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Living: New Age Harmonies

29 minute read
Otto Friedrich

“Let us not walk the path of life in darkness but shed your light upon the path so that we may clearly see the power of your glory forever.” Those words of prayer are the last spoken by Bob Johnson, 54, a gentle, white-haired man who practices his spiritual arts in a modest apartment in midtown New York City. Now his eyes are half shut, unseeing, and when he next speaks, in a strangely clipped Irish accent, he represents a “tutelage” of spectral beings from Alpha Centauri, the nearest of the stars.

“Greetings from the almighty form of God,” says the celestial tutelage. “Do you seek our counsel?”

“Yes,” says TIME Correspondent Mary Cronin.

“Do you have an art?”

“I’m a reporter.”

“That is an art of sorts. Do you feel the vibrations now? It may be starting now.”

“I’m trying to find out more about the New Age.”

“Always the New Age!”

“Is all this interest in channeling and crystals a passing fad or something more?”

“It is both: a fad to some, a way of life to others. We would say there are more true spiritual seekers today.”

“What is my mission in life?”

“We feel you will be involved in the process of bringing the written thought about spirituality to man. This is a mission. People say there are accidents, but this is not an accident.”

“Can you tell me about one of my past lives?”

“You have been a sailor. A man. You understand the Spanish Armada? You tried to attack England! You considered it to be a heathen country because they dropped Catholicism.”

“What did I learn from that life?”

“To swim very well. You almost lost your life. Your ship was broken up around the northern coast of Ireland. You were in the water for days. It was very painful.”

“How do you live up there on Alpha Centauri?”

“We don’t have a day, a night. We have never been a human body. We don’t speak like this. What is coming through is not our persona. We don’t have a personality you could relate to. We manifest a personality so that you may relate to it. You see?”

So here we are in the New Age, a combination of spirituality and superstition, fad and farce, about which the only thing certain is that it is not new. Nobody seems to know exactly where the term came from, but it has been around for several decades or more, and many elements of the New Age, like faith healing, fortune-telling and transmigration of souls, go back for centuries. (Ages, in general, are an uncertain affair. The Age of Aquarius, celebrated in the musical Hair, may have started in the 1960s or at the turn of the century or may not yet have begun. Once under way, such astrological ages are supposed to last 2,000 years.)

Though it is hard to say exactly how many Americans believe in which parts of the New Age, the movement as a whole is growing steadily. Bantam Books says its New Age titles have increased tenfold in the past decade. The number of New Age bookstores has doubled in the past five years, to about 2,500. New Age radio is spreading, with such stations as WBMW in Washington and KTWV-FM in Los Angeles offering dreamy light jazz that one listener described as “like I tapped into a radio station on Mars.” The Grammys now include a special prize for New Age music (latest winner: Swiss Harpist Andreas Vollenweider). Fledgling magazines with names like New Age, Body Mind Spirit and Brain/Mind Bulletin are full of odd ads: “Healing yourself with crystals,” “American Indian magic can work for you,” “How to use a green candle to gain money,” “The power of the pendulum can be in your hands,” “Use numerology to win the lottery.” And, perhaps inevitably, “New health through colon rejuvenation.”

If some of those have a slightly greedy tone, the reason is that New Age fantasies often intersect with mainstream materialism, the very thing that many New Age believers profess to scorn. A surprising number of successful stockbrokers consult astrological charts; a yuppie investment banker who earns $100,000 a year talks of her previous life as a monk. Some millionaires have their own private gurus who pay house calls to provide comfort and advice. Big corporations too are paying attention. “The principle here is to look at the mind, body, heart and spirit,” says a corporate spokesperson, who asks that her employer be identified only as a “major petrochemical company.” This company provides its employees with regular workshops in stress management; it has hired a faith healer to “read auras” for ailing employees and run her hands over their “fields of energy.” Even the U.S. Army has commissioned a West Coast firm to explore the military potentials of meditation and extrasensory perception.

Now come to the ballroom of the New York Hilton, where 1,200 of the faithful have paid $300 apiece to get the word from the New Age’s reigning whirling dervish, Shirley MacLaine. To the soothing accompaniment of crystal chimes and distant waterfalls, the star of Terms of Endearment leads her new acolytes in meditating on the body’s various chakras, or energy points. First comes the spinning red wheel of the base chakra, then the sexual pulsation of the orange chakra, and finally upward to the solar plexus and the visceral emotions of the yellow chakra.

“Feel the cleansing power of the stream of life, the coolness of water . . .” MacLaine purrs. She is wearing a turquoise sweater, violet sweatpants and green ankle-high sneakers, and a sizable crystal dangles from her neck. “There is so much you need to know . . . See the outer bubble of white light watching for you. It is part of you. Let it be. It is showing you itself, that part of God that you have not recognized.”

A woman in the audience complains that she has suffered chronic physical pain since childhood. MacLaine is not fazed. “Sometimes people use pain to feel alive,” she explains. “Pain is a perception, not a reality.” That is a basic New Age doctrine: you can be whatever you want to be.

The doctrine is sometimes a little hard to apply. The woman in the audience (women outnumber the men two to one) does not feel healed. “No one else goes through what I do,” she says.

From the back, another small voice says,”I do.”

MacLaine moves into a visualization exercise aimed at cleansing the third eye (the one behind the forehead) of negative thought patterns. More questions:

“How do I deal with the vibration of joy and ecstasy that I get when I meet my higher self?” a woman wants to know. “Mine is a naked cupid.”

“Ecstasy is a new frequency which we are just beginning to define,” MacLaine says. “It is complete surrender and trust, the key words for this new age.”

“With all due respect,” says another voice, “I don’t think you are a god.” (That is another New Age doctrine, that everybody is God, co-creator of the universe.)

“If you don’t see me as God,” says MacLaine, blithe as ever, “it’s because you don’t see yourself as God.”

If this seems to make very little sense, it nonetheless pays handsome dividends. MacLaine’s five books of self-exploration and self-promotion have run to more than 8 million copies. Her third volume, Out on a Limb, which tells how she discovered the spirit world, became a five-hour TV extravaganza that was aired earlier this year. Her fifth volume, It’s All in the Playing, published last September and a best seller for more than two months, is mainly about the making of the TV version of Volume 3, including conference/seances on how her astral guides feel about being cast to play themselves on television. And so on.

MacLaine’s New York Hilton session was part of a 15-city national tour (estimated earnings: $1.5 million) to spread the New Age gospel. Next year she plans to open Uriel Village, a 300-acre retreat in Baca, Colo., where customers will be able to get weeklong sessions of meditation, past-life regression therapy, and sound and color healing, among other things. “I want this to be all mine, my energy, my control,” says MacLaine. “I want a big dome-covered meditation center and a series of dome-covered meeting rooms because spiritual energy goes in spirals. We’ll grow all our own food and eat under another dome. I want to turn a profit with this so I can build another center and another. I want to prove that spirituality is profitable.”

For all its popularity, the New Age is hard to define. It includes a whole cornucopia of beliefs, fads, rituals; some subscribe to some parts, some to others. Only on special occasions, like the highly publicized “harmonic convergence” in August, do believers in I Ching or crystals gather together with believers in astral travel, shamans, Lemurians and tarot readers, for a communal chanting of om, the Hindu invocation that often precedes meditation. Led on by the urgings of Jose Arguelles, a Colorado art historian who claimed that ancient Mayan calendars foretold the end of the world unless the faithful gathered to provide harmony, some 20,000 New Agers assembled at “sacred sites” from Central Park to Mount Shasta to — uh — provide harmony.

All in all, the New Age does express a cloudy sort of religion, claiming vague connections with both Christianity and the major faiths of the East (New Agers like to say that Jesus spent 18 years in India absorbing Hinduism and the teachings of Buddha), plus an occasional dab of pantheism and sorcery. The underlying faith is a lack of faith in the orthodoxies of rationalism, high technology, routine living, spiritual law-and-order. Somehow, the New Agers believe, there must be some secret and mysterious shortcut or alternative path to happiness and health. And nobody ever really dies.

Like other believers, many New Agers attach great importance to artifacts, relics and sacred objects, all of which can be profitably offered for sale: Tibetan bells, exotic herbal teas, Viking runes, solar energizers, colored candles for “chromotherapy,” and a Himalayan mountain of occult books, pamphlets, instructions and tape recordings. Some of these magical products are quite imaginative. A bearded Colorado sage who calls himself Gurudas sells “gem elixirs,” which he creates by putting stones in bowls of water and leaving them in the sun for several hours, claiming that this allows the water to absorb energy from the sun and the stone.

Most New Agers prefer the stones themselves, specifically crystals of all sorts. These are not only thought to have mysterious healing powers but are considered programmable, like a computer, if one just concentrates hard enough. (The most powerful crystals are buried deep under New England, some New Agers believe, because New England was once connected to Atlantis, the famous “lost continent.”)

Tina Lucia, a self-styled therapist in Stone Mountain, Ga., uses crystals to treat patients, because “physical problems are manifestations of spiritual problems.” Gallbladder ailments, she says, come from a bitterness toward God, and lung trouble from a hatred of one’s own body. “All you have to do is release these problems,” she says. She uses amethyst, rose and blue quartz, and even black onyx and obsidian. One of her satisfied customers is Annette Manders, who wields a crystal wand that Lucia gave her. “I healed a fungus under my toenail with my wand,” says Manders, “and I had a stomach problem that doesn’t bother me anymore. The energy is subtle. It’s not like you’re being zapped.”

Another favorite New Age cure for the misfortunes of the body is the . therapeutic touch, again an ancient method newly back in fashion. While nobody knows exactly how these quasi-medical techniques work, people generally turn to them because conventional medicine seems so impersonal, costs so much and fails so often. Greg Schelkun, for example, graduated from Dartmouth and was working for a Boston publisher when he got a chance to go to the Orient with his mother, who was suffering from chronic chills and fevers. In the Philippines she met a healer who laid his hands on her and cured her. The healer also cured Schelkun of migraine headaches, which he had suffered for 15 years. “At the time, I didn’t know what was going on,” says Schelkun. “All I knew was that the headaches stopped.”

Schelkun subsequently spent two years studying with another healer in the Philippines, and now practices his arts in Marin County. A burly, mustachioed man who likes to wear pink oxford-cloth button-down shirts, Schelkun hardly looks like a wizard. “I don’t see disease written on a body with flashing neon lights saying ‘Here! Here! Here!’ ” he says. “I place my hands to connect them to their healing source. My hands are able to feel hot spots, cold spots, pain and symptoms of problems in the body. We’re not rocks. We’re taught in this society to see only reflected light, instead of radiant or inner light.”

There is always a danger of quackery in such unorthodox approaches, as orthodox doctors repeatedly warn. But some New Age healers have perfectly standard medical training. Bernie Siegel, for example, is a surgeon who teaches at Yale and has written a new best seller, Love, Medicine & Miracles. After years of treating cancer patients, he believes “all disease is ultimately related to a lack of love, or to love that is only conditional, for the exhaustion of the immune system thus created leads to physical vulnerability.” Dolores Krieger, an R.N. and a Ph.D., teaches the art of therapeutic touch to nurses at New York University. “The best thing that happens,” she says, “is rapid relaxation, the eradication or lessening of pain and the beginning of healing processes.”

Another practitioner is a slight, intelligent, no-nonsense woman of 63, who treats ailments as varied as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis in a cluttered studio apartment in Manhattan. A onetime bacteriologist, she had no psychic experiences until after the death of her husband, when she began hearing voices and seeing visions and “thought I was losing my mind.” When she began to study these phenomena, she became convinced that unseen doctors were working through her. “I am not a mystical person,” she says, “but I have learned to accept many, many things. I know my doctors are geniuses.” She has applied her touch to 14 AIDS patients in the past few years and has lost only three so far. “I haven’t found any disease that we can’t do something for,” she says. “Some people have disease for a reason, to learn a lesson in this life or from a past life.”

There is no unanimity of New Age belief in anything, but many New Agers do believe in unidentified flying objects, crewed by oddly shaped extraterrestrials who have long visited the earth from more advanced planets, spreading the wisdom that created, among other things, Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. Government officials keep announcing that there are no such things as UFOs, but the National Science Foundation reported last year that 43% of the citizenry believe it “likely” that some of the UFOs reported “are really space vehicles from other civilizations.” (And where did those airstrip-like markings in the Peruvian Andes come from?)

If one can place any faith in Steven Spielberg films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the visitors from outer space are benign and friendly folk. But several recently reported episodes have been more sinister. High on the best-seller lists this past summer stood Communion by Whitley Strieber, previously known mainly as a writer of fantasies (The Wolfen, Warday), who vehemently describes as a “true story” his chilling account of being spirited onto a spaceship by a pack of 3-ft.-high “visitors.” When they proposed sticking a needle into his brain, he recalls, one of them casually asked him, “What can we do to help you stop screaming?” More scare stories came from Intruders by Budd Hopkins, a chronicle of 130 people who claim to have been abducted by extraterrestrial visitors and tell tales of being subjected to various degrading medical experiments. On the other hand, the extraterrestrials who turn up in the course of channeling — one of the most popular New Age sports — appear almost unfailingly wise and benevolent.

Come to a rocky meadow on California’s Mount Shasta, where a New Zealander named Neville Rowe tells the encircling crowd of 200 (admission: $10) that he speaks with the voice of Soli, an “off-planet being” who has never actually lived on earth. Dressed in a white-peaked cap, purple shirt and purple shoes, Rowe clutches a bottle of Evian water as the voice emerges from him in a rather peculiar British accent. “You are here to express who you are,” says Soli. “You are here to search for yourself. The highest recognition you can make is that I am what I am. All that is, is. You are God. You are, each and every one, part of the Second Coming.”

Somebody wants to argue. What about murderers? Are they God too?

“Your truth is your truth,” says Soli, while his helpers start trying to sell videotapes of his latest incarnation. “My truth is my truth.”

Not all the channeled voices are from outer space. Come to the Phoenix Institute in Lexington, Ky., for example, and hear Lea Schultz speak with the voice of somebody called Samuel. “What Lea does,” says Tripp Bratton, an official at the institute, “is she calms herself and tunes in to a signal. Everything has a vibration, even if it doesn’t have a physical form. Then she becomes animated by the energy on the other end of the ‘line.’ It’s direct telepathic communication.” Samuel usually discusses problems he feels are present in the audience and then takes questions: What happened to Atlantis? What happened to the Challenger?

Jach Pursel, a former Florida insurance agent living in Los Angeles, squints his eyes and speaks with the voice of Lazaris, a spiritual entity of uncertain origins.

“How old are you?” he is asked.

“In our reality, we have no time,” says Lazaris.

“Why are you making your presence known to man?”

“Because you are ready now . . .”

“Is the world about to end?”

“No. In a word, no. This is not the ending. This is the beginning.”

Pursel charges customers an average of $700 a year, and he has quite a few customers. “Lazaris is so popular,” he says, “that, yeah, a lot of money gets made.” But Pursel makes his real money as an art dealer and is opening a second gallery, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. As for channeling, “it’s not a business; it’s a labor of love.” He adds a dark warning that others are less worthy. “There’s some loony tunes out there,” he says.

Probably the most celebrated of all current channelers is J.Z. Knight, a handsome ex-housewife in Yelm, Wash., who has performed for thousands at a price of $150 each per session. She speaks for Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior who reports that he once lived on Atlantis. He has even dictated a book, I Am Ramtha, published in Portland, Ore., by Beyond Words Publishing and illustrated with photographs of Knight going into a trance on The Merv Griffin Show. Sample words of Ramthan wisdom: “Who be I? I am a notorious entity. I have that which is called a reputation. Know you what that is? Controversial, and I do what I say I do. What I am here to do is not to change people’s minds, only to engage them and allow the wonderments for those that desire them to come to pass. I have been you, and I have become the other side of what you are . . .”

The sayings of Ramtha have brought Knight substantial rewards, including a luxurious mansion complete with spa, swimming pool and Arabian horses. A spokesman deprecates talk of her wealth, however, by noting that she pays a staff of 14 and that the tax collectors are insatiable.

Jo Ann Karl is a tall blond who says she was an up-and-coming business executive until she discovered the supernatural seven years ago. She was on a business trip in the Midwest when she first felt herself drifting through space outside her body. She tried to ignore the experience, but it kept recurring. Now she gets $15 a customer for channeling the archangel Gabriel and a spirit named Ashtar.

“The lesson I learned in one of my past lives was about taking risks,” says Karl. “I was married to St. Peter. We traveled widely with Jesus, teaching with him. After he was crucified, we continued to teach and travel for several more years, until we were caught by the Romans. Peter was crucified, and I was thrown to the lions, after being raped and pilloried. Now I understand why I’ve always been afraid of big animals.”

Karl’s spirit guides had been advising her to go to the Incan empire’s sacred Lake Titicaca in Bolivia (the Andes seem to be a favorite way station for UFOs). “They sort of told us we would meet them,” she says. “I won’t believe it until I see them and talk to them and feel the panel on the spaceship. But maybe it is time for people to know they have help.” And so, starry-eyed and full of hope, Karl headed southward, and she did catch a distant glimpse of what she took to be a spaceship. “It looked like a whole lot of orange light,” she says. “A blast of light spherical in shape. It was big and far away.”

This kind of thing inspires some observers to mockery. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury ridiculed the harmonic convergence as an “age where . . . the heavens are in perfect alignment, and finally, after years of anticipation, where Sean Penn is in jail.” Some New Age people admit that the movement is * so full of eccentrics and profiteers that they even dislike applying the term New Age to their own activities. New York City’s Open Center, for example, studiously avoids the label. Founded four years ago by Wall Street Lawyer Walter Beebe, the center runs on a budget of $1.7 million and enrolls 3,000 students a month for a range of 250 one- and two-day workshops and such courses as Aspects of Zen Practice, Internal Kung Fu and Jungian Symbolism in Astrology.

“We see this movement as a different perspective on life, a holistic view of life,” says Ralph White, who teaches philosophy at the center. “It encompasses an enormous spectrum involving the body, mind and spirit, including an increased awareness of nutrition, the rise in ecological thinking, a change in business perspectives, greater emphasis on preventive medicine, a shift to Jungian philosophy, an emphasis on the individual’s intuition. Many people see themselves as living in a pretty meaningless world, and there is a profound cry for meaning. We’ve seen that tendency in churches, because the way religion is presented traditionally has spoken to our inner selves less and less. People want a living, feeling experience of spirituality. They yearn to get in touch with the soul.”

This relatively level-headed approach to spirituality has its attractions in the world of commerce, particularly in the important area of management training. Innovation Associates of Framingham, Mass., charges $15,000 for a four-day seminar designed to strengthen executives’ commitment to a common purpose. “We tell them to imagine themselves walking on a beach or a meadow,” says the firm’s director of consulting services, Joel Yanowitz. “Once we get them in the relaxed state, we ask them to pay attention to new thoughts and to test them against rational information about a situation. We teach them the art of holistic systemic thinking.” One major engineering laboratory on the East Coast has established a program, run by a small New York City firm named Hoy Powers & Wayno, that is using meditation, imaging and techniques of intuitive thought to instill more creativity and leadership in some 400 corporate managers and executives.

Social Psychologist Michael Ray invokes Zen, yoga and tarot cards when he teaches his course Creativity in Business at the Stanford Graduate School of Business — but he groans at any mention of a New Age. “Our assumption is that creativity is essential for health and happiness in a business career,” he says. Business executives have always developed their own methods of clearing the mind. J.P. Morgan used to play solitaire before making an important business decision, Ray points out. Conrad Hilton claimed he relied on intuition to help him decide what prices to bid for properties. “It’s not that unusual these days,” says Ray, “to see enormously successful, hard-core corporate types doing biofeedback and using crystals.” Among those who have participated as guest speakers in Ray’s course: Apple Computer Co-Founder Steven Jobs and Discount Broker Charles Schwab.

And what does make the stock market rise and fall? Mason Sexton graduated from Harvard Business School in 1972, went to Wall Street, and decided that all the traditional ways of making predictions were “at best hit or miss.” Then he learned of the Fibonacci Ratio, based on the work of a 13th century Italian mathematician, and a modern development of it known as the Elliott Wave Theory, which declares that all advancing markets have five waves up and three waves down.

“But the key to the timing of when these waves will bottom or crest depends very much on astrology,” says Sexton, “which is simply the science of understanding the nature of time, since our sense of time depends on the relationship of the earth to the sun and moon. We are getting very close to the end of the primary wave-three rally, which has been in effect since July 1984. Then we will have a primary-wave correction, which will take eight months, representing a decline of 400 to 600 points.”

That is what Sexton was saying last August, when he predicted the market would hit its peak late that month. On Oct. 2, he warned: “Any Dow close below 2387 would be a signal to sell all stocks.” And he took his own advice, not only selling but also going short.

Incredible? Sexton has l,500 subscribers who pay $360 a year for his biweekly newsletter of predictions, and many have written to thank him for saving them from Black Monday. Says Marc Klee, who helps manage the $200 million American Fund Advisors: “His techniques are unconventional, to say the least, but I’ve been working with him three years or so, and his track record is well above average.”

One of the most go-getting New Age entrepreneurs is Chris Majer, 36, president of SportsMind, Inc., based in Seattle. As the corporate name indicates, Majer originally worked mainly on athletic training, though his current clients include not only AT&T but also the U.S. Army. Majer started his military efforts in 1982 with an eight-week, $50,000 training program at Fort Hood in Texas. Traditional calisthenics were replaced by a holistic stretching-warm-up-aerobics-cool-down routine. Soldiers practiced visualizing their combat tasks. The results in training test scores were apparently so good that the Army expanded SportsMind’s assignment into a yearlong, $350,000 program to help train Green Berets. “They wanted the most far-ranging human- performance program we could deliver,” Majer says.

The Green Berets were taught meditation techniques so that they could spend long hours hidden in enemy territory. “They have to be comfortable at a deep level with who they are,” Majer says, “not make mental mistakes or they’ll give away their position and get killed. People say all this New Age stuff is a bunch of hoo-hoo, but it gets results.”

While the idea of New Age Green Berets meditating in the jungle can inspire laughter, it can also inspire a certain concern about the political and social implications of the whole movement. Is it some kind of neoleftist response to the Age of Reagan, or is it an ultrarightist extension of Reaganism? The answer depends somewhat on the answerer’s politics. While some see in the New Agers’ chants and nebulous slogans a revival of the shaggy ’60s, others see the devotion of many New Agers to moneymaking as simply a new variant of yuppieism.

Whether leftist, rightist or none of the above, the New Age has attracted a fair amount of criticism on philosophical and ethical grounds. “A lot of it is a cop-out, an escape from reality, an anti-intellectual movement denying rationality,” says Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley. “The New Age movement reflects anxieties of one sort or another — the threat of nuclear warfare, the President running a vigilante action out of the White House, nurses accused of killing patients. People look at all this and say, ‘If this is the Establishment, then I don’t want this. I want something else, something I can trust.’ It’s people latching onto a belief system to get certainty where there is no certainty.”

“It’s a religion without being a religion,” says Robert J.L. Burrows, publications editor of the evangelical Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley. “Humans are essentially religious creatures, and they don’t rest until they have some sort of answer to the fundamental questions. Rationalism and secularism don’t answer those questions. But you can see the rise of the New Age as a barometer of the disintegration of American culture. Dostoyevsky said anything is permissible if there is no God. But anything is also permissible if everything is God. There is no way of making any distinction between good and evil.”

Douglas Groothuis, a research associate at a Christian think tank called Probe Center Northwest and author of Unmasking the New Age, raises a similar objection. “Once you’ve deified yourself,” he says, “which is what the New Age is all about, there is no higher moral absolute. It’s a recipe for ethical anarchy. I see it as a counterfeit religious claim. It’s both messianic and millennial.”

Though Groothuis is now writing a second book, Confronting the New Age, about the movement’s inroads into business and education, it is probably wise to remember that phenomena like the New Age have to some extent been a part of the American scene ever since there was an American scene. Remember the 18th century Shaker leader, Mother Ann Lee, whose followers believed she represented the second coming of Christ. Remember Mary Baker Eddy, severely injured by a fall on the ice, who became cured while reading a passage in St. Matthew and thereafter taught the unreality of all physical ills. Spiritualism was the rage of the 1850s, and a heroine of Henry James’ The Bostonians went into mesmeric trances to gather recruits for the cause of feminism. Walt Whitman believed in transmigration of the soul — “And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,/ (No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)” — and so did the practical-minded Thomas Alva Edison.

Remember Madame Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society and revealed the secrets of the universe in Isis Unveiled. There were sightings of spaceships in the 1890s, at a time when no American had ever seen an airplane, much less an Apollo rocket, but then as now a century was coming to an end. Mars was once widely believed to be inhabited by little green men, so when Orson Welles declared on the radio in 1938 that space invaders had landed, much of the nation went into a panic. And do not forget The Search for Bridey Murphy. Or the fad of talking to plants. Plus ca change . . .

“It’s important to point out the moral imbecility of what the New Age people are trying to do,” says United Methodist Clergyman J. Gordon Melton, ^ director of Santa Barbara’s Institute for the Study of American Religion. “But at the same time I wouldn’t see it as a threat.” Even that, though, is perhaps too harsh a condemnation to serve as the final word on an essentially harmless anthology of illusions.

But Shirley MacLaine is accustomed to slings and arrows. “I think the thrust of this article, aside from bemused sarcasm, is going to be that a lot of people are getting rich on all this,” she says, in a fairly successful venture into prophecy. “That seems to be a concern of many journalists. But I would say we all have to decide what we’re worth . . . I think journalists who are investigating belief in the unseen have to adjust the way they are judging the issue of materialism in relation to spirituality. Anything you want to learn costs money in this world.”

MacLaine is working hard these days. Aside from all her New Age activities, she is in London to shoot a new John Schlesinger film about a domineering piano teacher. “This character makes Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment look like a day at the beach,” she says. “I’m on the set by 8, and we work till 8, and then I have lines to learn.” She has also written a new book, tentatively titled Going Within. “It’s techniques of meditation, visualization, color therapy, sound therapy, how to work with crystals, how to work with colored jewelry, acupuncture, acupressure, things that have been helpful to me. I can only write about what’s happened to me.”

In many ways, her life remains much the same as ever. “I live a kind of nomad existence. I like to travel light. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry. I travel with one suitcase because I always end up carrying it.” In other ways, though, her life is quite different from what it was in her early days of singing and dancing on Broadway, which seem, if one may say so, several lifetimes ago. “It’s me that makes things happen to me,” she says. “I’m not the leader of this movement. I’m not a high priestess of New Age concepts. I’m just a human being trying to find some answers about what we’re doing here, where we came from and where we’re going. That search is equal to finding a good script, and maybe it even helps.”

So let the final word on the New Age be: om.

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