On a sunny Wednesday morning in early August, a small band of humans walk up a grassy hill in Brookline, Vermont, and turn their gaze toward a field of buckwheat flowers.
“You can hear the sounds of the bees buzzing, and getting the buckwheat,” says Patrick, a member of the group.
And the sounds of sparrows chirping. And Grace Brook, its waters thrashing and crashing just down the hill. And, now and then, a rooster crowing.
The buckwheat was planted to soften the earth beneath it, making it easier for other plants to grow in coming years. The dirt needs a bit of help because of recent construction up there — a solar-paneled building known as the East Wing, the newest structure on the grounds of the Inner Fire residential healing community.
“So we had to bring life, breath, back into the soil,” says Beatrice, another member of the band that morning.
A light breeze plays through the air as the group moves around, surveying growth in all that they’ve planted in the garden — over here, red dahlias. Over there, purple cosmos. Down the hill a bit, sunflowers. There’s squash. Herbs. Mustard plants. Garlic. Rhubarb.
And corn. Patrick planted that several weeks ago, a little after his arrival at Inner Fire — a small, holistic, nonprofit, privately run space for adults that’s tucked into the woods off of a winding dirt road some 15 miles north of Brattleboro. Beatrice Birch is its founder and executive director, and she’s the one speaking of life and breath, her manner open and her articulation calm, poetic, precise. In the group are “seekers” and “guides” — seekers being those striving to get off or stay off psychiatric medications, guides being the people on staff who are there to listen and help.
Also in the group: me, at least for now. As a reporter, I’m only there for a day — just an eight-hour visit filled with observation and conversation. Not enough for a full-blown immersion in Inner Fire, which is known for both its non-drug alternatives and its acknowledgment — even embrace — of human complexity. As a matter of principle, it does not deny the rougher edges of people’s experiences, accepting those in difficult situations, with difficult backstories, who want to find a better way forward. Also as a matter of principle, it does not hurry anything. Everything is gradual. Nothing is rushed — not the tapering, not the therapies.
Dropping in from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., all I can get is a snapshot, and barely that, of life on Parker Road. It begins with a stroll through all the farm work and flora, looking for growth, checking for changes. Each new bud or leaf or bend is worth a look, marking the passage of time and the work in the gardens they do each day. It connects them with the physical realm, and with themselves.
“You have the seeds, and you see how they grow out — you know, you see all the process. And it’s healing,” says Maria (not her real name), one of three seekers now in residence.
She points to rows and rows of onions.
“This was my project when I came here — the onions,” says Maria. Before her arrival in May, she had no connection with the food she ate, she says. She just went to a store and bought it. “Here, you learn the process and appreciation for the work, for all the farms. And we learn, maybe, to have our own garden.”
“It brings you closer to the meals that you eat, too,” says Patrick, using his middle name. “You see the source of it. And I think the process of tending the earth is very grounding. It brings you to the present.”
“Grounding” is a word in regular use at Inner Fire, the implications both literal and figurative. Maria uses it. So does Ken, the third seeker now in residence and another one on the walk that morning; he’s also sticking with his first name. Privacy is paramount for all three of them, and their stories are still unfolding. Like the rows and rows of onions, they’re all growing.
The analogy with plant life works, Patrick says. “I think it is a good parallel. I think you have to tend the garden, watch the seeds from the beginning.” It’s not for anyone in a hurry.
“There’s no quick fix,” he says. What’s needed: “Patience. And effort.” He pauses. “Lots of effort.” Again he pauses. “So much effort.” One more pause, as everyone laughs. “Undying effort.”
More laughter this time — and louder.
The power of words
Laughter, it turns out, is another frequent sound on the grounds of Inner Fire: In the course of the day, I’ll hear plenty of it. “We do a lot of laughing here,” Beatrice says. Observes Patrick: “We joke a lot. We laugh a lot. I feel like we’ve bonded a lot.”
Part of Inner Fire’s approach lies in the nature of community-building. Part of it lies in the nature of nature itself. Birch uses the word “tending” — nurturing, watering, taking care, the lessons gleaned from the natural world. “Nature teaches us so much,” Ken says.
