Beyond the beaded curtain: A spiritual tour of Las Vegas
Thu, Aug 9, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: Christopher DeVargas
As a professional intuitive living in Las Vegas, I sometimes find myself on the phone with clients who’ve known me in past incarnations. There’s the lady in Costa Rica, who thinks I should be living in my former idyllic bedroom community on Oahu, with quails cooing in the background. She can hear the cars beyond my Henderson backyard over the phone; spiritual people don’t live near traffic or set foot on the Strip.
But what better place for a spiritual quest than Las Vegas? Destruction, greed, lust, obstacles and the “cycles of suffering”—they’re all here in cartoonish proportions. You want change? Come to Vegas, where creation and destruction bubble to the surface quickly and sometimes violently. Ask people taking “alternative” paths here, and they’ll tell you: The quest for self-realization is entwined with everything, and Vegas has the raw material for heroism, redemption and happiness. You just need to know where to look.
On a recent foray into the esoteric world of Henderson, I’m told that gambling juju is sold out at the Psychic Eye at Silverado Ranch. Nevertheless, there’s a line nearly to the door on this Sunday afternoon, and the girl behind the counter is frantically answering the phone, talking to customers in search of readings and healings. The store holds plenty of other attractions. A figurine of what might be Archangel Michael in a leather vest. Wax candles shaped like rudimentary couples, for the practice of candle magic and the pursuit of sex, love or something else entirely. Herbs and powders for prosperity. Robes, stones and statues of Quan Yin, Christ and the Goddess. Beyond the merchandise are dimly lit, semi-private rooms. Pull aside the beaded curtain and you’ll find a reader or healer at a table laden with crystals and often a Tarot deck or two.
The beads might throw some people off, but readers at the Psychic Eye spend time and money putting their credentials in order. They get licensed and background-checked by the city, and I’m told Henderson officials regularly do sweeps of the shop, checking the Psychic Arts licenses of its readers. When the bureaucracy is satisfied, psychics merely need to be psychic. For 15 minutes, a half hour or an hour ($20, $30 or $50, respectively), clients share their hopes and fears—from dealing with death to making career decisions. My request, when I sit in front of one of the readers, involves a little black cat. I want to talk about overcoming my allergy to her.
The readers and healers at the Psychic Eye are generous with me in many respects. Some don’t want the recorder on, because people like Bill Maher make fodder of their experiences. But they share stories that have something in common: moments in childhood that gave them a different slant on “normal.” It might be the lingering memory of sitting at the kitchen table alone in the middle of the night, drinking a glass of milk and talking to someone from the graveyard across the street. Or maybe not. The details of the experience hardly matter; they all give readers the mind-set to offer a service not found in the therapist’s office. And for the readers and healers who practice with integrity, the job itself can be a path to self-realization—a spiritual path, doing work that matters.
Mary Valine, a healer, reader and medium at the Psychic Eye, counts doctors, lawyers and strippers among her clientele. She also works with autistic kids and “spiritual” children having a tough time dealing with what they see and feel.
“It’s amazing when you see people come in here and they have these looks on their faces because they’re so afraid to unfold,” Valine says. “But if you’re sitting in front of a psychic, it’s going to unfold. So we give people a place to go where there’s no judgment—where they can unfold and be themselves and tell the truth, and say, ‘What do I do now?’”
Valine describes herself as the product of a “charismatic” Catholic family. A few years ago, she left behind a job in pediatrics testing the hearing of newborn babies and, weeks short of a promotion, decided to make her life-long hobby into full-time work. Her clients’ needs vary. They might be seeking healing in the aftermath of sexual assault or the removal of a “level of Craft” or an “encroachment”—anything from a curse to an unwelcome energy picked up like a virus from another person for a number of reasons.
“Feel my hands,” she says after we’ve been speaking for 15 minutes. They’re hot. She puts her hands on my head for an hour, mostly in silence. I go home and have the best dreams I’ve had in months.
