Comment: An audience with the alien

I HAVE been talking to an extraterrestrial entity. His name is Omar. And he is not best pleased with me.

Let me begin by saying that I went to meet him with an open mind. You may find that hard to believe. But in trying to discover what people believe - and what attracts them to it - you have to do a bit of suspending of your own disbelief.

After all, what would you say to a religion centred around the teachings of a bloke who sat around in a cave and did nothing? Or one based on a book dictated to one man by an angel in a dream? Or one that maintains that God was born in a stable, was killed and then rose from the dead? But the fact is that these faiths - Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity - are judged by non-adherents by different criteria, such as what beneficial impact they have upon the lives of believers, and on the rest of the world.

So, when I found the leaflet about Omar in an alternative "healing centre" in Brighton, full of New Age crystals, books and American videos, I decided to discount the fact that he was an extraterrestrial and see what fruits he bore. I went along to make contact with him.

You have to take this stuff seriously. Even in the Seventies, when Hinnell's authoritative Handbook of Living Religions was published, the rise in what was then called "psychic" and "magical" new religions was estimated to be 104 times higher than the popularity of more mainstream "new" religions, such as Mormonism.

In the two decades since then, the New Age movement has grown exponentially to become a significant feature of the Western world's spiritual life. Today, as much as 25 per cent of the adult population is said to have explored its ideas in some way.

When I rang up to make an appointment with Catherine, the "channel" through whom Omar communicates with the world, her minder, Clive, sounded rather fierce. Omar was not a doctor, he said; he would not tell me about my health, or my job, or my love life. Just my spiritual growth. Right, I said. And I should come along with a list of spiritual questions, said Clive, because Omar only answered questions. Right, I said.

I jotted a few down on the train on the way there. You know the sort of thing: How do I achieve inner peace? Should we strive for knowledge or detachment? Why is there suffering in the world? What is evil? What happens at the end of this life? What must I do to gain eternal life? And so forth.

This, however, was not what Omar wanted. I arrived at the Brighton healing- centre to be ushered upstairs, past a rickety wooden gate and into the presence of Catherine. She was a woman of most enormous girth, wearing a gigantic floral skirt, who sat on a bed surrounded by cushions. The room smelt faintly of urine.

She was in a bad mood to start with. Someone had chipped the 17th-century green glass globe which she used to channel Omar. Disgruntled, she held it in one hand as she closed her eyes and started to twitch her pudgy arms, before - her soft-toned voice suddenly husky with extraterrestriality - swiftly announcing his arrival with the words: "Omar Ready."

"How do I stay focused upon what is important?" I asked, starting with an easy one. "Bring matters to attention," Omar began portentously, before moving on to reveal what was, for a resident of an outer dimension, an admirable grasp of colloquial English. He advised me to get in contact with my Higher Self, and when I asked what its requirements were he told me that there were no requirements - only hope or desire. I did not need communion with others to do this, Omar said, only a focus on inner self.

I was beginning to get the picture. This seemed familiar New Age turf. The enlightenment and harmony being ushered in by the Age of Aquarius seems singularly focused on desire rather than the discipline required by the established religions. Monism, relativism and individual autonomy are where we are all heading in our quest for greater knowledge and a new consciousness.

Would the Higher Self continue after death? But when I asked that, Omar began to go ungrammatical and even more impenetrable. I don't quite follow, I said; are you saying there is life after death, or not? The fat lady twitched her am-dram shudder once more. She opened her eyes. "He has broken the connection," she said in her ordinary voice. "He did not like the questions. They are too outside, not from inside. Call for Clive. These are not the kind of questions that people usually ask."

So what kind of questions did other people usually ask, I wondered. She muttered at me, but nothing coherent. Back came Clive, a burly, balding chap with wispy hair at the sides and straggly sideburns. They sent me from the room. I was not spiritual enough for channelling, they told me when they called me back. It was too advanced. I would be better starting with a reading from Benedict.

He was summoned. Yes, the unshaven, fine-featured epicene Benedict said, when I told him my questions; these indicated the wrong kind of spirituality. If I came back in half an hour he would do me a reading.

But when I returned, Benedict had gone off the idea and palmed me off with Chris, a Tarot reader, whose cards told me that I was not spiritual, but a practical chap who would be best sticking to that, as I could make a lot of money.

I finally admitted defeat and left the centre. At a nearby baker's I bought a lump of bread pudding and a cup of coffee, and went down to the pebbly beach. There, gazing into the heavy-laden, grey sea, a practical chap, I sat down and ate and drank them.

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