He was born in Queens, he says. Spent so much of his life in cities. Look at the tech-obsessed culture we live in, all the video games and gizmos based on instant gratification. Inner Fire has none of that. For the seekers there, it’s all off the grid — “no computer, no cell,” Birch says. “When you come, you let go of all that technology.”
The result, Ken says, is a “training in long-term gratification. Because that’s something I was missing significantly. I was all about short-term.”
Patrick jumps in: “Now, now, now, now.”
“Yeah, that’s what it is!” Ken says. “Yeah.”
Ken arrived at Inner Fire in early July. Maria and Patrick have been there since May. They live there, learn there, have various types of therapy there. A homeopath, a nurse, and a physician (who advises on drug tapering) are all available to work and consult with seekers. But they aren’t “patients” or “clients”; this isn’t “treatment.” At Inner Fire, words have weight, and the terms that capture their roles are tinged with dynamism. They’re action words.
Birch says she hit on “seeker” during her years volunteering in prison as an art therapist. She tells the story — she’s told it before — of a young man who took one of her classes and, thriving in it, described its significance in a conversation with a friend. As he repeated to Birch: “This is what I was looking for on the outside. Isn’t it strange I had to come to prison to find it?”
On hearing this, Birch says, “I said to myself: ‘You’re all seekers.’” So when it came to founding Inner Fire, the word was a perfect fit for people on a journey toward healing.
As for the guides, their role is less to direct or instruct than to shape and support. They aren’t therapists. They’re paid staffers, yes, but they’re also engaged with the seekers — and themselves — in a way that’s hard to define and belies any scribbled-down job description. In many ways, they’re simply present: listening, observing, talking a bit, listening some more.
Not surprisingly, Birch likens their work to the course and flow of the natural world. “We can only guide,” she says, “the way the banks of the river guide the current.”
“It’s the process,” agrees David Naughton, one of the guides this Wednesday. That’s another word, both noun and verb, in regular use at Inner Fire. “It’s the process of understanding each other.”
Different flavors of mindfulness
After the walk — around 8:30 a.m. — seekers and guides join Birch inside Inner Fire’s Grace Brook, a cream-colored house at the bottom of the hill.
In a living room lined with books, they light a candle and gather around a spray of cut flowers for a morning circle, taking turns to express their feelings and causes for gratitude. They open with a quote from German philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s collection of 52 weekly meditations, first published in 1912.
Patrick reads the entry for early August:
Can I expand my soul
That it unites itself
With cosmic Word received as seed?
I sense that I must find the strength
To fashion worthily my soul
As fitting raiment for the spirit.
After reading the verse, he puts down the small, bound book and starts off the circle: “I am feeling open and optimistic and happy, and I am grateful for a good night’s sleep.”
Maria’s grateful for sleep as well — and her consciousness is feeling expanded, she says. Ken hasn’t been sleeping so well, so he’s feeling tired — but he had a good breakfast. Then he adds: “And I’m grateful for the little sleep I did have. And the wonderful dream I had until Will Ferrell showed up.”
Once more, everyone laughs.
Patrick re-reads the opening verse, and they spend some time parsing it a bit — the idea of the soul serving as “raiment,” or garment, for the spirit. Steiner was big on spirit, big on soul, coining the term anthroposophy (from the Greek for human and wisdom) and defining it as “a scientific exploration of the spiritual world.” The anthroposophical distinction between them isn’t easy to explain, but basically: soul is an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and desires; spirit is a person’s eternal consciousness.
But everyone makes sense of their own soul and spirit in their own way. The way Maria sees it: “The soul is connected with the cosmos.” That’s something she’s come to realize, she explains, in her time there.
They all share a bit more — about the reading, about their feelings, about gratitude.
“I’ve never been around so many grateful people. . . . Many of the words that I hear and I read here, it really does connect me to the source — and every day, I feel my soul expanding,” Ken says. “And maybe that’s one reason I can’t sleep.”
