I recently travelled to Bali seeking self-discovery. I found disposable truisms, self-pollution, and a cracking facade within a completely unregulated industry.

 

 

A few years ago a witnessed a childhood friend rapidly unravel on social media. He had always been around the culture of self-development (Landmark, The Secret, Shadow Work…etc), but upon his relocation to Bali, something shifted.

At first, it was subtle. He posted photos of picturesque rice patties, brightly coloured fruit plates and smoothies, pristine pools, scooters and selfies at waterfalls.

Over time, however, I felt as though his posts became more frequently about body image ‘acceptance’, with endless captions about how to be better in oneself spoken to his small audience as if he’d sat beneath a peach tree for 40 years like Buddha.

It began to concern me to the point of contact when the smiles became manic, the dance and workout videos became daily and the sadness was palpable. With calm and tact I reached out. I asked if he was content and productive. He spoke of being both, but less than a month later he suffered an epic and irreversible psychological breakdown and moved back to Sydney. This is not unique. Not even close. From a distance, I’ve witnessed half a dozen people I know fall down this Bali rabbit hole in an attempt to ‘transform’ their lives and be bigger than their ‘problems’.

We all have them. I’ve been orthorexic since I was 14 – before there was even terminology for the eating disorder. I have almost never spoken about it to anyone, my best friends don’t even know, but here I am 20 years deep in this issue, sharing it with the world. Orthorexia is a weird and modern problem. Basically, it is an anxiety condition around the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and diet.

I’ve carried a great deal of shame around this and have felt that it betrays my pragmatism and intelligence. Through incredibly bad flare-ups and periods of recovery, I have felt the entire spectrum of experience, weighing at times as little as 47kg. Last year after almost 18 months of calm it came back with vengeance, and though I realised the root of the disorder was all about control, I thought it would be an interesting proposition to get help when with that clarity. My sister who had also has her fair share of demons, had been convincing me for many years to attend a wellness intensive retreat in Bali which had helped her profoundly with addiction and depression. The words ‘wellness’, ‘retreat’ and ‘Bali’, had always made me cringe a little, but I was encouraged by my generous family to attend, so through my scepticism, I accepted the gift.

After landing, having only seen Bali through the lenses of Instagram, I spent the day before the retreat exploring beautiful (albeit frighteningly polluted) Ubud. Greeted by the very attractive Eugene and Helen, I arrived the next day to 15 people more than the five I’d expected in a public hotel in the centre of the town. Though I had been told it was a private and small group, I made the decision early to take everything in my stride with no judgment.

My eating issues were fairly challenged upon arrival in Bali, so I pulled Helen aside to speak to her thinking it would be a good time to surface the reasons for me being there. It was immediately clear to me that she hadn’t watched the submission video she’d requested, struggling to even place who I was, then quickly disregarded my concerns and walked away before I could even be considered.

We then proceeded to enter our first group session at which point my comfortability was already tested with Helen’s dismissal, and we were asked to share our darkest issues. It is here I witnessed hours of what I can only describe as a power play. The facilitators, however unwillingly, were romanticising the issues of the weak and breaking down the strong. Without consent or question, they outed the often deeply traumatic stories of many participants. Helen attempted to publicly council me, but as I had already decided to ease in I kept my cards close and (somewhat luckily) they knew nothing about me. The coaches were setting us up for failure by explaining that by participating fully in this week-long course, we will ‘change our own destinies’.

 

With wide eyes focused on this charismatic and rehearsed delivery, the participants earnestly followed the breathing exercise and walked into their three-star, fridge temperature rooms, cheap goody bags in hand. It had me question my own experience of hardship – had I been recovering all wrong?

 

With wide eyes focused on this charismatic and rehearsed delivery, the participants earnestly followed the breathing exercise and walked into their three-star, fridge temperature rooms, cheap goody bags in hand. It had me question my own experience of hardship – had I been recovering all wrong?

You see, for all my stories and all my experiences (which paled in comparison to the others, if I could be so bold to compare for a moment), I felt like I was fairly confident and highly functional. But here I am, in-amongst the somewhat weak and the strong, being told I fundamentally am not good enough and more importantly, not alright. Fear not, however, as they had a solution – for if I ‘show up’, I’ll have that car, that house, bank account, body, mind, power, control, order, that calm and all that.

Without elaborating on every session which occurred twice daily, the modus operandi seemed to be to create a level of vulnerability within the group and have all issues on the table so to fix what is broken.

