By Shula Neuman

The Whole Life Expo at the Rosemont Convention Center has all the trappings of a typical convention–rows and rows of booths, flashy signs, competing music from different displays, thousands of people milling about with bags packed full of handouts. But it also has a banner that says Design Your Destiny and people posing for photographs that reveal their auras. A woman offers me a discount if I want my colon flushed.

Rane Townsend, a vendor at a booth advertising the Q-Link, says, “Just stick your hand in here and place your fingertips on the pad.” I push my arm down the tube of a black sleeve and gingerly rest my fingers on a smooth, cold surface. Zap! A jolt of electricity pulls at the tendons in my arm, and a second later Townsend pulls out a Polaroid of my fingertips, each surrounded by a halo of light rays.

Townsend explains that the shock is a means of measuring whether I’m in need of more energy. Apparently if my energy were really low I’d absorb the electricity from the shock and the halos around my fingertips would be smaller. But he says the gaps between the rays still indicate energy lapses. He puts a string with a black, diamond-shaped pendant, the Q-Link, around my neck. Inside the pendant is a “copper induction coil antenna,” which is supposed to tune itself to my body and neutralize the damaging effects of the man-made electromagnetic fields that bombard me every day.

“It usually takes about two weeks for the Q-Link to program itself to each individual,” Townsend explains. “But some people notice its effects immediately–they feel calmer and less stressed and are able to think more clearly.”

I point out that I feel fairly clearheaded.

“Your body has gotten used to the interference of the electromagnetic fields,” he says. “Your body isn’t in balance. You might think it is, but electromagnetic frequencies deteriorate the immune systems and endocrine systems. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t even feel it. The Q-Link eliminates all of the electromagnetic interference and boosts your immune system.”

I agree to wear it as I walk around the exhibit hall.

The next booth, Rainforest Bio-Energetics, has a table with an army of small brown bottles full of different-colored liquids, labeled Digestezon, Somnatazon, and other names designed to conjure up images of the Amazon.

Before I can ask the stylishly coiffed saleswoman about the bottles, a woman who says she’s a nurse practitioner from outside Detroit declares, “I’ve been an asthma sufferer for six years. I’ve been taking all kinds of medications for it every day, including cortisone. Last night before I left the expo I tried some of this Amazon tea. I’m so excited–this morning I got up and was breathing fine. I didn’t have to take my medicine.”

“These are extractions of plants and herbs that grow in the rain forest in Brazil,” explains the saleswoman. “Each extract addresses different needs. Some help you sleep, some reduce stress. It can improve digestion and enhance your concentration. This all maintains the Amazon forest. It also supports the tribe that grows the herbs and processes them for us.”

I walk on. A woman who’s visiting the expo tells me, “The last several years I’ve been trying to raise my consciousness. I didn’t know how to think about a spiritual life in any other terms other than being religious. So it started with my going back to my religious roots and then ending up at a place like this, which is very nontraditional. More and more people are asking these questions, and it’s nice to see.”

But the promises of most of the booths–improving concentration, sleep, respiration, digestion–suggest that more people are worried about their health and prolonging their lives than they are about their souls. And most of the hourly lectures concern biological ailments.

At one lecture, “Medical Intuition: Reclaiming Health,” I expect to learn about paying attention to my body’s signals. I walk into the hall a little late and hear the presenter, Ruth Berger, say, “But that was before I believed in past lives. Now I definitely believe in them.” Berger, it turns out, specializes in intuiting people’s medical conditions and advising them on how to cure themselves through traditional and nontraditional means. She also advertises herself as a “stand-up psychic,” whose skills include healing, teaching people to become aware of their past lives and to build their psychic skills, and matchmaking.

She asks for three volunteers who want a physical evaluation. Standing behind one, her hands resting maternally on the woman’s shoulders, Berger explains that every person’s aura has two hemispheres–one side reveals information about a person’s psychic past, the other about the present.

“Which aura is stronger?” Berger asks. “How many people think her right side is stronger?” Three or four people raise their hands.

“And how many of you think her left side is stronger?” Several other hands go up.

“Well, her right side is very strong. I see a lot of orange in your aura, which means that you are a caregiver. Always giving and giving and rarely thinking of yourself.”

The woman nods. “And orange has always been my favorite color.”

Berger then scans the woman’s body with her eyes and discovers several “black spots,” which indicate physical weaknesses. Berger senses, among other things, lower-back pain and a glasses prescription that needs changing; the woman says she’s right. Berger also admonishes the woman to give up coffee. The woman winces and says she knows coffee can be bad for you.

Later I go to a lecture by Joel Wallach, a former veterinarian who advocates the use of minerals to ensure good health and long life, like 140 years. The main point of his lecture is that most diseases are caused by deficiencies of essential nutrients and minerals. As proof he cites several obituaries of marathon runners and yoga instructors who died at a relatively young age.

“You have to have the minerals and trace minerals in high density,” Wallach says. “That is what extends your life. You don’t get everything you need from the four food groups.” Since his business manufactures mineral supplements, he naturally recommends that we visit his booth to get more information.

But then no one’s denying that the main point of the Whole Life Expo is to sell, that every lecture and every booth serves to promote a book or product. And people don’t seem to mind. One man tells me, “I kind of expected that it would be commercial. They bought the space, and they have to promote their stuff. I take the commercialism in stride. It’s part of living in the 20th century.”

Janice Denny, who does astrological charts, says, “You have to be marketing something in order for people to learn about it. I’ve had the experience that if someone doesn’t pay for something then it has no value. I went through a period where I had to ask myself, ‘Do you charge for something spiritual, or do you do it to help humanity?’ But it becomes so time-consuming that you have to put a value on it.”

As I wander around the hall, seeing promise after promise of inner and outer healing, I begin to wonder why, if all of these people take such good care of themselves, are they so in need of remedies? I watch a middle-aged man lying on his back on a table under a row of crystals flashing purple, yellow, and red light. Other people anxiously imbibe special teas, spread healing lotions on their skin, allow strangers to poke at their stomachs or heads. For $5,000 you can sign up for a trip to Peru’s spiritual hot spots, where you can attend seminars about connecting with your inner spirituality while enjoying gourmet food and five-star accommodations.

I head back to the Q-Link vendor to return the pendant. As I wait to have my fingertips zapped again to get a sort of “after” picture, the nurse practitioner from Detroit who’d had such luck with the Amazon tea pops up again. “These chips are amazing,” she declares, holding a recently purchased Q-Link. “Look at these pictures. Last night my mother had this imprint taken of her hand–look at how low her electrical impulses were.” There are practically no halos shooting out around the fingertips. “Now look at these pictures we just took after she wore this chip for a day.” She proudly displays a photo of fingers with full halos. “This is incredible. And my mother feels so much more energetic.”

My energy readings seem to have improved as well. Townsend points to the full circles around my fingertips as proof of the curative effects of the Q-Link. When I tell him I didn’t really notice any effect, he looks a little disappointed. “It takes a little longer for some people to notice it’s working,” he says. “It can take up to two weeks. Before I started wearing it, when I lived in LA, I used to get sick two or three times a year. Now I hardly ever get sick. I feel much more clearheaded.”

I ask him where he lives now.

“Now I live outside of San Diego–where the air is clean and the ocean’s close by.” o