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Shirley MacLaine’s Mysticism for the Masses : She’s the Super Saleswoman for a Fast-Growing New Age Movement

<i> Nina Easton is West Coast correspondent for the American Banker. </i>

IT’S THE MORNING after. Shirley MacLaine--actor, dancer, author--has just completed the last one-woman show of a series that brought her before sold-out audiences in more than a dozen cities. But this was no ordinary show.

For the past several months, MacLaine has crisscrossed the country, teaching 14,000 of the committed and the curious how to get in touch with their higher spiritual selves. A weekend seminar with Shirley MacLaine is a weekend with the God force, with reincarnation and UFOs, with meditation and introspection. “You have the past and future in your superconsciousness simultaneously,” she explains to her audience. “You’re just not focusing on it. Your higher self is the superconsciousness, your connection with everything.”

MacLaine first made public her spiritual search in her book, “Out on a Limb,” which was followed by another best seller, “Dancing in the Light.” A television mini-series, based on the first volume, was broadcast early this year. But the series of 17 seminars that MacLaine has just completed threw her into a new role, that of self-styled spiritual guide. Her audiences responded warmly. They asked her advice, they shared their out-of-body experiences and, always, they applauded her. Now MacLaine is treading on dangerous territory with her fans. There’s a fine line between teacher and guru--and she knows it.

“I’m just this flint of New Age consciousness,” she insists. “I just light the spark in somebody, then they light their own flame. I don’t encourage a letter-writing relationship. I’m very careful how I write back (to fans) because I would emotionally hook them into a relationship that doesn’t exist. I tell them that they are their own guru. They are the person in charge of their own destiny.”

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The mantel of her Manhattan apartment is crammed with elephant carvings that recall one of her previous lives, crystals and mystical statues, all gifts proffered by admirers and followers. “For several months,” she says, “I wouldn’t even take any of their gifts. But they wanted to share, so I began to get a little more balanced about that; I decided I would put the gifts in my spiritual center.”

MacLaine is eating a papaya. She doesn’t mind the heat and sogginess that blows into her apartment this August morning; she says it’s good for her dancer’s muscles. Her famous legs are wrapped in red stretch pants beneath a bulky red sweater. On one wall is a photo of MacLaine with former President Jimmy Carter, who encouraged her to talk about UFOs after she published “Out on a Limb.” On another wall is a photo of MacLaine and George S. McGovern, one of the few American politicians whom she considers a “spiritually evolved political leader.”

At 53, MacLaine has left her former political activism behind, at least for now. There’s only time for one grand cause in an entertainer’s life, and MacLaine has settled on spiritualism. She will continue making films, but most of her enthusiasm will be devoted to leading and shaping the New Age movement that she has introduced into the public spotlight. She has a new book, “It’s All in the Playing,” out this month and three more under contract with Bantam. Early next year, she will break ground on a spiritual center in Colorado, “so everyone will know there’s a place they can go for a really trusted trance channeler.” She’ll conduct another round of spiritual seminars next year.

That’s good news for modern-day mysticism and its purveyors. Since MacLaine burst onto the spiritual stage in 1983 with “Out on a Limb,” public interest in the New Age movement has surged. Trance channelers, charging from $100 to $300 a session to dial the numbers of entities from another age, report a boom in business. Sales of New Age music and how-to tapes on everything from meditation to tapping the earth’s energy are on the rise. And publishers are scrambling to keep up with the sudden demand for books about healing crystals, trance channeling, UFOs, reincarnation and other New Age notions. New Age has become Big Business.

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In the ‘80s, an age when the word spirit is most often modified by entrepreneurial , Shirley MacLaine has cast herself in her most ambitious role ever: She has become the Queen of Souls.

THERE’S NOT MUCH new about the New Age movement, which draws from Buddhism, Hinduism and Western occultism, among other traditions. What the New Age movement in general, and MacLaine in particular, has done is packaged all this in contemporary garb. MacLaine has filed away sinister terms like mysticism and occult , opting instead for such hip labels as spiritual technology and soul physics. Like any great entertainer, MacLaine knows her audience.

