“People think stones aren’t living things, but they actually have their own characteristics, their own feelings,” he tells me.
“I see,” I venture. Control your face, Sophie. “So what do you mean by, uh, talking to them?”
“Well it’s not actually in English, or like a human language. Crystals reply with ideas or feelings, they draw their energy from you—we call this manifesting. But the key thing is that you have to believe in the crystals for them to work.”
Then he tells me he can also talk to trees, and my brain starts howling in protest.
Amongst other things, it invited attendees to ‘open [their] hearts and minds to receive uplifting messages of love’. They would learn techniques of true meditation that would help them ‘let go of the mind and and be integrated as one with the universe’, and ‘connect and reconnect with crystal allies who are unconditional in their love’.
Upon coming across a promotional post for the event on Instagram, I was sold—not by the marketing copy per se, but by its astonishing woolliness.
What was this light it kept speaking of? What did it mean to be one with the universe? And what on earth was a crystal ally?
It’s also big business. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop platform, perhaps best known for flogging products like Psychic Vampire Repellent (US$27), is now worth over US$250million, while Lululemon rode the wave to its IPO via its comically expensive yoga pants.
Closer to home, the creep of wellness into the mainstream has been slower, but no less insistent. Just over 3 years ago, the inaugural Wisdom 2.0 Asia conference made wary business execs, unused to the lack of corporate jargon, twitch from the use of terms like ‘loving kindness’. Açaí bowls were unheard of, and the only dairy alternative around was soy milk.
Fast-forward to today, where the trappings of self-betterment are everywhere. HR departments organise mindfulness sessions on the regular, there’s an outdoor yoga session in the CBD on any given evening, and we know that ‘açaí’ is pronounced ‘ah-sigh-ee’. Green juice, antioxidants, almond milk, and namaste are all recognisable players in this cultural moment—if not yet wholly normal, then at least on the fringes of becoming so.
The Peony Junior Room at Marina Bay Sands, on a break from wedding season, has had its banquet tables swapped out for bright pink tentage and masses of potted plants. Within seconds of entering the ballroom, it becomes clear that I’ve stumbled into a very particular subset of wellness, and down a rabbit hole in which the laws of science do not apply.
At least entry was free.
Of the 12 or so booths, nearly all of them are devoted to practices like sound healing, oracle and tarot readings, energy work, crystals, and palmistry. The two most normal-looking sell art (nonetheless dubbed ‘Soul Art’) and a range of herbal teas and essential oils.
Most of the booths have names that perfectly evoke otherworldliness, while being so fuzzy as to give me no idea what they’re selling (‘Sound Alchemy’; ‘Pure Authentic Living’; ‘Raine of Light’). As I wander around the ballroom sipping butterfly pea tea, I spy deck after deck of tarot cards, a statue of Ganesh, Tibetan singing bowls, Guan Yin candles, angel soap, and more crystal bracelets than I can stack on both arms. About the only thing I don’t see is Psychic Vampire Repellent.
As I wander around, however, I realise this is going to be vastly more difficult than expected.
My chat with Justin is only the start. Jeffrey, Justin’s colleague and founder of The Living Wheel, wears a pendant that he tells me is the tooth of a megalodon, a prehistoric shark which became extinct around 2.6 million years ago.
Everyone at this event seems capable of speaking only in abstractions. Eventually, I lose track of the number of times someone references ‘the highest truth’ or ‘the divine’, and I still have no idea what these mean.
Given all this, I can’t help wondering how much traction concepts like these have gotten with Singaporeans, with our fondness for quantifiable KPIs and our national ethos of pragmatism. After all, it’s quite a step up from acknowledging the benefits of a few minutes of silent meditation, to believing your palm can show if you’re at risk of bowel cancer.
Despite this, as I take in the scene around me, it strikes me how normal everyone looks. I don’t spy a single person in rainbow-striped harem pants, and the majority of attendees are locals. Everyone, vendors and visitors alike, looks like somebody you’d pass without a second glance on the MRT, and not a hippie with a PhD in quackery.
When I ask Justin if he’s ever been made fun of for his claims, he laughs.
“Of course! If I were to go to my colleagues and tell them that I can talk to crystals, they’d ask me, have you taken your medicine?”
As a child, his parents, disturbed by his tendency to talk to thin air, took him to a temple to “have [his] Third Eye closed.”
“Except,” he points out, “I don’t think it worked, because my Third Eye is still open.”
Iris smiles indulgently when I tell her I’m not sure if I buy what she’s telling me; I get the sense she’s heard this many times before. In fact, several vendors tell me that they haven’t ‘come out’ to their families or colleagues about their interest in New Age practices for fear of damaging their relationships or professional reputations. Many of them have worked, or are still working, in the corporate world. Legal counsel, quality assurance executive, and journalist number amongst their occupations.
While the vendors are candid about how New Age can be a hard sell to Singaporeans, they explain, to my surprise, that the two aren’t as incompatible as I think.
