Well, Sheila Isham gave her first Astro-Soul lecture at the Washington Hilton recently.
Nearly 70 people came to hear her, including her socialite friends Joan (Mrs. Arthur) Gardner, Fizzie (Mrs. Robert) Lee and Edie Brown (Mrs. Harry Thayer), and Isham's husband, Heywood Isham, U.S. special ambassador to comant terrorism.
She talked to them about exploring the unconscious mind, healing, psychic gifts, spiritual guides, reincarnation and astro trips, and how to achieve inner peace.
She was dressed simply in black pants and a black turtleneck. Her friends were dressed smartly, understated. They sat and listened with fascination and several to them promised to come the next day for a smaller seminar.
"I've never heard Billy Graham speak," said Joan Gardner who came out of curiosity and friendship, "but I must say Sheila was certainly very, very effective."
The next day, however, the phones on the "ladies friendly" circuit were buzzing. Eyebrows were raised, eyes rolled to the ceiling, disapproving sighs were being exchanged all over Georgetown.
Dearie cooed one of Sheila Isham's oldest social friends, can you believe it? Sheila's finally come out of the closet . . . Can you imagine, said another reincarnation, how ridiculous. She actually says she's been back to her past life . .. but that's not all. Did you know she gave her family estate in Warrenton to the movement? . . . What about her 19-year-old daughter? . . . She's in it, too . . . My God, poor Heywood . . . No. Heywood think it's all just fine . . . It's not possible. Giving away your house and child to some Puerto Rican guru . . . How on earth did she get into this thing anyway? . . . My dear, I thought you knew - she got it from Charles the First . . . Her Hairdresser, you know, the one who used to be at Jean-Paul's . . . But what is this movement anyway? . . . Why, it's Astro-Soul, what else . . . Really darling. It sounds like a black basketball team . . .
Sheila Isham knows that some of her chic friends think she has gone around the bend.
"Oh," she chuckles, "I think I'm already accepted in my craziness. I think they're saying it's just one more thing for Sheila. They'll accept anything from me.But look how many of my friends did show up. Most people are realizing that these things are going on. That's why I'm opening myself up, laying myself on the line . . . for the chopping block."
And so, she explains, "We're really coming out and talking about reincarnation, healing. We're really calling a dime a dime. I know that a lot of groups have done some damage and people get nervous about the 'search within'. But what we're trying to do is help a person to understand the person he is and wants to be. It's very astro. We take people on astro trips back to their former lives. People might laugh at first. But not later. I must say though, it's not a program that attracts a hugh amount of people."
Not, yet. As Shelda Isham put it plainly when she called to solicit an interview, "We've decided to go public."
She is 50 years old now, "crossed the half-way mark," she says reluctantly, smiling. She is a short woman, buxom, with a rather compact figure, dark hair and transparent blue eyes. She has a way about her of a very direct, no-nonsense, business-like person. There is an aloofness, a coolness there that is hard to break through. One gets the feeling that she knows what she wants or thinks she does and is determined to get it. Determine. Sheila Isham is determined.
In the interview in her studio recently, then later at a neighborhood pub, Isham talks about herself, her new spiritual commitment and how it affected her life.
Sheila Isham grew up in a well-to-do, upper-class family on Long Island, was brought up in the Episcopalian Church and still goes to that church. She says that Astro-Soul doesn't interfere with other religious beliefs because it's a spiritual umbrella."
She went to private schools all her life, graduating from Garrison Forest, a private girls' boarding school and then from Bryan Mawr. She married Heywood Isham, from an equally distinguished family, an Andover and Yale graduate, rather conservative, tall, quiet, attractive, scholarly, dedicated, gentle, the perfect candidate for the Foreign Service.
Although, as Sheila Isham knows, her friends have always known her to be a little way out, and she's been a modern painter for the last 30 years - ther are those of her friends who worry about the trend she may represent. That is, the way many upper- and upper-middle-class women, looking for some kind of inner peace, seem to be seeking out strange and off-beat religious movements.
"It's little bit," says one friend of Ishams, "like something for the person who has everything . . . except immortality. For those who have material things, expect in the end they'll be dead, they'll be like everyone else."
And indeed, those who have observed this trend point out that, regardless of what form the religion takes, whether it be Astro-Soul, Swami, "The Path," Zen, est, "The Way," astrology, or whatever, there often seems to be a similarity in method and purpose.
