Lying on the ground, breathing deeply, and listening to the rustling sounds of horses eating might not be everyone’s idea of relaxation. But at the Dror family’s horse farm late last month, it brought calm to a small group of young people whose lives were shattered on October 7.
On that day, they had been among the thousands at an all-night trance party near Kibbutz Re’im, a few kilometers from the Gaza border.
At around 6:30 a.m., sirens interrupted the dancing. Then, as rockets and missiles rained down from the Gaza Strip, Hamas terrorists stormed in, murdering an estimated 260 people in cold-blooded hails of gunfire as the party-goers tried to flee, and kidnapping an unknown number to the Palestinian enclave.
Survivors have given testimony of widespread torture and sexual assault, and of people begging for their lives before being killed as the massacre unfolded on the festival grounds.
In all, some 1,400 Israelis were murdered on October 7, most of them civilians, as gunmen stormed the party and neighboring Gaza-border communities.
The meditation with horses at Moshav Ofer in the Carmel Hills in northern Israel forms just one part of one of many initiatives that have sprung up to provide psychological help to the party survivors.
“Horses are characterized by power, nobility,” said Ronit Adar, an expert in Chi Kung, craniosacral therapy, and guided meditation. “They are steadfast, they can burst into a gallop to take you anywhere you want. They are also sensitive creatures. Everything that a human feels can be found in a horse. Connecting to a horse can connect us to these feelings.”
Four young adults had selected this first-ever meditation session at Dror’s farm out of a menu of other therapeutic options.
They lay down on mats in a training arena, while two large horses, a miniature horse, and her foal chomped at hay baskets, occasionally snorted, and breathed soft, warm breaths.
Adar guided them through the meditation, to the “spaces between the thoughts.”
“When our minds are quiet, the healing can start inside, without any effort,” she said.
After slowly opening their eyes, the participants rose to interact with the horses, all of which had been trained with a technique called positive reinforcement that builds trust between animals and humans. They scratched Tzlil’s belly in just the right place so that she stretched out her neck and her lips trembled with pleasure. They crowded around Nes, a miniature foal born a year and four months ago. They smiled and laughed, and posed for photographs.
“I felt so safe and secure lying down with those powerful animals around me,” Alon Horev said, after the treatment.
I felt so safe and secure lying down with those powerful animals around me
Horev, 31, from Moshav Ilaniya in the north, spent many months in India after his army service, returned to Israel for several years, then moved to Europe “to find myself in the world.”
Involved in producing trance parties for more than a decade, he had flown back to Israel from Greece to spend a week seeing friends and attending the Supernova festival before intending to travel on to another large festival in Portugal.
When the shooting started, Horev and six others locked themselves into a caravan. “[The terrorists] tried to kidnap us, to set the caravan on fire, shoot at us with an RPG, with an M16, to break in…,” he said. “I filmed it all. Only God knows why they didn’t succeed.”
Eight hours later, the IDF arrived.
“I saw brains on the pavement, I can’t get rid of the smell of burned bodies,” said Horev (who had not taken drugs the evening before), adding that he knew 150 of the dead, and had been to the funerals of 20 who were close.
It was psychotherapist Shira Bruckner who realized that the people who had been on mind-altering psychedelic drugs such as LSD, MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms during the party would need a special kind of intervention and support.
“There’s a lot of research into using psychedelics to treat trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD],” she explained. “What happened here was the opposite. People who were under the influence of psychedelics suffered an unspeakable trauma.”
People who were under the influence of psychedelics suffered an unspeakable trauma
“What happens to a person in such conditions, and how best to treat it, will become a whole new research field. I’m sorry that Israel will become the laboratory. There is no precedent in the world for such a brutal, collective trauma in such a large group.”
Bruckner, who designed a special program for this population at the Tchernichovsky Inn on Moshav Ofer, added that while kibbutz members could work through trauma as a community and soldiers could do so with their comrades, those who survived the party had gone back to homes all over the country and were essentially alone.
“People who don’t feel belonging to a group are more likely to develop PTSD,” she said.
Nitzan Keren, 36, who handles the technical side of the retreat and who spent his younger years doing psychedelic drugs and organizing trance events, explained that sunrise marked the climax of a trance party and that people would spend weeks beforehand discussing which drugs, or alcoholic drinks, they would use to affect their experience of the sunrise.
“Everyone waits for this moment,” he said. “They will tell you about a great release, joy, ecstasy. It’s hard to reach this state independently [without substances]. I cannot imagine how, in that state of mind, you have to suddenly run to save your life.”
Bruckner, who spent many years working as a psychologist in the Israel Defense Forces, advertised on Facebook, gathered a team of specialists — all trauma experts who have researched psychedelic drugs — and conducted quick interviews with those survivors who wanted to come, making them promise not to touch drugs while they were with her.
“We are giving them an initial deep intervention, like a vaccination, to prevent the development of PTSD symptoms,” Bruckner said. “We’re helping with psychotherapy, bodywork, voice work, and creative activities, and encouraging feelings of belonging, security, love, acceptance, community. And all with a total lack of judgment.”
The therapy is free and the entire team are volunteers. (A fundraising campaign has now begun.)
Each 30-hour retreat hosts around 16 people. This reporter was present at the third retreat, and another three are already fully booked.
Participants are welcomed and introduced to their “guiding eyes” — staff members who watch and support them from up close.
The evenings are devoted to release through music.
In addition, they can choose from a range of treatments, from shiatsu, yoga, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, and art therapy, to visiting places they love (in simulated fashion, through headsets) through virtual reality.
The latter is commonly used to treat phobias, such as fear of flying and social anxiety, explained clinical psychologist Elana Ben Amir, who is developing its use as a tool to treat trauma. “Nobody has used this during a war before,” she said.
After the retreat, each participant can choose to have a further three to five one-on-one sessions in either EMDR or Hakomi, at no cost.
Bruckner said the aim was to meet participants two weeks after the retreat to check whether they had developed any symptoms of trauma, and if so, to refer them for further treatment, as well as to create a support community.
In the future, she hopes to offer the retreat to other groups who have been traumatized by the war.
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