There are some people who regard me as a cynic, and I can see why. At the Holiday Inn in Beirut recently, the man on the desk told me that Rachel is the most beautiful name a woman can have, and it's true that, as he said these words, all I could think was - a smile stretched unpleasantly across my face like Lycra on a menopausal backside - what does he want? Are we getting into tipping desk staff these days as well as bellhops, chambermaids and waiters? In fact, though, I'm not a cynic. I'm a sceptic. Cynics believe people are motivated by self-interest only whereas I - Holiday Inn staff apart - have a soggy heart that induces me to accept compliments and acts of kindness with a tear in my eye, and when, later on, I discover that the givers of such compliments and acts of kindness were after something after all, I get upset and feel disappointed. A sceptic, on the other hand, is inclined to question accepted opinions. This, in my case, is bang on. I pick at newspaper columns, television documentaries and even the mild comments of my poor friends like a small boy scraping at a scab on his knee. I can't help it. I am the child of scientists who grew up to be a journalist, and there is something contrary in me that just won't lie down and die.
The modern world, then, is not for me. Why? Because it is A World of Unreason. Not since the 19th century have we been so inclined to put faith in ideas that have little or no basis in fact. On the plane to Beirut, I read Suckers, Rose Shapiro's devastating critique of alternative medicine. I recommend it. According to Shapiro, therapies such as reiki are now used by one in three of us; the UK spend for complementary and alternative medicine is £4.5bn, a market that has grown by nearly 50 per cent in the past 10 years. But is this money well spent? I respectfully suggest that it is not. Some therapies are ineffectual, others positively dangerous. Meanwhile, our role models (I use the term loosely) from the Prince of Wales to Victoria Beckham, from Cherie Blair to Gwyneth Paltrow, persist in their devotion to their various 'gurus'. Imperilled celebs simply cannot survive without these devoted life-changers, preferably one to hold each hand and another to run along behind waving an ear candle. The rich and famous don't just sell us status handbags; they hawk 'cures', too. We look at their high-gloss skin, their twig-like thighs and pancake stomachs and we wonder who 'gave' them these things. Not God, obviously, since no one believes in Him any more. But if not God, then who? Someone in a white coat and flip-flops, perhaps, with a neat line in motivational talk. And the good news is that this chap's number, unlike that of God, is on the internet. Quick! Get his office on speed-dial, because there's bound to be a waiting list.
Of course, from my point of view, there is a problem with all this: a small kink in my bracing scepticism. Like any wimpish denizen of the lily-livered, over-indulged West, I have my fair share of ennui, low-level ill-health, mild depression - call it what you will: days when I wake up feeling slow-witted and miserable, days when my skin is grey, my belly bloated and I cannot see the point of anything. I've even been known - whisper it softly - to have days when I wonder if I have a wheat allergy, though usually I come to my senses pretty quickly about this, realising that one is bound to feel sleepy if one has eaten four slices of toast and butter on the trot. And because, as I have already said, I am sceptical but not cynical, I sometimes find myself pondering whether there isn't someone out there who can help me, too. So, a little while ago, I decided to do something about this in a project with the working title: Five Gurus, Four Weeks, One Sceptic. My aforementioned soggy heart would allow me to receive, gratefully, any advice or therapy that did work, but my scepticism would mean, as per usual, that I would fall for no one without very good reason. In public, I spoke of this project with a sneer. In private, however, I felt a pinprick of hope and excitement at the idea that I might find - to tweak Virginia Woolf - a Guru of My Own. OK, so I am a hypocrite and a muddle-head. But admit it: whichever side in this 21st-century debate you're on, aren't you just a touch curious to find out what happened?
