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The Crystal Set : Followers of the New Age Movement Find Room to Grow in Orange County

Times Staff Writer

On the day in June that Sherry Scott of Mission Viejo got her breast cancer diagnosis, she telephoned Kate, her friend in Texas. “Her very first response was that there was a person she wanted me to see,” Scott said.

The person was Jan Fisher, a former intensive-care unit nurse who operates a private “healing practice” in Laguna Niguel, in which she uses crystal healing, channeling and meditation.

Although large segments of the public sneer at such things as the alleged healing power of crystals, Scott has become convinced that Fisher has done wonders for her mind and body. “Nobody can tell me it’s woo-woo because it’s not,” Scott said.

As a result, Scott, 52 and a self-described “old Iowa conservative,” has joined the ranks of the so-called New Age, a movement rooted in Eastern theology but cross-fertilized by philosophy, psychology and the arts.

“Have you ever had intuition where you know something to be true?” Scott said. “This was the feeling I had. I had talked to my friend about Jan, but I never had a personal need to go talk to her.

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“So I took a week to think about it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought (her cancer) is happening for a reason.

“I said, ‘I’m an intelligent person. I’m going to go and talk to her and see what’s going on.’ ”

In the not-too-distant past, New Age was most often associated with the occult, conjuring up notions of swamis, Gypsies and crystal balls. Now--with actress Shirley MacLaine publishing books about past lives and inspiring a network TV miniseries, with Nancy Reagan revealing her interest in astrology, with National Public Radio broadcasting a Christmas story about a wizard searching for a magic crystal and with the music industry offering Grammys for New Age music--the movement’s credibility appears to be rising.

Because the movement has no formal organization or household names as its leaders, charting its public popularity is difficult. But while Los Angeles dominates the New Age scene in Southern California, Orange County people can also find an ample menu of New Age items to sample.

For example, they can go to any of a dozen or more bookstores from Yorba Linda to Costa Mesa, to a church in Irvine, to a channeling class in Newport Beach or to a past-life workshop in Huntington Beach.

Orange County Resources, a trimonthly Huntington Beach publication that has tripled its number of pages in 5 years, lists dozens of New Age events or seminars. The 160-page Southern California New Age telephone book lists nearly 240 categories of products or services. The National New Age Yellow Pages is published in Fullerton and identifies itself as “the complete directory of consciousness-raising services, products and organizations.”

But not all the New Age vibrations in the county are good.

Linda McNamar is the assistant minister at the Church of Religious Science in Huntington Beach, which claims a 3,000-member congregation. “I was comfortable calling myself a New Age person years ago, and I’m not comfortable calling myself a New Age person now because of the misunderstanding that might occur in some people’s thinking about what I believe and how I live my life,” she said.

For example, the church does not believe in putting power in outside forces, such as crystals or channels, in which people act as conduits for others to unseen spiritual contacts.

Like McNamar, others have edged away from linking themselves completely to New Age thought. The Helix Center in El Toro is often mentioned by New Agers as one of the focal points of New Age activity in the county. In the last year, however, new executive director Leonard Cohn has shied away from overtly trumpeting the bookstore as a New Age center, although it identifies some of its materials as New Age.

Instead, he identified the center as a “creative education center and bookstore” because, he said, under the previous management the center “was never a financial success. They always ran a deficit.”

In addition, he said, the lectures, seminars and other programs offered to the public suffered from waning attendance.

None of the more established New Age merchants described Orange County as a hotbed of activity, but many believe that the public’s willingness to consider New Age practices is growing.

Marcia Ingenito is editor and publisher of the National New Age Yellow Pages, a 250-page combination of telephone directory and New Age resource book.

“Orange County tends to be very conservative, and New Age was underground for a very, very long time,” she said. “What makes it quite a wonderful place to be if you’re interested in New Age is that people are coming out of the woodwork because they’re no longer afraid of being criticized, they recognize their own strength and they believe in what they’re doing.”

