Helfands Tap into Nature to Awaken and Heal Clients’ Souls

By Israel Helfand, M.S., Ph.D.
Family Therapy News, February/March 2001

Imagine your office is nestled inside a rustic 1850s farmhouse at the end of a winding gravel road. Your suite contains a woodburning stove, oak walls, and hardwood floors. Just outside your window are acres of graceful trees. Farm animals provide sustenance and sometimes even facilitate a therapeutic moment.

For Clinical Member Israel Helfand and his wlfe/partner Cathie, it is not a dream. Well, perhaps, a dream come true. Their family therapy office, described above, is located on the couple’s homestead farm in rural Vermont. Not only is the office itself removed from the city, but for four months each year, the Helfands conduct therapy right in the woods.

Known as “Four Seasons” the practice is comprised of two components: “traditional” counseling services (for depression, anxiety; family communication, sexual problems; divorce counseling, etc.) and outdoor work. From June 1 to Sept. 30, the Helfands conduct Soul Awakening Retreats (which may last from three days to a week) for individuals, couples, or organizational groups. The Soul Awakening program is a “back-to-nature” camping retreat, offering the solitude and slow pace many need in order to heal and grow.

The Helfands moved to the farmstead in Cabot, Vt., in 1997 after tiring of city life and sensing they were no longer spending enough time together. Israel and Cathie met in graduate school 20 years ago, and quickly forged a professional, as well as personal, partnership. They have now been married 15 years.

In addition to a master’s in Counseling and Human Resources from the University of Bridgeport, Israel holds a Ph.D. in Education and Behavioral Science from Columbia Pacific University. He has been an AAMFT Clinical Member since 1984. Licensed in Vermont, Israel Is a senior Divorce and Family Mediator. He has also worked in Employee Assistance for corporations such as IBM, Duracell, and Kimberly Clark.

Cathie earned her master’s in counseling at the University of Bridgeport and has a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies from Ohio Wesleyan University. She has post-graduate training in Relationship Enhancement, Psychodrama, Group Dynamics, Outdoor Education, and Natural Healing. She has enjoyed working for the Boy Scouts of America, and in Employee Assistance for Pitney Bowes, among other positions.

Establishing Four Seasons has been extremely rewarding for the pair, but not without hurdles. Getting permission to practice in their home was challenging. Israel explains that in a rural farming community, stigmas still linger around therapy. “Neighbors think you are working wlth ‘crazy’ people,” he notes. And folks aren’t familiar with MFT as a profession — even now there are only 12 licensed MFTs in state of Vermont, according to Helfand.

But the few hurdles were well worth “the jump.” Israel extols the appeal of practicing outdoors: “Have you ever noticed on a beautiful day, walking around outside and looking into an office building, how you never really wish you were working inside? More often, it is those of us who are cooped up inside all day who wish we were out In the sunshine and fresh air,”

More importantly, being outdoors is beneficial to clients, says Israel.

Some couples feel nervous and unnatural visiting a therapist in an office. But get those same couples out by the campfire, adds Cathie, and they begin to warm up, shift attention and relax. Plus, even the feeling of “being on a retreat” helps people focus on individual needs and growth. It is useful to get them out of their normal environment.

Local couples usually come weekly, while couples from other states or out of town can participate in marathon weekends (which can be done during the week as well), Marathon weekends involve either a couple staying in a local hotel or B&B while working with the Helfands several hours a day, or participating In the Soul Awakening program. This more intensive format offers unique opportunity to go deeply with less distraction and in less time. Cathie notes that the retreat format is particularly useful for couples trying to decide on divorce. The partners each spend some time in solo reflection then come back together to talk.

Nature often reflects a person’s internal state, agree the Helfands. Cathie tells of a man who didn’t know why he was struggling in his sales job. While on a solo retreat, the man confronted his fear of the dark. Being alone In the woods helped him realize his fear of cold calling. She also relates how one 7-year-old boy, diagnosed with ADD and a history of being abusive, just loved the Helfands’ chickens. “He was totally in tune with their energy and was not at all rough with them.”

Israel and Cathie laugh, “Sometimes, it feels like we cheat! Mother Nature does so much of the work. It’s just easier doing therapy outside.”

The Soul Awakening program also serves as a rite-of-passage experience for many of the Helfands’ clients — a way to mark the transitions from one stage of life to another. “Those transitions are a major sources of life problems,” says Israel. It helps those who “seek to kindle a psychological and spiritual relationship with meaning and purpose. It is a time of doing without modern conveniences and living simply in the forest.”