Many of the women attracted to such movements are in their mid-40s when they get involved and tend to have some independent income. Some are divorced, some unhappily married, some say they feel they are losing their sexual attractiveness, feel the need to be loved and to devote themselves to something other than their husbands and children. It gives them a sense of self-worth and they are willing to sacrifice.
When dinner parties and the perfect by decorated house are not enough, the perfect universe become an attractive goal.
And as Isham herself will say, "a woman in her 40s doesn't look forward to turning fifty and she looks at herself and says, 'I've taken care of my husband and my children all my life and what have I done for myself."
"And if you're in that position today you just can't avoid looking back into the mirror of your soul and saying, 'Is this what I wanted to do?'"
Yet many religious experts take a dim view of this kind of spiritual movement and are skeptical about their validity.
"Astro-Soul sounds like what well-to-do, middle-aged ladies have been giving their money to over the ages," says Dean M. Kelley, the executive for Religious and Civil Liberties of the National Council of Churches, who had never heard of either Inner Peace Movement or Astro-Soul. "There are dozens of these cults. Most of them are a hodgepodge of flossy ideas and put-together fantasies. A lot of them are founded by hucksters who happen to be charismatic persons."
Says Kelley, who has written several books on the phenomenon of religious commitment, "I suppose these women get kind of bored at midpoint, casting about for something to help them down their declining years." The Early Peace
It was in 1972, before Heywood Isham had been appointed ambassador to Haiti, that Sheila Isham was having her hair done one day at Jean-Paul's salon in Georgetown.
Charles, now of Charles the First, was then doing her hair and he began talking to her about the Inner Peace Movement, about "spiritual things," he recalls.
It was then, because of Charles, that Isham got involved in the Inner Peace Movement (IPM) of which Astro-Soul is an offshoot.
"I put him off at first," recalls Isham. "Painters, you know, feel these things are secret." But then, she says, "I knew I had been working with extra spiritual help. I guess I was just searching for a way to use it more in daily life." Spiritual Counsel
The Inner Peace Movement and its offshoot, Astro-Soul, were founded by a Puerto Rican named Francisco Coll, now in his 50s, and it is to Puerto Rico that Isham goes five or six days a month for courses to update her techniques as an Astro-Soul "spiritual counselor."
What she learns she teaches others in her Astro-Soul seminars and counseling groups. It is a melange of various Eastern religions translated into Western style.
She feels strongly that IPM and Astro-Soul are far more legitmate than some of the other recently popular movemens. "The difference between our group and est, for instance," she says, "is that we work on a supportive level. We work on a supportive level. We don't tear people down. I personally would not choose the road of est. I couldn't have stood that. I have real trouble with est." All in the Family
Her 19-year-old daughter, Sandra, is also totally involved, and through her mother, has become Francisco Coll's personal assistant. She, too, travels around the world teaching the principles of Astro-Soul.
Sandra is also involved in the young people's branch of IPM which is called Growing Executives of Tomorrow (GET).
The national and international head-quarters of Astro-Soul are in Washington but the retreat where followers go to meditate or "Camp" as it is called, is Sheila Isham's families farm in Warrenton, Va., which she has donated to the group and where many of the younger people live.
"These farms," she says, "for younger people, they are just the opposite from something like the moonies. They are so directed."
Astro-Soul is profit-making, though the movement is largely supported by a board of directors.
Isham herself is on the board and she travels to Puerto Rico, Australia and other parts of the world deducting the trips from her income tax.
"Except, of course, that we take astro-trips out to the universe and into past lives."
Her assistant related to the group that the Hilton an experience. "Once," she said, we had a man who was afraid of feathers. We took him back to a former life and learned that he had been a crusader and had been killed. His body had been eaten by vultures. Once he knew that, he learned to deal with feathers."
"It's all like 'close Encounters of the Third Kind' or 'Star Wars,' says Isham. "You just drift off into another galaxy. Everybody can do it. They're just not tapping it. Some people are afraid of it because they feel they're going to trip out. They don't because we watch them closely."
Isham discusses the aspects of Astro-Soul with devotion, the way a Catholic priest might talk about the Virgin Birth.
