Over on his blog Donald Michael Kraig has a swipe at the New Age – mainly for its huckster qualities and logical fallacies. Nice. Scoot on over and have a look.
Now, I’ve done a bit of New Age bashing in my time, getting thrown out of two bookshops for … er… ‘enthusiastic’ expression of my opinions. The first was in Perth when the owner informed me that she ‘deserved’ to go travelling six months of the year, and therefore had no intention of lowering prices or donating to charity. I patiently explained that if she ‘deserved’ such luxury, so did everyone else on the planet (the majority of whom worked harder) and the resultant carbon mess of six billion people jet-setting around would kill us all. She then said she ‘had the karma’ for it, and others probably didn’t. It was then I got a mite ‘enthused’.
The other time was on visit to Melbourne and a new age ‘Witchy shop’. It was a slow time of the day so the owner was instructing a new assistant in how to sell pre-made ‘spell boxes’ at $40 a pop. I eaves dropped. Oh, come on – you would too. 🙂
It was clearly obvious that the assistant had never done any magic. At all, at all. In response to her questioning the owner about what to do if a customer asked about the spells, the owner said, “oh, just make it up, they’ll never know, they [the boxes] are all the same anyway”. Again, my enthusiasm rose and I interrupted with some force… and smartly was ‘asked’ to leave.
So I know where DMK is coming from. Still, I have other issues with the New Age industry and had a nice long article explaining it all on previous website. I’ve used a few bits and pieces from it on MOTO before but thought I’d plonk the whole thing here. I’ve added just a little bit extra and hopefully the whole thing reads OK 🙂 But enough preamble… here it is.
A few years ago a friend of mine, Angela, described her spirituality to me as ‘living life, seeing friends…walking on the beach…doing it all.’ She was clear she was ‘spiritual’ and that her spirituality was right and valid for her. She read the odd spiritual book – mostly bestsellers like the Celestine Prophecy – and was peripherally aware of spiritual practices and practiced Western styled hatha yoga. She was very happy she lived in a world that had grown beyond the ‘strictures of control’ which previously governed individual expression. She viewed organised religion as outdated and destined to crumble from within as individuals found their own self-defined spiritually.
Angela is not alone in her views, many of which are invisible dogmas in today’s New Age community. Pondering Angela’s description of her spirituality I was struck with a number of questions: what exactly is spirituality?; what is not spirituality?; can we judge any individual expression of spirituality, and if so how, using what criteria?
The Spiritual and the Religious
Contemporary definitions of spirituality often point to the experience of the sacred in contrast with the attempt made by religion to understand, express and represent the sacred through temporal activity and symbolism. Spirituality is therefore a personal knowledge, an individual embracing of the sacred while religion seeks a communal manifestation. While there does not need to be any conflict between the two – many people with individual spiritual experiences still consciously embrace organised religion – there is often tension between them. A quick scan of internet dating services will find many people describing themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Just like Angela.
The individual nature of spirituality reflects the modern origins of the word and points out a matter of crucial significance: if each of us has our own, self contained spirituality then whatever we experience as spirituality is, ipse facto spirituality. Angela’s walk on the beach, a yogini’s dharana on Kali and a devout Catholic taking mass are therefore all spiritual experiences.
However, by this definition a white extremist Christian exhorting and practicing the cleansing of inferior races is also a spiritual experience simply because it has been experienced as such. Here we run into a paradox, since it is precisely those modern, western secular values that permit us to practice spirituality divorced from religion that are affronted and threatened by activities like white extremism. Yet, logically we cannot but allow the label of spirituality to be applied to these experiences – if they are felt as spiritual by the individuals involved (no matter how repellent we personally find them). If we cannot judge – another invisible New Age dogma – we must not judge in any case.
Most of us – and if we are to judge from the literature, certainly most of the New Age community – do not like to think hard about issues like these. It is much easier to go on practicing our cappuccino credit card spirituality than face difficult questions and decisions. However, as often pointed out we are interdependent beings and our choices, practices, actions and non-actions influence and support the status quo around us. So, as spiritual people if we do not address these issues we support the misuse of spiritual concepts and ideas.
It is blissfully easy to practice spirituality (particularly New Age spirituality) in today’s modern west – it is everywhere, ready to be consumed and taken home in nice, neat packages. From a traditional religious perspective much New Age spirituality means little. Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying describes how parts of Australia and California are similar to the Gods realm in Buddhist cosmology with the Gods (and us):
…lounging on beaches and in gardens, flooded by brilliant sunshine, listening to any kind of music they choose, intoxicated by every kind of stimulant, high on meditation, yoga, bodywork, and ways of improving themselves, but never taxing their brains, never confronting any complex or painful situation, never conscious of their true nature, and so anesthetized that they are never aware of what their condition really is.” (page 113).
