A room full of people playing with salt sounded a little like a small animal scratching against a door. Or a giant hourglass whose granular particles race through the neck, loudly grazing every surface. The sound itself was enough to lull me into meditative peace, but the texture of the salt on my hands — rougher than sand, offering a light exfoliation — provided a welcome element of distraction. Mindfulness doesn't exactly come naturally.
Out of the scuffing, a voice: "Give yourself permission to let go."
The voice — authoritative, but calming — moved around the room. The dozen of us with our hands in shallow, roughly 12-inch-square containers sat with our eyes closed, breathing, pawing at the granules. I was trying to take the voice's advice, but it wasn't happening.
Carlee Myers, the voice, hoped we'd have some sort of breakthrough or inner discovery. Over the previous hour at Center City coworking space WeWork, Myers, 25, had led the group through a questionnaire of broad, yet existential topics: What is the challenge here for you? What would you do if you weren't afraid? What do you want? All these questions are in preparation for the last 15 minutes of the session. That's where the salt comes in. If participants are feeling overwhelmed, they're welcome to put their hands in the salt at any time throughout Myers' workshop, but the salt doesn't really come into play until the last portion. When we did finally get to work with the salt, we were instructed to play with it — pet it, soak your hands in it, make designs.
"Express gratitude to yourself for getting out of bed and coming," Myers said.
She calls this program Feeling Salty, a free, two-hour session that incorporates personal reflection, group discussion, and moving meditation. (The next ones are Thursday and Oct. 15.) A life coach and the founder of her own personal development company, A Piece of Positivity Studios, Myers helps lead her clients toward fulfillment by asking these lofty questions and, in the case of Feeling Salty, through art-inspired activities.
Though research has supported that ingestion of salt can be linked to improved mood, and there are studies on how salt heals skin, Myers' attitude toward the mineral as a remedy came by accident. When she was in seventh grade, Myers' mother was shot by an ex-boyfriend. (She survived.) For eight years after, Myers suffered chronic nightmares with little relief from therapy or religion. "I thought, if I have to have these nightmares for the rest of my life," she said, "it's probably not a life worth living."
What did help was art, specifically with salt.
Following her tenure at Moore College of Art and Design — and a thesis on artists who work with granular materials — Myers began to pair her career in personal development with her education in art. The deep questions she features on Feeling Salty forms are ones she used to ask herself daily before setting off to create her visual work. Over the last year, she had honed the workshop from a craft-based one — participants used to decorate their salt boxes — to the reflective method she uses now.
It was this unique blend of group talk and mindless physical act that drew me to a recent Feeling Salty workshop. I've been on a self-care kick lately — from cuddle parties to personal training — anything to feel, stereotypically, less alone. Many other attendees had similar experiences with alienation, whether it was with friends, love interests, family, their own bodies, careers, or the lack of any of the above. At Myers' inquiry, each participant shared elements of what he or she had written on the question sheet. It was a lesson in vulnerability: How do you share your story of chronic illness with a room full of strangers? I'm afraid no one truly likes me for me — is that OK to divulge? I listened as everyone told their stories, dipping their hands into the box of salt when things got too heavy. A few people broke down in tears.
Myers was thoughtful but assured as she led each individual toward her own conclusions of self-betterment. She allowed you to realize that little things slowly grated away at your spirit until they became big problems that prevented you from moving forward. Despite all the talk of progress, the experience felt extremely rooted in reality and not some salt-and-mirrors scheme to have it all.
"This isn't some big joke that people are claiming changes their life," Myers said. "That's what makes it real — just saying I'm not the only person who feels this way or who has gone through that. I'm often not giving people the solutions — they themselves are creating the solutions and the next steps for their lives."
After a few minutes of the salty meditation, I took Myers' advice and focused on my breath and what I'd do if I truly weren't afraid. Facing that idea head-on only made me more terrified of life — what if I was wasting it? Once I got my breath under control, the sentiment became liberating. I'd be more brave, bold. I'd travel. Not be so sensitive all the time. It's a relatively simple notion, but one that felt groundbreaking in the moment: That idea, fear, that's what holds us back.
Would I have gotten to this conclusion through everyday meditation? I don't think so. I wouldn't have been able to focus. Having the salt was just enough of a distraction to keep my body busy while my mind was able to check out.
"A lot of us are living in what people call reality, but it's not reality," Myers said. "We're constantly living in a place of fear. A lot of us say we want the car, the house, the guy. In reality, we could be perfectly happy without them. What we really want is security. I think the workshop is helpful in that we take off the filter and boil it down to the core desires in life and actually say these items are the priorities. Not the paycheck."