Are we broken though? Aren’t we just imperfect and learning? I’ve always been taught to love that light that pours through the cracks, but here I sat listening to these self-appointed gurus tell me that I need to be as dense, smooth and unmovable as a river rock. Beneath cliches, social media quotes and performed metaphors, a tapestry of classic self-help models were woven together to what I found to be insightful, somewhat helpful, but all-round uninventive six-day presentation. Within the course, I did also learn a lot about the subversive culture of selling wellness.

Firstly, the entire world that is centred around life coaching in my observation, creates a self-appointed digital god complex for those in charge.

Obsessed with followers, the sound of their voices, led by ego and money (and not the true desire to help), these people are instantly transparent to their students and themselves when their humanity is exposed. An example of this was on new years eve. Eugene (who I had a lovely connection with outside of the retreat protocol) had taken a shine to me. After a few drinks, the slightly less innocent flirtation began. Sure, I playfully partook, yet had a clear boundary. People noticed. My newly formed friends were concerned. I explained that it was fine, but I saw that they were perturbed by his behaviour and his pedestal fall.

The next morning Eugene called me over to make sure I would be discreet about the energetic transfer of the night before and he apologised for potentially overstepping. I thought that he was rather evolved in that moment and he gained my respect (more on this later). Helen was not practising what she preached. Leading with some of the most epic judgement I’ve witnessed, I watched in disbelief as she sniggered, rolled eyes and gossiped at some of the more challenging shares. Her own pain was palpable – the chip on her shoulder, visible.

At one point, I felt her true beauty and comfort, but like many people in her position, the monster that is ego quickly devoured it, turning her green to many of the stronger women there. I wanted to connect with her as did many others, but she made it impossible. I felt for Helen – I still do because she is in the business for money and not love, and this is not uncommon. Life coaches are generally not there to create change, but to create the perception of change. Therein lies the problem.

By the end of the retreat, whilst I can’t speak for everyone, I had experienced some disturbing mechanisms.

There is a re-mystification process around the issues you enter with. There is shame poured on problems that aren’t easily understood. There is this mythology peddled which instructs that all you need is to continue with the protocol of those in charge, and if not, it’s your funeral. To quote Helen in an aggressive email to me: “If you still have any of the documents I would suggest revisiting and studying and integrating like your life depends on it”.

Simply being alive and surrounding yourself with the subjects that you are teaching may give you fodder for advanced wisdom, but a teacher it makes you not. To create a forum where a human who otherwise is short of time can question their complexities is wonderful, but a leader it makes you not. To experience something painful and listen to someone in a similar place is a beautiful gesture, but an informer, it makes you not.

 

Places like Bali are high on self-help heroin. Everyone is addicted. It seems to me that the more one attends, the more insufficient and manic they become. You cannot turn a corner without someone posing for an Instagram photo.

 

The retreat came to an end. Many participants secretly shared that Eugene and Helen had attempted to engage some of us whom have wealthy friends, offering commission if we were able to gain rich and famous future clients. Disempowered by following the advice and order of two somewhat wise but unqualified facilitators, we left (some unknowingly) feeling hollow because their path is not ours; the last charming gesture being a digital follow up course for the low low price of $3500…an absolute must if we were committed to success.

After the retreat, I travelled on with ten of the women – within a day three had descended into full-blown breakdowns – more in the coming days. The energy of the aftermath was dark when in my judgement it should have been buoyant. There was no follow up and no guidance for the more vulnerable members of the group. We all came for a reason. The irony of this retreat is that by allowing myself time and listening to my intuition, I accidentally discovered the root of many of my issues.

On my last day in Bali after experiencing a broad range of Western entitlement in the form of pseudo-spirituality peppering rubbish in the waterways, the middle class living luxuriously on the Balinese economy, and 50% of all I met in the business of ‘transformation’, I felt uncomfortable. I decided privately that I would write an email to Helen and Eugene. I’d attempted to meet with Eugene to discuss my feedback face to face, however, being one of the less financially viable propositions, he chose others over me in the little time he had. My email looked like this:

Dear E and H, thank you, but I have questions. You misguided my sister and I. My application wasn’t viewed (so knew nothing of me). I thought the group was too big for such deep issues. Eugene was impossibly tired and Helen unapproachable. This is why I ACTUALLY came, this is why I didn’t bring it up. The more vulnerable members are cracking daily…where’s the follow-up? Thank you for the lessons. Zero blame and resent, not asking for a refund, just some feedback… etc.

Anita

I was proud of my email. It was composed and responsible…I wouldn’t have spoken up had it not been for the retreat. Thirty minutes later Helen posted on the Facebook group that she would be doing a live ‘check-in’. I thought this was great. A good outcome for all others. I hopped on the plane and though disappointed in some ways, I was happy to leave and move forward with all the unexpected power I’d collected.