Guru one: The facialist
Face first, I think. Mine is old-looking and blotchy. I make an appointment to see Deborah Mitchell, facialist to the stars (her grateful clients include Victoria Beckham and Kylie Minogue). Mitchell is not just any facialist. She has developed her own technique, LIA Therapy, which stands for 'lymph drainage, incandescent massage and acupressure'. According to her website, Mitchell was just another beauty therapist until she discovered that by applying a combination of massage movements and pressure points to areas on the face, neck and shoulders - 'thus drawing energy from the spine' - she could achieve incredible results, immediately. 'More research led Deborah to understand the scientific reasoning behind her treatment. Scientifically the brainwave fluctuates from 22 cycles per second, to 10 or 11 cycles per second. With the pressures of day-to-day life, our brains are often running at the higher level of 22 cycles per second, and at this level our body is unable to repair and becomes susceptible to illness and infection. Part of the LIA Therapy concept is to bring the brainwave down to a lower level of 10 or 11 cycles per second so the body's healing process takes place and the sense of wellbeing is immediately restored.' Right. But there's more. Apparently, she is also a kind of white witch, able to work with 'auras' and make predictions at the same time as she sorts out your pores. Double bubble, as they say.
I see Mitchell at the Hale Clinic, spiritual home of all things alternative, and who should be leaving her consulting room as I arrive but a neighbour of mine who tells me, as we pass in the corridor, that Deborah is her life saver, she couldn't live without her, she loves her etc, etc. Even my neighbours have gurus! I go inside and lie down on a table that is warm, soft and comforting. What follows is an extended facial massage with what my husband refers to as 'precious unguents'. Along the way, Mitchell 'reads' my body. There's a bit of congestion in my breast apparently, but since it's present in both of them it's probably nothing to worry about, and possibly something wrong with my hip, though it feels OK to me. She then tells me that I shouldn't worry: I won't be a beauty journalist for much longer (she knows I work at The Observer, but nothing more). I will soon be promoted, and may even end up writing about the arts. She ends by plucking my eyebrows, which is a smart move because it means that, when I look in the mirror later, my face does look a little different, and would even if she had not also performed her famous 'lymph drainage'. Mitchell's massage is soothing, and she is very warm and friendly. But has my face been 'lifted'? (This is the effect her devotees claim). Not really. It just looks a bit shiny, that's all.
Cost £80 for an hour
Guru two: The conscious movement teacher
It was perhaps unfortunate that I began this odyssey with someone who fancies herself as a psychic reader. Daft, easy-to-disprove predictions are a cliché of investigations into the world of alternative and complementary therapies. Time, then, to roll out a big gun. Jules Paxton is an American yoga teacher whose clients include Courtney Cox, Barbra Streisand and Donna Karan. He is also the man credited with putting this week's smile on the face of Geri Halliwell. Paxton, who has a degree from Georgetown University, used to be a hotshot lawyer; then he was a body builder; and now he is a guru, the inventor of 'Conscious Movement' (experience mind-body alignment, and feel lighter, stronger, more centred and calm as you learn to 'live in full consciousness of the present moment') and 'Trust Yoga', which basically involves balancing precariously on a partner's feet while praying that they don't drop you ('Come fly with me!' says his leaflet). Luckily for me, Paxton, who spends most of his time jetting from one superstar to another, is in London, for a workshop at Triyoga in Covent Garden, and this is where, one cold afternoon, I see him, alone. Oh, yes, it's very intense.
Jules is wearing an outsize Arran cardigan - he is straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad - and he maintains eye contact all the time. First, we sit cosily on a mat and he explains his ideas to me. He talks about 'innate intelligence' and physical grace. Then he gets me to close my eyes, and open them suddenly, over and over again, as I learn to be in the 'conscious moment'. After this, I must get up and walk the studio, again feeling the 'conscious moment', rather than merely shuffling heavily along as per usual. All this goes on for ages, and I find it bizarre; it's like a hippy version of a deportment class. Finally, the climax. A little light flying! Jules, being a former body builder and a yoga nerd, is extremely strong, which is useful because I am neither flexible nor lithe. He lies on the ground and, slowly, hoists me up in the air on his feet, my own feet pointing straight out behind me, in the manner of a ballet dancer (or so I foolishly like to imagine). At first, I'm holding on to his hands for support. Now, though, he encourages me to let go, and spread out my arms like Kate Winslet in Titanic. His eyes are locked onto mine for encouragement. After a wobbly moment or two, I do as he says and, for three or four seconds, I am flying - if, of course, you ignore his feet, on which my groin is somewhat intimately balanced. I think the point of this exercise is empowerment: I'm supposed to feel free, as though I can do anything. But the truth is that I'm freaked out by the proximity of his manly body parts to my own. I am also, for the duration of the period that my bottom is stuck up in the air, very anxious that I will fart.
