BAR HARBOR, Maine — When the Whole Health Center opened its doors in 1981, almost no one was familiar with the therapies it offered. Naturopathic healing and nutrition counseling, therapeutic massage, herbal remedies, tai chi classes, mindfulness and meditation practice — the concepts were virtually unknown in Maine, never mind in this small seasonal community.
Now, many of these practices are much more familiar, and the Whole Health Center expects a good turnout at next week’s lineup of free workshops and lectures in celebration of its 30th anniversary.
“When we first came here, everything we offered was very avant-garde,” said Paul Weiss, director and one of the original founders of the holistic healing center. “But now, it’s all very mainstream.”
Well, maybe not all of it. One recent morning, a class of 10 middle-aged adults stood in a circle in the main gathering room of the center. Chinese lute music lilted softly in the background, punctuated by the calls of crows and cardinals drifting in through the open window.
Eyes closed, following Weiss’ fluid instructions, the participants in this beginner qi gong class gently explored the vital energy within them, surrounding them, connecting them. Slowly and mindfully, they scooped up delicious armfuls of this energy and offered it up to the universe. They opened their arms and their hearts to receive the energy again as it rained down from above.
They breathed the energy in and out, experiencing it as both integral to and separate from their own beings. They felt it welling up from the earth through the bubbling springs in the soles of their feet. They envisioned channelling it, like light, into the marrow of their bones until their bones and bodies became as transparent as glass, the energy-light illuminating the space they occupied and becoming one with the energy of the universe.
Call this stuff flaky at your peril. The ancient Chinese discipline of qi gong “helps to resolve toxic congestion … and clear the path for spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health,” according to the Whole Health Center’s website. By promoting the flow of energy within the body and connecting the individual to the universe, believers say, qi gong can promote healing from specific medical and psychological conditions as well as support serenity, clarity and spiritual growth.
Qi gong, related to tai chi, yoga and other practices, is just one of many disciplines that have been the provenance of the Whole Health Center over the past 30 years. And over time, Weiss said, many of the concepts he pioneered here have become widely accepted in the general culture.
“To say definitively that there was a connection between diet and wellness, or between diet and cancer, was very controversial,” he recalled. “And mine was the only name in the phone book under ‘massage.’”
As the Whole Health Center rolls into its fourth decade, Weiss said, his own practice there will focus more and more on group and individual counseling. With an undergraduate degree from Goddard College in Vermont, master’s-level training in counseling and alternative therapies and a commitment to studying with Zen masters and other spiritual leaders in this country and abroad, Weiss said he brings a unique perspective to his professional interactions.
His counseling clients vary, of course. Some are seeking recovery from old psychological traumas. Couples want to strengthen their relationships and community groups are focused on forging thoughtful connections. In each case, the principles of counseling are the same, Weiss said.
“Stay present, pay attention and open your heart,” he said. To help people develop these habits, Weiss uses his broad background of education, spiritual practice and life experience. Recent advances in neuroscience bolster his understanding of the relationship between thought, emotion, impulse and awareness, he said, and enhance clients’ trust in what has traditionally been an intuitive approach to the counseling relationship.
Weiss also plans to spend more time writing, so workshops offered at the Whole Health Center increasingly will be led by qualified members of the community.
To celebrate its long presence in Bar Harbor and its role in enhancing the good health of the community, the Whole Health Center will offer a full week of free workshops and classes. Beginning Sunday, June 26, and running through Friday, July 1, area residents and vacationers alike can experience qi gong, tai chi, foot massage, meditation, herbal medicines, writing for self-discovery, nutritional guidance, communication practice and much more.
“This is everything we do. We want people to see who we are,” Weiss said. “I suspect we’re the longest-running holistic health center in the state, and that’s worth celebrating.”