Not 24 hours later, I received an email from Bali pertaining to “feedback from other attendees in regards to ‘derailing their experience’ (their words) and some concerning messages and calls we’ve received from the group in regards to conversations with you – including our own staff”.

I was a little shocked knowing the extent to which I shared my concerns were minimal and selective. I screenshotted the excerpt and sent it to all members of the group. Only two didn’t respond (both staff) and the rest promptly and passionately called bullshit. The next email escalated rapidly.

It consisted of accusatory statements pertaining to my “inappropriate and attention-seeking behaviour” (referring to my yoga skills and physical disposition – both which I cannot help), my flirtatious and sexual advances that were only overlooked at the request of Eugene, denial that I in fact have an issue at all, refusal that they mislead the attendees, and my favourite, the utterly bizarre claim that I single-handedly “poisoned” the experiences of all others resulting in zero re-enrolments.

I made no attempt to unpack the dysfunctional thinking behind this erratically typed, angry response, but instead wrote back that it was not in my best interest to indulge a dishonest and offensive narrative; and it is misguided to assume that a confident exterior negates demons. They threatened me legally. I went to bed and slept the deepest I had in weeks.

This was not written for the purpose of smugly displaying my composure, or to take down two obscure coaches. I want to start a conversation. Who are all these self-appointed gurus that leech off human hopelessness? What gives them the right? The self-help industry is entirely unregulated. You don’t need an education, a reference, or even experience. All you seem to need is a pretty social media presence, inspirational quotes, a clean diet, a muscular or underweight body, and a gimmicked process.

Places like Bali are high on self-help heroin. Everyone is addicted. It seems to me that the more one attends, the more insufficient and manic they become. You cannot turn a corner without someone posing for an Instagram photo. There is a life coach on the top of every hotel pool, waterfall and rice plantation having conversations with their cameras, as if speaking to friends.

The retail industry holds new age fast fashion that is twice as much as in any local Australian store, yet they pay their employees babkas, all to push a holistic lifestyle. The hashtag rules. The yoga is competitive. People meditate with one eye open. The sand is lined with cigarette ash and alcoholic vomit. Skinny is queen. Gym is omnipresent. Food is cheap. For every cafe chair, there is a laptop. The Balinese are beautiful – The Westerners forget it’s their country. Everyone is a personal industry. Everyone is a change agent. I once sat in a restaurant toilet with severe Bali belly and read the words of wisdom plastered on the walls “to succeed all you need is to read these words and they’ll be your seed: transform, core values, integrity, and authenticity, boundaries, show up, empower, inspire”. When I walked outside a piece of discarded chewing gum had stuck to my shoe and picked up a flyer telling me to attend Kirtan prayer to heal the earth…you see what I’m getting at.

 

The self-help industry is entirely unregulated. You don’t need an education, a reference, or even experience. All you seem to need is a pretty social media presence, inspirational quotes, a clean diet, a muscular or underweight body, and a gimmicked process.

 

And here are the questions I leave you with. What is happiness and is it a social construct, or is it wiser to attempt joy in a sometimes difficult existence? Who designed the aesthetic of happiness and success? Can we put down our phones and just be? There is no quick fix. We are all fucked up and that’s so damn beautiful.

Be kind, be good, patient, open, compassionate and don’t right fight. It is more important to be effective than right, for we only know what we know. By that knowledge alone it is far more effective to speak to an expert who isn’t attempting to conquer all issues in one session. If someone is charging you $1000 for a phone call, run. If someone claims to be able to change your life, run. You may be vulnerable and you may need help, but you know what’s real and what’s not.

Give yourself some credit and be stronger than the false promises fed to you by charlatans capitalising on the human’s condition to belong and be heard. Holistic approaches work – organic is better than chemical, but just don’t drink the Koolaid. Especially in Bali.

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For the record: Bali is damn beautiful. The Balinese people are warm, kind and want nothing more than to connect – probably why this became a spiritual, personal development Mecca in the first place. Asia is deeply connected because of their faith systems and there is an unspeakable energy that shrouds the continent. The food is delicious, the scenery, overwhelming. This is all the more reason to respect the land.

For all the personal consciousness, the perpetual holiday mode seems to me to put people in a place where they comfortably compartmentalise. As the number one tourist destination in the world, for the love of god, someone create an environmental funding program to help the epic and potentially irreversible pollution problem.

It needs it more than most places.

 

 

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