Ingenito said that most of the New Age merchants now advertising have been around for 10 years or more but that stereotypes of the movement--that it is satanic or cultish--kept retailers from seeking mainstream recognition.

In its most encompassing terms, the New Age movement is a continuation of the “consciousness-raising” that surfaced in the 1960s. It is as old as Eastern religions and as new as the pop-psyche trends of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Devotees tend to believe that there are vast untapped resources of energy and awareness within the human mind that, if pursued, can lead to personal betterment. It butts heads with Western religion, because most New Agers believe that traditional Judeo-Christian theology is but one source of a person’s search for truth.

But not all New Age exponents subscribe to all the movement’s practices, with many of the most committed believers warning about false prophets in the New Age camp.

It is a largely laissez faire movement, probably because it is so diverse and personalized in its approach. It doesn’t have the fervor of organized religions, because there is no credo. Indeed, it incorporates ideas as mundane as meditation and vegetarianism to things as other-worldly as belief in past-life experiences and reincarnation, channeling (getting in touch with mystic spirit guides) and personal energy fields.

Many aspects seem little more than harmless oddities and have entered the mainstream consciousness, as evidenced by the selling of crystals at major department stores or greeting card shops.

But with so many seemingly harmless oddities to it, the New Age movement has stirred some fervent opposition.

Robert Burrows is editor of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project newsletter, published by a Berkeley-based organization that opposes the New Age movement because of its conflicts with traditional Judeo-Christian religion. He said New Age “used to be assigned to the fringe part of society, but the interesting development now with New Age is that it no longer is on the fringe; it’s really mainstream.”

Despite the seemingly harmless aspects that might accompany New Age thought, it is basically a spiritual movement, Burrows said: “It speaks to the profound alienation that people experience in this culture, but it does nothing to relieve it. It actually exaggerates it and gives it religious justification.”

As such, New Age may not seem as threatening to mainstream America as have other spiritual-based movements. Indeed, New Age music, unlike the head-banging that traditionalists have come to associate with the “latest sound,” is in fact a dreamy, instrumental style that some find soothing and others find narcoleptic.

New Agers, Burrows said, believe that “humanity shares divineness with a deified creation. Humanity has all the wisdom and power of the deity. The basic appeal is power. That’s a particularly reassuring message in a society where people feel profoundly impotent.”

Writing in “Equipping the Saints,” an evangelical Christian magazine published in Anaheim, author Douglas Groothuis describes the New Age movement as a “smorgasbord of spiritual substitutes for Christianity, all heralding our unlimited potential to transform ourselves and the planet so that a ‘New Age’ of peace, light and love will break forth.”

Groothuis encouraged practicing Christians to “pray for New Agers and against the New Age movement.”

New Agers tend to be more passive toward Christians. That’s because they view Christ’s teachings as but one source of information, but not one to debase. But most concurred with the view that New Age offers a refuge for those unsatisfied with traditional religions.

Caren Croxen has a marriage and family counseling practice in Fountain Valley and is a New Age exponent. She will apply her New Age beliefs if people ask her about it.

“I think we’ve gone well beyond a particular sector, like hippies, being interested in it,” she said. “I notice in my everyday counseling, I work with some very straight people. They’ll talk about the power of the mind to keep us well or happy. They’ll talk about having lived before and reincarnation and that they expect to live again. These are topics people never brought up before in regular sessions.”

Betty Easley, activities coordinator of the Psynetics Foundation in Anaheim--which offers a wide range of New Age activities and programs--said New Age thinking is less stigmatic today because more and more people have experienced such things as psychic phenomena.

The foundation opened in 1962 as a lecture group. “New Age thinking is more accepted now because it’s come out of the back rooms,” Easley said. “Only those who are very narrow-minded would call it the work of the devil.”

Other New Agers are more dubious about how widespread the movement has become. Brian Enright, who publishes Orange County Resources from his Huntington Beach apartment, said he thinks the people who were attracted to the consciousness-raising movements of the 1960s are “the workhorses of the New Age.”

