Thursday, May 31, 2012

Babies, Bathwater and the New Age

The New Age movement is one of the great enigmas of our time. You won't find hardly anyone willing to defend it or define themselves as a "New Ager," and yet the movement has slowly and quietly (some would say insidiously) changed the culture at large, for better and worse.

I didn't know there even was such a thing until Shirley McLaine brought it into the mainstream with the 1986 TV movie of her autohagiography, Out on a Limb. Of course, I'd been heavily immersed in the movement prior to that but what I thought I was involved with was an underground and vaguely outlaw occult movement that itinerant Deadheads were introducing lost and bored punk rockers to in the mid-80s.

It seemed to be a rich and loamy mission field-- the first wave of hardcore punk had fallen apart, giving rise to Nazi punk, thrash metal and nihilist grunge. None of the energy or optimism of the early 80s was left in the movement, as a great darkness had descended over the scene. A lot of punks were gagging for an antidote.

There were certain precedents in Post-Punk, particularly the British bands (Killing Joke, Comsat Angels, Coil, Current 93, etc) who toyed with the kind of post-hippie occultism that would have such a decisive impact on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and the rest of 80s British Invasion, but I would definitely credit the 80s renaissance of The Grateful Dead for the clandestine spread of the "New Age" ideas in the counterculture at large.

None of us had any idea that there was a "New Age" movement already at work, particularly in the American West, and very few would want anything to do with such a touchy-feelie, post-hippie kind of thing if we did. The 70s occult underground-- centered around hotspots like Manhattan's Magickal Childe-- was a better fit.

It must be said that the 1984 film Repo Man does an amazing-- almost prophetic --job in capturing this weird conjunction between disaffected punks and aging hippie mystics, especially considering that such a thing was completely unrecognized at the time.

The admixture of themes like late-period Cold War paranoia, Fundamentalist brainwashing, working class collapse, UFOlogy and Synchronicity are thick and gooey layers of radioactive icing on this dense, thorny layer cake.

There were other streams feeding into this as well, also tangentially related to The Dead; the personal computer and hacker scene, the nascent Cyberpunk scene (William Gibson's Sprawl books are as much about alt.spirituality as they are about tech), the vogue for outlaw physics championed by people like Jack Sarfatti and Saul Paul Sirag and then-fashionable deep ecology movement signaled that the New Age wasn't hostile to science (especially weird science), it embraced it.

Old counterculture icons like Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson enjoyed new interest in their work. The Burning Man movement arose during this time and caught on like, um, wildfire, capturing the unconscious impulses of a new generational counterculture.

Of course, then Shirley MacLaine put a stop to all of that- or most of that-- almost immediately and the New Age became the almost-exclusive province of declawed neo-hippies and a certain breed of middle-aged housewife who became the New Age equivalent of Dana Carvey's Church Lady.

Whitley Streiber's Communion steered what was left of the counterculture New Age into the New Ufology and Grunge- the dreariest and most negative microculture vying for dominance in the late 80s rode to victory on the back of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and left nothing but teenage rubble in its wake.

The Tech boom of the early 90s leeched away the Cyberpunk crowd with the promise of Silicon Valley riches. Cyberpunk bible Mondo 2000 tried to create the "New Edge"-- essentially gathering up the same elements of the New Age counterculture-- but that effort was bled dry by the new Gold Rush and the increasing power and prominence of the Neo-Theosophist faction that had taken control of the New Age movement in the wake of the unparalleled popularity of Shirley MacLaine's and JZ Knight's books, as well as The Celestine Prophecy and later, The Secret.

The mighty Religious Industrial Complex didn't sit by idly and watch of this go down with bemused befuddlement- it saw this new counterculture as a serious challenge to its power, influence and financial security.

The Christian Right went into a full-blown meltdown over the New Age, with writers tearing themselves away en masse from their airport men's room perches, peepshow stalls and favorite rest stop clearings to man the typewriters and word processors in defense of the Faith of their Fathers. They were goaded on by an obsessive harpie from Michigan who saw the New Age as nothing less than the work of Beelzebub himself, and who'd been shrieking about the movement to anyone who'd listen since the 70s. Nobody much listens anymore, but she's still shrieking.

The importance of the anti-New Age agenda was impressed upon the shills in the Conspiracy underground as well. Soon, intel dupes like Bill Cooper and Serge Monast were warning of the "New Age One World Religion," an self-contradicting impossibility given that the movement was by definition fractured, decentralized and creedless; the old cat-herding bit, in other words. At the same time Cooper and Monast were tapping out their screeds with aching forefingers, their handlers were creating the real one world religions; Fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic.