Patrick snuffs out the candle, and together they sing Deep Peace, a Gaelic blessing both simple and profound:
Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
The circle ended, the seekers heading off in different directions. This morning, Patrick will be in the kitchen helping David with lunch prep. Maria will plant some buttercrunch lettuce; Ken, some kale. The work they do throughout each day can vary: up the hill to tend the gardens, down by Grace Brook to tend the chickens or chop wood.
Their days are tightly structured and packed with activities, all of them laid out in a weekly printout meticulously itemizing who does what when, with additional times slotted for meds, homeopathy, or supplements.
At noon each weekday is lunch. Then cleanup. Then rest. Every other day, an herbal liver compress to alleviate the effect of drug toxins. In the afternoon, various therapies and activities — art therapy, breath work, sauna time, knitting, counseling, massage.
In the evening: supper. Then poetry, or room tidying, or singing, or sharing, or an “appreciation” circle. At 8 p.m., footbaths. At 10 p.m., lights out. On weekends: Hikes, games, cleaning.
“There is something for everybody to do here. And I love that. I love that,” says Katherine Stewart, a therapist specializing in eurythmy — another Steiner-inspired anthroposophical practice.
Stewart holds sessions a few times a week, each of them 50 minutes long. Tying together movement and sound (both music and the spoken word) through graceful physical gestures, it emphasizes the consciousness — and our “inner pictures” — in an approach characterized by rhythmic, unhurried repetition. She has around 20 years of experience with therapeutic eurythmy, much of it with kids in schools.
This, she says, is a little different. So is Inner Fire. She’s only been there for a few weeks now, having recently moved to Vermont. But she visited two years ago, when Birch gave her a tour — “and it just blew my socks off.”
What she saw then, and sees now: “Mindfulness — in different ways, different flavors, for the people who work here.” Everyone has a distinct approach. “But the warm, questioning, open mindfulness of the people has blown me away.”
“How many suicides will there be?”
The emphasis on mindfulness is foundational.
The origin story of Inner Fire begins overseas — in the UK and Holland, where Birch spent years working in programs that emphasized more holistic and anthroposophical paths to healing. Then it loops back to the States, where she volunteered in prisons and brought her art therapy skills to a mental health clinic in northern Vermont. There she met Jim Taggart, then the executive director.
At that clinic they both witnessed, firsthand, what didn’t work. They also witnessed the consequences. Working at those programs in Europe, she hadn’t faced the emphasis — the insistence — on psychotropic drugs that she encountered in the States. Drugs were everything here, she realized. Patients at that clinic felt they had no choice. To them, it was meds or nothing. Meds or death.
One by one, six young people in treatment there told her the same thing: I hate being medicated. One by one, those same six young people took their own lives.
“It just came to me that this is why I’ve come back to this country,” Birch says. After discussing it with Taggart, they felt a sense of mission, a calling, to provide more and better options to those in pain. “We simply have to give them a choice.”
“She saw what wasn’t working . . . and recognized that it was life or death,” says her husband, Tom Kavet, who was also present at Inner Fire’s inception and currently serves as its board treasurer. Once she recognized that truth, she couldn’t ignore it. “She’s definitely the kind of person who says, ‘Okay, what can I do?’”
Her answer: “Let’s just start our own.” The idea blazed in like “a comet,” she says. She couldn’t ignore it. She had to help people reconnect with their bodies and their whole beings, “so that you can reclaim your life.” The deaths of those six still haunt her. How trapped they all felt. How ill-served they all were by treatments fixated on medications. Reflecting on it now, she asks: “How many suicides will there be?”
As she says this, I can hear Naughton and Patrick chopping away in the kitchen. Sounds resonate inside Grace Brook, a sprawling 1823 structure that echoes with life. Kavet and Birch live together on one end of the main house, their personal slice of it repeatedly shrinking as Inner Fire expands.
“It’s daunting, you know, to get something off the ground. It really is,” Kavet says, sitting in the couple’s nook and taking a break from his day job as an economist and public-policy expert.
