Of God and Shirley MacLaine

Because I attended Shirley MacLaine’s Higher Self Seminar, I contacted what might be called my Higher Self. Because I honestly and openly reported what had happened to me there, I set out upon the path that has brought me to a vastly expanded universe.

When I got home from the Higher Self Seminar weekend, I wrote up a 2,000-word piece for my newspaper, to appear the following Sunday. I didn’t try to describe meeting my “higher self,” because for a general audience a third-hand description would be worse than none at all. (Third-hand, in that they would have had to interpret my interpretation of my experience.) It is one thing to describe a thing to someone who may use that description as a guide or as a trail-marker. It is quite another, futile, thing to describe it to those who will then judge its validity offhand, without having had the experience and without making any attempt to have the experience. Yet I didn’t hide behind the journalist’s facade of pretended impartiality. I was more willing to be called a fool than to pretend that nothing had happened to me.

But I admit, I had qualms when, on the Friday before publication, I saw the lead article in the “Commentary” section page proofs! They had made my suggested headline (“Shirley MacLaine’s not the only one out on a limb”) into a subhead, and had used “In the spirit” used as the head. “Oh God,” I thought, “what have I done?” Nothing in the piece was phony or shallow. But it was so open and unprotected! I suddenly wasn’t so sure I wanted it so widely distributed.

On the Monday following, I went to work braced for a wave of criticism or ridicule. Instead, I got reinforcement. Reporters and editors talked to me (carefully!) in the hallways, showing intense but strictly private interest, even fascination. I might have known. It was my first experience of how much underground interest there is in the subject.

This turned out to be my introduction to the local New Age community, because in 1987, a newspaper article giving “inside” (and favorable) coverage of a metaphysical event was unprecedented. The article drew some favorable phone calls, and a local radio host had me on his show to talk about the seminar. But it wasn’t long before we received a wave of letters to the editor.

A few were positive, but far more were critical. And although my article had criticized materialism, rather than fundamentalism, nearly all the adverse letters came from fundamentalists rather than from materialists. (Maybe science-worshippers considered the subject beneath their notice.)

I was bemused. My piece hadn’t attacked their religious beliefs even implicitly. Contacting your higher self needn’t be done within a Christian framework, yet certainly may be, and has been for nearly two thousand years, as I had explicitly said. And (like Bob Monroe, but three years before I read his books), I had written in a very low-key, matter-of-fact manner, sensing that dramatization is falsification, and that descriptions of metaphysical pursuits are very prone to just this error. I had done my best to get through to as many people as possible. Yet here were people saying that getting in touch with our higher selves was the work of the devil.

One man wrote that as “a person’s spirit becomes open, the susceptibility to demonic influences increases. I know this to be true because at one time I touched on the occult and received a very bad experience.” He suggested that searchers “do it under God’s guidance by way of a qualified person such as a pastor or priest in an established church.” As if people like me would have been still searching if we had found what we need there!

Another said Shirley MacLaine “offers more abstraction and vagueness to a large group of desperate souls in search of a quick fix in their spiritual lives.” He said she “came to town to peddle an ancient, rehashed version of sorcery and nether-world indulgence.” He added that she had been his favorite actress, but was “now someone who must be avoided at all costs. The Holy Spirit demands it.” This name-calling was justified, presumably, because he knew what The Holy Spirit demands.

Another said she was “shocked and appalled at the publicity your newspaper gave the seminar,” which she termed a “rip-off.” Ms. MacLaine, she said, had used “various brainwashing techniques such as `visualization'” and was “playing with fire.” I was to learn in years to come that many fundamentalist churches fear — perhaps more than any other single thing — individual attempts to commune with spirit in the absence of whatever version of the Bible that church happens to believe in. Some teach that meditation is dangerous as “Satan can insert thoughts into open minds.” God, apparently, can’t.

Well, I knew I could trust the Higher Self, and knew I could trust God. But each of these labels came with its own emotional nuances, and they didn’t fit all that well together. It’s too easy for the idea of God to overwhelm our experience of any larger spiritual reality. Higher Self was a pretty vague concept, but that didn’t really matter. I didn’t know just what I had connected to at the seminar, but I did know that I had connected to something. I now had something that I didn’t just believe, but knew first-hand. It was a start.

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