Walk St. Andrew’s labyrinth in Boulder City and you might run into Kelly Sanders, meditating for the answer to a question. Sanders remembers being “squirrely” as a kid in the Bay Area. After her mother’s suicide when Sanders was 9, her father’s favorite quip was, “Kelly, you need to sit down; you need to ground; you need to clear your mother out of your space. And while you’re there, clear me, too.”
Her father was a firefighter, active in civil service and, according to Sanders, also the right-hand man of Dr. Lewis S. Bostwick, founder of the Church of Divine Man and its seminary workshop, the Berkeley Psychic Institute. Though it isn’t Hogwarts, BPI remains a training ground for clairvoyants, healers and mediums. For Sanders, past lives, alternative universes, anchor points and the psychic/spiritual implications of ancestry were fairly regular conversations growing up. Being “open to possibilities” was a given. “My father was always very clear that anything that was holding us back needed to be looked at and cleared,” she says. Despite more than a decade trying to be “normal,” Sanders retained a key lesson from her upbringing: Other people’s beliefs and energies didn’t necessarily serve her.
It’s a lesson worth testing in Vegas, and Sanders has spent 11 years doing just that, practicing massage, Reiki and cranial therapy. She’s also a licensed practitioner of affirmative prayer through her spiritual community, the Center for Spiritual Living Greater Las Vegas. Her goal, she says, is to help people find their real beliefs and change those that don’t work for them.
“I believe that Las Vegas has called a number of people over the years,” she says. “Las Vegas has the reputation of being one of the most superficial places on the planet. And so I believe that the Valley has been called to do this, to help transform the superficial into something of depth and something of connection.”
Next to a bar, Blue Sky Yoga offers an alternative to martinis, smack in the heart of the Arts District. Its founder, certified Jivamukti yoga instructor Cheryl Slader, has lived in the Valley for more than 20 years, but originally hails from the East Coast. New Yorkers still ask her incredulously, “People do yoga in Las Vegas?”
In its sixth year, Blue Sky is donation-only and attracts students ranging from lawyers to the down-and-out. “It’s a pretty transient town,” says Slader, recalling the vanishing-into-thin-air of her own next-door neighbors. “And sometimes people [wind] up here for the wrong reasons. I like having the donation yoga so it allows them to come in even if they don’t have money, maybe get a hit of this kind of positive self-realization.”
To keep that vision alive, Slader works seven days a week, also bringing kirtan concerts and sutra and philosophy study to the neighborhood, and teaching yoga in casino spas. A former showgirl, Slader now finds herself in the resorts where she used to wear giant feathers chanting “ohm.”
After she was cut from her last show at the Stratosphere, Slader joined Star Trek: The Experience, where retired dancers had a reputation for making the Star Fleet uniform look fabulous. The job gave her stability and a final jumping-off point for delving deeply into the teaching and study of yoga.
These days, Slader says, people aren’t as interested in mastering downward dog as they used to be. “They’re realizing that there’s something more to this. And life has gotten intense. So I’m getting a lot of people coming to me—‘Can we talk about this philosophy? Can you remind me that there’s peace and light?’ It’s more intense, but in a good way—turning to something positive like yoga instead of antidepressants.”
A typical day for David Sharp includes juggling his job importing and exporting food ingredients in North Las Vegas and his duties in the leadership of Soka Gakkai International, an organization that espouses Nichiren Buddhism.
The practice was established in the 13th century by the Japanese priest Nichiren and based on the Lotus Sutra. Eight centuries after Nichiren, Sharp spends his evenings, weekends and spare moments planning activities for meetings, visiting the organization’s 55 Las Vegas “districts” and requesting direction from national headquarters. He helps support World Peace Prayer meetings, and the list of duties goes on. While the organization’s worldwide membership encompasses upwards of 12 million people, according to Sharp, the Las Vegas membership runs closer to 2,000. The practice itself focuses on bringing out one’s potential through the chanting of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”—aligning oneself with the law of the universe through sound.