The financial realities, the balance of needs and dreams: all of that requires a constant juggling, constant effort. Sometimes, over the last several years, the phone rang right when they needed something, whether money or another form of support. “There’d be a call. Something would move.” That’s happened repeatedly. “You always need miracles to make things happen . . . but this,” Kavet says, “took a lot of miracles.”
He and Birch moved into the house in 2013, the year Inner Fire was founded, purchasing the building and grounds of 43-acre Grace Brook Farm with their own money and then leasing it to the organization.
Upstairs at the cream-colored house is a room for counseling. A room for movement — tai chi, for instance. A room for art therapy — Birch practices Hauschka Artistic Therapy, another approach informed by Steiner’s whole-human work and philosophy.
Across the way is a small structure with office space called the Hive. Up the hill is that solar-paneled building, East Wing, which cost $856,000 (including utilities, a new well, septic, and site work) and has rooms for seekers and guides; before it was built, Inner Fire rented houses nearby. Outside each room is a shelf for bouquets that seekers pick themselves. Inside, stained glass — also done by a seeker’s hand. The arts and crafts at Inner Fire, like the seekers themselves, all tell a story.
It’s not rocket science
At one point after the morning circle, Birch sits on the stairs at Grace Brook and gestures to a wall covered with branches. In 2015, in the months before the first six seekers arrived, Inner Fire started hosting “foundation gatherings” at the house — and they all realized, last minute, that they needed a spot for people to hang their raiments. Out they went to cut down beech saplings. Bingo, makeshift coat hangers.
Having all those people there for those early gatherings, doing and making and being together — that was important, she says. “Because we had to en-soul this place.”
Birch often speaks in spiritual terms, using the language of anthroposophy to convey the manifold nature of human beings and the need for seekers to learn about themselves — and then learn what to do with that knowledge. Birch attended Wheaton College as an undergrad but then, looking for something more, went to the UK and wound up studying anthroposophy and the Waldorf educational approach (based on Steiner’s concepts).
Again, it isn’t easy to explain. But in the simplest breakdown, humans have three bodies: physical, etheric (memory and habit), and astral (sympathy and antipathy, or feeling). The spirit binds them all like “the hinge of a door,” Birch says, forming the image with her hands. “The spirit is the bolt.”
That spirit is also the “inner fire,” she explains. “It’s the spirit that makes us a human being” — and it’s the spirit that chooses. “There’s so many choices. You claim your feelings, and then you have the choice: What do you want to do about it?”
A spider, she says, can’t decide whether to make a web today. Humans make choices; choices make us human. And at Inner Fire, informing those choices are experiences and conversations shaped by community — none of them reliant on doctrine, no matter the anthroposophical inspirations. There’s no dogma. Everyone can believe whatever they believe, grow however they grow.
In the same way, Inner Fire is not doctrinaire when it comes to psych drugs. No one starts tapering until they’ve been there three weeks — and once they start, it’s only “a small taper every two weeks, if the seeker feels the earth beneath their feet,” she says. Seekers receive input and guidance from the doctor and Birch, “but they are empowered to call the shots . . . though we give feedback if we feel they are wanting to taper too quickly.”
The aim, overall, is to help seekers taper to a level that works for them. If someone finds a way forward with some level of medication, again, it’s their choice.
What contributes to a successful taper, she says: Staying engaged with the program. A young woman drugged for 20 of her 24 years credited Inner Fire for finally getting her off — but not everyone chooses to stick with it, and they can’t force people. “You can have the best program in the world, but if the seeker does not want to engage and insists otherwise, despite our efforts, we can do little.”
Over the last several years they’ve worked with folks who’ve gone off and on meds repeatedly — and struggled “greatly,” Birch says. But Inner Fire supports people in such struggles, emphasizing their strengths and empowering them as they learn new skills and feel they have a place.
And someone’s diagnosis, whatever that may be? Inner Fire ignores it.
No one is broken, Birch stresses. No one needs to be fixed. But everyone has some load they’re carrying, something they’re trying to figure out. “Life is about challenges,” she says. The struggle with mental health, the efforts to get off medication or not go on, the burden, at times, of suicidality: “It touches everybody. You just meet them as human beings. . . . I think that’s what we’re doing.”
