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

September 06, 1987|NINA EASTON | Nina Easton is West Coast correspondent for the American Banker.

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."

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.

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.

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