What Bothers me about New Agers

imageI got my first exposure to these types when I was in Boulder, Colorado two years ago. They say things like “that’s cool, man” and “peace” and “one love.” In Costa Rica it was “Pura Vida.” These are all good messages, but I suspect the majority of the time the people who speak them are not simultaneously acknowledging the depth of those messages. Could they be simply, passive? Stoned to indifference? Are they wearing the cloak of peace as a disclaimer so that no one can accuse them of being judgmental, jealous, or irrational? Are they exploiting it to appear saintly, healthy, or found? Even if they do not blaspheme to this degree, the ingenuity of the peace message bothers me.

I want one to fully conceptualize love before he wishes it upon me. “Spirituality” has become commoditized with things like Smartwater and feather hairpieces. We are a society and generation estranged from the everyday practice of the messages we preach. Yoga, for example, as it is taught in studios across the country has become an aerobic exercise rather than a path to enlightenment. Here the instructor is, talking about chakras and the gift of breath, but does she or the people absorbing these words really understand their implications? It seems unlikely when Pretty Lights is blasting in the background and the store in the lobby is selling yoga pants for $60 a piece. I urge people rather, unless they understand such spiritual practices deeply and from first-hand experience, to not promote them. Because to preach something that is not flowing directly from the heart holds a corrupted purpose: to cultivate a revered image within the mind of the listener to be reflected back onto the orator.

Is this not where the diversion is made between a pure spiritual path and a corrupted one? The fact that the moral code is compromised to fit conveniently within our hedonistic and egotistical agendas—as long as you meditate once a day you can do whatever you want on your off time! Go ahead- have frivolous sex, wear gaudy clothes and take mind-altering substances. People forget that spiritual wholesomeness implies that there is no “off time”—that the moral precepts one takes upon entering the meditation hall extend to all facets of life. That lateral permeation is where the power lies. Otherwise it’s like a recovering alcoholic saying he can have a drink every so often. It doesn’t work. People also forget that spiritual purity lies in the renunciation of all things that feed the ego. So buying $8 bags of chia seeds and sporting a flower of life tattoo as a social statement is a step in the opposite direction. Monks beg for food, and eat whatever they have the god fortune of receiving in their begging bowls. They don’t spitefully inquire, “Is this organic? You mean you don’t have almond milk?” Sadhus wear meager rags if anything. They don’t exactly hold out for Lululemon $50 sports bras. I’m not saying that we all have to sell our houses and live in a cave but if we’re going to write a self-help book with a big headshot on the cover, we can’t call ourselves spiritualists. In my experience, the most truly spiritual people are the most inconspicuous- almost invisible, soundless, and unmoving. Blasting trance music while on a hike may appear like you are tapping into something higher, given that the music is altering your state of consciousness, but given that it is a diversion from the nature that surrounds you- that with your resonance with it through silence and observation could open the true portal to higher consciousness, it is rather a step in the wrong direction.

The reputation-seeking behavior of new age spiritualists has become second nature to us today with things like Facebook. The validation of one’s spirituality thus depends for such people on recognition from an audience, which undermines the objective of divine communion entirely. A communication between man and nature is just that: between those two. It is private and instantaneous- intuitive and nonverbal, which means the ego holds no stake, because no one else is involved. It is like how an invisible force can cast no shadow. I could even say that egolessness and spirituality are simultaneous, meaning that you cannot separate them like two sides of a sheet of paper. To throw one out– for example, to disregard egolessness as an insignificant aspect of spirituality, and to continue to buy $7 bottles of Kombucha and to hand out business cards with the title “shaman” on them, means that you cannot simultaneously be spiritually sound.

I know someone who takes pictures of her yoga mat and her coconut water and posts them to Facebook with the captions like @namaste and @omshanti to make a social profit of. These concepts she thereby exploits. In doing such things we divorce these words from their substance. In their origin these concepts do the opposite of inflating egos- they empower people by speaking to the absence of ego. I think we mistake ego for having a positive correlation with power. But really, the weaker our ego is, the more empowered we are. Wearing counterfeit versions of Native American clothes that we bought from Urban Outfitters to send the message: “Look how spiritual I am” actually defeats the purpose.