The New Age has received a particularly warm welcome from certain pockets of the baby-boom generation. “This is a generation that was raised to be very religious,” says William Roy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA and a self-described baby-boomer. “As we grew up, we became disillusioned with the church, along with everything else. We returned to materialism before we returned to spiritualism.” But by no means is this generation ready to give up on materialism, something that shrewd New Age leaders understand. So the movement emphasizes techniques to help its followers deal with the stresses and strains of material life. “It’s like a cheaper version of psychiatry,” says Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who studies religion in America. Harvard theologian Harvey Cox calls New Age thought “a kind of yuppie religious expression: You can have everything without any discomfort or pain or inconvenience.”

At the center of MacLaine’s world is the “superconsciousness,” which she describes as one’s eternal, unlimited soul--"the soul that is the real you” and is in a constant state of reincarnation. “We are basically and fundamentally spiritual beings,” she says. “We are not physical beings, we are not mental beings.” During her seminar, she leads her audience through a mass meditation: Picture yourself in a garden with a stream running through it, she says as ethereal music plays through the sound system. Visualize a white light in a garden. Now walk toward that light. The figure that emerges, she says, is the “higher self.” She directs her audience to greet that self.

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It is this soul, she says, that connects with the “God force” and is part of that force. “We are that God force, we are perfect,” she says. The key to spiritual realization, and happiness, is to move into alignment with the God force.

MacLaine believes in reincarnation, and through her connection with the spiritual world she has learned of her earlier incarnations, including a Kipling-esque life as an orphan living among a herd of elephants. “I became known as the princess of the elephants and would communicate with a given elephant hundreds of miles away,” she explains in her fourth book.

MacLaine also propounds a practice that has come to be known as trance channeling. In channeling, a medium goes into a deep trance and connects with a spiritual entity--typically someone who died many years ago--which then communicates through the human medium. One of MacLaine’s first channeling experiences was with Kevin Ryerson, who channels three to four entities, including a one-time Irish pickpocket, a Pakistani physician and a Jamaican who prides himself on understanding modern racial problems.

Today’s channelers are much different from mediums of the past--glassy-eyed people who sat in a passive trance while supposedly communicating with the dead. Says Stan Madson, co-owner of the Bodhi Tree bookstore on Melrose Avenue: “Now you have entities walking and talking and moving about.”

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And making a lot of money. J. Z. Knight, a Washington state woman who purportedly channels a 35,000-year-old man named Ramtha, has attracted hundreds of followers who have picked up their lives and moved to the Pacific Northwest--and millions of dollars to her bank account through fees for personal appearances and videotape sales. Knight, who lives on a ranch in Yelm, Wash., where she and her husband breed Arabian horses, acknowledged her substantial income to the New York Times last fall. In her fourth book, “Dancing in the Light,” MacLaine describes how Ramtha picked her up and carried her around the room before tearfully telling MacLaine that they were brothers in another incarnation.

MacLaine, who publicly attacks the excesses of “televangelists” Jim and Tammy Bakker, takes a different view of J. Z. Knight. “She was having an adventure with materialism,” MacLaine says. “By the way, she has no problem with this--her big house and her horses and her Rolls-Royce. She has no problem at all; it’s everyone else that has a problem. People knew where their money was going. She never made any secret about it. It’s certainly not something I would do. But everybody knew (the money) was going to build chandeliers in the horse barn.”

MacLaine charges $300 for her two-day seminars, but she makes clear that the proceeds will be used to build her spiritual center on 300 acres in Colorado. The center will have a variety of spiritual practitioners, including holistic healers and channelers who will be available to guests. While she has been criticized for profiting from the New Age movement through book sales and seminars, her agent, Mort Viner, says MacLaine has turned down film opportunities paying more than $1 million to pursue this work.

