I first met Bhakti Sondra Shaye, nEe Shaivitz, BA, MA, JD, guide, teacher, and adept member of the Great White Universal Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Light, ritual master in the High Council of Gor, universal Kabbalist, Reiki master, and metaphysician, at the New Life Expo at the Hotel New Yorker last October. The gathering bills itself as “America’s Largest Mind, Body, Spirit Expo”, four floors of alternative spiritual options. Vendors bark discount rates; “consumers” haggle over the tools of their salvation. In New York, the hidden economy of New Age mysticism – elsewhere marked by disingenuous disdain for commerce – is laid bare with pride.
I spent a few hours inspecting spirit sticks, dodging feng shui-ers, and having various intangible parts of my aura balanced, stacked, and aligned. Bhakti Sondra Shaye was the least assuming person in the room. “She’s the one you want to talk to,” a woman said, when I asked her who was most attuned to New York and money. Sondra sat in a corner, wearing a purple tunic, and she wasn’t hawking anything. If you asked, she’d give you, for free, a picture of her teacher, a ruggedly handsome Irishman named Derek O’Neill, who in turn would name the famed Indian guru Sai Baba as his master. But since I told her I was investigating spirituality in New York, she did me one better. She drew a “Prema Agni” on my back, and nearly made me fall down.
The Prema Agni is a cross with two legs, a heart above the arms, and a triangle below. It was supposed to open my heart, “for love to flow in and out”.
Sondra thinks New York is a New Age spiritual centre because it’s unabashed in fusing spirituality and money. It’s a city built on the kind of beliefs embraced by stingy blue bloods on the Upper East Side, grouchy old Jews in Brooklyn, and, of course, the spiritually evolved: You get what you pay for.
If that sounds like a conservative line, it is: New Age has shed the anti-capitalist trappings of its 1960s revival to align itself with the dogmas of the new, globalising market, embracing the ancient teachings of Adam Smith, the economic patron saint of the Enlightenment, if not enlightenment.
Part and parcel of this shift is a consumer-driven model of belief. There are hundreds of spiritual traditions bandied at the New Life Expo, but the rhetoric of deliverance here is strikingly uniform. It may be a Jewish-Catholic-Latino-Pentecostal town, but New York, now, is the ultimate small-p protestant city, and everyone who buys a stick of incense, or takes a yoga class, or listens to Tibetan monks chanting is experiencing the cosmopolitan godhead: unfiltered, billable by the hour.
And yet the recent explosion in New Age spiritual practice is the result of more than commerce. In New York, at least, its catalyst was 11 September, 2001. “Spirituality” was big in the days immediately after the attack. Church attendance soared to 60, 70, 90 per cent, but it had returned to normal within a few weeks. The new traditionalism has not endured, not in New York.
Practices such as Sondra’s – religious experiences one could engage at a time of one’s own choosing – have.
It was, Sondra recalls, after the 9/11 attacks that she met her personal teacher, Derek O’Neill, at the 2001 New Life Expo. A friend of hers invited her to tag along. Sondra, already working as a successful healer, wasn’t looking for new business. She thought then – and, truth be told, thinks now – that much of what’s on offer at the expo is snake oil at best, “dark energy” at worst. But she didn’t want her friend to sit at her booth alone, so off she went. Sondra went with low expectations and was disappointed.
Then, Derek. A helmet of silver hair, ocean-blue eyes, a jaw like an anvil, a bemused half-smile.
He and his wife, Linda, came up to Sondra at her table. They’d been looking for Sai Baba. Although Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a jolly, ever-smiling Indian man with a giant Afro and a penchant for conjuring jewels, claims at least ten million devotees, Sondra recalls that she alone brought his picture to the expo.
Sondra also remembers that Derek smelled smoky, because, she’d later learn, he’d been down at Ground Zero, healing people. But that’s not what got her. She talked to him for what felt like only ten minutes, ordinary chat; but when she looked up, in mid-conversation, she realised two hours had passed. Her friend was staring at her, and Derek was gone.
At that moment, she says, she was opened to yet another new healing, of which she is the primary channeler. “Way more powerful” than her old routine, she says. Her friends, her Jewish mother who didn’t really believe in any of this, could all feel it sparking off her.
Maybe I could, too. The first time Sondra drew the Prema Agni on me – before I knew her well enough to respect her, if not necessarily share her beliefs – I felt a surge of vertigo, a spiral of twitches running down my spine. Weeks later, Sondra told me that when Derek draws the Prema Agni, people shudder, weep, and fall down – not unlike Christians who are “slain in the spirit,” an experience known to strike even nonbelievers.
