What Happened to the New Age? Sorting Truth from Nonsense
Not long ago I was walking through the aisles of a New Age fair in the suburbs of Chicago. All the usual suspects were there: booths for Baha’i and Eckankar; ladies selling essences and fragrances; bodyworkers offering ten minutes of chair massage; psychics inspecting the etheric fields of their subjects. Like most New Age events I have gone to over the past decade, the fair had a tired quality to it.
I could simply be jaded. I’ve been going to such gatherings for over thirty years now, and at this point they hardly impress me with their novelty. But I may not be alone. One has the sense that for many, the energy that gave rise to the New Age has ebbed.
Even the term “New Age” has come to sound stale, harking back to the ’80s and the Harmonic Convergence, and, still further, to the spirituality of the 1960s counterculture. Commercial interests have backed away from the name, preferring the term “mind-body-spirit” or “MBS.” In January 2012, New Age Retailer, the primary trade magazine for this field in the US, changed its name to Retailing Insight.
Was the New Age a fad? Was it a noble but misguided hope that the world was ready for an enlightenment to which it now seems indifferent or hostile? Probably neither. More likely this is the case: much of what the New Age pioneered, including yoga, meditation, and organic foods, has become mainstream. Thus you could say the New Age won out in many ways – but at the cost of seeming fresh.
What about its ideas? Many of them too entered the mainstream and have even become clichés. At this point it may be useful to step back and look at some of the clichés of the New Age and see how well they stand up.
The New Age
Let’s start with the phrase “New Age” itself. It goes back far beyond the ’60s, even beyond the turn of the twentieth century. It first started being used in 1864, when an American clergyman, Warren Felt Evans, published a book entitled The New Age and Its Messenger.
Evans was propounding the ideas of the great Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). In the 1740s Swedenborg underwent a series of spiritual awakenings that, he said, gave him access to the invisible realms and to the hidden meanings of Scripture. One of his most remarkable claims was that the Last Judgment of the Bible had no resemblance to the way it was seen by conventional Christianity. It was never meant to mean Christ’s second coming on earth. In fact it took place entirely in the world of spirits, a realm which, in Swedenborg’s theology, occupies a middle place between heaven and hell and serves as a clearinghouse for the newly deceased. This spirit realm had accumulated a great deal of debris, such as base and mean entities, and it needed a housecleaning. The Lord accomplished this in the year 1757.
This Last Judgment, according to Swedenborg, had no immediate consequences for life on earth. Its only effect would be to weaken the power of spiritual tyranny and oppression (notably on the part of the Catholic Church, but also among the Protestants). New horizons on the spiritual world would therefore open. This was the New Age that Evans proclaimed, and Swedenborg was its messenger.
In his way Swedenborg was right. Many of the religious shackles that seemed solid in the eighteenth century have been broken. There is still a great deal of nonsense, deception, and crime in religion, but there is also much more freedom of inquiry – even the freedom not to believe if you don’t want to.
Since the nineteenth century, Swedenborg has faded into comparative obscurity, and Evans, once a best-selling author, has been almost completely forgotten. But the term “New Age” was given new life in the twentieth century by figures such as the British esotericist Alice Bailey, and, as we have seen, the New Age as an ideal reached its own peak in the late twentieth century.
To go back to the initial question: how much truth is there in this idea of a New Age?
In a trivial sense, every age is a new age. Today we face unprecedented dangers and opportunities. So did our fathers; so did our grandfathers. So will our children and grandchildren. Thus it has been since the beginning of history.
But I don’t believe the human condition is going to change in any radical way in the future. Whatever wonders and disasters we may engender, we will still be born, love, experience pleasure and pain, and die as humans have since the beginning of time. As Anton Chekhov said in his play Three Sisters, written in 1900: “When we’re dead people will fly around in balloons, there will be a new style in men’s jackets and a sixth sense may be discovered and developed, but life itself won’t change, it will still be as difficult and full of mystery and happiness as it is now.”
This phrase is often connected to the idea of the New Age. “Paradigm” means a scientific model. The Ptolemaic view of the solar system, which put the earth at the centre, was one such paradigm. It was replaced by another: the Copernican paradigm, which puts the sun at the centre.