During her seminars, MacLaine teaches that time is not linear, that everything is happening all at once, and that the soul encompasses both the past and future, as well as the present. “You’re focusing on this life because lessons need to be learned,” she says.

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She also says that life is a dream, an illusion. “Each of us is living our own dream,” she says. “We are writing it, casting it, acting in it.” Her new book, in which she focuses on the experience of playing “her former self " in the ABC miniseries--that is, the Shirley MacLaine before she became an ethereal girl--explores this concept in depth. “It’s a humorous and dramatic examination of what it’s like to play yourself when you realize that at the same time you’ve been playing yourself all your life,” she says.

MacLaine likens this illusory vision of life to a dream she had when she was a child: She was being chased by a gorilla, and, reaching a precipice, she frantically turned around to the beast and said: “Now what do I do?”

“I don’t know, little girl,” the gorilla replied. “It’s your dream.”

During one seminar, a woman asked how she could use spiritualism to help the family of a friend who was burned to death in a car accident. “First you have to ask yourself why you created that in your reality,” MacLaine responded.

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While all this may sound like a Reader’s Digest version of Buddhism, it has resonance in the ‘80s, a time when some of the hottest-selling books claim to offer readers success and happiness by showing them how to control their lives. The MacLaine view is the ultimate self-help device: If life is really your dream, then you have the power to change it. MacLaine maintains that she has used her new-found spiritualism to control not only what she does, but also what happens to her. It’s the reason, she says, that she hasn’t been robbed in seven years. “I went through a period, by the way, when I was testing this (metaphysical) stuff, in which I was robbed seven times in one year,” she says.

When asked if she believes she can control everything in her life, MacLaine says, “Oh, yes. I know it’s possible for me. I’m not there yet, but I know it’s possible.”

“Everything?”

“If I were a completely realized and totally balanced, totally centered human being, I would be living in a state of complete happiness.”

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“Will you achieve that in this lifetime?”

“I don’t know. I like to learn through controversy, sometimes I like to learn through deprivation. I’m still addicted to some of those things. Sometimes it’s fun to be unhappy, to cry and be angry.” She says she gets “a real kick” out of being mad sometimes, “so obviously I’m not even ready to give all that up.”

MacLaine calls New Age spiritualism “the most practicable technique of living I have ever found.” It’s mind over matter--or in this case, spirit over mind over matter, a kind of Norman Vincent Peale ethic for the spiritual set. Not only can you become more successful in your earthly pursuits through positive thinking, you can do it with less stress. “Things bother you less because you look at them from a more superconscious perspective,” MacLaine tells her audiences.

MacLaine doesn’t quarrel with the yuppie label that the New Age movement has attracted. “I would say that predominantly people are coming to this out of a feeling that ‘I am successful and it doesn’t mean anything.’ The New Age movement is comprised of mostly successful people. The churches are saying you will find God through poverty, but they want to enjoy material success. Religion wants their allegiance, their power. But successful people don’t like to give away their power, they like to use their own power to be successful. So there’s a contradiction with a spiritually expanding person, who is also successful, remaining with the church.”

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SHIRLEY MACLAINE wrote two best-selling autobiographical books before she found the God force. But when she brought her third manuscript to Random House--a fictional version of what would become “Out on a Limb"--the publisher concluded that she was out of her tree and rejected the work. MacLaine reworked the manuscript into a nonfiction account of her spiritual quest and sold it to Bantam Books. Bantam, which had been carrying a New Age book line for more than a decade, was no stranger to some of the concepts that MacLaine was propounding. But even this publisher was a little wary.

MacLaine, meanwhile, became the target of a concerted campaign by friends who feared that she would ruin her public image and her career if she went forward with the book. During one of her shows in Atlantic City, two of her close friends--former U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) and journalist Pete Hamill--showed up to try to talk her out of publishing the book. As MacLaine describes it, the episode turned into a spiritual rap session. “After that they left me alone.”

