Emma Cook on the mumbo-jumbo that is giving her, like, negative energy
we are standing in an "alternative" bookshop in Covent Garden while my friend Laura flits excitedly from one shelf to the next, oohing and aahing at certain inspirational titles. The Light Within, Dancing Up The Moon and The Ways of The Wizard are a few that catch her eye. She leafs through the latter with hushed reverence. "This man is a genius," she whispers, nodding her head meditatively. I look at the fly cover and begin to doubt her critical faculties: "Deepak Chopra offers us a fascinating intellectual journey and a deeply moving chronicle of hope and healing," it reads. Laura whisks it out of my hand and moves swiftly towards the till.

Like many devotees of New Age wisdom, Laura has embraced every aspect of alternative belief with a curious mixture of childlike naivety and adult desperation. She can't bear the idea of doubt or uncertainty and so spiritual philosophy, with its attendant remedies and formulas, offers her tailor-made answers. She doesn't have to ask too many awkward questions, just absorb like a sponge. Also the explanations are ideal for those who can't accept that many of life's activities and events are essentially mundane and often meaningless.

My friend Amy is another convert who's taken that leap of faith. Now everything fits together like one large jigsaw puzzle; Feng Shui, crystals, colour therapy, meditation, self-help books - they're part of one happy holistic family. For the past three months she's been boiling up Chinese herbs for a small rash that started on her forehead. Now it's spread. Her kitchen smells like soggy cardboard and her face doesn't look much better. "He says it has to get worse before it gets better," she smiles weakly, her faith undented. In every other area of life Laura and Amy are intelligent, rational people with whom I have much in common. We went to college together, work in similar jobs and know each other's friends. I value their judgement and opinions on most subjects. Except for one. That's where we part company and I can no longer understand them. Get them within 20 yards of a self-help title, a couple of joss-sticks and "Sacred Spirit" music and my two old friends turn into irony-free mother- earth converts.

In other areas of life - securing a mortgage, interviewing a prospective flatmate, investing money - these women rely on factual evidence and objective information. Yet they read one book by a dubious American guru and they're sold; his wisdom can suddenly shed light on their latest disastrous relationship. "He's terrified of commitment because he thinks I'll steal his energy," says Laura knowingly. No, he doesn't like commitment because he enjoys sleeping with other women. But that's not the sort of illumination she's searching for.

Even phoning her is a triumph of mystic faith over reason. When I last called her she sounded shocked: "Wow, that's so weird. I was literally just about to phone you. Your telepathy levels must be really high this week." I reminded her that we'd agreed to get in touch around this time and so it wasn't that weird after all. "But still," she chirped, "do you realise the chances against us both phoning each other within the same 30 seconds?"

In a way I envy her; she finds the random events of everyday life so much more meaningful than the rest of us. Everything from dropping your change to being asked directions by a stranger is laden with symbolic significance and energising opportunities.

Laura recently dragged me to another "mystic" shop only to find a book that the shop assistant assured her was out of stock. "Isn't that strange, I saw it right there," she points to a shelf behind the door. Her eyes began to mist up and - call it telepathy - I knew what was coming next. "It's a sign. I was meant to find this book." She hugged it happily to her chest. It was, horror of horrors, the sequel to The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. Other wide-eyed believers have already tried to sell me its life-changing messages about how every meeting can lead you to your true destiny. It maddens me that Laura believes every word of it. I can't accept that someone who is normally so clever and perceptive can be this gullible and unquestioning.

It's bad enough that Amy and Laura are enamoured by such a badly written and vacuous book, but what really grates is their earnest desire to tell you about it. Ditto the healing properties of crystals and the "incredibly freaky" coincidences that occur in their lives. "Why don't you just keep a crystal near your computer?" Amy suggested recently. "It will soak up all the negative ions." Because, I say, the words hippy and rubbish spring immediately to mind.

"But it's proven scientifically..." She seems to feed off my cynicism. "Crystals absorb energy - look at microchips. And even if it's psychological, the mind is more powerful than the body." She's got all angles covered. I want to tell her she's hopelessly misguided but I feel my energy drain away. "You are looking tired," she says and recommends a herbal tonic.

Still, I got off lightly. At least she hasn't taken to promoting the restorative powers of ambient whale music. Give her time.

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