As a society, “We’ve so lost track of what the human being is — that we have a body, soul, and spirit. And the pharmaceutical world wants us all to be machines that we can just tweak with a pill. And it’s our inner fire that’s saying: ‘No! I have to do this? Well, then, I’ll choose suicide, because I’m not gonna live like this.’ And we have to wake up!”
You can hear the frustration in Birch’s voice. The exasperation, even, as she argues against the medical paradigm. The Inner Fire model shouldn’t be hard to comprehend. “I mean… It’s not rocket science! We’re just being human,” she says. “We’re just caring.”
On being different, and being a soldier of love
At noon, a bell rings. Lunch is salmon, spinach, and roasted potatoes — and, like everything consumed at Inner Fire, organic. Nothing is processed. High protein, high fat, no sugar. Lots of veggies they grow themselves.
The meal opens with a wide-armed blessing. As the seekers eat, gathered around a dining table in a big, airy kitchen, they talk about their first days there, their adjustment to the schedule, and that hill they have to climb. They talk about the effects of Inner Fire on their bodies, their breathing, their balance, their understanding of themselves and their emotions.
Maria talks more about her consciousness; Patrick talks about the craziness of modern-day life; Ken talks about his days as a nursing student on a psych rotation, when he first spoke with “quote-unquote psych patients, and I got the sense that they’re not insane. They just are heavily medicated, and they just haven’t had anybody that would actually listen to them.”
They talk about how trapped people feel, doctors included. They talk about failures of the usual approach to psychiatric care, and all that Inner Fire does to correct it. “We are more than our body,” Maria observes.
The seekers nod. Eat. Talk some more about what they’ve learned. “For me,” Patrick says, “the biggest thing that I’ve learned is how important rhythm is in life.” And at various points during the meal and clean-up, they share some of their own personal stories: What happened to them, why they’re there, what they’re looking for. Not everything. Not all at once. But some.
“I wanted to confront my fears,” Maria says of her reasons for coming to Inner Fire. She prefers to keep the details of her story minimal, but it starts this way: “I was on a trip, a spiritual trip, for a few days,” she says. And on the last day, “I wanted to go in the night into the forest.”
Eventually, someone called the police. Why? Because she was a woman at night in the woods, seemingly with a problem. They didn’t ask: ‘Why did you go there?” Instead, they gave her a paper to sign. She signed it. At the hospital, she knelt and prayed, or tried to. “I wasn’t allowed to pray.” Instead, she meditated.
And the drugs? She calls them “the medication that they give us only because we are different from others.”
Ken’s own story touches this — not the meds, but the difference. He had some emotional struggles, he says. Some addictive behaviors. As a nurse, he didn’t want to be medicated, but he didn’t know where to turn — and so he turned to the streets. He always tried to be kind and loving out there, always wanted to see the best in people. He never wanted to hurt anyone. When someone suggested he carry a gun, he said no. It was a choice. He didn’t want to be that kind of person. He wanted to be better. “I ended up taking a lot of beatings because of that,” he says. But those people resorting to violence were operating on fear.
“And you,” says Patrick, “were a soldier of love.”
“I was. I was different.”
In the end, Ken says, he almost died. If he hadn’t come to Inner Fire, prison would have been his only safe option.
Everyone’s on a journey
As the afternoon unfolds, he addresses this more: Wanting to be better. Wanting to live, and not die. He talks about his years working as an OR nurse, his diagnosis of ADHD, the path that brought him to Inner Fire, and his efforts to grow as a human being. Before making the move to Brookline, seekers try out the program for a three-day visit to see if it fits with their needs, desires, and mindsets. What Ken saw during his visit last year stuck with him, following him to the streets.
“Those three days,” he says. “I learned so much.”
In his first month at Inner Fire, he’s learned more. He works in the garden. He works at splitting wood. Recently, he says, it hit him: There are no straight lines in nature. There’s no point A to point B. It’s all tacking — this way, then that way, then that.
“This is kind of like the closest thing I can find to a Zen monastery. . . . Beatrice, through her life, she was able to find the truth: What works,” he says. “And how to put it into place.”