Despite this rosy picture and the ‘follow your bliss’ bumper stickers, true inner and outer transformation is rarely consistently and exclusively enjoyable since it expands us to a realm beyond our regular mental and emotional comfort zones. It is very easy however to simply enjoy the ‘bliss’ of spirituality, like the Gods. Whenever he felt a student was slipping into this, Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the foremost teachers of Tibetan Buddhism to the west, used to grab them by the shoulders and shout “Buddhism is supposed to SHAKE-YOU-UP!” The same reality is shown in the western esoteric saying:
God is not comfortable,
He is not a kind uncle.
He is an earthquake.
The Good and the Bad
My personal way of making sense of these issues draws from two viewpoints. The first was clarified for me over twenty years ago when I attended a ‘conference on spirituality’. Throughout the morning we heard from witches and Sufis, green activists and bishops. Then Sister Veronica Brady (even back then a venerable wisdom sage) spoke: ‘Everyone’s been talking about spirituality’, she said, ‘but we have to realise there is good spirituality and there is bad spirituality. Good spirituality is obedient to God, and bad spirituality isn’t’. What a breath of fresh air! Even if we did not agree, at least it was something to sink our teeth into; some meat to balance the soft tofu of the morning.
I think it is fair to say that Sister Veronica presented accurately the traditional viewpoint shared by most authentic religious and esoteric schools: for our spiritual experience – our life – to be authentic and ‘good’ we must be in submission to the will of God. To put it in more palatable New Age language: we need to align our everyday ‘lower-self’ with the spiritual impetus from our Sacred One(s) that seeks to manifest through us. The same reality is referred to in both sentences, the crucial matter being surrender to the divine. Spirituality without this surrender is polluted and corrupted by our own petty ego concerns; in New Age language – our spirituality can become a vehicle for the expression of our patterns, addictions and ‘issues’. We’ve all seen people like this I’m sure, maybe even in the morning mirror.
What criteria we may use to discern if there is authentic surrender within our – or another’s – spirituality we will discuss later. For now I wish to explore the second way I make sense of the multitude of (to my mind) strange spiritualities abroad these days. This focuses on what exactly is and is not spirituality. The Sr Veronica approach I feel is useful to sort the wheat from the chaff. But with walks on beaches, Anglican high masses, healing from sexual abuse and racist murder all being claimed as spiritual, I think we need some yardstick of discrimination of what we may accept as spirituality before attempting to see if it is good or bad. I find this discrimination offered by traditional esotericism.
An Esoteric View
On the surface the New Age appears to have much in common with traditional esotericism and one the unique features of the New Age is the availability of aspects of esoteric lore outside a formal exoteric structure. Esoteric spirituality is distinguished by its penetrating insight and practice concerning all levels of reality, its acceptance of the visible, the invisible and the heavenly.
Nearly all traditional esoteric paths across the world share a common view of the universe. At the most fundamental level the traditionalist view posits three interacting ‘worlds’ or spheres of existence. There is the physical, temporal world of phenomena. There is the eternal, uncreated, unchanging world of spiritual reality. And between these two worlds there also exists a world of transition and inner experience, often loosely called the ‘astral’ by modern western spirituality and by traditionalists, the psychic realm. This world functions as bridge between the upper and lower realms of spiritual reality and physical existence.
The worlds are not separate to each other and function as a continuum. How they function and inform each other is crucial to the full realisation of the human being. As a brief example of this we can look at how at three aspects of outer western religion – sacrament, doctrine and myth – are temporal representations of inner reality.
A central understanding here is that human psychic experience lies between the outer (physical) and the inner (spiritual) world. Ideally it is informed by both: correct and balanced doctrine combining with openness to spiritual truth to create a personal realisation; correctly performed sacramental acts combining with spiritual powers to create interior blessing; and inspiring myth combining with the spiritual reality it points to in order to create a renewed sense of relationship.
Astral-psychic experience is not spiritual experience, though the two are often confused in today’s New Age community. This confusion stems from two errors: firstly, the conflation of spirituality with personal development and healing, and secondly the assumption that the presence of elements of esoteric teachings within the New Age makes that spirituality esoteric and authentic. Of the first, Lama Ngakpa Chogyam says:
…it’s very important that people look at their own personal pain in a ‘non-esoteric’ manner before they shroud their own neurosis in the cloak of arcane mysteries. The intrinsic Mystery of Being is mysterious enough without filtering our involvement with its methods of Realisation through the web of belligerent potty training.’ (Psychology and the Spiritual Traditions, p.33)
The modern appropriation of spiritual language, frameworks and techniques for personal and psychological adjustment does not mean the two spheres – personal growth and spiritual unfoldment – are one. While related, the two are not the same and the esoteric traditions clearly distinguish between them.
