Archive for the ‘Spirituality & Society’ Category

11 November

Blaming the Victim: From New Age Thought to Conservative Politics

Recently, Republican presidential candidate and erstwhile pizza magnate Herman Cain responded to the Occupy Wall Street movement by declaring that people who are not rich have only themselves to blame. Ignoring the fact that America’s corporate kleptocracy has rigged the game just a tad in its own favor, much as he once ignored the dubious nutritional value of his junk food, Cain has become the kind of black man that Ann Coulter can be proud of. But our purpose in this post is not to draw further attention to the yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots, or to fret about the long-term viability of a resource-exploitation system that elevates profit above ecological sustainability. Our topic here is thHerman Cain - Blame the Victime blame game itself, and whether New Age thought logically lends support to the divisive acquisitiveness epitomized by America’s oligarchs or could offer us a pathway to a more inclusive, holistic polity.

Before addressing the socio-political ramifications of New Age thought, we need to deal with the issue of blame on the individual level first. While readers of this blog know that I do not regard Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret as anything remotely close to the definitive statement of New Age concepts, her little marketing exercise elicited all the responses one would expect from a general public and media who have never taken the time to actually work with these concepts in their own lives. And one of those objections was the charge that people are being blamed – just as Herman Cain would blame them – for living in poor conditions. But these objections are shared by many people who do think about issues of personal development, though not necessarily in a New Age fashion. This was highlighted by a recent discussion over at the Greater Good, which started out as a debate on the role of empathy but expanded into issues of evolving consciousness. In response to my assertion that the evolution of consciousness requires a recognition of the process through which we create our own realities with our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, one commenter made an unusually eloquent (and civil) statement of skepticism about the merits of New Age ideas. These comments, presented below without editing of any kind, deserve a thorough response.

The idea that we create our own reality has some truth in it—we can indeed self-author our lives and creatively enact reality through conscious intent and action. However, it’s simply not the case that we create our own reality independent of the “selection pressures” of either the many cultural contexts in which we are embedded (and would do well to reflect on and disclose) or the various social systems in which we are enmeshed. As its often presented in the New Age culture, the idea that we create our own reality can/does lead to blame (including self-blame) when the world doesn’t respond to our desired creations. Also, it can/does produce narcissism, insomuch as “I” alone have this power and do not have to take others into consideration (“We”) or what is going on in the world (“It/s”). And so on. The idea does not hold up to postmodernity’s demand for intersubjective grounding (and can therefore house hidden forms of oppression and discrimination). And it all but eliminates the need to consider and meet modernity’s demand for objective (“it/s”) evidence. So, although I’m all for (re)introducing post/modern society to the importance of consciousness per se, I don’t think we’re likely to get very far with this idea as its usually understood and used.

These comments display a level of careful thought that stands in marked contrast to the glib self-assurance of materialistic atheists, for whom anything that cannot be dissected under an electron microscope (preferably, several electron microscopes) smacks of magical thinking fit only for ridicule. The objections that have been stated above seem eminently reasonable, and I have wrestled with most of them myself. Ultimately, however, they are limiting ideas that prevent us from understanding how our own lives work and, by extension, what we really are.

The Red Herring of Narcissism

Though the issue of narcissism is not the most important of the objections being leveled against New Age concepts, it needs to be dispatched quickly. One could actually level a similar accusation at any process of self-discovery, from yoga through mindfulness meditation practices to Secret-style manifestation rituals. Had I been compiling this list of objections, I would have used the term solipsism (the idea that nothing is real except the self) instead, but that would be equally wide of the mark.

There are two counter-arguments to this charge. The first is that, if it is true that we do in fact create our realities with our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, then we must turn our attention inwards to observe, understand, and use this natural process. A strict materialism focusing primarily on outer, objective reality represents, in this context, an absurd denial of the way things really are. Secondly, one of the fundamental axioms of New Age thought – which really sticks in the craw of the Catholic Church – is the principle of oneness. All life and matter is connected. This proposition loses its apparently abstract character as soon as you start to work with the creative principle: when you see your thoughts and emotions making a difference in outer reality, that connection is no longer theoretical. (We will illustrate this in much greater detail in a little while.) Paradoxically then, focusing on our inner powers actually leads to a much greater connection to the world and people around us, adding a rich new dimension to the human experience.