“Last year, when Shirley MacLaine came out, a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon,” he said. “Crystals and channeling, it was really fascinating. There are still people on that level, fascinated by the more dramatic aspects rather than seeing any vehicle for personal and planetary transformation. I started to wince a little about the term New Age because it came to mean so many fringy things. So there is a media New Age, and there are people deeply and genuinely committed to planetary transformation.”

Despite the pizazz of things such as channeling, Enright said his publication’s most successful issue was devoted to vegetarianism. He began his magazine in 1984, and it has peaked at 40,000 copies, distributed free at various outlets.

New Age thinking “is more mainstream but not to a large degree,” Enright said. “You can get away with wearing crystals, but if you tell someone at work you’re going to a channeling, they look at you strangely. If you tell someone you’re going to an Indian sweat lodge, they might say, ‘Hey, isn’t that great,’ but when you leave, they’re going to say, ‘That’s weird.’ ”

That does not make the movement’s intrusion into the public’s consciousness any less troubling to its opponents. Kevin Springer, editor of the evangelical Christian magazine Equipping the Saints, said he was eating lunch one day when a woman sat down next to him and began talking about the Harmonic Convergence in August, 1987, which many considered a seminal moment in the New Age.

“I realized then it was fairly pervasive,” Springer said. “The problem is that, to the people who are in this, it isn’t a joke to them. It’s very serious. It’s life and death. I have to admit that I used to just laugh it off, slough it off, but when we put this issue of the magazine together (the fall, 1988, issue devoted to the New Age movement), we realized this is a comprehensive world view they have, and it needs to be taken seriously.

“We live in a society that is so influenced by materialism and rationalism and individualism, that people are looking for something new. They’ve rejected traditional Christianity, but now they have the feeling that there has to be more than just one thing. They’re not just satisfied with what’s left. This irrational kind of involvement, whether it’s channeling or reincarnation, gives a release to people, and they’re really jumping into it.”

Springer said while “some Christians are hysterical” about New Age, he thinks that is overreaction: “I don’t perceive it as being a threat to Christianity. I perceive it as being wrongheaded and a dangerous way of thinking about life and one’s self.”

Even among supporters of the broader New Age philosophies, rifts have developed.

Cohn, a retired home builder who took over the Helix Center, said he has “some philosophical differences with New Age.” They center on his belief that the answers to people’s anxieties are found within, rather than from such outside sources as a channel.

“Here in Orange County, with our conservative population, New Age is of interest to a small percentage of the population,” Cohn said.

New Age, he said, represents another avenue “for people to find comfort in their lives and (for people) who have been turned off by the traditional religions and, to a little extent, by the totally scientific, pragmatic viewpoint and are looking to embrace or explore alternatives in terms of spirituality and healing.”

New Age appeals to them, he said, “because it promises a connection to a higher self.”

However, he said, many people became disillusioned with the movement because it promised things it could not deliver.

Even the strongest New Age devotees caution novices to be wary of those offering New Age programs. “There can be some people who are sincere and others who are fools,” according to Easley of the Psynetics Foundation. “They think they’re tapping into other dimensions. Some are and some aren’t.”

Skeptical talk does little to deter die-hard New Agers, who believe that the move toward an enlightened state is a slow evolutionary process.

Their confidence is such that Rochelle Muro has opened a New Age bookstore in Yorba Linda--one of the county’s most conservative areas.

“We needed one here,” Muro said. “Someone had to do it. I know (a large New Age clientele) is not here in north Orange County. It will grow in 2 or 3 years. It will take a year for the shock of moving in to wear off.”

But asked about the commercial perils of her venture, she said there is more to her effort than that: “My purpose is to teach, to educate.”

As for Scott of Mission Viejo, she has had no recurrence of cancer in the few months since her mastectomy and is continuing to look at her condition from a New Age point of view.


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