Leaving Cloud Cuckoo Land: Debriefing the New Age
"There is no support for this kind of thinking [that we create our own reality, e.g., our diseases] except in the mind of a four year old, where magic rules and narcissistic ordering-the-world-around is king. That is its fundamental support."
– Ken Wilbur
[All quotes in this article are taken from Ken Wilbur, New Age Journal, September/October 1988]
New Age Fascism
Sometime in the mid-1980s three of my friends and I rented a summer place in upstate New York. Among our adventures was an afternoon discussion about how each of us had felt shamed and judged by those of the New Age who kindly asked why we had created our various medical problems—my asthma, another's skin problems, and another's back problems.
From that long discussion came our judgment of this "kindly" questioning—from then on we referred to this kindly questioning as "New Age Fascism." (Fascism, a term borrowed from political and social history, is an authoritarian ideology which demands that others believe and act according to the principles held by the idealogues in power.)
The belief that we create our own reality is a highly inflated, omnipotent, and grandiose fantasy. It is the epitome of magical thinking. In addition, there is the question of whether one can or cannot think or pray or visualize away a particular disease. In fact, we are responsible for creating the experience of, and attitude toward, our own reality: what we make of it, how we react to it, how we name it, how we are moved to change it where change is possible, and how we treat our fellow-travelers on the road of life.
This is not to say that we have no influence on what happens to us—that would result in a passive fatalism about life. Our life styles, our food and exercise choices, and our attitudes impact our health and well-being. In addition, we must take into account genetic factors, deficits in nutrition, immunodeficiency, environmental risks, and other emotional and biochemical variables. And karma.
In 1988, I discovered an interview with Richard Wilbur in New Age Magazine, Do We Make Ourselves Sick?, a breath of fresh air in the often subtly blame-laden atmosphere of the New Age. (According to the poet, Robert Bly, New Age should be pronounced "newage" to rhyme with sewage.)
This whole new age position can be historically demonstrated to be an unconscious offshoot or derivative of Christian Science, which itself was a misinterpretation of the New England Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson. It mistakes the notion, "Godhead created all," for the narcissistic notion, "Since I am one with God, I create all."
That position makes two profound mistakes, which both Thoreau and Emerson would have strongly disagreed with. Namely: one, that God is an intervening parent for the universe, instead of its impartial reality or suchness; two, that your ego is one with that parental god, and therefore can intervene and order the universe around.
Wilbur has offered a way of dealing with and working through our illnesses and sufferings. He uses the model of the Great Chain of Being which is a heirarchy of matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit. In this model spirit is the highest level. In the Great Chain of Being there is both upward and downward causation of illness.
So start at the bottom. Exhaust the physical posibilities and the physical-level techniques. Do this first, and do it exhaustivly. Play the materialist for a while.
Then move up to the emotional—to the confused feelings and impulses and fears, and look for ways to work these out, to express bottled-up fears that might be contributing to the problem.
Then move up to the mental—to all of our beliefs and myths and stories, sometimes false and disturbing, and plain mean and vicious—and work with those. In particular learn to replace these beliefs with more positive mental images and affirmations.
Then move to the spiritual, and look at your whole approach to spirit or godhead. Is it still infantile and childish and narcissistic? Do you think God is a big parent who rules over this world? Do you think God is punishing you with this disease as a lesson? Do you think you are giving yourself this disease as a lesson? Do you think you create your own reality, that your ego can order the universe around?
To the extent that you can, jettison these infantile beliefs —they were once appropriate, but no more—and replace them with a more genuinely contemplative and mature approach to spirit, spirit as the reality and suchness and luminosity of all that is, not as a punishing-rewarding parent …
A powerful tool for inceasing your sense of true empowerment is to begin to look at your illness as a "metaphor for the things about your life you have wanted to change anyway, or should change anyway." The illness can be an inspiration to take more creative action in your life, a real opportunity to change or improve situations and relationships.
This said, let's take a moment to look at the more positive contributions of the New Age, the roots of which are anything but new. The New Age Movement is young. It is a free-flowing movement of people with varying but similar beliefs. The New Age has no sacred book, no central organization or membership, and no formal clergy. The New Age is, in fact, a Renaissance of many ancient spiritual traditions.
Without the phenomenon of the New Age Movement, many of us would not have become interested in living a meaningfully spiritual life; we would be ignorant about holistic health, about our responsibility to the earth and our environment, and about Eastern religious traditions.
The New Age has served to ignite the fire of consciousness in us. Like many movements it is still conditioned by family, cultural, and religious beliefs. The New Age must be given close scrutiny by each of us to determine what is useful and what is harmful—and to beware of the trap of New Age Fascism.
Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy