It is necessary at times simply to sit still and focus on something familiar—maybe the absurd plaster turtle that friends brought back from Mexico or the nose of your beagle or, should you be at leisure in the backyard, the rust eating through the family barbecue. By means of this simple exercise, it may be possible to stop the world from spinning out of control and regain confidence that there is sense and logic, after all — that, to be blunt, things cannot possibly be as crazy as they seem when someone tells you that global peace could be achieved if 7,000 practitioners of transcendental meditation got together and entered a period of reflection.
But why only pick on advocates of TM? While the rest of us were at Japanese cooking class or on the couch watching reruns of The Monkees, while we were scuba diving off the Yucatán Peninsula or trying to coax spinach linguine from the pasta machine, while we composed Christmas letters on our PCs (“Sally’s had a great year at grad school, but the job market remains tight for fossil paleontologists. . .”) or made a racket with our dirt bikes, much of the United States fell, without a battle, into enemy hands.
As so often is the case, however, the enemy turned out to be us—thousands, no, make that millions, of Americans who suddenly were aligning their chakras, consulting their shamans and submitting to neurolinguistic overhauls. Before so much as a referendum could be scheduled, the old order disappeared and a New Age arrived, complete with Tibetan bells, zither music, crystals, green candles and Ayurvedic teas. At last year’s “harmonic convergence,” 20,000 of the faithful gathered at sacred sites to forestall the end of the world by embracing and humming the word “om”—evidently with great success. Believers hustled to Mount Shasta in California to see the image of an angel on someone’s television screen. In his new novel, no less than John Updike writes of a disillusioned doctor’s wife who trades Boston for an Arizona ashram.
And then there is the unsettling matter of Shirley MacLaine. Remember when Shirley MacLaine was best known for her acting strengths, her dancing ability, her gorgeous legs?
Now and then MacLaine still makes a movie, but her priority these days is not showbiz but self-exploration. She has written five books on the subject, and one, Out on a Limb, became the basis for a five-hour television program. The U.S. Senate couldn’t buy five hours of TV coverage if it were debating an attack on Moscow, but then what do lawmakers know about energy points, white light or mysteries of the third eye?
White light, third eyes, harmonic convergence—forget war and peace, this is the stuff that sells in 1988. Followers of MacLaine paid $300 (U.S.) apiece to attend one of her recent sessions in New York when, even at Manhattan prices, they could have enjoyed a show, gone to dinner and maybe had enough left over for a cab ride home. Instead, devotees got a lecture on the cleansing effect of the “stream of life” and learned that pain is merely
a “perception” that some of us use “to feel alive.” Against the recorded sound of waterfalls and crystal chimes, MacLaine declared, “Ecstasy is a new frequency which we are just beginning to define.”
Most ecstatic, no doubt, is MacLaine’s bookkeeper and the myriad suppliers of New Age goods and services—medicine bracelets, rune stones, algae pellets, Calendula blossoms, videos, books and brain tune-ups, the latest thing. An advertisement in a New Age publication reveals that, by bombarding the brain with sound waves, a California “neuroscientist” manages to increase creativity, enhance memory and, best of all, eliminate those “old self-sabotage patterns.” Someone should run and tell Woody Allen that he is about to be saved.
Why are we such saps? The world knows us as pampered and ill-informed, but who would have guessed that even Americans would prove quite so susceptible to the bizarre, the absurd, the dopey? Respectable firms are hiring meditation consultants. A teacher at the Stanford Graduate
School of Business refers to tarot cards. According to Time magazine, the U.S. army is assessing the military applications of extrasensory perception—perhaps the best reason yet to slash the defence budget.
Even some New Agers agree that we may be approaching the point of psychic saturation. “This is an increasingly materialistic world, and people are searching,” said Ralph White, program director of a New York-based centre for eastern philosophies. “Because we are overmaterialistic, people can sometimes get overly spiritual to compensate.” What White really means is that New Age enthusiasts are too materialistic and too spiritual—in the final analysis, just too enamored of number 1. “A lot of it is a cop-out, an escape from reality, an anti-intellectual movement denying rationality,” said Alan Dundes of the University of California at Berkeley. Adds Douglas Groothius, author of Unmasking the New Age\ “It’s a recipe for ethical anarchy.”
Underlying all the hugging and humming, all the therapeutic touching, psychic reading, holistic healing and shamanic counselling is a notion that life’s confounding realities can be rubbed away like an ache in the elbow. Selfabsorption masquerades as self-improvement. Analyse the spiritualistic jabber about peace and harmony and one is apt to find nothing but the jabber itself. After all, who has time to work for peace and harmony if he is spending three nights a week doing crystal therapy or life regression? Volunteer at a soup kitchen? Visit the elderly? Press for civil rights? Demonstrate for nuclear disarmament? No way. Better to sit cross-legged in a geodesic dome and meditate oneself toward the millennium.
Remarkably, this may be just the beginning. The New Age is everywhere—2,500 bookstores, a couple of radio stations, several magazines, even a special Grammy Award for New Age music. Some time this year Shirley MacLaine expects to open a 300-acre resort in Colorado with an extensive line of meditative and healing services for the mellow crowd. Down the line, MacLaine says, she intends to build another centre, and another. “I want this to be all mine, my energy, my control,” she says. “I want to prove that spirituality is profitable.” Come on, Shirl, this is America. Was there ever any doubt?
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
Who has time to press for civil rights or volunteer at a soup kitchen if he is doing crystal therapy three nights a week?
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