According to the Helfands, specific times for a Rite of Passage may include:

Adolescence: “Today’s teens have few healthy rites-of-passage. Soul searching and heart-felt discussions have been replaced by drinking, driving, and sex as the thresholds to adulthood. We are pleased to help young adults and their families as they search for ways to honor their changing relationships and the transitions to healthy adulthood. For example, a 13-year-old and his dad may come to spend 24 hours alone in the woods as they honor his transition into manhood.”

Marriage: “Marriage is filled with changes, and each of them must be addressed in its own way. Couples who can anticipate change and communicate with one another about their experiences of the process, strengthen their marriage as they meet new challenges of the next phase. Consider the many ways couples must learn to live. Being together as newlyweds; creating and raising a family; coping with the empty nest syndrome; being retired; and the death of a spouse.”

Mid-life: “Many people who come to be with us are exploring the many possibilities of mid-to-later life transitions, looking for vision, meaning, and new direction in their life. Many are going through personal changes, health problems, feelings of being useless or unappreciated. They may be unfulfilled in their careers or in retirement, and aware of a need for constructive change.”

Passage from Early Life Problems: “We have heard many times how participants of our Soul Awakening programs feel they benefited more from a week with us than a year in traditional therapy. We all know that problems adults have as youngsters can haunt them forever. Even families that look ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ may have members who have had difficulty feeling accepted, wanted, or loved. They may be confused about these feelings because their childhood ‘wasn’t so bad.’ Through a Soul Awakening, participants can learn to understand the causes and effects of stresses from an earlier time of life.”

The Helfands believe that “in this fast paced life, the experience of slowing down and being filled with quiet energy, for many, is powerful enough. For many clients, a spiritual catharsis often occurs that brings them to a higher purpose in life. Being In the woods, in living relationship with the earth, engages the whole person. As the hours unfold into the night, nature continues to reflect our truths back to us. As we deal with and heal our inner selves, we in turn help to heal all our relations.”

One last area in which retreats are beneficial is Corporate Development. “After years of Employee Assistance counseling, corporate workshops, and management coaching, we are now taking businesses into the woods. Our Soul Awakenings have been adapted to strengthen relationships within corporate teams.” Israel and Cathie have also visited smaller businesses, helping them deal with personnel conflicts, growing pains, and wellness programs.

Partners in the Truest Sense

Another part of the “dream-come-true” is that the Helfands get to work together. Specially trained in Relationship Enhancement (RE), Cathie and Israel work jointly with couples to teach methods of dealing with the problems that are so common in relationships. “As a husband-and-wife team, we have come to believe that working together, couple-to-couple, offers a better balance of male/female energy and perspective.”

Says Israel, “It is one of the many reasons that we left the city to come up here. When we were in the city, we could never make sense of doing that financially. But up here, we don’t have to charge extra for working together as a couple.”

Cathie adds: “I find that working together enriches our own marriage, I’m glad that we’re back to that model again. When we first were dating, before children, we used to work together. Then we got busy, and we had bills to pay and we started to do everything separately. We really began drifting in our marriage. So to come to the farm and to work together again as a couple, with couples, is what we wanted to get back to. We really like doing it.”

She continues: “So often when you work with a client, the things that you are telling the client, obviously are things you could hear yourself, or you should hear yourself. So talking about relationships all day long is fascinating, because not only am I hearing what I’m saying about relationships, but Israel is hearing what I’m saying, and I’m hearing what he’s saying. It’s material for us to talk about later in the day, which does enrich our marriage.”

Israel notes that even though they work couple-to-couple, “we still don’t do a lot of disclosure about our marriage… well, maybe a bit more than an average therapist.” Instead, says Cathie, “it is the way we communicate with each other in session that clients find the most interesting and profound. They’ll ask, ‘Do you talk to each this way when you are not in session?’ We can disagree, and we often do, in session but we laugh about it. This tends to serve as a role model to couples.”

While the farm and woods provide a powerful setting for their practice, it is also the backdrop to their life outside of work. Cathie and Israel’s children, DJ and Amanda, raise the family’s meat and store their veggies in the root cellar for winter. Chickens, sheep, pigs, and turkeys reside in a post-and-beam barn, complete with hayloft. Israel, who worked his way through school as a carpenter, has spent the last several years renovating the house and learning to be a farmer.

“After 15 years in southern New England we moved to Vermont to follow our vision,” says Cathie. “Being present at the birth of a child is a magical, spiritual experience, perhaps one of the most transformative experiences in life. The birth of a vision that leads to a life of service or to one’s lifework, has similar power.” ~JC