Essenes not about losing weight, but strengthening faith in God
PATAGONIA – The philosophy of the Essenes – disciplined Jewish worshippers who lived by the Sea of Galilee during Jesus’ life – is attracting a worldwide following in this small town southeast of Tucson.
The Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center sits on 172 acres of picturesque grasslands alongside a canyon at the base of the Patagonia Mountains. It was founded by Dr. Gabriel Cousens, a 62- year-old physician who espouses a raw-food diet and “spiritual fasting” that he says is part of a modern Essene way of life and a way of awakening people to the spirit of God.
The spirituality practiced at Tree of Life is formally called the Essene Way and Cousens has established an education program, the Essene Order of Light, for ordaining priests and priestesses.
The center is 10 years old but a combination of factors – the mainstreaming of holistic healing, the spiritual trauma of Sept. 11, 2001 and a national obesity crisis that’s fueling an interest in nutrition – have combined to make Tree of Life a very popular place. The center now has waiting lists for its programs, and is in the midst of an expansion plan that is scheduled to be completed later this summer.
“There is never enough food to feed a hungry soul. Our work is to feed the hungry soul. We have a message – be your authentic self and know God,” said Cousens, a trained rabbi who grew up in a Jewish family and teaches a popular form of Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah. “As the body is purified of physical blockages, you can experience the revelation of light within yourself.”
The Essenes were a sect of Judaism but Cousens stresses that in in its modern form the Essene path is an intersection of Christianity and Judaism. He believes Jesus, Mary and Joseph were all Essenes but says the objective of the Essene Way is to bring peace, not to proselytize. He chose Patagonia for his spiritual center because it is in the desert and sits at the same latitude as Jerusalem.
“We don’t see a conflict between Christian and Jewish people – those are all people’s ego trips,” said Cousens, who travels around the world sharing his philosophies and has made several trips to the Middle East to do peace work. “We support one God and encourage people to make connections in whatever way that works for them.”
Cousens, who gives personal wellness consultations, is known around the world as a holistic physician. He is also a licensed psychiatrist who does not believe in many psychiatric drug treatments in mainstream medicine, particularly for children. His 2001 book, “Depression-Free for Life,” claims a 90 percent success rate through holistic healing.
“We don’t suffer a deficiency of Prozac, but we do suffer a deficiency of God,” he said during a recent interview at Tree of Life.
While the center gets lots of attention for its holistic medicine, at the core of Tree of Life’s teachings is the way of the Essenes, who some believe were the monastic people who once lived in the ancient caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. A modern form of Essene worship based on the teachings of Edmond Bordeaux Szekely was established in 1928. Modern Essenes at Tree of Life talk a lot about purifying and getting rid of the toxins that prevent people from experiencing joy, peace, love and contentment.
The Essene Order of Light is based on Szekely’s writings in the “Essene Gospel of Peace,” as well as Jewish Kabbalah and Torah teachings.
“The teachings have offered me understanding and spiritual liberation,” said 30-year-old Ivri Krzyz, a Florida native who moved to Patagonia over 5 years ago to be closer to Tree of Life and is now the Tree of Life Center’s special projects coordinator.
Krzyz, who met her husband, Anu, at Tree of Life, has nearly completed her coursework to become an Essene Order of Light priestess. The couple and their young son, Israel, follow the basic rules of Tree of Life – no slander or gossip, no drugs, alcohol or caffeine and while they are on the center’s property their diet consists of raw “live” organic foods – that means no meat or any food that’s cooked.
Some clients come to Tree of Life seeking nothing but a trim waistline, but Cousens and his staff of 40 stress that its raw-food regimen is a way to know God – not to get into size 2 jeans.
“It brings you out of reactionary living into conscious living,” said Matthew Allen , a 40-year-old Californian who completed a seven- day fast at the center earlier this month. “If you can remember how to give and receive love, your hunger goes away. It’s like when you first fall in love and you don’t need to eat.”
Allen, who is studying Vegan and Live Food Nutrition through Tree of Life, said he has been slowly altering his diet toward raw-only for the past seven years. But he stresses that changing his diet has seeped into nearly every area of his life.
Staying and studying at the center is not cheap – prices for a weeklong cleanse with meals and accommodation included start at $1,195 per person – but Cousens says the objective of the center is not making money but maintaining the Tree of Life programs. Scholarships to the Tree of Life’s programs are available.
The center’s programs have names like “Conscious Eating,” “Sacred Relationship Intensive” and “World’s Top Spiritual Fasting Program.” One of its hallmark programs is the “Zero Point Process” – a program that aims to help people free themselves from “the self-induced trance where we believe we are our stories of the past, present and future.”
While rooted in Jewish tradition, Tree of Life also incorporates aspects of other faiths including Eastern religions and American Indian tradition. Cousens’ wife, Shanti Golds Cousens, is co- director of the center and leads women’s spirituality rituals, in addition to yoga and live-food workshops.
There are no ovens in the Tree of Life kitchen, just a lot of refrigerator and counter space. One recent Monday, lunch consisted of mashed “un-tatoes” – mashed cauliflower with coconut oil, salt, almonds and honey, and a “spicy lightning” salad of kale and avocado and as much vegetables and raw dressing as diners desired.
“I get the feeling a lot of people are here for spirituality. I guess it’s up to each person but I am learning so much from the other guests,” said Susan Leveillee, an engineer and nutritionist from upstate New York in her 40s who was a recent guest at Tree of Life. “Food is critical. If you don’t eliminate toxins, it can get in the way of spiritual and human growth.”
The center’s training program in modern Essene ministry has ordained 30 priests and priestesses since 1994. The program currently has about 30 other students studying for ordination, and Cousens encourages those who are ordained to bring peace and healing to their communities.
While the center promotes a disciplined lifestyle, staff and guests say nothing is mandated, and no one is asked to give up his or her personal religious beliefs.
“It may seem monastic but it isn’t rigid,” Ivri Krzyz said.
“The energy here is very calming,” said Ashley White, a 23-year- old Californian who joined the Tree of Life’s billing department three months ago. “It’s about how to be a good person and the focus is on the simple things in life, but I don’t feel boxed in.”
The center is now hoping to share some of the success it has experienced with guests worldwide with Southern Arizonans. Later this summer it expects to open a holistic spa and juice bar behind its gift shop that will be available for local residents who may not to want to stay at the center, but are curious to know more.
About the philosophy
The nonprofit Tree of Life Rejuvenation Foundation, which has federal tax-exempt status, is a religious organization in Patagonia that promotes a spirituality it calls the Essene Way, which aims to train the “new world planetary citizen” – citizens who are part of an evolving world soul that honors the divine presence in all humans, animals and plants. To achieve its goal of training people to connect with the divine, the center uses a philosophy of “Sevenfold Peace.” The seven points of Sevenfold Peace are: peace with the body; peace with the mind; peace with the family; peace with humanity; peace with culture; peace with the earthly mother; and peace with the heavenly father. They also integrate peace on every level.
The Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center – the training component of the foundation – has a cafe that serves three meals each day and is open to the public by reservation. The center is at 686 Harshaw Road in Patagonia and later this summer is expecting to open a holistic health spa and juice bar. For more information, call the center at 1-520-394-2520 or visit its Web site at www.treeoflife.nu/ .