Which is not to say that the New Age movement itself is blameless, and was not infiltrated and used for nefarious purposes, one of which was the testing ground for MK techniques that were subsequently exported to the Megachurches. At every turn ideas that took root in the New Age movement were appropriated and mainstreamed, an inevitability in a movement that lacked any kind of structure to guarantee simple quality control, never mind control of intellectual property.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet

At every turn, bad actors appeared to peddle crypto-authoritarianism and create dangerous cults which sucked away people's self-will almost as quickly as it drained their savings accounts.

Again, the fingerprints of secret gov't creepie-crawlies can be found everywhere you look. The looming shadow of Theosophy darkened the movement, or at least the unsavory legates of Blavatsky like Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Alice Bailey (the former was infinitely more dangerous and powerful than the latter, but served the ultra-right agenda, so the conspiratainers were told to leave her alone).

Indeed, for many people the movement was known more for the hucksters and charlatans that used the open source aspect of the New Age-- which the old hippie idealists saw as a strength and necessity-- as a license to loot and plunder. I don't have to name names here; I'm sure you all have your favorite examples.

And there were/are a lot of foundational ideals in the movement that drove people away: misguided, "we are the world" Globalist cheerleading, knee-jerk ecumenism ("all paths lead to the Source"), contentless spirituality ("It's all energy"), a kid-in-a-candy-store approach to ancient symbol systems, the aforementioned neo-Theosophical authoritarianism, and a troubling insensitivity to human suffering ("You have cancer because that's the path you chose.")

But with the New Age you almost have to see it as an impulse (or a loose confederation, at best) than an actual movement. The various subsects usually had little in common and only interacted at expos and conventions, if at all. Adherents usually didn't describe themselves as "New Agers," that was a pejorative thrust upon them by the media.

And indeed, the New Age as a concept soon gave way to endlessly subdividing factions: the self-improvement movement (which grew out of the human potential movement), neopagans, Goddess-worshipping feminist separatists, Chaos magicians, neo-traditionalists, and on and on. For all intents and purposes, the New Age is simply a marketing catchphrase, the section at Barnes and Noble where I find the books I want to read (very few of which have anything to do with Oprah or Shirley MacLaine, of course).

And several important and meaningful ideas were brought into the mainstream via the New Age movement. Which is not to say there isn't fraud and abuse and irritation galore to bemoan, but that's the cost of living in an open society.

Health Awareness: "Health food" and organic food was once cloistered away in dingy hippie co-ops, now it can be found in supermarkets. Junk food profiteers are still in business but under pressures they didn't have to face before the rise of the New Age movement.

Vegetarians and vegans were once seen as the equivalent of devil-worshippers; now they are simply part of a menu of lifestyle choices. Exercise is now seen as desirable activity and not just a chore. Smoking is no longer socially acceptable. It hasn't always been pretty or painless, but this is in large part the legacy of the New Age movement.

Alternative History: Books like The Da Vinci Code and The Last Templar mainstreamed alt.history in a fictional context (often to the extreme annoyance of some alt.historians), but the New Age market helped make bestsellers of books like Fingerprints of the Gods. Orthodox historians still laugh it off but are finding themselves with a smaller amen corner every year.

For all its faults, the success of Ancient Aliens has gotten people talking about a subject that was quashed by the Religious Right.

Détente between Science and Spirit: The Establishment-- particularly their little media toadies-- seems heavily invested in driving a wedge between science and religion these days, despite the fact that the Vatican has totally changed its tune on science (including on evolution) and that many of the scientists and engineers doing the heavy lifting these days were raised in conservative Asian religions and have no trouble reconciling their faith with their work.

What is being put forth by the media is fundamentalist scientism and fundamentalist religion. It's a false dichotomy that is being deliberately whipped up to cause trouble and sow dissension.

At its best, the New Age movement had no time for any of that. No less a luminary than JZ "Ramtha" Knight unleashed the What the Bleep do We Know quantum physics primers, for whatever they're worth (I haven't seen them in their entirety). Call it "woo" if you must, but don't say they're anti-science just because you disagree.

Alt-UFOlogy: I'm always stunned by how simple-minded the debunker set are when it comes to UFOs. To them, they have to be spacecraft from another solar system or some joker is igniting cow farts. This shouldn't be a surprise-- none of the debunkers I've come across seem terribly bright (even if some are indeed booksmart) and they spend most of their time talking to each other, reinforcing the feedback loops.

