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The Capitalist Spirit

In the post-9/11 healing boom, a new battery of mystics like Sondra Shaye are raking it in.


I first met Bhakti Sondra Shaye, née Shaivitz, B.A., M.A., J.D., 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 this past 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.

A session titled “Spiritual Capitalism: What the FDNY Taught Wall Street About Money” promised to reveal a good deal of New York’s version of New Age on-the-make, but the teachers failed to show. So 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. Three middle-aged women who’d fit right in at a Betty Crocker bake-off—purveyors of “SoulTalk”TM—pointed her out. “She’s the one you want to talk to,” one of the women said, when I queried them about who was most attuned to New York and money. As she pointed out Sondra, she gave the anti-agers, crystal forkers, and aromatic transformers just the slightest eye roll. 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 liked that word, investigating—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, one of them serrated, 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 center—maybe the spiritual center—because it’s unabashed in fusing the worlds of 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. There’s no free lunch. Brain work should be well compensated.

If that sounds like a conservative line, it is: New Age has shed the anti-capitalist trappings of its sixties revival to align itself with the dogmas of the new, globalizing 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. This new New Age takes as its mediator, its high priest or priestess, the hero of the story, you: the recipient of Esalen strokes and Prema Agnis and aromatic transformations. New York, spiritual capital of the world, has become the fulfillment of Martin Luther’s dream of divine access—“the priesthood of all believers”—to say nothing of the prognosis made by Max Weber in his 1904 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 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 just as Luther and Weber would have wanted: 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 September 11, 2001. “Spirituality” was big in the days right after the attack. At first, church attendance soared, 60, 70, 90 percent, depending on which pastor, which rabbi, which culture warrior you asked. But within a few weeks, it returned to normal. The new traditionalism did not endure, not in New York.

Sondra makes more money now as a healer than she did in the early nineties as a young litigator for Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Practices such as Sondra’s—religious experiences one could engage at a time of one’s own choosing—have. The rhetoric of “spiritual war,” popular among conservative Evangelicals, found a parallel among New Age adherents, as New Yorkers spoke of “wounds,” and “scars,” and allies in their “personal battles.” And then there was the sensual appeal of it all. The scents and the poses and two dozen ways to get your back rubbed, chopped, and prodded. Down at ground zero, firemen lined up for massages. Across the city, cheap Chinese tui na became more common than shoe shines, its vague “spirituality” implied by the masseurs’ inability to speak much English.

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.

After the Al Qaeda attacks, America’s Largest Mind, Body, Spirit Expo was experiencing serious doubts. Detoxification was big that year; alchemy, with its focus on instant wealth, not so much. Sondra went with low expectations and was disappointed.

Then, Derek. A helmet of prematurely 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 10 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 slayed her. She talked to him for what felt like only ten minutes, ordinary chat; but when she looked up, in mid-conversation, she realized 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. “Way.” Her friends, her Jewish mother who didn’t really believe in any of this mishegoss, could all feel it sparking off her.

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