Everyone’s on a journey, after all — the guides included. That’s all part of the Inner Fire experience, Birch says — for all of them. “We cannot ask a seeker to do anything that we’re not working on ourselves. You know, that’s just unethical, really. You can’t.”
Naughton recalls times when he was frustrated by some discussion with a seeker, then pondered why he reacted the way he did. These weren’t conflicts, exactly — more “perturbations of the harmonious energy.” And he used them to learn.
That’s also part of the Inner Fire experience: analyzing, understanding, reflecting. “It’s sort of in the bones of the organization to self-analyze and self-reflect,” says Naughton, chatting on a patio outside Grace Brook as chickens mosey around. Both he and Birch cite the principles and influence of Nonviolent Communication, the empathy-based, person-centered approach spearheaded by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg.
“A lot of what we’re trying to do is provide a framework, and a vocabulary, for feelings and needs — and then use that. . . . We’re all learning what our feelings are,” he says. Seekers can learn from therapists, guides, others — and it goes both ways. Guides can learn from seekers. Anyone can learn from anyone. “I feel like a seeker, too. Beatrice says we’re all seekers.”
Indeed she does. “We can be open to what the seekers are teaching us about what we’ve digested, or not digested, in life,” Birch says. People are people, after all.
“Love is really a force here. It’s nothing sentimental, but it’s taking an interest in the other person. Everyone has a story. ‘Who are you? What are your aims? What are your gifts?’ We focus on people’s strengths.”
A crucial drop in the ocean
Birch talks about this — the seekers, the guides, the quest all humans are on toward healing and wholeness and grounding — on another walk up the hill. She points to the spot behind Grace Brook where she spied a black bear the other day. Up past the herb gardens she notes the area across from the East Wing, on the other side of a fire pit, where she envisions a “West Wing” with more rooms for seekers. Connecting them would be “The Heart of the Home,” complete with a preserving kitchen and space for parents and psychiatrists seeking respite and a recharge.
Beyond that, plans for an expanded Inner Fire campus would include an arts and drama barn, therapy huts, possibly a spot for outdoor gatherings and theatrical productions. Farther afield, Birch hopes to open an Inner Fire Cafe in the nearby town of Newfane, staffed with seekers past and present, and maybe sell tinctures from healing herbs at local farmers’ markets.
Oh, and goats. One day, there’ll be goats at Inner Fire. And milk. And cheese.
Birch puts the price tag for new construction on the expanded hilltop campus — West Wing, Heart of the Home, all of it — at roughly $1 million. Adding to that projected cost are plans to purchase the house and grounds from her and Kavet. The grand total for everything past and future, including the already-built East Wing, would be around $2.7 million.
“I’m 66,” Birch says. “I really want to see this site finished.”
Fundraising is key. Fiscal pressures are ongoing. “We’re always raising money,” she says, noting a recent $10,000 donation. In her dream, someone with serious assets just whips out a checkbook and tells her to “get on with it.” She smiles as she says this, then mimics reaching into her pocket and scribbling out a check.
If they had more money, they could build a real endowment that could, as Kavet puts it, “significantly lower tuition.” As it stands, the cost runs $533.33 per day and $192,000 for the full year, with tuition tapering down as the months pass. Health plans typically won’t cover much or any of it, even though — according to one 2016 study — the daily cost is a little less than half that of the average psych hospitalization. And even though — as Kavet points out — the aggregate cost of mounting psych disabilities on society is far higher than any money spent on Inner Fire.
But insurance companies prefer short-term solutions. “We’re working with human beings, not machines,” Birch says. “And it takes time.”
A dedicated “Support A Seeker Fund” gathers donations to help cover seekers who can’t afford the cost — but Inner Fire doesn’t have enough for everyone in need. “Right now it’s painful to have to turn someone down,” Kavet says. As it stands, seekers’ families will often band together and find the money, but too many aren’t able. While Inner Fire has already subsidized a lot of people — “that’s a part of what we do,” he says — they can’t cover everyone. As Birch puts it: “Healing is a right, not a privilege, and that’s crucial.” Inner Fire shouldn’t be only for the wealthy.