The Tyranny of Objective Materialism

The elephant in the room, of course, is the fundamental question of whether we create our realities solely through considered action, which I like to refer to as “the conventional approach,” or whether our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions are much more than mere mental ephemera. Our commenter above asserts that the New Age version of creativity “simply isn’t true” and subsequently backs that up with the more persuasive point that “it all but eliminates the need to consider and meet modernity’s demand for objective… evidence.” There is an answer to this contention, but, unfortunately, it is an answer that will probably never be accepted by those who make it.

The proposition that we create our own realities – not just through direct physical action but through thought and emotion – is an empirically verifiable proposition. It can be tested by experience. The problem is that the experience in question is personal and not susceptible of duplication and independent verification by anyone else. Furthermore, our experiments cannot be conducted in a laboratory full of stainless steel instruments and petri dishes. For traditional scientists, this simply won’t do. They will never acknowledge that a legitimate field of enquiry can exist outside of their epistemological framework. Apart from the cost to the advancement of human knowledge, this is rather ironic, since the process we need to employ at the individual level is, in many respects, startlingly similar to the scientific method.

You must be your own laboratory. You must become fully aware of the contents of your mind and heart and observe, over time, the discernible connection between your inner “actions” and the life you know outside the self. As discussed in the previous post on the Law of Attraction industry, this is an intensely personal, difficult, error-prone, and time-consuming process. It is also, in my humble opinion, an essential task that we are supposed to perform. Without undertaking it, we will tragically spend our entire lives being completely ignorant of the basic rules of the game. We won’t even know what we really are. If we eschew this endeavor because independent verification of our hypotheses through peer review in learned journals does not appear to be possible, then we have elevated procedure over substance.

Blame as Edification

At the personal level, the central question of blame actually provides a fine opportunity to flesh out this creative process in graphic, personal terms that may be far more accessible and meaningful than an abstract discussion of theoretical principles. Just like the critics of The Secret (a book I panned for other reasons), our commenter above refers to the “blame the victim” syndrome. But he also makes the crucial addition that this blame often becomes self-blame “when the world doesn’t respond to our desired creations.” Having been working with these concepts for approximately 25 years, I know a thing or two about self-blame and the very real damage it causes.

As a young man armed only with dreams and a paperback copy of Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization, I reached a low point one day when I became intensely frustrated that the things I (thought I) wanted weren’t happening. It was my fault. I wasn’t doing “it” right. I wasn’t good enough. I was a failure. In this state of depression and guilt, I went into the back yard to practice some golf shots. During the course of that practice session, my ever-friendly cat sauntered over to say hello. Thinking that I could easily lob the ball over her, I flubbed the shot and hit her square in the side with a golf ball. She flailed around like a headless chicken, and for a few awful moments I thought I had killed my cat. Somehow, she flopped all the way to the garage where she sought some sense of safety under the car. Understandably, this normally loving creature didn’t want to come out when I approached her, but I eventually pulled her out and reassured her as best I could, wracked by guilt and self-loathing for a colossal misjudgment. For the next few days, she was clearly in pain and avoided interaction with me. But I was very, very lucky. She came through alright, and for the remaining two years of her life I treasured every minute of her company. Even though I now have another beautiful cat sitting in my lap as I type, the memories of this episode are still crushing. In fact, previous periods of recollection have themselves spawned further experiences that reinforced the same feelings, but it is not necessary to detail them here.

Thus, rather ironically, the question of blame turned out to be a powerful argument in favor of the proposition that we create our own reality. The example I have given, which is but one of countless others observed over two plus decades, also illustrates how physical action fits into the picture. The right actions (or should that be wrong actions?) will occur automatically when you are setting yourself up for a particular outcome. In the example, I was setting myself up to feel lousy about myself. The body – and even the “considered” thoughts that we usually credit with control over the body – took whatever actions were necessary to contribute to that outcome. Had I not been feeling so intensely negatively about myself, and therefore not setting myself up for experiences that would lend further credence to those feelings, my actions would have been different and the outcome would have been different. Let me state this explicitly: personal control does not reside at the superficial intersection between our bodies and the world around us; rather, it resides deep within the self, in our inner beliefs and emotions. That is where the action really is.

