“Fall into the arms of the earth,” a soothing, buttery voice near-whispers above my head. “Feel the strength of the universe.”
I am lying with my eyes closed on a massage table in a pin-drop-quiet, candlelit room at the Maha Rose Center for Healing in Brooklyn, New York, receiving my first session of Reiki, the hands-on Japanese energy therapy that draws on ancient techniques. Maha Rose’s co-founder and holistic healer Luke Simon is using light touches of his fingers to press my temples, then my hands, then my feet, to transfer his energy—the “energy of unconditional love,” he says—to my body. It’s not unlike the way your grandma might have stroked your hair before you fell asleep, really.
Simon passes a sprig of burning sage past my nostrils, “for cleansing and awakening.” He dabs rose oil over my heart, “for love and beauty.” He forces me to belly laugh. “Your body doesn’t know whether it’s real laughter or not,” Simon says. Real or fake, it produces a chemical happiness. He has me repeat out loud, “I am enough, I am enough, I am enough.”
By the time the session is over, I am facedown on the table, and the room feels as if it’s slowly, very slowly, whirlpooling me into its heart center. Or something like that. I’m an iPhone junkie who is out of my element. Before we began, I confided my clichéd spiritual blockages: I yearn to unplug, to be more present and more patient, like someone who could conceivably keep calm and carry on. Now, it’s as though I just got a massage . . . for my mind.
I’m hardly alone in my pilgrimage here, taking three separate subways, from Manhattan. Five years ago, this airy urban ashram was half its current size, an “underground community” offering Reiki and acupuncture sessions to a few friends of Simon (a 2008 Sarah Lawrence graduate from New Mexico) and co-founder Lisa Levine. “There was a moment where we wondered, ‘Does anyone want it?’” Simon recalls.
But with each year that passed, “It was like something was shifting in the culture,” he says. People they’d never met before were showing up, saying, “I really want to meditate,” or “I’ve been wanting to try Reiki.” Maha Rose’s client base grew to the hundreds who now come here for a host of holistic healing modalities, including acupuncture, breath work, tarot-card readings, flower-essence therapy (the practice of dropping flower essence blends beneath your tongue with the hope that their vibration, or energy, can provide spiritual balance), and workshops like “Full Moon Circle” and “Healing the Wild Soul.” Their space doubled to a large ground floor meeting place with large, white, chiffon curtains flapping in the windows.
“The spiritual awakening really feels like it’s happening,” says Simon. “The word on the street is a little more like, ‘Hey, let’s open our minds to these things.’ As we get so technological and so fast, there is a new, gaping need in us to have meaning.”
Welcome to the new New Age, in which the plugged-in, stressed-out masses of the digital era are embracing once-taboo holistic healing methods in pursuit of a much-needed moment of zen.
It’s a bit like the Californication of America. Meditation is at saturation point. Everyone from Katy Perry to Kobe Bryant to LinkedIn C.E.O. Jeff Weiner have touted their devotion to it. “Mindfulness” is a buzzword in both billion-dollar hedge funds and schools across the country. Once more, niche modalities like Reiki are gaining ground.
And a renewed interest in all things magical, mystical, and spiritual is bubbling in pop culture—from Amy Schumer skewering Millennial women’s obsession with “The Universe” to the Orange Is the New Black arc devoted to Norma’s silent healing powers to Don Draper om’ing on a bluff at the Esalen Institute, a real-life meditation mecca in Big Sur, California, in the final moments of Mad Men.
The new New Age has translated to the commercial realm, too. There is crystal-infused, biodynamic chocolate being sold by ZenBunni, a small company in Venice, California, and “positive energy skincare” by SkinAgain, a line that includes anti-wrinkle creams stamped with “positive energy-infused” holograms. There’s even a meditation app, Headspace, with more than 2 million users worldwide, co-founded by advertising executive Rich Pierson after he discovered meditation as an antidote to career burnout.