Cost £150 an hour
Guru three: The wardrobe mistress
Well, that was very silly. Five days on, and I still blush at the memory. My pelvis, his feet; my aching sphincter muscles, his brown skin against his sexy white vest. I'm embarrassed, not empowered! I try to think of something I genuinely need to sort out, and come up with my cupboards. People say I'm a neat freak, and it's true that I do keep a tidy house. My dirty secret, however, is that the cool calm of my interiors is achieved through a rank and terrible abuse of my storage space. Open my wardrobe, for instance, and you will be attacked by a coiled mass of scarves, sweaters, hats and clutch bags. I call Dawna Walter, the founder of the Holding Company and author of The Life Laundry: How To De-Junk Your Life. Her visit to my house does not begin well. She walks into the sitting room, takes one look at our beautiful bookshelves, on which a delightful collection of prestige hardbacks is arranged in full alphabetical order, and says: 'You need to get rid of some of these books. Are you going to read them again? No, you are not! What will you do when all the shelves are full? These are trophy books. You want everyone to think how clever you are!' Ooh, nasty! I tell her, while stroking the Riverside Chaucer - OK, so I haven't opened it since 1990; so what? - that the books are non-negotiable. They are here to stay - just like me.
We go up to the bedroom, and Walter dumps the entire contents of my wardrobe on the bed. Then the edit begins. The rule is: if you haven't worn it for six months, it goes. Ditto, if it has moth holes; if you're waiting to lose weight before you wear it; and also if Dawna looks at it as a stoat might look at a fieldmouse. I enjoy this. Basically, she is tidying my wardrobe for me. Result! She moans about wire coathangers (they ruin your clothes) and complains that I leave dry-cleaned items in their plastic carriers (this discolours pale fabrics), but I don't care because all the while, she's folding and smoothing and stacking. The only trouble comes when she has gone, having told me to put the three black bin liners that we filled together into the boot of my car - they are headed for the Salvation Army - immediately, so I don't change my mind. These bags stay in my car for about three weeks - I'm too busy to deliver them - until finally, once I've come down from my Walter-induced high, I find myself in the downright shabby position of standing out on the street rifling through them like some crazy old tramp lady. Several items make the return journey up the road, including a flowery sun hat she particularly despised. Well, you just never know, do you?
Cost £500 a day, £250 half a day
Guru four: The life coach
I wouldn't mind losing a bit of weight. So I get in touch with Steve Miller, better known as the Life Bitch and the author of a book called Get Off Your Arse and Lose Weight. Miller's USP is his camp straight talking. A former Butlins red coat, he isn't interested in hearing about your difficult childhood, or any other kind of 'excuses'. His clients see him just three times, because he wants 'results' fast; for this reason, he only works with people whom he regards as sufficiently motivated. He is based in Solihull, but we meet in a hotel in Docklands, in his 'suite'. So, he says tartly, why should he work with me? And why, exactly, have I put on weight? Well, I reply, when you're single, dinner is a yoghurt standing in front of the fridge. But when you're married, you start cooking and all that. 'This is pathetic!' he says. 'If I suffered from insomnia, I'd take you to bed with me; you'd help no end!' Nice. He then explains his techniques to me. I should use the tins in my kitchen as weights. I should go to a restaurant, order a hamburger and imagine it to be covered with a combination of dog shit and cat sick. That should put me off! Another good idea would be to buy a pair of trousers one size too small, and hang them in my bedroom with a notice attached to them that says: 'Winner!' Beside them, I should then hang a pair of my 'fat, elasticated pants' with a notice that says 'Loser!' on them. Unnervingly, Miller refers to himself in the third person. 'The Life Bitch doesn't do excuses!' he'll say. Or: 'The Life Bitch doesn't do hard'. It's very wearing. Eventually, though, he gives up on me, and gets back to his main subject of interest: himself. Do I think he's charismatic? (Everyone else does: 'I'm renowned as an inspirational guy!') Do I think he'd be good on television? Do I know any good agents? Our encounter does absolutely nothing for my weight - LOSER! - but it illustrates what must be a growing problem: some 21st century 'gurus' have moved beyond the salesmanship and simple quackery. They want fame, and they want it so badly that they forget to seem sufficiently mysterious and powerful, or to appear as though their only concern is you, the needy client. I exit the Ramada Docklands hotel at no little speed.
