Friday, June 28, 2013

Why I hate the New Age – a tirade seven years too late.

Remember that book and ‘documentary’ ‘The Secret’ from back in 2006? For a while it was all the rage - everyone was busily ‘manifesting their reality’, friends trying to turn me on to the wondrous truth. The message was simple: you create the reality you perceive, and all you need to do to live the life you dream of is to ‘focus your mind on it’. This sets up ‘waves of attraction’ that magically draw the imagined reality into physical being. What’s more, it was claimed, there are no limits on the abundance that can be yours, except those imposed by your self-limiting beliefs.

None of these ideas were new. In fact, as the child of a New Age mother, I’d been fed this type of stuff with mother’s milk. I ‘manifested’ a cactus at age thirteen. (Actually I didn’t – what I’d been trying to manifest in my nightly supervised meditations were the vaguely defined romantic attentions of a certain Melissa H, but when the cactus was given to me, I declared that this had been my heart’s desire, in the hope that this might put an end to the torturous meditation sessions. Sorry Mum.)  What’s interesting though is the timing of The Secret’s success – at the very height of the unsustainable pre-GFC boom, when everyone, from jobless US mortgagees up to Wall Street cowboys, believed that abundance can indeed come from nothing.

As a former psychotherapist, I have witnessed people’s remarkable capacity to unconsciously create realities that recapitulate the conditions of their childhoods, seemingly attracting the same emotional drama again and again. I’ve seen this too in my own life, and marvelled at the apparent magic of it. I’ve also seen how people can transform their lives through conscious efforts, through mindfulness and increased self-knowledge. And there is no doubt ‘reality’ is a mutable and ambiguous thing – even hard science has implicated the mind (they prefer to say ‘the observer’) in the construction of reality.

But the notion that we can ‘attract’ whatever we want by focusing on it and visualizing it, that the universe is a kind of giant wishing well that only serves up nasty stuff because we secretly wanted it that way, is a poisonous idea. There’s a scene in The Secret that epitomizes how shallow and toxic this philosophy can become: a man ‘meditates’ in an armchair while making gear-shifting motions with his hand in order to ‘manifest’ for himself the BMW of his dreams. It’s this wedding of ostensibly spiritual practice with consumerism that is particularly insidous. It is the very inversion of the Buddhist precept of nonattachment. Far from encouraging the mindful observation of one’s ego’s desires and fears, New Age-ism places them at stage centre and suggests we really can ‘have it all’.

Of course, it doesn’t work. Beyond the cactus incident, I did try this stuff, and never achieved anything convincing. I’ve also had seen friends get involved with this type of practice, and watched them beat themselves up over their persistent failure to achieve the desired results. Inevitably these visualizer types tend to be gentle, artistic people with high ideals but less practicality, who naturally welcome the message that their imaginative gifts might provide a road to success that will shortcut the road of hard knocks. This philosophy salves the pain of sensitivity with a false promise that this very sensitivity could become the route to personal vindication and validation, without the need to confront the difficulties and trials of a harsh world.

Part of the poison of the idea is the difficulty of recognizing its failure. The tendency is to blame oneself for ‘doing it wrong’ – for not visualizing clearly enough, for the pitiful wattage of one’s ‘ball of light’, for not doing it long enough, for having doubts… Successes (‘I’m really good at manifesting car parking spaces!’ is a common ‘very mild superpower’) are magnified as proof of the concept, while failures on the big ticket items are explained away as a result of one’s ‘poverty mindset’. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ is inverted to ‘You’ll see it when you believe it!’ but this merely serves to generate more anxiety about one’s inability to evince sufficient faith. All the while it’s surprising no-one’s asking where the great exemplars of the method are – the lottery winners who got there by the sheer vividness with which they pictured that winning ticket.

I’m reminded of the ‘cargo cults’ that sprang up in some Melanesian societies after exposure to the wonders of Western civilization and its technology. If certain rituals were performed, these cults believed, ‘cargo’ in the form of western manufactured goods would magically be delivered to the cult members by the tribal ancestors or gods. Despite the obvious ineffectiveness of these rituals, cargo cults continue to arise in the Pacific from time to time. As in doomsday cults where uneventful Armageddons come and go without dinting the belief of the faithful that the end is indeed nigh, the failure of the predicted cargo delivery does not lead to a dismantling of the belief, but rather to more assiduous efforts to get the rituals correct.

More concerning though than its ineffectiveness are the moral implications of a philosophy that puts itself forward as ‘spiritual’ while promoting the notion that everyone’s lot is of their own making. It is anodyne indeed to imagine that all the plagues and torments of this world are only visited on those who believe in a ‘suffering mentality’ and that such trials can be avoided with a sufficiently hearty belief in ‘abundance’. To ascribe the affluence and opportunity experienced by a member of this western society purely to the personal agency of that individual shows a gross political and historical naiveté.