When the book came out, Bantam shrewdly ignored book critics as a vehicle for publicity and instead had MacLaine promote her far-out notions in interviews with Phil Donahue, Larry King and other popular talk-show hosts. “Out on a Limb,” published in 1983, became wildly successful. By early 1984, 176,000 hard-cover copies and 2.4 million paperbacks were in print. “Dancing in the Light” followed two years later, with 500,000 hard-covers and an initial paperback printing of 1.6 million. Bantam initially is printing 475,000 hard-cover copies of her newest book, which will sell for $18.95.

There’s no doubt that much of the success of “Out on a Limb” owed to the name of the author. “There was enormous interest in Shirley MacLaine and her life,” says Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s publicity director. “One reason why it works is that you’re able to vicariously experience what she’s gone through.”

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It didn’t hurt sales that MacLaine spiced up “Out on a Limb” with the details of her love affair with a heavily disguised member of British Parliament whom she calls Gerry. The snoopy British press, embarrassed that she had gotten away with an affair right under their noses, had a field day trying to guess the identity of MacLaine’s lover. One British TV network even offered MacLaine a position as a commentator on the elections.

But the real boon--for MacLaine’s book as well as other New Age works--came early this year with the broadcast of her miniseries on ABC, a ratings dud but a New Age spark. Suddenly, bookstores couldn’t keep enough New Age books in stock. Readers raced to stores to buy up MacLaine’s books--sending all four of her paperbacks back onto best-seller lists--as well as more obscure spiritual works. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Dan Bergeson, who buys occult books for the B. Dalton Bookseller chain.

Marilyn McGuire, executive director of the newly formed New Age Publishing and Retailing Alliance, estimates that there are 2,500 metaphysical bookstores in the United States today, and about 3,200 publishers of metaphysical books, magazines and journals. Sales of books that fall loosely into the category of New Age are estimated at $1 billion a year.

At the Bodhi Tree bookstore, a favorite hangout of New Age enthusiasts, including MacLaine, sales have jumped 30% over last year. During the Bodhi Tree’s first years, in the 1970s, it bought 25 new titles a week; last year the store was buying 100 to 200 a week. The store now carries about 24,000 titles, ranging from works on acupuncture and yoga to Oriental culture and Zen Buddhism.

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While public opinion polls show a steady interest in traditional religion, some New Age notions appear to be spreading beyond cult status. One recent survey, conducted by sociologist Andrew Greeley and his colleagues at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, showed that 42% of American adults believe that they have been in contact with someone who has died, up from 27% a decade earlier.

While the New Age fad could streak across the American scene like Halley’s Comet, mainstream publishers are taking no chances. This year they are jumping on the New Age bandwagon, joining tiny metaphysical publishing houses in churning out books on trance channeling, UFOs, astrology and reincarnation. “Communion,” by Whitley Strieber, the story of an encounter with UFOs, has been on national best-seller lists for months, a phenomenon that major bookstore chains attribute in part to MacLaine’s miniseries.

The Waldenbooks chain expects several New Age hot-sellers this fall, including another Ramtha book by J. Z. Knight, published by Warner, and “Channeling,” a Harper & Row book with an introduction by Ryerson, the channeler used by MacLaine. Crystals, which are thought to have healing and calming powers, are especially popular with publishers this fall. Among those publishing books about crystals are Berkeley Press, Contemporary, Bantam and, yes, Random House. Some of the books include packages of crystals. “These will be great for Christmas gifts,” says Dara Tyson, senior marketing director for Waldenbooks.

Business is booming for channelers. Ryerson, who charges $250 per session, has had so many inquiries at his San Francisco office that he is referring business to other channelers. Attendance is up at Bettye Binder’s reincarnation classes, too. “What Shirley has done is given this some legitimacy,” says the Los Angeles-based Binder. “A lot more people are willing to admit their interest.” Neville Rowe, a Los Angeles channeler who charges $100 an hour, is pleased with the surge in interest, but also a little frustrated: It seems that MacLaine has not only inspired more customers, she has also inspired more people to become channelers themselves, so the competition is increasingly fierce.

