LONDON – Even in California, where people come to convince themselves of just about anything, it is 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 actress Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” last month, apparently ending their 10-year marriage but not their planned holiday together in the Bahamas or their commitment to each other, it raised as many eyebrows there as it did on the rest of the planet.
Still, the language of their announcement — and of the lengthy accompanying explanation from the “integrative healers” who have guided them through the break-up — did not come as a complete surprise to people who live in the Golden State.
For more than half a century, California has played host to every imaginable form of self-realization and spiritual enlightenment, many of them talked up by Hollywood celebrities and musicians such as Paltrow and Martin. People there may not be persuaded that divorce is a positive development in the life of a couple, but they do not find the idea any stranger than, say, Shirley MacLaine’s frequent descriptions of her experiences with out-of-body travel, past lives and contact with extraterrestrials.
The new age movement took off there. So did Scientology, meditation, yoga, the Krishnamurti Foundation and the modern incarnation of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. By now it has all become so ingrained in the daily life of the thin and the affluent that the credo of self-empowerment is everywhere: people who talk about living “in the moment” and “giving back to the universe,” people who say they are spiritual but not religious, people who finish their yoga practice with a bow and a namaste every bit as reverent as the amens they learned in church as children.
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 is a pediatric dentist, but their passion in their growing private practice is in helping their patients find balance in the familiar new age combination of mind, body and spirit.
Like their forebears, Sadeghi and Sami have found success through their association with celebrities, who lend credibility to their ideas as well as acting as a promotional vehicle to attract other acolytes. Sadeghi, Paltrow wrote in the introduction to a self-published book of his earlier this year, “understands what much of modern medicine is only now beginning to explore.” That’s some endorsement, especially since Sadeghi’s ideas do not seem so different from ones previously advanced by Deepak Chopra, Fritjof Capra and other leaders of the self-realization movement. Everything is connected, we are all on a journey of personal growth, and every experience, good or bad, is an opportunity to learn.
Western medicine, in this world view, is limited because it treats the body and not the whole person; throw in a little Eastern mysticism and you will feel much better.
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.
“A conscious uncoupling,” Sadeghi and 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 recognize each other as their teacher.”
All this is a long way from the values of heartland America, where — according to the semipermanent soundtrack of country music on the radio — men are heartless, women are treacherous and divorce means lawyers, liquor and bitter fights over the children.
That helps explain the generally cynical reaction to Paltrow and Martin and the belief that they will start fighting like any other divorcing couple when it comes to the division of their considerable assets.
“New age gobbledegook to avoid saying they are getting an everyday divorce” was how one conservative website dismissed the whole thing. Several comments on social media have suggested that the only meaningful uncoupling here is between two gullible celebrities and their money.
The cynicism is tempered considerably on the west side of Los Angeles, where many people — especially the divorced ones — may still think Paltrow and Martin are deluded but are much more willing to accept that they are sincere in their beliefs. Californians know from experience that when it comes to unlocking the mysteries of the universe, no thinking is considered too unconventional, no mainstream wisdom so self-evident it cannot be turned entirely on its head.
There, near the pounding surf of Venice Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu, people discuss astrological charts like it was the weather. They might consider a massage at the Om Holistic Health Center, or a meal at Cafe Gratitude, a vegan mecca on a hopping new stretch of Rose Avenue in Venice, 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.
Among the many alternative treatments on offer is an intriguing device called a quantum biofeedback machine, a metal box full of switches and straps that purports to measure and correct the health of your energy systems, or chakras. A friend who tried it a few years ago found no relief for his back pain, but learned he had been a French criminal in South America in a past life.
For dabblers and amateurs in new age spirituality with money to spare, there are yoga retreats in New Mexico and Baja California, and something called The Ashram, a fitness boot camp in the Malibu mountains once attended by Paltrow where the exercise is, by all accounts, brutal and the food is organic, homegrown and served in very small portions.
For the hard core, an unaccredited institution calling itself 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 “Within.”
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 end are the quacks and charlatans who charge a small fortune for bottles of “oxygen-enriched” water — no different, chemically, from what comes out of the tap — or gurus such as James Arthur Ray, who in 2009 persuaded dozens of people to spend $10,000 on a retreat in Arizona where they re-enacted the Native American “sweat lodge” ritual, in which water is poured over hot rocks in a tent to induce a trancelike state. Three of his paying guests died and Ray was sent to prison for negligent homicide.
Many of the modern new age trends stem from two distinctly Californian sources. The first is the small mountain town of Ojai, 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, where the Theosophical Society set down American roots at around the same time that the Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti paid his first visit, in 1922. To this day, Ojai remains a mecca for spiritual warriors seeking balance, crystals and enlightenment.
And the second is the Esalen Institute, a 49-hectare (120-acre) resort built around a hot spring overlooking the Pacific at Big Sur that became a prime destination in the 1960s, not least because of its naked massages and its reputation for wild sex. It was there that Eastern mysticism first blended with the counterculture, helped by visits from George Harrison and many of the leading musicians of the time.
Every California generation since has had its new age luminaries, everyone from Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, to Shirley MacLaine, to perhaps the biggest promoter of them all, Oprah Winfrey.
Now another new age guru, Marianne Williamson, is running as an independent candidate for Congress, in a district that includes Santa Monica, Malibu and Beverly Hills. As her best-selling 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,” her friend and fellow guru Deepak Chopra told the Washington Post recently. Her chances of beating the establishment in what has traditionally been a safe Democratic party seat look slim, according to early polls.
Presumably, though, she can count on the vote of one G Paltrow.