In esoteric Qabalah the centralising state of consciousness, called Tiphareth looks ‘down’ towards the personal and ‘up’ towards the transpersonal. This shows the interrelation of the two, while recognising that the correct ‘upward’ view – the motivation and awareness of the individual – is required to embrace what is beyond us. Writing on Christian mysticism Theodore J. Nottingham embraces the traditional view that spiritual unfoldment does not come about “through intellectual or emotional development” but through “another state of being”. (Theodore J Nottingham: The Mysticism of Christian Teaching).
True spirituality is concerned with fostering this other state of being, which most esoteric traditions recognise as both immanent (within each of us) and transcendent (beyond all of us). Spiritual practices and frameworks will certainly give succour to our personal pain and it is appropriate to seek God to overcome pain. However, if our motivation for spiritual practice remains within this realm – the realm of the self seeking somatic, mental or emotional healing – this is where we will remain. We will never go beyond ourselves to the ‘other state of being’; we will never develop the right view and enter the eternal. The New Age homogenisation of healing and spirituality only adds to this tendency and encourages us to remain forever in the personal while seeing it as spiritual.
The esoteric and ancient religious traditions teach us to go beyond the personal while never neglecting our individual pain. An example made familiar through the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings is Tong-len, literally ‘giving and receiving’. In this meditation we consciously take on the suffering of others and give them the means for relief of suffering. By focusing away from the self we enter the realm of the spiritual and any personal healing is simply a by-product.
Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemplative Anglican priest with much esoteric study is even more stark in her review of western spirituality writing:
As Buddhism observed long ago, pain and pleasure are simply two ends of the old “egoic stick.” As long as one is drawing one’s vital energy from self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-expression, even in service of the purest and noblest of causes, one is still orbiting within the egoic feedback loop. As long as happiness and a personal sense of self-worth are still the measures by which one relates to life and adjusts one’s heading; as long as vitality is the measure of spiritual wellbeing, one is trapped within the egoic feedback system. These are not moral judgments; they are descriptive criteria. And by these criteria, it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego. (http://www.sacredweb.com/online_articles/sw4_bourgeault.html)
Here the good Rev is talking about all western spirituality, not just the New Age, including Jewish, Christian, Pagan and magical too. Read her article. Not sure about you, but it fairly makes me humble and sheepish. People believe they are practicing spirituality but they are not actually going beyond the pleasure-pain circuit, and thus not beyond their own selves which are temporal not spiritual in the actual sense of the word. They remain within astral experience, undergoing all sorts of healing and actualising processesmbut never getting to the core of reality.
The Astral-Psychic Emphasis
With reference to the three world model discussed earlier, much New Age spirituality emphasises the experiential, the astral-psychic realm. It is unwilling to create effectual outer forms of expression, such as ritual, doctrine and moral codes, since it is consciously trying to avoid being ‘religious’. Therefore the astral-psychic experience is rarely fully grounded in daily communal life and transformation rarely achieved. Traditionally the outer forms of a spirituality housed and contained the inner experience and meaning provided by the esoteric. Both were required for full transformation and expression of the divine.
New Age spirituality is also mostly unable to provide meaningful spiritual world experience since such experience builds upon both outer form and consistent astral-psychic experience over a number of years. The lack of in-depth teachings, the need for commercial success, the highly changing nature of the community and the individualistic nature of New Age practitioners in effect precludes consistent experience of the spiritual world. Instead there is a distinct tendency to assume astral-psychic experience as spiritual experience, when the two are separate states of being.
Let us be clear: astral visions, aura readings, clairvoyance, channelling, energy grids, past lives, invocations, channelled messages from the Pleiades are psychic not spiritual experiences.
While it is true that all of these concepts and techniques form part of various esoteric arts and schools, they are traditionally seen as empty in and by themselves, merely as gateways to transformation. True spirituality is something else, something completely different. The emphasis on the astral-psychic realm within the New Age hinders us passing through the gateway to the eternal offered by esoteric techniques and concepts. Instead we assume we have passed the gate and that our experiences are in and by themselves spiritual.
All esoteric schools assert true spiritual unfoldment takes many years of guided focus upon the eternal and away from the highly charged experiences offered within the astral-psychic realm. It for this reason techniques such as those listed above were traditionally labelled as ‘dangerous’: it is easy to focus upon the effects the technique has upon our self rather than focusing upon the One, to whom the technique points.