Derek is no mystic. Ex-Irish Army, ex-Catholic, working-class in spirit if no longer in income – he can earn 45,000 (?24,000) with a single workshop, although he gives much of it away – he lives quietly in Dublin.
Before I could interview Sondra further, I needed to be healed. She was wary. “I don’t want to come off sounding crazy,” she said. So she decided to let me experience the energy for myself. And I did, after a fashion.
Sondra began my healing with an “Emotional Cord Cutting.” This entailed my standing very still while she swiped a foot-long blade up and down, very fast, inches from my body. She paid special attention to my crotch, which is only natural – it’s there, she pointed out, that we form many of our most unhealthy attachments, emotional and otherwise. Sondra invented this healing herself. It costs 95 (?50).
Once my emotional cords had been cut, I lay for two hours on a cold table in a cement-floor studio above the Park Slope Tea Lounge, which Sondra rents from a yoga centre by the hour. She worked me over with a battery of energy services – the rising star, divine energy healing, etheric surgery – “ancient healing modalities” revealed to her or other teachers she admires. But as far as I could tell, she wasn’t even there. Occasionally, I heard the rustle of her silk jacket, a special garment she wears to perform healings. Once, a finger traced a hard line from my right shoulder to my collarbone, but Sondra later said she hadn’t touched me anywhere but my knees and abdomen. I shivered through most of the session. Sondra later said it had been so hot in the room, she had been sweating.
The next day, I got the flu. I was down like a sedated hippo for a week. Sondra called. She said it was a healing crisis. I was lucky, she said; a lot of people experience such crises emotionally, but it’s quicker and easier to get the negative energy out through the body. The cost of the whole affair: 395 (?210).
It’s no heresy to say that most religions come with a price tag. The grammatical truth of the world’s scriptures as usually read is not, as atheists sometimes insist, imperative, a command, but rather conditional: the cosmic “If.” If you obey these rules, rewards will follow. Money always changes hands. From client to Sondra, from churchgoer to collection plate, from a corporation back to its institutional investors.
Spiritual entrepreneurs such as Sondra have been validated economically. She makes more money now than she did in the early 1990s as a young lawyer for Davis Polk & Wardwell, a powerful corporate law firm. How much is that? Two or three clients a day, from 150 to 300 (?80 to ?160) an hour, plus the occasional workshop that’ll bring in thousands of dollars for a day’s work. Enough that she buys what she wants (not much) and gives as much as she wants – enough to empty her bank account twice in the past few years – to an orphanage in India.
She sees nothing contradictory in her material comfort. The division between the sacred and the profane, God and money, she thinks, is one of the “wounds” that alternative spiritualities were meant to heal. New York itself, she says, is one big, pulsating, alternative spirituality, a DNA spiral of sacred and profane, spirit and dollars.
“Real estate,” she told me when we first met. “Perfect example.” One of Sondra’s clients is a former telecom executive called James Hatt. He moved to New York from London in 1999, and fell in love: with an American woman, the city, its opportunities. He bought properties, he sold them, he prospered. But then he’d picked up a million-dollar building in which someone had gone insane. Once he put it up for sale, the apartment sat on the market for seven months. Finally, says Hatt, a fellow real-estate agent said, “Look, there’s this woman you should try. A lot of agents use her. Nobody talks about it.” “This woman” sounded like an arsonist. But what Sondra offered, says Hatt, was a “cleansing,” a service she and other healers quietly supply for most, if not all, of the city’s major brokerages. There’s no directory for this kind of work, but Jennifer Dorfmann, a broker for property company Corcoran, told me that when she sent out a query to colleagues asking for recommendations, she received half a dozen names in a manner of minutes. Sondra provided me with a list of brokers she works with at other firms, but their employers forbid them from talking about what some clients might consider hocus-pocus, even if the cleansing fee – usually around 250 (?133) – comes out of the broker’s pocket.
“An hour and a half,” recalls Hatt. “She chants a mixture of incantations and prayers, from a variety of faiths and persuasions. Her whole technique is very silent, quiet, unto herself. Nothing for the audience, you know?”
Hatt sold the apartment two days later, and when he hired Sondra to cleanse a loft in Soho where the previous occupant had died, after it had sat unsold for four months, it also moved in a matter of days. Hatt started seeing Sondra for personal healings, long sessions that began with Sondra’s setting up an altar to a variety of divine figures and going on to channel their energy into and around Hatt’s spirit-body.