How did the new view replace the old one? The historian of science Thomas Kuhn asked this question in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. His answer goes something like this: A scientific model inevitably has some flaws. It explains the data, but not quite perfectly. There are anomalies. For a long time these are set aside and either explained away or simply ignored. But after a certain point too many anomalies accumulate and can no longer be set aside. Science must then find another model – another paradigm.
In the case of astronomy, the Ptolemaic view explained the movements of the planets quite well in light of the observations that could be made at the time (up to the sixteenth century). This even included the retrograde motion of the planets. If the planets moved around the earth, why did they sometimes move backwards in the sky? The Ptolemaic theory replied by positing epicycles – meaning that the planets not only revolved around the earth, but moved in small cyclical orbits as they did.
Eventually the epicycle theory, which still did not match the data entirely, began to break down. Astronomers responded by positing epicycles within epicycles, but there was a point when this model seemed implausible. Another one had to be found. The theory of Copernicus, modified by Kepler, accounted for the planets’ motion much better. This was a scientific revolution, also known as a paradigm shift.
The paradigm shift that the New Age speaks of is more vague. To some degree it has to do with another scientific revolution – from Newtonian to quantum physics. Newtonian physics is mechanistic and materialistic: it is a universe of ricocheting billiard balls. The quantum universe is much stranger, and some of its most brilliant theorists have stressed how bizarre and counterintuitive it is. But one idea from quantum theory has captured the public imagination: the observer affects the results of an experiment simply by the process of observation. This theory seems to place consciousness, rather than matter, at the centre of the universe.
This idea fascinates people who dislike the meaningless, materialistic Newtonian universe. Some physicists, such as Amit Goswami, author of The Visionary Window and other works, say quantum theory proves that consciousness is the ground of all being. This is a step many other scientists are not willing to take, largely because quantum theory talks about the behaviour of submolecular particles; they are very reluctant to say quantum effects occur on greater scales. Quantum physics is sometimes defined, in fact, as “the science of the very small.”
What does this all amount to? There is certainly a new scientific paradigm (although it is well to remember that much of quantum theory was in place by 1930, making it nearly a hundred years old). But this new paradigm, as understood and applied by physicists themselves, does not prove consciousness is the ground of all existence. Nor is it leading toward a more holistic and satisfying view of the universe. In fact the trend is going in the opposite direction.
A generation ago there was much excitement, at least in the popular mind, about the connections between quantum physics and mysticism. But the majority of scientists, rightly or wrongly, have never bought it. They remain firmly materialistic in their outlook.
Other disciplines have also moved backward. The psychology of the ’60s and ’70s embraced humanistic and transpersonal perspectives, but to all appearances this process has been turned around. Neuroscience has had so much luck modifying behaviour through pharmaceuticals that now scientists seem to assume more or less universally that consciousness is a mere side-effect of brain states. (Never mind that this claim has never been proved or even explained in any kind of coherent way.) Computer science, for its part, has made such progress in simulating brain processes that some people now believe it will soon be possible to download your consciousness into a computer, allowing cognition to go on through the operation of a machine rather than a brain. You will no longer need your body to be you. Minds are machines, whether they are made of carbon-based protein or silicon.
In short, the paradigm that was so fondly expected to bring about a new, satisfying, and holistic view of man’s place in the universe failed to arrive. Conventional science, for all its accomplishments, is as drearily materialistic as it was in the days of Queen Victoria.
That is not to say change will never come. Trends reverse themselves without warning, and fashions in science come and go almost as arbitrarily as the ones in couture. But that is how it looks now.
You Create Your Own Reality
In a trivial sense, this is certainly true. Your senses and nerves and brain filter the data from the outside world (whatever this “outside world” ultimately is) and create a picture of reality that enables you to function.
But some New Agers go further. They say that all you have to do is change your thinking and the world will change automatically.
To some degree this is true as well. Say you are having money trouble. Try this mental experiment. Believe, as fully as you can, that a cheque for a million dollars is coming to you next week. Suddenly your problems will seem to vanish. You will have no worries.
Your thinking certainly changes the way you feel. But the claim that you create your own reality is a little stronger than this. It is saying that if you believe hard enough that this cheque will be coming, it will come: the universe will manifest it for you. And this idea is harder to swallow. At best, it can motivate you to strive to bring more money into your life; at worst, it is nothing more than daydreaming.