I very rarely discuss specific experiences from my own life in public fora, but I am making an exception here for a good reason. The awful events of that day in the life of a young man were a classic example of how we create our own reality. While the self-help industry tends to focus on manifesting shiny baubles, I think more about the dark side of this creative power, for the avoidance of horrible outcomes is, in the final analysis, far more important than the creation of perfect Hollywood endings. And, as I’ve said elsewhere on this site, the easiest way to open the eyes of a skeptic would be to have them play with creative fire – feel intensely negative emotions and see what happens. When you’ve been burned by that fire over and over again, as I have, then at some point the penny finally drops. While still intellectually aware of all the conventional arguments about the need for physical action in objective reality, there comes a point where the process of reality creation just can’t be denied any more. This does not mean that we abandon the conventional role of “considered action” altogether; it means that we are henceforth able to play the game on different levels. This enhanced perception and understanding constitutes a bona fide evolution in our consciousness.

There is a fine line between taking responsibility for one’s creations and beating oneself up about them. It would be tempting, given the damage that is caused by engaging in excessive self-blame, to fall back on the Buddhist mindfulness practice of being entirely non-judgmental. But, as we discussed in an earlier post, the kind of mindfulness we need – one which takes proper account of the creative principle – necessarily entails the exercise of a personal judicial function. The trick, of course, is to find a non-destructive perspective which acknowledges responsibility and then proposes practical solutions without imposing unduly harsh punishments on a self that is bumbling towards greater understanding. Learners need to be given some slack. And we are all learners, even if some of us have already completed the introductory coursework. An attitude of patient forgiveness towards oneself is far healthier and more productive on both an individual and, as we shall now examine, a social level.

From the Personal to the Political

For most observers of the political Ron Paul - Let Him Diescene, the discussion we have just had about New Age principles is either mumbo-jumbo or simply irrelevant. But for us, an obvious question now arises: if we are all, as individuals, ultimately responsible for the conditions of our lives, should we not tend to be rabid free-marketeers calling for a minimalist government? Does the New Age lead us to the stark libertarianism of Ron Paul, in which a sick person unable to afford health care should be allowed to die?

One day, in a far distant, hypothetical future in which the vast majority of people have come to live in the way I have described – fully cognizant of the role their inner actions play in producing outer results – such a polity might be justifiable. But that prospect is so unrealistic that I really don’t think it is even worth talking about, and I would strongly resent any argument against New Age thought made on the grounds that it would produce a cold, unfeeling state that left everyone strictly to their own devices.

On the contrary, I would argue that in our current state of enlightenment – which is to say a state where most people don’t have a clue how life really works and are not likely to find out – a strong case can be made for a social framework that attempts to protect people as much as possible from the consequences of their own ignorance. When people are unaware that their thoughts and emotions do not just describe reality but also affect it, they are going to get into trouble en masse. (Fans of the Seth series by Jane Roberts can explore this further in The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events.) It might be fair to object that the creative principle that has been espoused here implies that nothing can be done for them anyway. But belief in individual power does not negate belief in compassion and empathy as essential cohesive values in a society, and until we have completed a long transition to a state of universal understanding then that empathy needs to be manifested through the organs of social consensus; namely, the agencies of governance. State action of this nature may be little more than an exercise in damage limitation, but that does not make it futile.

It is also important not to forget the New Age emphasis on oneness. For many people, a feeling of spiritual connection to their fellow humans – and the other creatures with which we share this planet – is enough in itself to inculcate political values that abhor exploitation and harm. (Remember President Bush’s derision for people he described as “Marin County hot-tubbers”?) Working with the creative principles described here only heightens that sense of connection. Far from leading us to an atomized society of selfish, materialistic loners, it reinforces the ties that bind in a deep and powerful way. No man is an island because no island is an island: remove the ocean waters that create the appearance of isolation, and you find the terrestrial unity underneath. This perspective is indelibly imprinted by observing the way in which everyone and everything happens to be in just the right place at just the right time to produce a personal creation (whether desired or not). Truly, we are part of a spectacular symphony of creative energies.

At a less abstract level, I would repeat a point made earlier: awareness of the creative principle does not necessarily lead one to abandon the conventional approach to life. Thus, my own politics are diametrically opposed to those of Herman Cain and the obnoxious Ann Coulter. The sense of responsibility that I have for my own life – which some might describe as excessive self-blame – does not lead me to support federal tax policies, such as Cain’s ridiculous 9-9-9 plan, that are clearly beneficial to the small elite that has amassed a disproportionate amount of economic and political power in our society. Let me put it this way: the inculcation of personal mindfulness only serves to increase the sensitivity of social bullshit detectors.

Most fundamentally, any creative principle, be it New Age creative visualization or the conventional approach, is simply a vehicle for the attainment of the objectives we choose. Either vehicle may be used to advance a preference for empathy and compassion. I am tempted to add that these vehicles are value-neutral, but that would be about as convincing as the National Rifle Association’s ghastly assertion that guns don’t kill people. The New Age creative principle – based on universal connectivity and working discreetly yet efficiently behind the scenes – is infinitely more benign than the blunt instrument of conventional action. Social justice and environmental survival are not under threat from people who meditate, visualize, or explore their inner selves. But they most assuredly are under threat from the decidedly conventional principle of taking what you want by force.

17 September

Forgive Me Father, For I Have Meditated: The Church War Against the New Age

One could almost feel sorry for the Roman Catholic Church. Accustomed to centuries of control over the hearts, minds, and pocket-books of ignorant flocks the world over, they now find themselves humiliated by child-abuse scandals in seemingly every diocese and must watch helplessly as their congregations dwindle. Particularly in the West and among the young, the Church has a serious image problem, not the least of which is its (accurately) perceived intolerance against non-standard sexual orientations. Nonetheless, the Church remains an inordinately powerful institution, especially in the developing world, where pope condoms abstinence stupidityits rigid proscriptions against contraceptives contribute to unsustainable population growth, perpetuating human poverty and environmental destruction. So I feel no compunctions in holding the Church up for further ridicule by discussing its war against the New Age.

In 2003, the Church released a study entitled A Christian Reflection on the New Age, which identified New Age practices as fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. While earlier reports had sought to dissuade Catholics from dabbling in eastern religions, this new document identified threats in a wide range of practices, including meditation (unless done the “right” way to commune with God), yoga, feng shui, homeopathy, acupuncture, the Gaia Hypothesis, and even twelve-step programs. The Southern Baptist Convention in the U.S. largely agreed, and is therefore an equally deserving recipient of the scorn that is about to follow.

Quite rightly, the Church has acknowledged that many people no longer find their spiritual needs met by Catholicism. For the Church, this is a marketing problem of perhaps more fundamental scope than even the pedophiles (and their enablers) among its hypocritical ranks, for it portends a mass exodus of customers away from their product. They are losing market share, they know it, and they’re running scared. Perhaps they should pray a little harder?

From Dualism to Oneness

If there is one issue that seems to really stick in the Church’s craw, it is the New Age concept of divinity or spirit in all things. New Age practitioners commonly speak of “the Universe” as an all-embracing spiritual concept, and see people as integral parts of this larger whole. Though we may appear to be separate entities, we are in fact connected to all that is – to all other life and to all matter – and commune with it across space and time. For many New Age thinkers, there is no life and death but simply a flow of energy from one state or form to another. And with this understanding of universal connectivity comes a knowledge of how we create our own realities by directing energy wisely or poorly.

It is not too difficult to see how radically this spiritual view differs from that of the Church. Gone is the distinction between Creator and creation, between spirit and matter, and even between good and evil. There is no mention of heaven or hell; if anything, they are realities right here and now. And there is certainly no judgment from a vengeful God eager to punish those who transgress his code. If wisdom is contained within the fabric of the universe and potentially accessible to all just by virtue of being alive, then the Bible is clearly just a book and the Church, as self-appointed interpreter thereof, loses its ostensible raison d’etre.