Pseudo spirituality, which is materialistic, egocentric, reductionist, and opposed to work is a real shame. It makes it hard for anyone with a genuine volition to find an outlet for their dreams (a teacher, a path, a network of like-minded people) to do so. It is especially hard for someone like myself who comes from a wealthy, materialistic, superficial, and secular society. So once someone like me “wakes up” to the sentience of this earth I am like an eager lost puppy wondering, “where do I find spiritual resources!?” And so I turn to what I know. And in the world from which I came, everything was bought. And so here are these yoga studios screaming out from Main Street in downtown metropolis. Louder are screaming the “psychics” with their crystal balls and tarot cards from within their shop windows. There are the “vision quest” retreats, advertised online for $1,000 with pictures of happy white people in hemp pants. There are the Ayahuasca retreats like I did for which non Spanish-speakers pour out of tour busses into their comfortable accommodations in the jungle with generators and the “traditional shipibo shaman” as the centerpiece. So some desperate, naïve soul like me from a world where money does all the talking would step into a place like India and be seduced by the man with the longest hair, the grandest beard, the rosary beads, and the ash on his face dancing around manically singing “hare hare.” It also makes me susceptible to confiding in the loudest boy at the Burning Man festival with the dreadlocks, a native headdress, a psychedelic t-shirt, gushing over the color of my aura and selling acid. article-2313857-19743745000005DC-750_634x333Because all of this is new to me, and I don’t know how or where to find spiritual guides. And the promise of being able to access nirvana with the purchase of a retreat (without even having to fast or do any work!) or by following some man in a robe who will impart some magical wisdom on me is so appealing. For many white people who hail from secular societies, advertisement is the only venue they know to find teachers. The problem however, is that the people one is bound to find by such means are charlatans. The pseudo spiritualists are the most conspicuous, so if you are new to the spiritual community and haven’t sharpened your bullshit radar, it is easy to fall into these traps of what Chogyum Trungpa calls, “Spiritual Materialism.” The charlatans are everywhere, boasting about their credentials, so they make it very hard for the sincere seeker.

On the other hand the spiritually sound people are the quiet ones. Which makes them hard to find. You will know the path is true if the teacher or the practice downplays everything surrounding the practice, and emphasizes work. We will find that the practice itself is nothing we can’t do on our own, wherever we are. It necessitates nothing materially (which would put the charlatans out of business quite quickly!) Vipassana meditation so far is the one and only path I have found to be true… and it is HARD! It is such hard work that many seekers of the truth are unwilling to do it. This weeds out the reputation-seekers froth truth-seekers. But this rigorous work schedule and daunting moral code is the hard and honest truth, of what the path to enlightenment entails. When I went on my retreat we meditated for eleven hours each day… I mean, sitting like little Buddha statues for eleven hours a day and focusing on our breath. And at the start of every sitting, when the chanting ended and our time for meditating began, in the absence of anything left to do but the actual work, I felt this fear arrest me. I felt this free fall like when you are on a rollercoaster and heading down a drop and thought, “here we go.” But that retreat revealed its authenticity in that there were no luxuries, there was only the work. You do not need a $50 throne to meditate on. You do not need to be wearing a sari or a bindi… just meditate. Just focus on your breath. It is the same with anything: If you stake out your place in Starbucks, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and wear a beret, unless you write, you are not a writer! If you do write, it doesn’t matter what you look like… you are a writer. It comes down to the work. Nose to the grindstone. It is not glamorous, it is not comfy, it is not majestic at first as those pictures of the girls meditating with their chakras illuminated chakra4portray… until you break on through to the other side. But until then it is mundane. It is mortal, and unmiraculous.

This epidemic of pseudo spirituality also makes it hard for genuine seekers of the truth to talk about spiritual concepts because people don’t take them seriously or are skeptical. Words like spirituality, energy, alchemy, karma mandalas, etc have been overused and misused and reduced to the superficial versions of themselves. Right here and now with this blog I am trying to pass on the wisdom that has empowered my life. And it really serves the purpose of this blog to have a large audience. But attracting an audience becomes tricky because I don’t want to corrupt the purpose of attracting an audience to attracting attention to myself rather than to the content. So what can one do when he is trying to forge a serious conversation about spirituality, or if he is trying to find a true teacher, or gain a teacher’s trust? Without appearance or words as trustworthy indicators of a spiritually found person, the only characteristics to depend on may be sincerity and modesty together.