While the Lotus Sutra that inspired the movement is ancient, the mettle of the practice was truly tested by World War II. The devastation of nuclear warfare led many of the Japanese to seek peace through the practice—“transforming poison into medicine”—not only inwardly, but also as a global movement. The Japanese government jailed the movement’s leaders, but Japanese war brides returning to the U.S. with their American G.I. husbands brought the practice here.
During the recession, the Las Vegas region took a cue from its pioneering members, who’ve used their practice to overcome obstacles for more than half a century. In 2009, Sharp says the local organization actually set donation and membership records. That same year, SGI opened its new community center on Charleston. And SGI set records yet again this year. Sharp attributes it to the membership making more “causes,” setting things in motion through chanting practice and taking action for personal change and change in the local Vegas economy.
“Many people really challenged themselves to manifest almost impossible goals, and made them possible,” Sharp says. He’s just spoken to a young member who recently made a “cause,” going from 15-hour days at Panda Express to a job at Wells Fargo, with no college degree.
For a Buddhism devoid of sound, a group of approximately 10 meditators gather in a conference room at the Sahara West Library on a Sunday afternoon. The room is austere. Participants, including one child, sit on the floor or in chairs. These are Vipassana or insight meditators, slowly, mindfully watching their breath. The leader of the sitting describes her inner experience of confronting and thoroughly feeling a regret. “It was heartbreaking,” she says—and then, the pain dissipated. In this form of Buddhism, the story of the regret itself isn’t important. Instead, mentally noting and fully feeling are the goals.
“Because of all the temptations to stray from being mindful or present in your experience, it’s just all exacerbated here in the Valley,” says Greg Pergament, sitting president of the Lotus in the Desert Sangha. “There’s lust and greed and delusion everywhere. So to undertake a practice that is kind of against the stream of the commonly accepted way here in the Valley is a little bit different.”
His partner, Dr. Leanne Earnest, serves as secretary. She founded the sangha 15 years ago after reading an article in Ladies Home Journal about stress reduction and mindfulness meditation. After starting with a core membership of five, she says the group’s distribution list has grown to a few hundred. Pergament says the traditional teachers and monks who visit periodically like Vegas; they consider it fertile ground. And it’s a great place to test the practice. “I have a day job as a waiter at one of the hotels, and so it’s very fast-paced, and there’s a lot of behavior that you wouldn’t normally associate with someone who practices meditation,” he explains. “But what they don’t see is how internally it’s become a lot easier for me to process some of those things in a healthier way.”
According to Earnest, a psychologist, 30 years of research support the mindfulness-based stress reduction program she offers in addition to the sangha group. The program is said to promote changes in brain and immune function, actually shrinking the size of the brain center that affects human emotions and fear. For those who do the practice, that means becoming less reactive and more balanced.
A person in recovery himself, Pergament teaches a Buddhist 12-step class called Desert Dharma. He says many of the students don’t identify as recovering addicts or alcoholics, but they are coming to look at other behaviors that elude them. “Most of the time, we are running from aspects of ourselves we don’t want to face,” Earnest says. “Mindfulness is about looking into it directly.”
And maybe that’s it. Maybe Las Vegas just needs to stop and notice its own breath. If we did, we might also notice the Downtown showgirl-turned-yogini who taught a kid at Children’s Behavioral Services how to use his breath to slow down and stop hitting his mother. Or maybe we’d see the kid who smiles, laughs and can’t wait to see Mary Valine for another healing at the Psychic Eye. Maybe we’d even join the people chanting for our neighborhood, or those quietly changing their diets—and the way they treat others—through insight meditation. We might decide that there’s no time left to waste when it comes to being true to ourselves. And then, we just might start seeing the heart and soul all over the Valley, no matter how tough the last years’ lessons have been.