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THE PHONE RINGS,and MacLaine darts to the kitchen. It’s a friend, a non-believer, who is teasing her about her spiritualism. “I am not a guru!” she laughs. “So-o-o? Are you coming in for the harmonic convergence?”

Let’s get one thing straight. MacLaine is not a missionary. She doesn’t need to convert anyone; she says her books and TV show and seminars are vehicles for self-expression, not evangelism. She says she can laugh at the New Age movement; in fact, she loves the jokes. “These are endearing jokes; none of it hurts,” MacLaine says of “Doonesbury” and other cartoons that poke fun at the movement. This is the woman who showed up on stage at the Academy Awards this year in a “spaceship,” joking that it was her normal mode of travel.

She remains close with non-believers. She says her brother, Warren Beatty, for example, acts like he can’t wait to get out of the room when she starts talking spirits. Everyone, MacLaine says expansively, has their own path, their own timetable, and she respects that. And she says she welcomes dissent. “Nobody agrees with everything. It’s like the Democratic Party. It’s a totally free and individualist approach to your own spiritual sense.”

That’s Shirley MacLaine the person, Shirley MacLaine the entertainer, talking. But at her seminars, as Shirley MacLaine the spiritual leader, she takes on a different role. During her final seminar in New York, a woman raised her hand with a challenge. “With all due respect,” she said, “I don’t think you are God.”

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“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that,” MacLaine responded. The audience applauded enthusiastically; if this was a revival meeting, she would have been backed by a chorus of “Amens.” “If you don’t see me as God,” MacLaine said adamantly, “that’s because you don’t see yourself as God.”

Another woman was troubled by the inhumanity she saw in the world--people dying, cruelty to animals. MacLaine accused her of having a “victimization complex.” “I’m hearing from you real hostility,” MacLaine said harshly. “You might ask yourself why you feel so victimized.”

Back in her apartment, MacLaine is asked about her sharp responses to some of the questions in the seminar. “That’s just cornerstone psychology,” she says of her approach. “It’s a question of how you are reacting (to a tragedy). You can’t do anything about the injustice or however you want to describe it. You can do something about your perception of it.” As for the woman who challenged MacLaine’s notions about God: “On those questions, I will stop right there and say, ‘We see others as we see ourselves.’ ”

She has an awful lot of answers, but there are some questions left unresolved in Shirley MacLaine’s script for life and thereafter. She can’t account for the origins of the God force; she doesn’t know what happened in the beginning or what will happen in the end. She is still searching for the ideal way to apply her spiritualism to her earthly life.

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She is also trying to reconcile MacLaine the spiritual being with MacLaine the political being and feminist leader. How does MacLaine apply her spiritualism to the American political scene when “there are no victims,” when there are no societal values, only “spiritual, internal, individual values,” when war is not wrong, “it’s just dumb, because (reincarnation ensures that) nobody’s dying”?

“That’s a good question. It is difficult, it’s very difficult,” she says, “because politics is about the choices of so-called right or wrong.”

NINETEEN EIGHTY-EIGHT is a pivotal year in the New Age movement. “It’s supposed to be the (planetary) alignment that makes the cosmic demand on everyone to understand the God energy,” MacLaine says.

That’s also the year that MacLaine will build her spiritual center, publish a fourth book on spiritualism, and star in another movie. In the film, “Madame Sousatzka,” MacLaine plays an overbearing piano teacher unable to let go of her prodigy pupil, an East Indian boy. She knows that she should know whether the film will be a success or not--since everything in the universe is happening all at once--but she doesn’t. All she knows is that she’s ready for success now, big success.

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“I’ve liked moderate success, but I’ve not been a person who wanted gigantic success. I’m changing now. I want gigantic success. I feel I’m ready for it now, but I want it to be balanced. I think I’ve programmed my life as a long-distance runner and I know that what I’ve done means something.”


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