Regular readers of this blog know I'm not big on the ETH (extraterrestrial hypothesis) and that I believe a careful study of the UFO phenomenon through history (and prehistory) reveals something that acts more like an espionage program than the work of curious, labcoat-wearing alien Margaret Meads.

Nick Redfern's new book suggests that a lot of UFOs are in fact beings, which makes me want to go back and rewatch all those "sentient orb" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

There's no shortage of messianic UFoology in New Age circles, but the blurring of the boundaries that the New Age once chased after also gave voice to Alt.Ufology, particularly the work of people like John Keel and Jacques Vallee (indeed, the old East West bookstore had a big UFO section, where I first saw Passport to Magonia). And of course, ancient astronauts are a given in the alt.research community that grew out of the old New Age movement.

Psi Research:
As with UFOlogy, I don't much go for the clairvoyance-on-demand myth peddled by professional "psychics", all too common in New Age circles. And it's a good thing, too; you think surveillance is out of control now, just imagine if there was an army of mind readers keeping tabs on everyone. It would be intolerable. I know we're constantly hearing how mind-reading machines are right around the corner, but I think it's a pretty big corner we're talking about- they've been "right around the corner" as long as I can remember.

I do think there is interesting work to be done in psi research, the kind of stuff folks like Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake have done. I'm not entirely sure how useful laboratory experiments are, since I think this potential taps into a non-reptilian aspect of the brain and tends to be inhibited by the hostile conditions you'd find in a lab.

There are any number of useful and important tasks the human mind performs that can't be summoned on-demand, so any laboratory experiment that doesn't confirm psi is merely proving that psi doesn't flourish in such a contrived and artificial environment.

But making the leap that psi doesn't exist based on laboratory experiments (we'll leave aside what dens of fraud and deceit labs-- especially corporate labs-- often are) is kind of like showing a gay male naked pictures of James Randi, PZ Myers, and Penn Jillette and declaring homosexuality doesn't exist when they inevitably fail to achieve an erection.

Positive Thinking: This one gets a bad rap these days, but was a central tenet of human potential. We are bombarded with negativity-- now more than ever before-- and there's no question it has a deleterious effect on our psyches, our health and our souls. The adolescent quest for "Cool" that grips our society (as well as the adrenaline rush you get from fearporn) makes positive thinking anathema; it's far more fashionable to be grim, defeatist and miserable. It's much easier, too.

However, positive and negative thinking are self-fulfilling and a society that embraces negativity is a society destined for failure, just as a society that embraces nihilism (which is what the Skeptics and nu atheists are really offering). Certainly the corporate embrace of people like Tony Robbins and before him Norman Vincent Peale has understandably soured people on positive thinking, but I'm not really sure how much longer we can sustain ourselves with the negative thinking monkey on our backs.

I've never believed in "Cool"; "Cool" is cowardly and shallow, in my estimation. A human being is cool when they are dead. I believe in being hot-blooded, passionate and lusty.

There are other positive effects the New Age has had: a new appreciation for the Sacred Feminine, a more relaxed approach to office environments, a new engagement for men in child rearing and the household, a more holistic to environmentalism.

There are also any number of undesirable effects as well; the nanny state approach to health, a tendency to religious hysteria regarding environmental issues, institutionalized political correctness. But the movement has been remarkably effective in changing society in its own image, for better or worse.

I don't believe in the "New Age"- it's one of those linear approaches to human events that assumes that everything is progressing in a straight line to a utopian future. And the movement itself was co-opted before some of you were even born, giving rise to what is often an insufferable and denatured new kind of Puritanism. I think it tends to a kind of reflexive androphobia that robs it of dynamism and balance.

But it did open things up and create a space where new ideas weren't seen as inherently threatening and in that regard it's had a positive effect on society. Plus, there's that handy section at Barnes and Noble to take into account...


  1. Hey Chris,

    Good point you brought up. I can say one thing for sure, this new age movement is in my observation not exclusive in fact every one is part of it including the "non-newage" people.

    I think this is a resurfacing of the old blending with the new and trying to synthesize its own identity. Just like the occupy wall street movement it has no direction (head) and it has no tangibility except theories and ideas which can overwhelm every one including myself. That's why I've noticed a new trend including in myself where people are abandoning the new age movement wagon. Yea it was fun when we were all ignorant but now its getting repetitive, stale and boring. If you've watched most of the interviews and video's people are regurgitating what is in the internet to other people. its so obvious.

    The illuminati this and the illuminati that. The bilderberg this and the bilderberg that. But if you do ur own research u'll realize that the world needs direction otherwise there won't be progress and the lazy people out there just have to understand that.