My best friend said to me once that she trusts the mechanic who, without labels or sophisticated dress or without knowing the fancy syntax of philosophical concepts, is a natural philanthropist. He may not know what “philanthropy” means or what “mindfulness” is, but if he helps the old lady carry her groceries upstairs, and helps me shovel my driveway out of the kindness of his heart, and picks up litter off the sidewalk, he may be closer to enlightenment than the shaman’s apprentice that tie-dies her hair and drinks mate from whole foods and wears crystals around her neck yet doesn’t have time to listen to a homeless man’s story. I trust the simpleton that without all the grandeur of the philosophical language enacts those principals of peace by virtue of his own moral code. This is where critical thinking comes into play. For those of us genuine seekers of the truth, I advise us to trust the way a person speaks rather than the words he speaks. He can talk about astral projection and the akashic records and macrobiotic diets and the i ching but does his tone of voice convey peace and patience? Does he have a sense of humor and is he compassionate? Does he live simply? It is these qualities I have learned to trust more than anything else.

Eastern spirituality is sweeping through America like a forest fire. People go to yoga sessions in between modeling shoots and meetings at the apple store to restore their iphone 5s. I think it is safe to say we do not make a strong commitment to the spiritual lifestyle. We take it out of its historical and cultural context and modify it to fit conveniently in our materialistic and egocentric lives: dabbling in a little reiki here, a little detoxing there. No doubt these little dips in the waters of spirituality grant us some benefit. They undoubtedly relieve stress in the midst of our fast-paced lives. And I am not here to judge if someone does not want to trade in their comforts to live in a monastery in the mountains of Tibet. Some people are not prepared to do that. I doubt I am. And I respect that decision. But I think we cannot afford to sever any further the terms of spirituality from their meanings. We need to reintroduce sincerity to the words we utter and not be so hung-up on how they make us look. Ditch the fancy words if they do not honestly portray your experience. At least if we are to call ourselves yogis, we must integrate the foundations of the practice into our every actions. I never want to belittle the majesty of this universe by saying things like “I can totally feel your energy right now” or, “I believe we are soul mates” or, “I had a vision you’d be here” if I don’t actually feel those things with the entirety of my being. If we really want to show reverence to the earth, let us dissolve the profiles of ourselves. Otherwise they end up being the absorbing beneficiaries of the reverence we intend to deliver unto the earth.


2 thoughts on “What Bothers me about New Agers

  1. Very interesting piece that I can relate to on a lot of levels, particularly growing up under similar circumstances before I found the path. There are so many valid points here I won’t list them one by one – and this may be your best piece yet in terms of coherency and presenting a well thought-out argument. I do however find dissonance in my own experience with two parts.

    Mostly it has to do with the whole section on rigorous work and the daunting moral code. I do agree that spending long lengths of time on the cushion can be hard and rigorous work, especially initially when one lacks discipline or proper motivation. But the more you practice sitting, the more coming to the cushion feels like coming home. And although it can definitely be hard to maintain that routine when you are having a hard day, if it constantly feels like work, or feels like another job, then you are trying to hard and need to relax. Everything is about balance, avoiding being too sloppy and too stringent. Chogyam Trungpa often remarked that the most important part of the path was the post-meditation practice, once you have left the security of the cushion. “Touch and go” he used to say, touch in (meditate) to the present, then go (act) into to. Just sitting on its own is not enough, and many have reached enlightenment without ever reaching the cushion.

    The same goes for the “moral code”. Obviously burying yourself in a bottle of gin, indulging in an escort service every weekend, or smoking two packs a day is a symptom of an inability or unwillingness to just be in the present. But that doesn’t mean when you go see an old friend you refuse the glass of wine “because your so spiritual now” or that when you’re relaxing on a summer evening with friends on the beach you can’t have a cigarette. Again, not to sloppy, not to tight – just relish the moment whatever it may bring.

    Again Hallie, overall this piece was brilliant and by no means am I trying to claim any higher moral or spiritual ground here. I still often find my own social bullsht filter kicking in and removing the truth from my tongue as I utter my words. I still have days where sitting on the cushion is hell on earth. And I certainly still have days when I indulge in a cigarette that I should not be indulging in. At times in my past I have certainly practiced spiritual materialism, and despite my greatest efforts I may do so once again. But the key is at some point you make a commitment to follow the path or not – and you make the effort to touch and go and correct yourself when you stray!

    Thanks for the great piece,

    • THANK YOU Steve for bringing up these points! Yes I got kinda wrapped up in what I was saying and failed to clarify that balance is of paramount importance. In some cases if you are completely abstinent from any and all indulgences and inflexible it can turn into this self-righteous thing. We have to stay true to wherever we’re at so if you’re a monk you may be able to be 100% celibate and substance-free but if you’re like me, you have to have a glass of wine now and then to be honest with yourself, or else you throw yourself way off balance and do yourself a bigger disservice.
      Thank you for your insights Steve!

Leave a Reply