Oaks Counsel: Michelle Katz is creating healthy ways to process and celebrate life's transitions
Michelle Katz of Nevada City, is the founder of Oaks Counsel, a program designed to bring rites of passage and nature-based healing back into the lives of busy Americans.
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Sometimes the road of self-exploration can be a long one, with unexpected twists and turns.
But Michelle Katz says that her varied life experiences — for better or worse — were necessary, as they led her to the work she was meant to do.
A glance at her extensive resume doesn’t begin to convey her overarching passion for healing, ritual and ceremony.
Currently a behavioral specialist at Nevada County Superintendent of Schools, Katz has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and Native American studies and a master’s in counseling and eco-psychology.
She has studied shamanic counseling, and taken inspiration from Jungian and Gestalt psychology.
Her interest in healing was initially a personal one — an eagerness to heal generational family wounds that stemmed from surviving the Holocaust.
But that quickly branched out to powerful work with some of America’s most underserved populations, including counseling at a domestic violence shelter on an Arizona Indian reservation, working with at-risk youth in Humboldt County, doing in-home therapy in inner-city Cleveland and working for a drug treatment program in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Inspired by the healing practices of indigenous cultures, she also traveled abroad and became a student of ceremony and ritual among groups such as the Maori in New Zealand and Aboriginal tribes of Australia.
Several common threads kept revisiting Katz throughout her experiences — the fact that life’s phases and trials have profound meaning and purpose when acknowledged or “witnessed” by peers and mentors — and that getting out in nature can facilitate powerful introspection.
While getting her master’s degree, she took part in her first “vision fast” in Arizona’s legendary Canyon De Chelly, where various tribes have lived for nearly 5,000 years. She backpacked out into the wilderness with a group for eight full days, followed by four days alone with no food — only water.
“After that, I noticed a huge shift in my life,” said Katz. “I learned how to let go of things and step into myself more fully. Others came back with similar stories. I had camped alone before, but having witnesses to the experience made it different.”
While working at the Oregon treatment program, which involved clients camping in the wilderness for extended periods of time, Katz and an intern developed a medicine wheel for the program.
Wheels have been used by generations of various Native American tribes for health and healing. They often include the “four directions,” which can symbolize dimensions of health, human nature and the stages of life.
Last summer, Katz attended the School of Lost Borders, a nonprofit training center for modern-day wilderness rites of passage, located in Big Pine, Calif.
For the past 35 years, the school has become one of the top training centers for this model, helping others cultivate their own capacities to bring rites of passage and nature-based therapies to their respective communities. Her instructors were impressed by her knowledge and passion.
“Michelle was a trainee in our most intensive, month-long training when I met her,” said Betsy Perluss. “I was immediately impressed by her passion for, and commitment to, rites of passage work, and to her vision of providing people of all ages meaningful experiences in wild nature as a way to foster wholeness in all its diverse aspects, for both human and the more-than-human world.”
When Katz landed the job of behavioral specialist in Nevada County, she couldn’t have known that the funding would dry up and her job would end in June.
But keenly in tune with life’s ever-changing chapters, she is now “birthing” a new project that she feels she was somehow always meant to create.
Her new business, Oaks Counsel, is a program for teens, young adults, and adults based on rites of passage work.
“I believe this is a really important and unique service that I deeply wish to offer, work that is important for the well-being of individuals, families, and the larger community of people,” said Katz. “If you are moving into adulthood, parenthood, mid-life or elderhood, you are moving into a change in relationship, into self-reliance, or a new stage that requires letting go of the old. If depression, anxiety, addiction (substance or technology), trauma and fear have impacted your sense of personal empowerment, or there is a deep seated need for some change, Oaks Counsel can help.”
Beginning in September, Katz envisions a nine-month program, “Initiating Rebirth,” with groups of similar ages gathering once a week. They will share their life challenges, get out in nature and take time for solitude.
“It’s a way to hear each other in a real, human way,” she said. “We all have incredible resilience, but sometimes we need a witness for certain times in our life. In community, it’s so much more meaningful.”
The program will culminate in June with a 10- or 12-day wilderness quest experience.
“Across different cultures, rites of passage practices are used to mark a transition in an individual’s life,” said Katz. “Our culture often lacks these initiation practices, leaving people to create their own. Left to their own devices, people can create initiations that may lead to disruptive behaviors and unhealthy patterns.”
Katz’s vision is for Oaks Counsel to offer a variety of services, including individual, family and group therapy; wilderness quests, ceremonies, nature-based healing, sound, movement and talking councils, as well as yoga and meditation.
“By acknowledging each individual’s life journey, their successes and struggles, and exploring ways in which their experiences contribute to the development of who they are and who they will become, we can mark their transitions and personal stories as meaningful, and we can celebrate each unique individual. I’ve figured out a way to provide meaningful, therapeutic experiences — this is truly my passion.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.