And if they had more money, they could pay the guides a little more. Birch cares less about her own salary, which is minimum wage at best. Less, Kavet says, if you factor in all the hours she actually works; even less when she slices her own pay to help fund a seeker. And for the first six years, she was paid nothing, finally agreeing to a salary to allow them to qualify for a federal Paycheck Protection Plan loan. Moving forward, Kavet says, Inner Fire — or any organization — needs to find money for an executive director to stand on its own.
In recent years, Birch says, she’s been approached about starting potential new Inner Fires in Texas, Northern California, Detroit, elsewhere — but right now, all she can do is focus on the one in Brookline. Over the years they’ve had 34 seekers, give or take; right now, the capacity is eight; eventually, with the West Wing, the most they’ll ever have is 12 seekers.
All of that is just “a drop in the ocean,” she realizes. But every drop matters, especially for those affected. Asked what gives her hope, she replies: “Well, it’s partially this: Knowing that what we’re doing is crucial.”
Being cared, being loved, being human
Beyond the financial pressures, there are other challenges — of personality, of behavior, even conflicts.
“Any community that’s gonna be trying to do something different, there’s gonna be challenges,” Birch says. But those challenges are also opportunities for growth — be it an insight, an artwork, or both.
Look at those six clay heads in the art-therapy room, their faces conveying a spectrum of emotions — from suspicion to hope to belly laughter, all of them stages of a seeker’s growth. The artist was a former prisoner who found in Inner Fire a place where his soul could breathe. “People are creators, not victims,” she says, expressing a tenet of her own personal philosophy that has long informed her practice. Some issue someone is grappling with? “Claim it, and see the opportunity in it, so it can enrich our life experience.”
Not that any of this is easy. “It’s hell, it’s awful. It’s hard,” she says. Sometimes, there’s no getting around it. Sometimes, people don’t fit with Inner Fire — the young man who was only there because his parents wanted him there, for one. And sometimes, processing so much pain, there are intense emotional states.
Birch doesn’t believe in quashing emotion. Being emotional means being human — listen to all that laughter there. Darker emotions are okay. Crying is okay, even necessary, as Birch believes the breath itself heals. Anger is okay. Violence is not. But the program, preferring not to send people to the hospital, would rather have seekers sort through their crises in the warmth and safety of Inner Fire. So mattress rooms are also on their list of hoped-for additions.
Yes, there have been some issues over the years. Birch preferred not to talk specifics. But this is the nature of Inner Fire, she says. Seekers live through mania, psychosis, or other extreme states, and still, they find some way to healing. They connect with their bodies and channel their energies in a new way, whether through arts or crafts, cooking or gardening, glass-blowing or wood-chopping (the last with supervision, at least at first).
Both Kavet and Birch tell of seekers who took up the axe and found themselves, the voices they heard disappearing while they chopped. The physical activity. The focus. The energy. The rhythm, which is so critical in strengthening human memory and habit. And, well, the plain joy in being outside on those leafy grounds. Seekers and guides alike benefit from it, revel in it.
“That’s what inspires me so much about it,” Naughton says. “It’s the natural beauty. . . . You’re just surrounded by beauty, and nature, and change.”
He feels blessed to be there, he says as a large red hen struts past. His role? “I would describe it as part facilitation — to facilitate the day-to-day activities. Which is sometimes supporting. Which is sometimes leading. And other times, just being a fly on the wall.”
A large part of it is just observing — using emotional intelligence and nuance to notice deviations in behavior, maybe a pulling away, maybe a tendency to sleep too much. In a way, he says, the guides are antennas. Ultimately, his role is to support people and assure them of a core, critical truth. “That they’re cared for and loved,” he says. “And that we’re here for them.”
Sitting on that same patio a while later, Patrick speaks to this as he opens up, a bit, with his own story. Being around supportive people matters. “It’s not as if we have to manage it ourselves, and coordinate it ourselves,” he says. He knows he isn’t alone in his efforts to grow and heal, and that helps.
