GAZED AND CONFUSED
My Sunday hanging ten on the energy of the universe
By Scott Jacobson
At 10 o’clock on a recent Sunday morning in Woodland Hills, California I sat in a blindingly lit ballroom at the Marriott, waiting for a man named Braco to come out and gaze upon me. I looked around at the 200 or so people who had paid $8 for the chance to stand in this man’s line of sight. They were a diverse group — elderly non-English speakers in neck braces and wheelchairs, crusty Burning Man punks in their 20s, and the sort of yoga die-hards who can’t sit without resting the backs of their wrists lotus-style on their knees.
My introduction to Braco (pronounced BRAHT-zoh) — a 43-year-old Croatian who travels the world healing the curious with nothing but the spiritual energy emanating from his soulful basset hound eyes — came from a YouTube video forwarded to me by a friend. In it Braco stands barefoot on a dais and surveys a large crowd with a look like you’d see on a pot-addled museum security guard at the end of his shift.
That day at the Marriott, Braco would be conducting eight gazing sessions. Throughout all of them he would remain perfectly silent. Adding an air of touchy-feely danger to the event was a disclaimer on the Braco America website:
“Each participant must be at least 18 years old and no pregnant women beyond their first trimester may attend a gazing session due to the intensity of the energy.”
Anyone hoping to catch the healing gaze of Braco in a mommy matinee can keep dreaming.
I’d purchased an all-day pass so I could be present for every one of Braco’s gazes. This idea appealed to me partly because I can be the kind of snarky jerk who, while laughing at the absurd methods people use to ease their pain, forgets he’s actually kind of laughing at the people in pain, too.
But as always, another part of me really, truly hoped this crazy thing would work. I’m a 33-year-old writer who is perpetually anxious, often depressed, and just now beginning to wonder if my mocking fascination with cults and New Age healing is really just the spiritual equivalent of protesting too much. As much as is possible for someone who’s logged a solid hour feverishly laughing at and forwarding Braco YouTube vids, I was going in with an open mind.
Every gazing session began with an introduction from the producer and ringleader of the Braco America tour, Jane Sibbett. Jane looked familiar to me, and as I discovered later, that was because she’s an actress best known for playing Ross’s lesbian ex-wife Carol on Friends. When I spoke to her after the first gazing session she struck me as a Braco true believer, but also as shrewd and disarmingly funny. On stage, wearing a flowing white robe that looked designed to interact gently with a Malibu breeze in an ad for a company selling “lifestyle products,” she invited us to get ready to “hang ten on the Braco energy.”
Jane finished her spiel and a giddy hush fell over the room: it was Braco time. Soothing piano-and-flute music played over the PA. A door in the rear of the hall opened, and out walked a compact man wearing distressed jeans and what looked like an off-the-rack shirt from Club Monaco.
Braco climbed the steps to the 5-foot-high gazing platform, stood facing the audience, and boy oh boy did Braco gaze. A man to my left began rocking back and forth. Somewhere behind me a woman sobbed. These people were feeling something, or at least wanting so badly to feel that their yearning alone had a powerful effect. I can’t say I felt anything at all.
After about five minutes the music stopped but Braco kept right on gazing. That’s when things got creepy. There aren’t many times in your life when you find yourself standing silently in a crowd, staring at a man who’s doing nothing at all but staring back at you. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. It felt like New Age high noon.
Then it was over. Braco averted his gaze (something I’d see him do after every session, like he was telling us, “Hope you enjoyed your Braco ‘cause that’s all you get”) and stepped off the platform.
In line at Starbucks afterward I spoke to two Braco aficionados, a writer named Andria who is working on a book about “the divinity of children,” and Jeffrey, the president of an entertainment company who was taking a vow of silence for the day. (He showed me a notecard that said, “I’m not talking now, just loving.”) Andria and Jeffrey were veterans of these events, though they weren’t Braco groupies, like the small but apparently growing number of fans who follow Braco from stop to stop, soaking in his energy at dozens or even hundreds of gazing sessions. They’re a group known amongst themselves as “marinators.”
I wondered what it was that kept people coming back. For Andria, Braco’s gaze was helpful in unleashing pockets of pent-up psychic energy — a phenomenon the Braco faithful used to call “popping zits” but now refer to as “the silent volcano” because that sounds much less disgusting. Others at the gazing sessions described effects mundane (coughing a bit to “clear the energy” after a gaze), troubling (a woman named Esther said she gets dizzy, starts sweating, and feels something vibrating inside of her), and mystical (many claim to see a “light show” of energy dancing around Braco or emanating from his being). One woman stood up after a gaze and told the room that she had seen an aura “around [Braco’s] lower back” and had then received the psychic message not to eat chicken or pork.
The more gazing sessions I attended the more emotionally drained I felt, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Braco but the crowd gathered to witness him that set off my personal silent volcano. There were the elderly attendees in the front row, many of whom were terminally ill or standing in for sick loved ones. And the bubbly Hispanic woman across the aisle from me during the fourth gaze of the day, who had a piece of cardboard hair-clipped to her collar with photos of her sick relatives and aging pets on it.
When I spoke to these people between sessions, they were unfailingly friendly and smart. Most of them were there for the same reason: if there’s a chance it’ll help even a little bit then why the hell not? It only costs $8. Other self-proclaimed mystics charge hundreds for self-help seminars or encounter weekends.