They tell me that while some of their clients have been drawn to the healing arts out of curiosity, most of them sought out these services at low points in their lives, be they health or spiritual crises. Often, they’ve tried and failed to heal themselves with ‘conventional’ medicine or therapies, or have been searching desperately for something to lift them out of their ennui. Only the gospel of holistic living, with its tenets of clarity and loving self-acceptance, has managed to guide them out of the wilderness.
For this reason, they’re not bothered by how their beliefs fly in the face of logic. After all, what can science do against the authenticity of lived evidence?
Moreover, a number of them point out that Singapore, and Southeast Asia on the whole, has a rich history of belief when it comes to superstition, spirituality, and the esoteric.
Hotels that don’t have a 4th floor. The need to bless a new office before it opens. Avoiding frangipani trees. TCM. Spirit mediums.
Next to these, how is believing in the powers of rose quartz any different?
The highlight of the day, however, comes when Samuel, the ‘S’ of YIS of Light, performs an oracle reading for me—the first I’ve ever had done.
In the ‘present’ row: Dry Desert, Wide Open, and the Gentle Gardener. In the future: Ghostlands, Rock Bottom, and the Mountain.
As he interprets the cards, my brain begins playing tug-of-war with itself.
Against my better judgement, I’m taken aback by the accuracy of some of his insights. Samuel brings up several things I haven’t told him, and which I can’t see how he would know—that I’m feeling restless and unfulfilled, and why; my weakness when it comes to expectation management; that being torn between realism and idealism is a dominant theme in my life.
As soon as I think these, though, my brain starts fighting back with attempts to rationalise what he’s telling me. Surely these are just logical extrapolations from what you’ve already told him. Surely these statements are general enough to be applicable to just about anyone. Surely you’re just fitting whatever he’s telling you to your situation, so it looks like he’s telling you the truth, when all you’re doing is choosing to believe him.
He then asks me to draw three cards from a separate ‘angel messages’ deck. (Angels apparently send us uplifting messages through this medium, and I can only assume it’s a coincidence that what they think we need to hear perfectly matches the text on the cards.)
Samuel explains that the first card, Acceptance, means I have yet to see something in myself for what it is, and come to terms with it. The second, Shower of Abundance, suggests that life’s bounty will only really unfurl for me when I’ve found my True North.
When he reaches the last card, he smiles and demurs to say more. “I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.”
It says: What do you desire?
What do I desire?
I gather myself, preparing to throw out an answer, when I realise that not only can I not find the words, I don’t actually know.
“Your physical body is all about survival, what you need to survive in the material world,” she tells me.
“But your spiritual body is about the nourishment of your soul. What do you find fulfilling and why? Why are you here? What is true happiness? What is true love?”
Her comments are surprisingly resonant; I’ve spent many nights staring at my ceiling, pondering these very things. As though sensing she’s gotten through to me, she goes on.
“The physical body equates these to wealth, having the right partner, the right property, cash, car, whatever … especially in Singapore, you know, it’s a city, very metropolitan. We’re so entrenched in our daily lives. Here, everybody is busy with work or studies or their families. But how much time do you take out of the things you’re busy with to think about yourself, ask about why you’re here?”
Hearing her articulate my quarter-life crisis so plainly, without reference to chakras or vibrations or healing energy, catches me off guard.
I decide to be honest with her.
I tell her that even as I’m sceptical of just about everything I’ve seen and heard today, I can’t deny that the people I’ve spoken with have found comfort and strength in their practices. That I can’t object to any of the things they claim to be pursuing on their spiritual journeys – clarity, peace, and greater self-awareness; that these are all things I wish I had myself. That, for this reason, I find it frustrating that I can’t let my mental walls down enough to see things through their eyes, if only for a second.
Why can’t I trust? Why can’t I let go?
“It’s because you’re afraid,” says Huiling, with a knowing smile. “Do you know what you’re afraid of?”
“You’re afraid of being judged. You’re afraid people’ll think you’re crazy too.”
To be clear, I still don’t believe that wood absorbs sacred energy, or that crystals can talk, or that angels exist and communicate with us through pre-scripted cards. Mentioning ‘chakras’ more than once in a conversation still makes me squirm, and likely always will. I still don’t know what a high-vibrational being is.
But for all the ridiculousness on display today, I’m just as guilty of my own feats of magical thinking. I’ve blown embarrassing amounts of money on clothes I couldn’t pull off and beauty products whose claims were dubious at best. I spent two years waiting for someone who’d never treated me like I mattered, in the hope that he would one day love me back. And I still believe I can make a living from writing, for crying out loud.
Moreover, it occurs to me that as far as coping strategies go, you could do a lot worse than New Age and esoterica. At least these seem harmless, rather than self-destructive.
If anything, the view from my window into New Age and spirituality turned out to be a familiar one. As it turns out, crystal bracelets are no different from our relationships or careers as avatars of our desires. We project our ideals onto the things we hope will bring us happiness, whatever form these take, and worship at their altars with desperate intensity.
That our hopes are often foolish is immaterial; they’re what drives human yearning, and those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
Of this, at least, I don’t need any convincing.