The therapies, the breath work, the releasing of energy — that also helps. Doing work outdoors, feeling connected with nature, the chance to “sit still with myself” — that as well. “One of the things I like about the program is that it is holistic in nature.” He worked in marketing and tech, and simply slowing down, being present, is a gift.
Patrick was diagnosed bipolar. He had his first episode about four years ago, going on different psych drugs. Before coming to Inner Fire, he tried tapering on his own, he says, but was having some trouble with it. So far, between his arrival in May and that first week in August, he’s shaved down his antipsychotics by 25 percent. And nope, no withdrawal symptoms.
The way he sees it, the body is naturally disposed to mend — and at Inner Fire, he’s in a place where it can. “It can be scary,” he says of his journey. “But I’m the type of person who believes that healing’s possible.”
The power of choice
Beatrice and Ken, back in the Grace Brook living room, are talking about his journey. Not so long ago, he says, he could barely even read.
Here, at Inner Fire, he can read again. He can concentrate again. As he tells of his transformation, I can hear the wonder in his voice, the realization that he’s somehow more than he’d realized. Beatrice hears it, too — the low self-image, fueled by struggles and failed by medication, that made him think he’s less-than. She’s there to tell him he isn’t.
“You were under the impression that you’re stupid,” she says. Instead, he’s just one of the “really remarkable people” who were damaged by the system.
Then he tells another story.
Back when he lived on the streets, he had a dog for a while, a malamute. One day, for no reason, another unhoused guy he knew snuffed out his cigarette in the dog’s nose.
“I was about to hit him,” Ken says. “But he just looked up at me and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Ken hugged him. He didn’t punch him. It was a choice. The tale mirrored his earlier story about his resolve not to carry a gun on the streets — and it made him ponder, once again, the nature of consciousness. Why we do what we do, choose what we choose.
It all goes back to seeking and guiding, he says. “People don’t have a guide, and they’re drowning in the water — because they don’t have a coach.”
Even then, it’s a choice.
“That’s why it’s called ‘seeker.’ But you have to seek.” Taking ownership — that’s important. “Gratefulness is the key. And actually,” he says, as light slants through the living room, “love is the key.”
After Ken first visited a year ago, Birch says, he emailed her to say how much he’d learned. They spoke on the phone. Eventually he wrote up a bio, which Birch sent out in an appeal for donations. That’s how he could afford to come, and to heal. But she can’t do everything. She doesn’t have a magic wand.
“Maybe she does have a magic wand! She looks like a wizard,” Ken says, and they both laugh.
Reflecting once more, he considers all the people lost to suicide so far — and his own resolve, aided by Inner Fire, to find a different path. Their deaths mattered. Their lives mattered.
“I wasn’t gonna die like this,” he says. “That’s what I told myself: So many people died for me to be here.”
Afterward, Ken heads outside. It’s now inching into late afternoon, and a quiet descends — not quite a sleepiness, but a dreamy August lull.
Eight hours after my first morning walk up the hill, the sparrows still chirp. The brook still crashes. The chickens have disappeared, probably into the shade.
I climb up the hill once more, past the badminton court. Then farther up, back to the gardens with the orange nasturtium blossoms — spicy, if you’re brave enough to eat one. This morning, I was.
I stand beside the sunflowers, their wide faces beaming in the August sun, and pause for a moment before heading back down. Soon enough, come winter, seekers and guides will be sledding on this hill.
After walking back to Grace Brook, I prepare to leave. This was only a day. Only a quick swoop in and out, a journalistic drop-in to report a story. I couldn’t witness the whole story of Inner Fire — the ups and downs, the pain and stress and crises, the seekers who didn’t fit. It isn’t Eden; it isn’t Shangri-La; it isn’t meant to be. Instead, it’s a place where people are allowed to be human, and everyone knows that isn’t easy.
Across the dirt road, you can hear the sound of an axe on wood — rhythmic, strong, methodical.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
I drive slowly past. Glancing up for a moment, he grins and waves. Then he hefts the axe in the air again and comes down swinging.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
He looks happy. He looks focused. He looks whole.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations