The Capitalist Spirit

Photo: Jamie Isaia

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.

Sondramakes more moneynow as a healer than she did in theearlynineties as a younglitigator for DavisPolk &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.

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 with a single workshop, although he gives much of it away), he lives in Dublin like an ordinary guy, with an ordinary family. On the phone, he makes jokes, asks me about my background, talks about pop music. But he is “so fucking evolved,” Sondra says—she and Derek both love the word fucking, because “it grounds you”—that while he teaches a workshop, “his consciousness can be off having a Guinness somewhere.” One of her ambitions is to join Derek—a married man with whom she is deeply, chastely, in love—for a pint on the astral plane. But she’s not that powerful.

Actually, though (Sondra also likes that word, its marriage of skepticism and belief), actually, she will be soon. Things are happening in other dimensions. Channels are opening. It’s no coincidence, her friends tell me, that I’m writing about Sondra. The power is growing. Someday soon, she’ll join the metaphysical Derek. Sai Baba, too, and Jesus, Krishna, Merlin, all the ascended masters, like a great big dinner party. Sondra doesn’t normally drink, but when that happens, she’ll raise a glass. It’s going to be fucking amazing.

Before I could interview Sondra further, I needed to be healed. “It will clear you,” Sondra told me. Later, both she and Derek would declare that God, not New York Magazine, had sent me to be their gospel writer, but at the beginning, Sondra 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.

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 center 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’d been so hot in the room she’d been sweating.

Money is themeans by which the New Age proves itself a religious movement that has a placein theeconomy of belief.

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. Price tag for the whole affair: $395. Sondra comped me.

I mention these sums not to cast doubt on the authenticity of the services rendered. You don’t have to be a moral relativist to recognize that “true” and “false” are empty categories when you’re trying to understand other people’s mysteries. The light flashing off the blade, the bead of orange at the tip of a stick of incense slashing along with the knife, the sweetness of its smoke, the look of concentration that makes Sondra’s giant brown eyes flutter and draws her pretty face into a scary look of loose-jawed concentration—it all made for sensual accoutrements to what could, for some, be a persuasive metaphor. Viewed from another perspective, Sandra’s healing services are no sillier nor more profound than the idea that by dunking yourself in water, you experience death and resurrection, or that by beating yourself on the chest every Yom Kippur, you really take responsibility for a whole community’s sins.

If Sondra’s Cord Cutting lacks the historical pedigree of better-known rituals, it is no less “real.” In fact, it may be Sondra’s steep rates that are proof of her spirit guides’ full arrival in the pantheon of American gods; money is the means by which Sondra and other New Age healers show themselves to be a religious movement that’s within the economy of belief. “Some people have this misconception that spiritual work is real only if it’s free of charge,” Sondra told me early on in what she’d come to call “our work” together. “Great. Cardinal Law will help you for free.” She doesn’t have to add the tacit disclaimer: With him, there are all sorts of long-term hidden costs.

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. It’s all about the deal. Money always changes hands. From client to Sondra, from churchgoer to collection plate, from a corporation back to its institutional investors.

And practitioners such as Sondra found their client base expanded by the ranks of the marginally “spiritual”—real-estate agents who wanted properties “healed” of the “bad energy” lingering from those who fled the city, working-class stiffs who decided that in “a time of war” it’s okay to be emotional about one’s “inner pain,” former fundamentalists who believe they can’t live without some kind of spiritual practice, not anymore.

Such people stand at a convergence of trends: the mainstreaming of therapeutic language, the collapse of conventional Christianity’s good manners and carefully drawn private-public boundaries, and the economic validation of spiritual entrepreneurs such as Sondra, who makes more money now than she did in the early nineties as a young litigator for Davis Polk & Wardwell, a powerful corporate law firm. How much is that? Two or three clients a day, from $150 to $300 an hour, plus the occasional workshop that’ll bring in thousands of dollars for a day’s work. Do the math. Ask her accountant. 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 exec named James Hatt. Hatt 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 co-op in which someone had gone insane. Once he listed it 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 L. Dorfmann, a broker for 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—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.

In the early eighties, when she was an English student at Rutgers, Sondra was “goth before there was goth,” moping to the Smiths and the Violent Femmes. Later, when she was getting an M.A. in fiction at New York University, she had a sideline in modeling. When she graduated from Brooklyn Law near the top of her class in 1992, she molted into tailored suits and conservative hair. Bored by corporate law practice into a state of depression, she left Davis Polk to work as a part-time attorney while studying acting at the Stella Adler school.

Now her favorite color is pink; it’s cultural—“I’m a girl-girl,” she says—as well as spiritual, what she calls a color of power. In cold weather she wears a pink puffy coat over a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with a brooklyn logo, with a pink hat and 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.

Still, 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.

“I know.”

“It’s so hard. To say good-bye. 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.

Jim Farah, a Corcoran real-estate agent, sits with perfect calm as Sondra squirts holy water—tap, blessed by her, dispensed from a pink plastic spritzer—on the carpet, ceiling, and walls of a Kips Bay apartment he’s been trying to sell. It’s a one-bedroom in a doorman building, with an open terrace overlooking a dazzling, gold-domed church and the East River, and it’s priced very reasonably—$680,000—but it’s not moving. Farah, a sober, dignified man with neat gray hair, a black jacket, and a gray sweater, “baptized Episcopalian,” a former retail executive with no supernatural experiences, called Sondra. Now she’s standing in the living room, her eyes fluttering and her shoulders twitching as she calls in a full congregation of minor and major gods.

“Jim,” I whisper. “Does this—is any of this kind of, I don’t know, hard to swallow?”

Farah shakes his head and offers the best defense of New Age I’ve encountered. “Absolutely not,” he says. “To some extent, it’s a language of its own.” The terms, he says, may be peculiar, but the ideas at hand—that spaces reflect their inhabitants (“bad sex energy,” Sondra had diagnosed this property), that faith goes by many names, that all rituals, “true” or “false,” cohere around metaphors of our own creation—are perfectly ordinary.

Sondra slumps, hangs like a puppet on strings, straightens, and leaves the apartment. She needs to get some distance, so she can draw a magic circle around the newly cleansed space. Neither seller nor buyer will consciously budge an inch on the basis of this invisible shield. Farah, like most brokers, won’t even mention the procedure. I look at him, hands folded in his lap, waiting for Sondra to return. It’s then that I understand: He has purchased this spell, the details of which do not concern him, for his own peace of mind.

Around them, Sondra and Derek have a magic circle that seems to serve, at the least, the psychological needs of their students. And beneath it all, they have the perfect small-business model—especially since they continue attracting students and training a corps of healers, who then go on to win new adherents and train more healers.

It’s Amway without the hooks, a pyramid scheme without a catch. According to the social critics John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene (themselves sort of New Age sociologists), American corporations spend $4 billion a year on New Age consultants. IBM provides employee seminars in the I Ching. On a smaller scale, the Soho branch of Corcoran invited Sondra to address a group of 80 brokers. And in the everyday, we all 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, all of them. The Christian crusaders and the intellectual scolds and even the New Agers themselves. 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.

September 11, 2001, a date around which Sondra’s own spiritual biography revolves, is a case in point. After weeks of conversation, Sondra exploded the chronology of her own story. “You know,” she said, “I was checking my records, and I realized it wasn’t 2001 that I met Derek. It was a year later.” She mentioned this in passing, as if it changed nothing.

How could she mine September 11 for personal drama? The answer, of course, is even more obvious than the question. To make a story of loss is to alter the reality of the dead to suit the needs of the living. Yet, take another look at your crucifix, listen to the stories of the patriarchs, open your Koran at random—that’s what faith does. That’s what we do. Rightly or wrongly, we search for a whole whenever we find a hole in our lives.

One of the rules attending the drawing of the Prema Agni is that the recipient must give at least $7 to a good cause. One day, I told Sondra I’d given my $7 and then some to tsunami relief. Sondra agreed that counted. But the tsunami didn’t really register for her as it did for most of the world.

“If you want to know the truth, my guides told me it was gonna happen about a year ago. That’s why I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, the tsunami! The tsunami!’ ” And she won’t be shocked by the next disaster. “It’s already written in the karmic book, the Book of Life,” she said.

The “karmic book, the Book of Life”—in a phrase, Sondra assimilates Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. But these awful fated events “can be erased,” Sondra said, if we’d all just learn “compassion.”

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 globalized 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, 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.

The Capitalist Spirit