New age of the Golden State's gurus

By Andrew Gumbel

The wealthy residents of Los Angeles suburbs discuss astrological readings like the weather. Photo / AP
The wealthy residents of Los Angeles suburbs discuss astrological readings like the weather. Photo / AP

Even in California, where people come to convince themselves of just about anything, it's not common for a celebrity couple on the verge of divorce to declare undying love and say they are closer now than ever.

So when actor Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Chris Martin announced their "conscious uncoupling", apparently ending their 10-year marriage but not their holiday in the Bahamas or their commitment to each other, it raised as many eyebrows here as it did on the rest of the planet.

Still, the language of their announcement - and the lengthy accompanying explanation from the "integrative healers" who guided them through the break-up - did not come as a complete surprise to people who live in the Golden State.

For more than 50 years, California has played host to every imaginable form of self-realisation and spiritual enlightenment, many of them talked up by Hollywood celebrities and musicians such as Paltrow and Martin. People here may not be persuaded divorce is a positive change in the life of a couple, but they don't find the idea any stranger than, say, Shirley MacLaine's descriptions of out-of-body travel, past lives and contact with extraterrestrials.

The new age movement took off here. So did Scientology, meditation, yoga, the Krishnamurti Foundation and the modern incarnation of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. It has become so ingrained in the daily life of the thin and the affluent that the credo of self-empowerment is everywhere: people talk about living "in the moment" and "giving back to the universe", and say they are spiritual but not religious.

The advisers who coined the term "conscious uncoupling" for Paltrow and Martin fit right into that Californian tradition. Habib Sadeghi and Sherri Sami run an outfit in west Los Angeles called Be Hive of Healing. He is an osteopath and she a paediatric dentist, but the passion in their growing private practice is helping patients find balance in the familiar new age combination of mind, body and spirit.

Like their forebears, Sadeghi and Sami found success by association with celebrities, who lend credibility to their ideas and act as a promotional vehicle. Sadeghi, Paltrow wrote in the foreword of his self-published book Within earlier this year, "understands what much of modern medicine is only now beginning to explore".

That's some endorsement, especially since Sadeghi's ideas don't seem so different from ones previously advanced by Deepak Chopra and other self-realisation leaders. Everything is connected, we're all on a journey of growth, and every experience is an opportunity to learn.

Such sentiments are at the root of "conscious uncoupling": it's all about personal growth and expressing love for the process that got you there.

On the west side of Los Angeles many people - especially the divorced ones - may think Paltrow and Martin are deluded but are much more willing to accept they are sincere in their beliefs. Californians know from experience that when unlocking the mysteries of the universe, no thinking is too unconventional, no mainstream wisdom so self-evident it can't be turned on its head.

Here, near the pounding surf of Venice Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu, people discuss astrological charts like it was the weather, where offerings include the "Trusting" breakfast (three-grain tempeh scramble with vegetables, chipotle ketchup optional) and a dish called "I Am Serene", a miso kelp noodle soup.

For dabblers in new age spirituality with money to spare, there are yoga retreats in New Mexico and Baja California, and The Ashram, a fitness bootcamp in the Malibu mountains once attended by Paltrow.

For the hard core, an unaccredited institution named the University of Santa Monica offers master's degrees in spiritual psychology, described in the brochure as "the study and practice of the art and science of conscious awakening". The university was one of three institutions to which Sadeghi pledged the proceeds from his book.

The seriousness of these outlets for new age thinking varies widely. At the upper end, the ideas echo the findings of serious scientific research in medicine, psychology and other fields. At the bottom are quacks and charlatans who charge a small fortune for bottles of "oxygen-enriched" water.

One new age guru, Marianne Williamson, is running as an independent for Congress, in a district that includes Santa Monica, Malibu and Beverly Hills. As her bestselling 1997 book Healing the Soul of America proclaims, she is interested in bringing a spiritual dimension to political activism and offering a voice in Washington to what she calls the "higher consciousness community". "I just hope the public is ready for her," Deepak Chopra told the Washington Post. Presumably she can count on the vote of one G. Paltrow.

Healing exercise

"A conscious uncoupling," Habib Sadeghi and Sherri Sami explain, "is the ability to understand that every irritation and argument was a signal to look inside ourselves and identify a negative internal object that needed healing ... Conscious uncoupling brings wholeness to the spirits of both people who choose to recognise each other as their teacher."

- Observer

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