Guru five: The reiki practitioner
Yu Chou is a reiki practitioner who works in Wimpole Street, and my hope is that his 'hot hands' will help me with the headaches I get - the result of long, stressful hours at my computer screen. I choose reiki because it is amazingly popular, even having found its way onto cancer wards in British hospitals and yet it sounds to me like so much mumbo jumbo (its efficacy has also yet to be proven; most research suggests that it works as a result of the placebo effect). Reiki was invented - sorry, I mean received as a gift - by a Japanese Tendai Buddhist called Mikao Usui in 1922 after a 21-day retreat. Practitioners use a method similar to the laying on of hands - though most do not actually touch the patient's body - to transfer healing energy via their palms. Yu Chou trained as a reiki master in New York. Does he need to know anything about me before he treats me? 'Not at all,' he says. So why do most people come to see him? 'To relieve stress. Or perhaps they're having chemotherapy. Reiki can help them to recover more quickly.' I lie down on a couch and listen, somewhat tensely, to the soothing music that is playing. Why is soothing music so irritating? I close my eyes. I think: please let this work. I think: please let this be better than Nurofen Plus. I sense Yu Chou's hands over my head, and they do feel rather hot - but then, for all I know, he could just have warmed them on a nearby radiator. For the next 45 minutes, he moves around my body, holding his hands above various places for three or four minutes at a time. It is quite relaxing, but then lying down in the middle of the afternoon is always relaxing, isn't it? When he is done - apparently, he must take back all the energy he has transferred to me before I go, or I'll feel too 'spaced out' - he tells me to sit up slowly. When I sit up quickly, he looks concerned. But the truth is that I feel no different from how I did when I arrived; I might as well have lain down at home. At least there, I could have listened to Radio 4. Oh, well. Yu has a kind face. Perhaps some people don't see many kind faces in life. Perhaps a kind face and a pair of warm hands is, for them, worth paying for.
Cost from £39
My search for a guru is at an end, and what have I achieved? Not much. I know that this journey was not scientific, but I did go into it with an open heart, and an open (well, reasonably open) mind. I am, though, still blotchy and tired of face, carrying a few extra pounds, and prone to headaches. My cupboards - with the honourable exception of my wardrobe - are still messy. My scepticism is intact, and is now bolstered by a rising bubble of cynicism that I will have to deal with in due course, probably by watching Gavin & Stacey at the same time as I read Nelson Mandela's Long Walk To Freedom. Is there any good news? Yes, there is. I do feel, for the first time in a while, unexpectedly content - which comes, I guess, from feeling so entirely myself. Knowing that I'm not susceptible to nonsense and doublespeak is empowering, not to mention money-saving. As my mother would say, you can't buy peace of mind - which must be why gurus are as susceptible to the whims of fashion as status handbags. Also, I did not break wind in the presence of Donna Karan's handsome and very muscled yoga teacher. For this small mercy at least, I am truly grateful.
· Yu Chou at the W1 Reiki Clinic, 9 Lister House, 11-12 Wimpole Street, London W1 (07903 905 188); w1reiki.co.uk
· Deborah Mitchell at the Hale Clinic, 7 Park Crescent, London W1 (020 7631 0156); haleclinic.com
· Jules Paxton on 020 7084 5383; www.julespaxton.com
· Steve Miller on 0121 635 5112; lifebitch.com
· Dawna Walter 07515 384761, email@example.com