So back to our questions, what is and is not spirituality? It is a life lived in coherence with the divine which, slowly and consistently remakes the complete person. Traditionally, spirituality is not personal development or healing. It is not any technique or experience. Spirituality requires some level of renunciation, some measure of re-creation of ourselves in accordance to revelation of deeper truth. And ultimately it stands at odds with modern New Age belief: the esoteric view is that the revelations of the upper world point to immutable, eternal verities which are independent of human choice and perception. The New Age focus on ‘choosing our own reality’ and embracing our ‘own truth’ stands in direct contradiction to this traditional understanding. The fundamental difference is the modern valorisation of the individual in contrast with the traditional need for surrender of individualistic concerns. This brings us back to how we may discern the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ spiritualities out there.
When discussing the authenticity of theistic spiritual experiences His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:
If someone shows genuine love and compassion toward fellow human brothers and sisters, and toward the Earth itself, then I think we can be sure that that person really respect’s God’s message, they emulate God’s love for humanity. Conversely, I believe that the faith of someone who professes belief in God and yet shows no love or compassion toward other human beings is highly questionable. (Essence of the Heart Sutra, p12.)
We may discern or test spirituality by the active expression of love and compassion by its followers (or for individual spiritualities, follower, singular). If we are, in Sister Veronica’s words, obedient to God we are surrendered to and drawing from the higher, spiritual world and this inevitably changes and ultimately shatters the core of the ego-me approach to life. We become automatically and naturally more compassionate and concerned with others, with the transpersonal, with the whole of life. Our motivation changes to consider others without thought, artifice or pretence. Any true spirituality will reflect this. Father Matthew Fox, the foremost exponent of creation-centred spirituality puts it simply:
‘The test of a spirituality is in its justice making; does it create justice?’
The active creation of justice is central to all true and effective spiritualities. Justice heals the world, repairs and unites the scattered fragments of the divine body, restores the right-balance-order of the Universe, symbolised in Ancient Egypt as the Goddess Maat. If our spirituality does not inspire and insist on active justice making throughout the world it is incomplete, lacking or simply not spirituality at all. From this viewpoint the white Christian extremist does not practice ‘good’ spirituality (if he practices any real spirituality at all). Nor does my friend, Angela. Nor do many people involved in roundabout ‘heal-me’ or ‘transcend-me-off-this-planet’ New Age spirituality.
Our Human Denial
Of course, as imperfect human beings we can easily fool ourselves into believing our spirituality is compassionate, or that by healing ourselves we heal the world, and all is well. Such delusions are comforting but unreal. They function in the same manner as the notion that the ‘spirits’ of accident victims, AIDS sufferers and birds killed as a result of Bird-Flu are all whisked ‘upwards’ by beneficent angels just before physical death. They serve no other purpose than to provide comfort to our ordered little lives. A moment’s thought or analysis will see through the falsity of such beliefs (such as the fact that AIDS victims suffer greatly in the years before imminent death and witnesses of car accidents report extended, active expressions of agony in victims before they die). Those of us who are reassured by these and other New Age fancies are seeking ego-comfort and are avoiding being challenged out of our self focused lives.
Monthly credit-card compassion while we wander through our affluent lives from one workshop to the next, like the Buddhists Gods mentioned earlier, is well and good. But it can also place a barrier to the active expression of justice within our lives and hinder our spiritual unfoldment. As imperfect beings we are good at denial and delusion and it is easy to assume we have acted on the call of Maat – of justice – when we have not. It is for this reason that all esoteric traditions teach introspection and self-analysis early in the path. One of the simplest, best modern expressions of this comes from the activist-Witch Starhawk, where she advises us to meditate upon and honestly answer these questions daily:
- How does my spiritual practice and daily life serve the earth?
- How does my spiritual practice and daily life affect the poorest third of humanity?
- How will my spiritual practice and daily life affect the generations to come in the future?
While facing these questions with honesty is hard and painful, it is important not to turn our gaze away from the effects our lives and choices have upon the world. The western culture teaches us to avoid pain and deny responsibility, to switch off, either through not thinking about the hard issues or embracing uncompassionate forms of theology. True spirituality is directly counter to this tendency and requires us to bridge the gap between our spiritual, personal, political and communal lives. There is no difference between these spheres of activity; the personal is political is spiritual.
Therefore our personal choices, political actions and spiritual practices need to cohere as one. The discomfort and distress we may experience when facing this reality is divinity moving through us, realigning our lives and changing us to serve. If we are to call ourselves spiritual, then we must be open to this discomfort, open to the pain of Goddess as well as her ecstasy; free and willing enough to suffer with and to act to end suffering. Ultimately, if we are not involved in the world, then why are we here?