    For example Science and space channel would put up cutting edge documentaries on the cable and these new age "philosophers" would pick it up, re aggregate it and distribute it to the rest of "us" as something they've discovered and use the old formula of adding it with their theories.

    Science is pure and its much more of a beacon and a floating life boat than the "pulling theories out of thin air" information.

    I mean when we look at the novels and movies that talk about utopian societies like the movie Equilibrium, 1984, Brave New World, The Island etc what we come to is that "peace, ideal worlds" are static and have no dynamic life and are stale like a still pond. I believe we are humanity are on the right path. We have our vice, and our virtue and that makes us who we are. I don't think there is anything else to it than that.

    This new age movement that resurfaced due to the medium of internet will again go back to slumber just like the hippie era. Its all a cycle. People are tired of its lies and money looters.

    Nice Blog,


  2. I take note of the the idea that UFOs are thought by Redfern, in some cases, to be beings in and of themselves. This has been my belief for some time. Lights in the sky and morphing things would fit this category pretty well. I agree with your observations but have a very obvious question. How did this happen, when we both know that the religious, fanatic, right was firmly in control during it's infancy?

  3. Chris...

    Per your quote:

    I would definitely credit the 80s renaissance of The Grateful Dead for the clandestine spread of the "New Age" ideas in the counterculture at large.

    True to an extent, but the DeadHeads of the 80s were a pretty "snarky" bunch. They're snarkyness was typified by bumper stickers of the era, such as "shit happens" and "Reagan knew".
     They didn't rely on dogma or doctrine because their prophet was a living man (Jerry). They were fueled by gnosis, in it's truest sense and as a result were too weird for "mainstream new age".

  4. Sometimes I feel like "new age" is to "the occult" what "hipsters" are to "punk rock". Y' know what I mean?

  5. Am one of those people that got launched into alternative "whatever" inquiry by Fingerprints of the Gods back in '96. In the late 90s I bought some various books like Book of Enoch, etc. Amongst those was a book on the Nag Hammadi Gnostic writings by Elaine Pagel. Well, for whatever reason I ignored the Gnostic stuff for another decade. However, one day I just went and grabbed it off the shelf and pretty soon had consumed numerous books on the Gnostics and Hermetics.

    When you read the stuff that a lot of the New Age sites are saying, their so-called theology and cosmology overlaps heavily with the Gnostic/Hermetics stuff.

    So did the New Agers start tapping into that ancient well even before the re-discovery of Gnostic thought (Nag Hammadi texts) became mainstreamed starting in 1979 with Pagel's book?

    Also, for us that started getting hit all of a sudden with paranormal experiences, the New Age circles are where all that gets talked about, dealt with, and accepted.

    Not really saying anything specific here, but just pointing those things out.

  6. A great “new age” field guide, published by Whole Earth Catalog in 1989 is The Fringes of Reason… a hilarious yet thoughtful look at the movement… “nothing is so sacred that it cannot be made fun of.”

  7. rogerv,

    I hear ur point man, but what gets to me is that dry theory is very airy and just makes things boring in the long run and stale.

    I also have had paranormal experience during the "awakening" episode of my life. So the new age world started to give reason to these experiences for me but soon i've realized it was just a boat and that the journey need some other vehicle.

    In my opinion the new age stuff including this blog is just a abstract vehicle that will broaden the mind but i've encountered a problem and that it robs the creativity of experience in our life. It hijacks the regular "present" moment and plunges us in to realms that are very unstable and even dead ends.

    It is my experience so far!! that life is the ultimate and what ever we do with it is the real meaning. Every other channeling or books from the desert or enlighten light beings are just burned embers that we get fascinated by. The true enlightenment is life in its present experienced according to the individual without the "cliche's and dogmas" or spiritualism or wat not.


  8. Chris,

    First time I encountered New Age was at a Windham Hill concert at the Majestic Theater in Dallas TX in 1984. I was taken with a friend whose parents were aging hippies fer sher. I fell asleep at the concert, and used their music for that purpose for the rest of the 80s. A lot of their artists were arty versions of Dead jams, I think. I happened to start college in the San Francisco Bay area in 1985, and while I was hardly an insightful sensitive, I always felt that New Age anchored onto the continent at Big Sur and flourished wherever the Pacific fog bank penetrated. The fog was new age, a mixing of cold water and hot air, like mysticism and quantum mechanics. The Golden Gate, the whole thing, not just the bridge, was the embodiment of new age to me. The symbolism of the bridge linking opposing views, it's color, the incredible energy of the current flowing through it, the sound and smell of that place, all brought together the mixture of mysticism, science, meditation, environmentalism that was New Age to me. While I acknowledge the puritanical, politically correct vacuity that came in the 1990s, I never saw it as the same as that energy you got from the beautiful, spare, and lonely spaces of that Pacific coast, where all kinds of ideas came in on the currents, and where there was space to see all kinds of curious things in the night.