New Agers often espouse the importance of compassion, but true compassion derives from the understanding that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ It is not enhanced by or expressed in the notion that the terrible blows of fate are caused by the ‘unconsciousness’ of the victim. This attitude is at heart no different from the smug condescension of people born into great wealth, who mistake the good fortune of birth circumstances for God-given superiority. True wisdom involves an awareness of our profound vulnerability in the face of the vastness of life and the world, and a recognition of the limitations of our powers. Perhaps there is some overarching plan or some deeper part of us that is the architect of our fate, but one thing is for certain: it is not the ego that draws up these plans. To imagine otherwise is hubris.

In an age in which the protection of our fragile natural environment has become a matter of critical importance, the naïve notion of the universe’s unlimited abundance is one that also must be called into question. The Secret features a man talking about how he realized one day that he was living in the exact home he’d pictured in his visualizations a number of years earlier. The home he was talking about appeared to be an immense mansion surrounded by acres of land. Clearly such ‘abundance’ is not available to everyone on the planet – there simply aren’t the resources of land, materials and labour. This is not to mention the carbon footprint of such a dwelling, which looked to rival that of a small nation. The idea of unlimited abundance for all is so patently ignorant of economic, physical and environmental realities as to be unworthy of further analysis.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who at one stage in her youth fell for a pyramid scheme known as the ‘aeroplane game’. She sincerely believed the scheme would eventually net her huge wealth, when her name finally rose to the top of the payment tree. She had decided, she told me, not to put any more energy into building up her shiatsu business, because she wanted to focus on manifesting success through this scheme. I pointed out the fallacy – that the game depended on an infinite pool of players if nobody was to get suckered – but she attacked me for my narrow belief in ‘scarcity’ and told me ‘there are some things beyond logic.’  ‘You’re right,’ I agreed, ‘but this isn’t one of them.’

Every culture, I suppose, invents a spiritual belief system that reflects its needs and values. The New Age – at least in the guise of ‘manifest your own reality’ – reflects a culture of shallow materialism, espousing a system of belief that could only be credible to a generation that has known little hardship or privation. The Buddhist doctrine of nonattachment was won out of suffering – it reflects the hard-earned lesson that nothing is forever, that it pays to invest in the soul rather than becoming attached to the fleeting mirages of the material world. Perhaps the New Age is on the decline because of the hardships the west (and especially America) is now facing.  As noted earlier, The Secret was born of the pre-GFC boom era. The Wall Street jocks who invented the complicated Ponzi schemes that drove the world’s financial system off the cliff’s edge probably weren’t believers in the New Age. But their excesses derived from the same cultural wellsprings – a deluded belief in the omnipotence of the will, an unfounded faith in infinite abundance, a refusal to acknowledge the limits of the ecological web in which we are all embedded.

The stupidity of all this is clearer now. Hence my title – this attack comes much too late. I should have written it when The Secret was at its peak. The New Age’s hour has passed, and while remnants of it remain, it seems the young generation who would once have bought crystal wands and books with leaping dolphins on their covers are now a harder, more cynical bunch. Spirituality of all kinds is distinctly out of fashion among the young — although, as I have argued, much of the New Age was itself spiritual in guise only. Its beating heart was materialistic and selfish.  

I remember a house where I used to go to visit a friend, where no less than seven devotees of a particular school of New Age self development lived together in tofu-cooking, Tibetan-bell ringing harmony. I liked those guys, though I hated the way they mixed business with friendship, constantly promoting their endless workshops on this or that massage or yoga technique among their own social circle, so that you never felt sure that an invitation was made purely for the pleasure of your company. They seemed no more or less selfish or fucked up than the average twenty/thirty-something, but they were idealists, people who believed in a better world and wanted something more meaningful than what the mainstream served up for them as ‘reality’.  In other times they’d have been Marxists or LSD-dropping hippies. In this shallow culture, however, their rebellion looked surface only. They wanted the same material success as everyone, and spirituality was just a gloss on the same basic attitudes as the mainstream: it’s all about you and what you want. You deserve it.

Good times rarely provoke spiritual growth. The New Age is the dying flower of the boom era, a form of pseudo-spirituality born from wishful thinking and a time of unsustainable, cancerous economic growth. That most of us are these days are sadder or wiser than to believe the snake oil promises of The Secret and its ilk is only a good thing. What comes after the New Age remains unclear – let’s hope that if there is a new spiritual movement in this culture, it’s one that faces the true human condition with a deal more honesty and courage than The Secret.


Pepis Rocha said...

the best post ive read on the subject awesome read

Pepis Rocha said...

the best post ive read on the subject awesome read

Bruce Dickson said...

Hi Pierz, this has several good points. I'm thinking of writing a piece, "What comes after the New Age?" Like to collaborate? I'm at If you are still getting many hits on this, the present piece would greatly benefit from revising, focusing and adding a positive "third act," your positive vision of what can come next.

Responsible Spirituality said...

Thank you for this excellent article. I've linked it on my blog,

Persley said...

Great article.