Words like astro-trips, spiritual sharing, spiritual cleansing, spiritual guides, angels, sharing, group meditation, clairvoyance, healing and psychic aspects of the fifth dimension roll off her tongue with the ease and comfort of habit, and she'll look you straight in the eye, her blue eyes unblinking with the total convction of the convert, say, "It's all true. But there's no point in trying to explain it in detail. Either you get it or you don't." The Guided Tour
When one goes to Sheila Isham for a spiritual counseling the first thing she does is meditate quietly, whispering softly to herself as she goes into a sort of trance to summon her spiritual guides. (This is done only after one has signed a spiritual cart copyrighted by Francisco Coll and paid the Astros-fee of $25. Under the influence of the spiritual guides, Isham begins a kind of automatc writing on a piece of paper, jotting down numbers. She explains that it takes a lot of work and study to be able to summon the guides and to get answers the way she does but that eventually it all comes naturally.
After she fills in one's personal chart with the information she guides provide, she outlines what spiritual gifts one has, how many spiritual guides one possesses.
After that she leads a spritual cleansing - rubbing hands together to get energy, then rubbing the hands over the "third eye" in the middle of the forehead and down to the neck.
Finally she shows how to get in touch with one's spiritual guides. First you take off your shoes and get your feet firmly planted on the ground. then you ask question - somewhat like a Ouija board. "Spiritual Guide, do I need your help?"
Then the spiritual guide answers by making you rock back and forth - forward for yes, sideways for no.
That's the end of the counseling.
Several days after the counseling session she calls to warn that people should not try this without a counselor as they may summon the wrong spirits and mistakenly end up with confused souls entering their bodies instead of the spiritual guides. Husbandly Interest
One of the things that has Isham's friends puzzled is how a Foreign Service wife can get away with this kind of religious thing and how her husband feels about it.
"I've been lucky," she says. "People have considered me a kook since we were in Berlin in 1950. "And she says that her hauband is very supportive and that he is involved to a certain extent himself.
Heywood Isham himself confirm this. "Well," he says, "I found that it's provided valuable insights to me about myself and my own energies, reactions and potential. It's helped me also in dealing with other people. It's a very useful guide and I've found it has a definite place in one's overall effort to find a creative equilibrium."
Isham also says that "I am not involved in the movement itself. I'm not able to do that but I respect it and I admire Sheila's dedication."
"This Astro-Soul thing has made life more harmonious for both of us." says Sheila Isham, "working with Hollywood's energy, changing environments, making life whole. But my communication with my daughter Sandra is totally different from Heywood's. She knows I know she knows we're communicating as souls."
But, says Isham, "Heywood and I complement each other in Foreign Service work. If we go to a foreign country I get into art and spiritual things. He's more involved with the intellectual. We beam out to other groups. They are one with us.
"Of course" she says, taking a sip of her wine, "it's not idyllic . . . but we both respect each other. He's very much of a scholar. He loves research and study, writing, political involvement, I dig the beingness and doingness of art and the spirit." Cleaning and Healing
Charles the First learned about the whose hair he was doing about eight whose hair he was doing about eight years ago. For him, as for Sheila Isham, it has been an immensely gratifying experience and on weekends he ocasionally will go down to the camp for a conscionsness-raising retreat.
"All of the hairdressers here," he says "have been counselled. If the salon gets negative I'll just send somebody around to cleanse it (spiritualy). Also, every six weeks we have a circle where we all join hands and count off. It really helps. And I always cleanse myself every moring and every night. Even if I don't brush my teeth."
Charles says he avoids the "guru bit as much as possible but I do give advice to many, many people."
He doesn't see Isham as much as he used to though he does run into her at "camp" occasionally, and he visited her in Haiti a few times.
One one of the reasons he doesn't see her that much any more is because he's more or less drifted away from Astro-Soul. And one of the reasons he did, he explains, is, "It gets too spacy. You're wandering around not making any sense because you're still on to there in the universe. With Astro-Soul you have to do a more cleansing. So I did Astro-Soul for about a year but I'm not into that any more."
So now Sheila Isham is into Asto-Soul and Charles the First, who originally got her started, is not. What is Charles the First telling his clients about today?
"The Peace Comunity Church," he says. "I'm really into that now. It's all about teaching and healing. That's what hairdresers do anyway. Healing."