  9. You mentioned veganism in your essay. I was curious if you were vegan as I just went vegan several months ago. Rather than being hard to do I am now at the point where the idea of meat disgusts me. Of course the right wing conspiritainment pant-pissers will consider me a satanist trying to convert their children to the evils of a plant based diet. I've actually heard Alan Watt on Alex Jones' show as well as AJ himself claim the Illuminati are trying to push a vegan diet on the world. Of course, to say something so idiotic is to ignore the Burger King, KFC, McDonalds, and Taco Bell and Dairy industry ads one is inundated with on an hourly basis. That is the real brainwashing, yet the likes of Alan Watt will say the few people who go against the grain are the ones trying to brainwash. Talk about projection.

  10. I was planning on having a go at becoming a UFO but something warned me off it and I haven't tried again yet.

    I can see how many U.F.O.'s are in fact beings. I think the U.F.O. I saw when I was on my way to work in Ibiza town was a being, and I saw that through a telescope.

    I don't think all U.F.O.'s are beings, how can they be when there are also government owned flying objects / spacecraft etc. I know someone who said they saw a U.F.O that was at least a couple of miles wide, now that would be a big being!

    Thanks for the explanation as to what New Age is, I had know idea.

    Talk about people cashing in have you seen this...

    Lucid dreaming: Rise of a nocturnal hobby

  11. In re-reading Chris's blog posting where he documents some of the Fundamentalist Christian polemics against the New Age:

    The Secret War Against the New Age: Doctrine and Libel

    I find their libels tend to read like a xerox copy of the screeds the early church fathers levied against Gnostic Christian "heretics":

    Early church father, Irenaeus, mid 2nd century:

    "Let those who blaspheme the [do] the Valentinians and all the falsely so-called Gnostics, be recognized as agents of Satan by all who worship God. Through their agency Satan even now...has been seen to speak against God, that God who has prepared eternal fire for every kind of apostasy."

    Yeah, the old "agents of Satan" motif. Was a good blood libel tactic 1900 years ago. And worked extremely well on toward the extermination of the Cathars. Why shouldn't it work against the New Agers?

    So the ancient Christian Gnostics not only have some commonality of theological/cosmological ideas here and there with the contemporary New Agers, the reaction elicited from the fundamentalist religious orthodoxy is much the same then as it is now. The reaction of the Roman Church to the Cathars is even more directly comparable of the modern situation of the polemic churchmen vis a vis the New Age rainbows and crystals crowd.

  12. Here's a link to help explain why and how I would try and become a UFO...

  13. I watched the film Peter Pan with my boys recently and it made me think of how beings are said to be UFOs.

    Towards the end of the film Captain Hook discovers Peter's secret - how to fly. It involves thinking happy thoughts and some fairy dust. It's even got the other worlds element. It's a story thats often used for Xmas panto's in England but I suspect it's known worldwide. It's worth watching the film and then reading that link from crystalinks, if you don't already get what I'm saying.

  14. Hey Chris,

    This is a great post about a complex topic. I'm playing fast and loose with some already slippery definitions here, but I've always thought that 'New Age' thinking is usually at its best when it aligns itself closely to the complex mechanics and resonances of artistic expression.

    I mean to say, interdependancy, poetic logic, mirroring, foreshadowing, etc, are all aspects of artistic expression and would therefore seem to be integral to mysticism also - which, after all, is basically the universe expressing itself artistically (i.e. non-local or non-linear thematic expression).

    But when New Agers fall into the trap of creating spiritual hierarchies, or saying "metaphysics is like THIS, and no other way" I think that's when it becomes as dogmatic or frivolous as any organised religion.

    People have often referred to me as a New Ager, because I discuss Love and Compassion, and have an interest in crystals, etc. Although they usually concede that I'm a very 'grounded', 'intelligent' and 'persuasive' New Ager, I guess I'm still ripe for derision.

    But the hilarious thing is that if I omit my more fringe interests and simply discuss my love of art, literature, psychology and history people seem to think I'm an incredibly bright and lucid 'scientific mind'. Huh...go figure.

    These days I really don't give a shit what term people use to describe me. I'm just trying to do as much important work as I can in my own little way, and hopefully my small contribution will somehow add to the overall spiritual uplift of my peers. If that seems woo or New Age to certain folks, then they can just go Namaste themselves.