Sure, as Jane was happy to remind us, we were strongly encouraged to visit the merch table for Braco DVDs, books, and lucky jewelry featuring Braco’s signature 13-point “Sunce” symbol ($190 for the post earrings, $470 for the double-sided pendant with gold chain, price of the Hollywood white diamond pendant available on request). But even a human conduit to the healing energy of the universe has gotta eat.
The more Jane and her Braco America co-producer Megan talked about Braco the man, the more I liked him. He is the former owner of a leather goods business who tells his followers not to shun conventional medicine when they’re sick and, according to Jane, he is skeptical about the visible auras his fans claim to see at his sessions. He refuses to speak publicly because he doesn’t want his words misinterpreted or twisted into dogma. He is just a guy who looks sort of like a long lost Belushi brother, wearing fashionable jeans and staring at you from a 5-foot tall, silk-draped platform. If that sounds like your thing, well then, the ticket table is down the hall.
In fact, Braco’s public silence and reputed self-deprecation add to the feeling that, despite being a guy whose gaze alone is a miracle cure, he’s basically a non-entity. I asked Randy, a San Franciscan and a dyed-in-the-wool marinator who has witnessed over 100 Braco gazing sessions, if he has any desire to actually meet or hang out with Braco.
“Well, I just don’t think that’s in the cards,” he said. Randy said he’d certainly like to have coffee with Braco if given the opportunity. But what Randy really responded to was that Braco was a conduit for some greater force and didn’t seem to aspire to anything higher. Randy wasn’t a crazy cult member turning his life over to a charismatic madman. If anything, the cult of Braco is a cult of no personality.
Sticking around for the day’s final gazing session (the only one that included “The Voice” — a recording of Braco speaking that is itself supposed to have healing qualities) seemed like a formality. I had been gazed upon six times already, and chances were the seventh gaze was not going to be the charm. But lo and behold, this time I felt something.
I filed in and took a seat towards the back of the room as the by now familiar crowd of gung ho marinators settled in. I glanced up from my notepad and did a double take at the girl seated in front of me: she looked like a stand-up comic I don’t know personally but like. I introduced myself and noticed that among her friends was a web prankster guy whose videos I enjoy.
All day long I’d been talking to people who were heartbreakingly sincere in their pursuit of just feeling okay. But the stand-up comic and her friend were more like me. By which I mean their impulse during a Braco gazing session was to laugh really hard, partly as a rebuke to Braco himself and partly as a way to ask the audience, “How can you possibly be falling for this?”
By this point in the day I was used to thinking about things in terms of their “energy,” and I couldn’t help but notice that the comic and her friends had a different energy than the rest of the audience. You could identify it as serious “we’re gonna disrupt your gazing session” vibes.
Someone behind me tapped my shoulder and whispered: “Are those your friends?”
It was one of the Braco volunteers (or “guardians”). I was flustered. “No. I know of them. I mean we’re not really friends.”
“Okay. Well they should know that the gentleman seated in front of them is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and he will get angry and might throw a tantrum if they’re loud.”
I looked at the guy seated in front of my non-friends. He was an Asian man with a buzz-cut and a tie-dyed T-shirt.
“Okay,” I said. And honestly I’m not sure what else I could have said to that.
Meanwhile Jane Sibbett took the stage and began her introduction. For the first time that day, she asked the crowd if they had any questions.
The stand-up comic stood up and took the microphone.
“Are we allowed to make noise while this is happening? Like what if the spirit moves us to laugh?”
“No, you certainly should not make noise,” Jane replied.
“But I thought you said that the first time you saw Braco you couldn’t stop laughing?”
It’s true, Jane had said that.
“Sure, you can get stuck in a bliss bubble. If you feel like that, just…” Here Jane mimed silent, barely restrained laughter.
Braco came out. He gazed, and in front of me the stand-up comic and her friends tried to take it in. I suspected that somewhere, deep down, they wanted it to be real. But it wasn’t, so they started to fuck with it.
The comic doubled over in her chair and dabbed at her eyes, as though she was suddenly bowled over by the force of Braco’s energy. A couple of her friends followed her lead.
A guardian rushed over with a cup of water. Did they think the comic and her friend were serious, or were they fucking with them right back?
Braco’s gazing session ended, but his voice session was about to begin. Guardians clustered nearby, apparently suspicious of the comic and her friends. The autistic man flexed his neck muscles rhythmically and (I imagined) angrily. Two rows away, a double-jointed man in a fedora and a 9/11 Truth t-shirt cracked his knuckles behind his back.
We heard the Voice. Braco’s speaking voice is ordinary, and his words were in Croatian, so for all we knew he could have been reciting Ke$ha lyrics.
The comic and her friends stood up during the Q&A session following the Voice and challenged Jane and the crowd. In retrospect, their questions — impugning the logic of playing the recorded voice of a man who had just stood silently before us moments earlier — were hilarious. But in the moment there was something about them that reminded me of the things I like least about myself. Every time one of them raised their hand for the microphone I got a little more anxious, even panicky. Guardians hovered nearby, always ready with a cup of ice water. Sweat dripped down my back. Finally, the session ended.
“I’d understand if you don’t want to talk to us,” said the comic when we made eye contact.
I did want to talk to them. They had just said the things I had felt all day long. But I said goodbye and headed for the parking lot. Leaving the lot, I saw Jeffrey, the guy who had taken the vow of silence. He gave me a big smile and waved. I flashed an embarrassed smile and waved back.