Forty or so years after the golden New Age era of the 60s and 70s, “there is a feeling that people are still unsatisfied with their lives,” says Timothy Brown, a professor at Northeastern University currently researching New Age cultures. “The practices that have been passed down from Eastern traditions are time-tested and very powerful. Even the most basic kinds of stuff about having control over your thoughts and emotions and being calm and getting over the oversubscribed, workaholic way that we live is very attractive.”
Some holistic neophytes are defectors from Christianity or Judaism or other traditional religions: trust and participation in organized religion are at record lows. But “the fact that people are involved less in traditional religion doesn’t signal a desire to dispense with the search for meaning,” says Brown. “It just signals the search for meaning going into new venues.”
Few, if any of these forms of holistic healing—Reiki, meditation, crystal therapy, flower essences—are new. Some, like meditation, are ancient. But instead of being roundly dismissed as hocus-pocus (or flat-out bullshit), they’re being embraced by the mainstream, due in large part to the anxiety of living in a post-9/11, war-on-terror, economic-collapsing, partisan-gridlocked government clime.
“The stuff we had in place to support us 5 years ago, 10 years ago—seeing a therapist once a week, going to yoga or ballet class, getting a pill from the doctor or getting a massage—it’s not cutting it anymore,” says Krista Mitchell, a crystal-therapy healer in New York who calls herself the “Rock Whisperer.” Instead, “people are reaching for the spiritual.”
In the 11 years since starting her business, which includes consultations in which she prescribes various crystals believed to have therapeutic properties—amethyst is “great for stress,” she notes—Mitchell says her client base has not only grown in number but in range. In the past, she mostly saw seasoned spiritual seekers. But in recent years, “I’m getting a lot more people who are in very high-stress industries,” she says, including high-level United Nations staffers, media executives, fashion and jewelry designers, and actors seeking solace from the paparazzi.
I’m not sure if I believe crystals possess unique energetic properties, but while at Maha Rose, I buy a jagged, chicken-nugget-size chunk of black tourmaline, said to create a protecting energy. Simon recommends it to shelter me from digital overload and the mania of New York. Bright, pink crystals are also on sale here— “rhodochrosite,” according to a label, is “useful in attracting soul mates”— and there’s a book titled Magical Unicorns and lilliputian vials of emerald-colored glitter labeled “faerie dust.” When I ask what’s (really) inside them, Simon looks directly into my eyes, smiles, and says, “It’s faerie dust.”
At Simon’s advice, I tuck the tourmaline under my pillow for a few weeks, unsure if it’s really a talisman protecting me from the negative energy fields radiating from my phone. Against his advice, I neglect to name my crystal or talk to it. But one night when I’m tossing and turning and unable to sleep, I reach for it. I run my fingers over its rough edges, clutching it like a child might a stuffed animal. It may or may not be the reason I fall back to sleep.
Amanda Eichen, a 35-year-old guidance counselor in Long Island, New York, was “not remotely interested” in holistic healing (“I think everything is a scam,” she quips) until two years ago, when the effect of years of productive psychotherapy seemed to plateau.
“Life is more overwhelming than it used to be,” says Eichen. She was depressed after a devastating breakup and coping with ongoing anxiety and self-esteem issues. “I would have tried anything short of drugs or suicide to feel better,” she says.
Her first Reiki session, she recalls, “was the first time I felt any sort of relief in months. I felt so deeply connected.” Within a few months, Reiki “subtly changed my life,” says Eichen, calming her nerves and helping to make her a more confident and assertive person.
Heidi Smith, who used to work in publishing in New York, had a similar revelation when she began to pursue a graduate degree in Mental Health Counseling in 2013. “I just didn’t feel like [psychology] was encompassing the whole truth for me,” she says. During a “really challenging emotional time,” she turned to the flower essence pennyroyal, inspired by a book her boyfriend gave her for Christmas. It was a “highly protective essence,” one Smith says helped distance her from a turbulent time.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is so not part of the psychotherapeutic work that I’m doing [in school],” says Smith, “but this is working on such a profoundly deeper level.”
Smith began studying flower essences with a master herbalist and founded Moon & Bloom Integrative and Flower Essence Therapy in New York. When I meet her there, in a cozy studio off Union Square West lined with book shelves and Thai Buddha statues, I zero in on a box of tissues on the wooden table. Over the ensuing hour, during my standard intake session with Smith, a wisp of a platinum-blonde woman wearing a crystal around her neck, it occurs to me that tears are shed here.
We discuss my family, my health, my marriage, my hang-ups, and my goals. I repeat my desire to unplug, and be more present. Maybe to feel more spiritually connected while I’m at it. Smith mostly listens, then leads me in closing my eyes for a guided meditation. She asks me if I’m seeing any colors. “I’m seeing . . . purple?” I say. “You’re seeing purple,” she repeats, her voice flowing like warm syrup. “I’m seeing that too.” When I open my eyes, I’m sad it’s over, like waking up to realize a good dream wasn’t real life.
Two days later, my tincture arrives in the mail in a glass dropper. It’s a blend of rock water (“the flexibility flower”), yarrow (a “deeply protective” essence reported by users to repel negative emotions), and wormwood, the essence for “breaking out of old patterns that have attached to the heart.”
For three weeks, three times a day, I drop the apple-brandy-flavored tincture beneath my tongue (the essences are mixed with brandy for preservation purposes, and water from a well on Smith’s family’s property in Vermont). The effects are said to be subtle, and they are. I am not howling at the moon in a cloak in the middle of Central Park. But I may be flying off the handle less frequently, striving for more patience during my toddler’s tantrums. Maybe it’s the rock water’s vibrational energy working its magic. Or maybe it’s just wanting to believe it is.
Amid the converts, skeptics remain. “There is a really strong impulse within the scientific community that anything that science can understand is therefore true and anything science can’t understand is superstition,” says Brown. The energy reputedly flowing from Simon’s hands to my feet, or contained in a hunk of tourmaline or in a tincture of flower essence, isn’t measurable in the scientific sense. As such, New Age practices have historically, and continue to be, dismissed as, at best, pseudo-science and, at worst, quackery. It’s often branded as cult-y by academics who considered it a new religion.
Practitioners like Simon are nonplussed, and characteristically (holistically?) calm, when I ask about people who believe they’re peddling snake oil.
“I don’t feel I have to prove anything,” says Simon. “This is what works for me and I’m not going to try to do a jihad to try to change your mind.” He says he laughs at the naysayers who shout the loudest, though, “because, well, you seem really worked up about trying to prove that it’s wrong. Are you scared? It’s just a crystal. Hold it and see what happens.”
It’s a popular misconception that spiritual healing and science must be mutually exclusive. (You can believe in the power of modern medicine and receive chemo, for example, but supplement traditional treatment with Reiki.) In fact, there are efforts by thought leaders, says Brown, to link spirituality and science. The Dalai Lama, for one, has a longstanding relationship with the neuroscience community. And a report earlier this year from the University of California-Davis Center for Mind and Brain found that meditation affects the brain on a cellular level, and is linked to higher levels of telomerase, an enzyme crucial for the long-term health of cells in the body. Another study, by the National Center of Biotechnology Information, found that Reiki reduced heart rate in lab rats. (The experiment entailed certified healers pressing their open palms against the rat cages to transfer energy to some of the rodents, and untrained posers similarly touching other cages without emanating Reiki.)
Mitchell notes that her crystal healing practice “has met that scientific method of doing the same thing under similar circumstances time and time again and getting a similar result”—satisfied, happier clients with more balanced lives. Whether the molecular structure of the crystals she recommends possess healing powers or are just rocks, they’re making people feel better.
“I challenge anyone to leave a Reiki session not feeling more relaxed,” echoes Eichen, the guidance counselor from Long Island, who has recommended it to some parents who have children dealing with anxiety or depression. She points to families of the dead visiting psychic mediums. “Whether or not those people are real, if they make you feel more at peace, who gives a fuck if it’s real or not?”