead to simply appreciate the moment. And what a moment it is. The view is a panorama of towering crimson landforms, so powerful in its beauty and grandeur that you cannot help but feel like a tiny speck in our universe's grander plans. I have this feeling when I visit the other vortices, notably Cathedral Rock at sunset, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross - a small Catholic church inspired by the Empire State Building and built 250ft high into a 1000 ft red-rock wall - as well as other places where nature reveals itself in powerful forms, such as the towering Coconino National Forest and the Oak Creek Canyon, the second-most popular tourist attraction in Arizona.
This feeling is what makes millions of visitors single out Sedona as a holiday destination every year. The calm I cultivate hiking through the red rocks, or meditating along a creek, stays with me as I move from nature to the man made hotels and restaurants of this small city. There are times when I roll my eyes, most often on Sedona's Strip where endless Native American souvenirs and crystal shops have earned it the name of 'New Age Disneyland', but there are some places that truly blend into the vibe of this city. There are 'no-frills' motels dotted throughout, and a good Best Western if you're going to spend more time out than in. I stay at Amara Resort and Spa, with serene rooms, an infinity pool which leads onto Sedona's red rocks and stargazing on the patio each night. The magical L'Auberge de Sedona Resort and Spa is nestled in Oak Canyon Creek, and its restaurant set on the water's edge takes the prize for the most romantic spot. At Eloté Café, the local favourite and the best gourmet Mexican you'll find in the city, I wait for an outburst as the waiter tells the couple in front of me that it will be an hour-and-a-half wait for a table. Nothing happens, and I watch in amazement as each group accepts the news, grabs a margarita and moves to the patio happily engaging in conversation.
When I return to London I feel changed. But with 4G, no out-of-office and a daily rush-hour commute my habits quickly return. On my morning journey, I find myself drifting back to the day I left Arizona, when I hiked to the top of Cathedral Rock vortex. There was a man in his 50s wheezing behind me, and a solo female hiker whose boots thudded in front. A group of peppy young American women were talking about channelling energy, with a little girl singing and skipping ahead. We all reached the top eventually, where a couple were staring into each other's eyes: "I feel", "I know now" and "moving forward" were just snippets of their conversation. I lay down, closed my eyes and moved through my body, noticing every feeling and tension. Taking a few deep breaths I felt more grounded than I ever have before. Suddenly, I heard a movement across the rocks and a flute began to play, the sound vibrating of the walls of the enclave. I stifled a giggle and tried to return to my meditation. The flute however, switched to a didgeridoo and I lost it. With a huge smile across my face, I thought what a weird and wonderful world we live in, got up, and hiked back down. I laugh out loud on the tube, waking myself up and becoming aware of my surroundings. I try to recall everything I have learnt and remember to breathe. I feel the tension in my toes, and notice every feature on each passenger's face.
The pressure and fast-paced nature of modern-day life has afected all of us in our capacity to pay attention, appreciate, and be present in the moment. The vortices in Arizona are meant to be a portal into a memory of who we really are. But I found the whole experience of Arizona was more like a journey towards where we want to be. Present, mindful, and appreciative of our earth, but still able to crack a smile when the didgeridoo takes it a step too far.