In the material world, Sondra is surpassingly gentle, an elfish assemblage of diminutive bones and smooth skin and giant eyes. These days, she believes she’s a fairie. She says that a close friend, a high-powered real-estate broker herself and a conservative woman in most respects, is “of angelic descent,” with an invisible dragon living in her apartment.
Her favourite colour is pink; it’s cultural – “I’m a girly-girl,” she says – as well as spiritual. It’s what she calls a colour of power. In cold weather she wears a pink puffy coat over a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with a Brooklyn logo, with a pink hat, pink gloves and Nikes with pink swooshes, and blue jeans that are a little too big for her. She often stands too close to people, but nobody seems to mind. Her presence is asexual, not so much celibate as ethereal.
She assumes an easy, unforced intimacy with her clients. One weekend I join her on a cat-healing house call. Once the feline patient, Bowie, is restored to health, Sondra turns to face the cat’s owner, Rose, as she lies on her couch. She frames a triangle over Rose’s face with her hands. Rose’s face collapses into her couch cushions. Sondra’s, meanwhile, has undergone an even more curious transformation. For an hour, her chin disappears. Lines normally invisible stretch like deltas from her eyes, and her smooth forehead is as furrowed as rough seas. She raises her triangle hands, the veins pop in her neck, and when she has them fully extended above her head, she blows – foof!
And that’s it. She stands, knees cracking, shakes herself out, and takes a seat on the floor beside me. She bites her lower lip.
“So, you can take your time coming back.”
Rose wiggles her toes. We sit in silence.
Rose opens her eyes. She’s crying.
“He’s with you,” Sondra says. Derek? Sai Baba? Jesus?
“I saw him,” Rose whispers, finally moving to rub her nose.
“It’s so hard. To say goodbye. I flew back. To Australia. And, and, I didn’t get there in time.”
Rose pulls herself up. Sondra moves to a seat beside her, wraps an arm around Rose’s shoulders.
“My brother,” Rose says. She shudders with tears.
Rose’s brother had been sick; she’d flown home to be with him; he’d died before she could get there.
“When I saw him, I didn’t want to come out of it,” Rose says.
“I didn’t want to come back. Here.”
She looks up at Sondra. “Did … did James” – Rose’s friend, Sondra’s client – “did he tell you about my brother?”
Sondra shakes her head. She doesn’t lie. “I didn’t know,” she says.
American corporations reportedly spend 4 billion (?2.1 billion) a year on New Age consultants. IBM provides employee seminars in the I Ching. And in the everyday, we fill our lives with uncountable, tiny totems, gestures toward the unseen. Not just candles and incense and Buddha key chains, but also commodities as ordinary as juice. Ever had one that claimed “anti-oxidant” properties, a scientific impossibility? Welcome to the New Age.
Both the Right and the Left despise this phenomenon, for the same reasons many in both camps hate New York. The Right thinks New Age is, literally, demonic, or at least shallow. The Left thinks New Age is consumer capitalism at its most dishonest, and – yes – shallow. And they’re right. Not because truth is relative, but because faith, by definition, always is. If it had an empirical basis, it wouldn’t be faith; it’d be the humdrum, material world for which people turn to faith for meaning.
There’s that grammar of faith: “if”, the offer, the deal. Theologians dismiss such negotiations with the divine as elementary, nothing more than a phase in the spiritual development of the soul. But money knows otherwise. That “if” is the prerequisite for the awesomeness of faith in a globalised world, the sovereignty not of a god but of the consumer. An entrepreneurial New Age faith like Sondra’s can serenely pigeonhole terror attacks and global disasters, regardless of why – or evidently when – they actually occur, because their meaning can be recast instantly, according to the spiritual need of the moment.
It’s simple, really. Home Depot sells the idea of home, Circuit City sells a wired world, and the new New Age sells “spiritual health” – while the right of the sovereign consumer to acquire it, purchase by purchase, is praised as the law of nature: an orthodoxy of a thousand choices, an infinitely marketable economy of belief. sm
Kings and queens of the New Age
1 Demi Moore – follower of kabbalah
Devotees of the mystical offshoot of the Jewish faith include Britney Spears and Madonna, who recruited Demi and her boyfriend Ashton Kutcher.
2 Tom Cruise – church of scientology
Movie stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta are the celebrity faces of the religion founded in the 1950s by the science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard.
3 Paris Hilton – open to persuasion
The heiress knows her new faith is working for her, “Just wearing the red string really keeps away bad energy and bad people in my life,” she says.
4 Carole Caplin – lifestyle guru
Cherie Blair’s advisor on everything from shoes to healing crystals has recently published a book, LifeSmart, which brings all of her beliefs together.