Some people practice creative visualisation. By this method you formulate a vivid mental picture, and you concentrate on it so that the energy you are directing will make it appear in the physical world. This can and sometimes does work. But it very often brings unwanted consequences in its wake. You can visualise a cheque for a million dollars, and the cheque may appear. But you didn’t count on the fact that you would get into a crippling accident, and the cheque is to compensate you for the fact that you will never walk again. Granted, this is an extreme example. Another more likely outcome is that you will find that you really didn’t want what you were asking for and were disappointed when you got it.
A few weeks ago, for no reason that I can discern, a file suddenly opened up on my computer. It said, “Please, God, protect me from everything I have been praying for.” I wrote it several years earlier and had completely forgotten about it. Evidently I needed to hear it again.
Another thing is often overlooked: You are not the only one creating your own reality. There are others like you. All of them have the same power over reality that you do. And you are part of their reality as well.
This fact raises a large but unexamined question: if we create our own reality, it must be a collective creation. And what is the effect of all these minds creating and cocreating together? How do the thoughts of your neighbours, your countrymen, your fellow humans as a whole, affect you? How do the minds of many engender a collective reality?
This is, I believe, one of the most important questions facing humanity today. There is a collective imagination – psychologist Charles Tart called it “consensus trance” – that shapes our reality as much as, and probably more than, our own private thoughts do.
As far as I can tell, psychology has not dealt with this question or even acknowledged it. It is true that the psychiatrist C.G. Jung spoke of the collective unconscious. He touched upon collective mentalities in some of his articles, such as “Wotan,” which discussed the resurgence of an old Germanic archetype in the Nazi ideology, and “The Complications of American Psychology,” which related the American psyche to the nature of the land in which it found itself. From another angle, the Russian psychologist V.M. Bekhterev explored mass and mob behaviour in his book Collective Reflexology. Bekhterev, who saw the Russian Revolution firsthand, had plenty of observations to work from. Even so, the science of collective psychology is embryonic.
Thus up to a point it is true you create your own reality. But so does everyone else, and you are part of that reality too. The question for the twenty-first century is how we create our reality.
Be Here Now
Let’s turn to one of the most famous artefacts of the New Age. A squarish, large-format paperback book, with a purple cover, its contents printed on rough brown paper that looks like wrapping material. Its title: Be Here Now. Its creator: the beloved American guru Richard Alpert, best known as Ram Dass. The words, pasted down clumsily with letterpress as if to simulate the visual distortions caused by LSD, urge you to awaken:
What are you doing?
Planning for the future?
IT’s ALL RIGHT NOW
But later?… Forget it baby
Are you going to
BE HERE or not?
IT’S AS SIMPLE AS THAT!…
If you get so efficient…
If you’ve got to turn off all the vibrations of the scene…
because you’re so busy
about the future
or the past
or time has caught you…
IT COSTS TOO MUCH!
No message from the New Age has burned itself into the collective mind as deeply as this command: Be here now. The past is an artificial construct. The future is an equally artificial construct. There is only the present moment. There is always only the present moment. This is the way to liberation.
The idea still reverberates. Just as its effect was starting to fade, Eckhart Tolle came out with a booster shot: the best-selling Power of Now, published in 2004.
No one could possibly refute this idea. It is always now, and, it would seem, the atomic moments felt through meditative awareness – an endless chain of nows, each one inexorably strung upon its predecessor – bring us as close to ultimate reality as we are likely to come in this world.
As a mental discipline, what has sometimes been called “the doctrine of the present” has no peer. Every moment – or, rather, every moment you are aware of it – you bring your attention to the present; you sense your feet on the floor and feel the breath go in and out. The welterings of your mind subside. You are centred and at peace.
In essence, I could not hope to. But in practice, another view arises.
There is the sensation of my foot on the floor. This is direct, immediate, real. There are, on the other hand, the thoughts and fantasies and daydreams in my head, flowing before my mesmerised eyes like the scenes of a thriller. By contrast, they seem unreal.
But maybe this is not the whole picture. Am I not, after all, experiencing all these supposedly delusory thoughts in the present as well? Why should one experience be held up as real and genuine, while the other is despised as false?
