SHIRLEY MacLaine committed SUICIDE!

It happened on the lost continent of Atlantis. "I was a student," she says. "My memory is that my teacher had died and that my whole continent was disintegrating and I was getting more and more unhappy, so I took my own life."

That's not all. Shirley MacLaine says she also LIVED IN A CAVE!

"When I went to the Himalayas, I definitely felt that I had been there before, incarnated as a monk. I had probably reached a high level of understanding all by myself meditating and I didn't share a thing. I didn't impart any of what I'd learned. I would have to morally judge that as selfish," she says, her pale blue eyes widening. "Maybe that's why I'm getting it right this time by becoming a celebrity so somebody would listen to me, so I could share it."

MacLaine shares a 10-year search for self--helped by a psychic medium, a spiritual guide and, she claims, her own out-of-body experience--and her belief in reincarnation in the newly published "Out on a Limb," a book that will have more than a few readers wondering if actress/author/feminist/political activist MacLaine has gone not only out on a limb, but completely around the bend.

"No one has said that I'm off my rocker," she laughs.

She settles back in the soft banquette of a Washington restaurant, orders a Campari and soda and fiddles with the tangled diamond-studded chain around her freckled neck.

After years of therapy, an unconventional 20-year marriage to businessman Steve Parker (he lived in Japan, she lived in America), several love affairs, more than a dozen films (including "The Apartment," "Irma La Douce," "Sweet Charity" and "The Turning Point"), two best-selling books ("Don't Fall Off The Mountain" and "You Can't Get There From Here") and a documentary film based on her trips to China ("The Other Half of The Sky"), Shirley MacLaine says she finally found herself. Or selves.

MacLaine decided to leave out the details of her past lives in this volume, including her experiences as a dancer in a harem, and concentrate instead on the first phase of her search, becoming a metaphysician. Her past lives will be in the next book. "It was too sensational to put into this book," she says matter-of-factly. "I'll probably end up being queen of the tabloids anyway, but I didn't exactly want to encourage it."

Although her mind is on a higher astral plane than most, her current incarnation is decidedly down to earth. She is a woman of warmth and intelligence, with the same vulnerability and guileless grin that has endeared her to millions of moviegoers. She is 49, with tiny wrinkles and laugh lines, a generous cleavage and a halo of pale strawberry hair. She gives the impression of being still slightly kooky, still naive and gullible. But in her breathless attempt to describe her own conversion to the cosmic, she comes across as an endearing spokesperson for the California Karma-lites.

Over a 90-minute lunch, she reveals:

* Rocks have souls.

* Vegetables may have souls, "but I don't hear the green peppers squeak when I chew them."

* She has only one vice. ""

* Woody Allen and Dick Cavett believe in reincarnation.

* Junk food doesn't make her feel good. Fried food doesn't make her feel good. Chocolate espresso cheesecake, however, makes her feel very very good.

* Her brother, actor Warren Beatty, hasn't told her what he thinks of her new book. Every time she calls him, he puts her on hold. "It's not something you can discuss with your sister over the phone anyway," she shrugs.

Having a "meaningful relationship" is out. "Building connective tissue" is in.

Wait! There's more!

Her 23-year-old daughter was really HER MOTHER IN A FORMER LIFE!

"Somewhere in the deep recesses of the two of us, when we're sitting back in Malibu looking at the sunset, we both touch the recognition of the reality of something deeper than the social conditioning of our relationship."

Huh?

"She has an extremely maternal feeling for me."

The search for self, says MacLaine, is "the only thing there is. To find out who you are. I don't know if I knew it when I was 12, but if what I'm saying is accurate, that I've lived all these lives, then I must have known it, because I am the repository of all the experience I've had in all these lives.

"I was searching for self because I believe that's what we're all alive to do," she says. "That's what the politics was about. And the travel. And the love affairs. It was ALL a search for self."

What she found was "the utter shattering of linear reality."

In other words, things aren't always what they seem. The discovery made her more tolerant and more patient, she says. "Now, if I trip over the village bum in the street, that could be a spiritual master. How the hell do I know who he really is?"

She gazes intently across the table.

"Suddenly, you're not talking about Shirley, but all the things she found along the way. The issue isn't Shirley MacLaine, or whether someone does or doesn't give a ----. I think I may be the catalyst for a larger issue."

Which is?

"The cosmic joke on all of us is that death is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it is the reality. What happens when you leave the body is the reality."

MacLaine believes that souls keep coming back into various bodies until they reach perfection. Until they get it right. It may involve hundreds of reincarnations. "If I don't live up to my potential of being an understanding, compassionate, happy--REAL important--happy person, I'll have to do that the next time around until I get it right." She pauses. "It's just like acting."

For now, Shirley MacLaine is very, very happy.

The waiter has just brought a huge bowl of lettuce, tomatoes, olives, peppers and scallions. On the side, a plate of mozzarella cheese, sliced tomatoes and fresh basil leaves. She asks for grated cheese and jokes with the waiter who grinds the parmesan over the greens for a full minute. "Is your arm gonna fall off?"

Then she dives in.

"Bella Abzug and some of my really tough, realistic, down-to-earth friends are struggling with their consciousness to be able to include this. Some have said, 'I can't stretch that far and still make sense of all the things I always believed.' Bella's going through that period now and I don't know, she may never want to go any further.

"Everything that I've said or believed, seeming to be gullible and naive at the time, turned out to be true! Whether it was George McGovern or feminism or China or name it. It seems naive when I say it, but it does come to pass. Usually."

She bites into a black olive.

"I'm gonna be too soon on this too for some people, but that's what I've chosen for myself and that's the way it is."

In the book, she describes a long, passionate love affair with a member of the British Parliament whom she calls "Gerry." She declines to reveal his identity. But she knows that the two have shared past lives together. Still, she's no longer looking for a man to "ratify the other half of my existence." She crunches on a scallion. "I AM my other half. I think I'm terrific," she grins.

She says she doesn't have a clue what her next incarnation will be. "Ask me that question when I've had my final shot at this one," she says, polishing off a slice of chocolate espresso cheesecake and asking the waiter to wrap up the remains of the salad bowl so she can munch on it in her hotel room later.

"Maybe I'll just loll around up in the astral plane for awhile."