The Church dismisses all of this as “weak thinking” that encourages people to place false hopes in “magic.”  And it contends that the words of man are being dressed up as divine knowledge (which John Paul II saw as a reprise of “gnosisPot Calling Kettle Black,” by which he meant occult or esoteric wisdom). The degree of cognitive dissonance here is spectacularly hilarious. The Church sees no “weak thinking” in its doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches its worshipers that the bread and wine they taste at the Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ. It sees no “magic” in preaching about alleged miracles or in encouraging people to pray to an imaginary friend (or two) in the hope that they will be judged favorably and spend an eternal afterlife in an idyllic dreamworld. It sees no “gnosis” in expecting people to believe that a book of fairy stories written by human authors – who frequently lied about their true identities and were motivated by a desire to control social developments of which they disapproved – is the revealed word of God.  And it sees nothing evil in propagating anti-scientific, medieval ignorance centuries after its sell-by-date, despite the devastating human and environmental costs.

A Monopoly of Irony

The ultimate expression of the Church’s arrogance, of course, is its assertion of monopoly power. It has absolutely, positively no problem appointing itself as the sole interpreter of the only legitimate truth, a position that rather conveniently confers upon it massive power in the temporal world. It is perhaps the most supreme irony of all, therefore, that this historical apogee of top-down bureaucracy has the chutzpah (repeat after me, Michele Bachmann) to complain that the New Age encourages adherence to what it derisively termed “enlightened masters.” Now, I suppose in the VYoung Catholics Attend Youth Rally With Pope Benedict XVIatican one must comport oneself as if the Protestant Reformation never happened, but didn’t someone on the committee remember that this was part of Martin Luther’s problem with the papacy? (In rejecting papal authority, Luther went so far as to call the Pope the Antichrist because he was enforcing a substitute religion featuring a cult of saints that rivaled the centrality of Christ himself.) Protestants who would seek to differentiate themselves on the grounds that the Reformation encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves, rather than relying on papal interpretation, ought to take a good, hard look at their megachurches run by Bentley-driving pastors.

Perhaps, in a future United States, Southern Baptists will be afraid that a presidential candidate will take orders from Deepak Chopra, just as they worried in 1960 that JFK would have to follow the edicts of the pontiff. But such talk is utter nonsense. The New Age movement takes the best part of the Reformation – the individual quest for truth – to a new level, encouraging each one of us to engage with our inner and outer realities in a way that both enlightens and fulfills us far better than any power-hungry priest ever could.

Meanwhile, On The Eastern Front….

Arguably the stronger and more important challenge to the New Age movement does not come from the churches at all. The fighting is much grittier and nastier on the second front, where cold blasts of self-righteous logic seek to blow away anything that does not compute. It is a matter of no small interest that the increasingly vocal atheistic community is just as hostile toward the New Age as it is toward the Catholic Church (or any other religion). Indeed, strict materialists make a point of ridiculing people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For them, “New Age woo” is every bit as unscientific and superstitious as expecting the Rapture to happen next week.

atheist_tract_thumbThis seems to be a matter of doctrinal consistency. Atheists don’t think they can assail religion without simultaneously attacking anything else that doesn’t agree with their model of reality. But, as a matter of tactics, this stance represents a rejection of the battle-hardened rule that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It would seem that either they don’t feel they need any allies in their war against religion, or they don’t want allies like us.

These materialists would laugh if I said I shared their belief in the scientific method of testing a hypothesis through repeated experimentation. The reason they won’t talk to us is because they insist this experimentation be conducted in a lab and be subject to peer review. But in matters of personal reality, we are the lab. If I observe over many years that a particular pattern of thought or emotion leads to certain kinds of experiences in the physical world, I have myself a working hypothesis. But there is absolutely no way that you or anyone else can test it, because you can’t lay out the contents of my mind/heart/soul on a stainless-steel bench. You could, if you were willing to try, engage in a similar personal experiment yourself, but only you would be able to assay the results.

Apart from the fact that this personal testing is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody difficult, it is a conventional scientist’s nightmare because it opens the door to countless, potentially conflicting results. Nonetheless, if a sufficient number of otherwise intelligent (!) adults all engaged in broadly similar tests and reported broadly similar results, could we be comfortable asserting that we have verified a hypothesis? This need for science and the contemplative arts to work together is a recurring theme on this blog, and I applaud those scientists who are willing to bridge that gap. But I am under no illusions about the width of the divide.