Someone who goes to a few of the innumerable talks given by Tibetan lamas in the West will sometimes hear them denigrate the conceptual mind – the ‘monkey mind’ that must be suppressed, or even killed, if enlightenment is to occur. But I once heard the Dalai Lama speak, and he criticised this point of view. Although I don’t remember his exact words, I do remember that he said this contempt for the conceptual mind was unjustified, that this part of the mind too has its place, and one must not try to uproot or kill it.
And sometimes this conceptual mind will take you out of the present.
The present, then, that magic moment that discloses God, is only one of innumerable types of experience. It is well, of course, to be able to recognise and rest in it. But it may not be wise, and it certainly seems impossible, to stay there all the time.
R.H. Blyth, in his celebrated collection of essays Zen and Zen Classics, writes: “Where Buddhism makes its great mistake is in asking for eternity without time. As Blake said, ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’.”
Peace. If there is one word that encapsulates the New Age, it is this one. In its day, it was more than a word. It was a gesture (the fingers forming a V, the palm facing out in an exact reversal of Churchill’s ‘V for victory’ gesture). It was an ideograph, the circle bisected vertically, with two other lines extended down from the centre – a combination of two letters in semaphore code standing for ND or “nuclear disarmament.”
But peace – a cliché? That is a harsh verdict. And if it is, you will say, we need more of such clichés. And badly.
In the ’60s the peace movement was the result of a genuine collective impulse. It was not only the recent memory of the horrors of the Second World War. It was also an aftershock from the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world came the closest it has ever come to nuclear war. In the US, the peace movement was also a response to the Vietnam conflict and to the real likelihood that, like the states in Orwell’s 1984, the superpowers would maintain a permanent state of war.
Events turned out differently from the expectations, as events always do. The threats to world peace that seemed so menacing during the Cold War are gone, but they have been replaced by others, and when these are gone, there will be others still.
Do we need a peace movement to turn ourselves around? I think we do, but I also think we have never had a genuine peace movement. What we have had are antiwar movements. And to be against war is not the same thing as to be for peace.
Earlier in this article I talked about the possibility that thoughts play a part – a major part – in shaping reality. And I think this is the case. In this light what are we to make of today’s mentality, which projects so much hatred toward its leaders? Do they deserve it? Maybe – but you are not making them any better or their work any easier by directing hatred and vituperation at them. Not if there is the dimmest bit of truth to the idea that your thoughts create reality. And of course this goes double for any collective feelings of hatred.
In this light I find myself thinking about the possibility of a peace march – a genuine peace march. Such an event would be aimed not at stopping the latest war but at offering peace and blessings to the leadership of the nation, of any and all ideologies, without any agenda whatsoever. This would be a real peace march, because it would be offering peace rather than opposition, blessings rather than grievances. I wonder what effect it would have.
A cliché, of course, could never become a cliché unless it is widely disseminated. And it would never become widely disseminated if it did not have much truth, and even wisdom, in it. So it is with the clichés of the New Age. Many of them are rooted in ancient and indeed perennial truths. That these truths need to be recast and restated in the language of a particular time and place is hardly a flaw; it is a way of adapting them to the needs of a generation. They will be restated and recast in many ways in the generations to come.
About the Author
RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty-five years of experience studying esoteric spirituality. His recent work, Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, is composed largely of articles written for New Dawn. Smoley is the former editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books. His new book is The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness.
V.M. Bekhterev, Collective Reflexology: The Complete Edition, translated by Eugenia & Alissa Lockwood, Transaction, 2001
R.H. Blyth, Zen and Zen Classics, vol. 5, Hokuseido, 1962
Amit Goswami, The Visionary Window: A Quantum Physicist’s Guide to Enlightenment, Quest, 2006
Ram Dass, Be Here Now, Lama Foundation, 1971
C.G. Jung, Civilizations in Transition: Collected Works, vol. 10, 2d ed., translated by Gerhard Adler & R.F.C. Hull, Princeton/Bollingen, 1970
Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity, translated by Jonathan S. Rose, 2 vols, Swedenborg Foundation 2006-2012
The above article appeared in New Dawn 153 (Nov-Dec 2015)
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