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Dissecting the New Age

How to Order by Jay Kinney
Home Has the New Age passed its peak? Was it ever actually real?

If you have a sincere belief in the imminent transformation of human consciousness, such questions must seem absurd. For most New Agers I know, it is self-evident that big changes for the better are still afoot. They may point to astrological proofs, anecdotal evidence, or selected statistics, but these are largely secondary. At root their belief in the New Age seems to stem from a gut-level intuition that is immune to any contrary evidence.

In this respect, the New Age movement is like any other religion and deserves the same respect. Atheists or cynics may joust all they want with religious faith, but that doesn't diminish the religious impulse that continually manifests in numerous ways -- the New Age among them. So, for the moment at least, let's put aside the question of whether the New Age is objectively here or not, and turn our attention to the phenomenon of the New Age movement.

The roots of the New Age movement, of course, date back at least to the nineteenth century, with the rise of Spiritualism, followed by the emergence of Theosophy, New Thought, and a renewed interest in the occult. If we examine the New Age worldview, we find that most of its components are restatements of teachings from these earlier movements or from their successors. Mme. Blavatsky's hidden mahatmas (who supposedly lived in Tibet) evolved by half-steps into Alice Bailey's "Tibetan" and the Ascended Masters of the I Am movement of the 1930s, and thence into the channeled contacts of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Janet McClure, Benjamin Creme, and dozens of lesser-known intuitives.

Most New Age courses in psychic awareness and development pass along teachings which came to the public eye in the '60s and '70s through Christopher Hills, Douglas Baker, and other neo-Theosophists who were in turn heavily indebted to Charles Leadbeater's expositions on clairvoyance and the chakras.

Edgar Cayce, the "sleeping prophet," also popularized psychic development as well as dreamwork starting in the '20s. The present millennial fever for earth changes and cataclysm were first given test runs by Cayce's predictions of massive earthquakes and floods for the western U.S. That Cayce struck out with his disaster prophecies is a blessing in disguise for the New Age. Had California sunk in the latter half of this century as Cayce originally predicted, the New Age movement might have sunk with it.

Finally, precursors to the New Age interest in healing, especially healing through prayer and affirmations, can be found in nineteenth-century Christian Science and its offshoot, the New Thought movement. Few today may have heard of Phineas P. Quimby, the former Mesmerist whose ideas on healing influenced Mary Baker Eddy and New Thought proponents such as Emmett Fox and Unity's Charles Fillmore, but in a real sense New Agers are his inheritors.

The fact that the New Age was prefigured in earlier decades can be interpreted as either the stage-setting for the movement's rise -- the original planting of the seeds of change -- or as an indication of the New Age movement's lack of originality. I'm inclined to take a kinder view, in part because I'm convinced of the sincerity of most New Agers, but more importantly because originality is an entirely overrated concept when it comes to spirituality.

When dealing with matters of spirit, we encounter aspects of the universe and of expanded consciousness that stand outside of the frantic pace of popular culture. The link between ages past and present consists in humans repeatedly asking similar questions about life and death, and finding that the answers with most depth are among the oldest.

The whole point of a tradition, esoteric or otherwise, is to pass along ways of seeing and doing that are worth preserving. That the New Age movement has picked up spiritual teachings from the past and recast them into the secular language of the late twentieth century (e.g. quantum mechanics, UFOs, self-help psychology) is laudible in many ways. Enduring truths and methods of transformation often require restatement in new vocabularies in order to survive and be heard anew.

Unfortunately, the new vocabularies of our sped-up era have increasingly brief lifespans and, by virtue of their symbiotic relationship with the media and the marketplace, today's restatements rapidly become tomorrow's clichés. Chalk it up to our abbreviated attention spans if you will, but no movement today is immune to the cycles of fashion.

I've long held the opinion that most modern social movements follow the same rocketlike trajectory: following years of stage-setting and isolated activity, they arise relatively suddenly as numbers of people recognize their own shared interests; they reach an apogee of relevance -- often marked by a key gathering and subsequent explosion; fragmentation then sets in and a variety of factions shoot forth, each purporting to represent the movement. As the trajectory nears its end, saturation is reached in the public eye, and what remains of the movement tends toward self-caricature. In the final phase, the most accessible assumptions that fueled the movement are absorbed into mainstream culture and the movement itself -- as a cohesive movement at any rate -- is largely dissolved, except for a few lingering institutions and career "spokespeople."

This pattern can be seen in the civil rights, women's, and peace movements, as well as the New Right, and it certainly seems true of the New Age movement as well. Things may not be quite in the final phase yet, but they don't have too far to go.

Now I realize that this may sound unduly cynical or harsh, and, if nothing else, it seems to fly in the face of the New Age doctrine of the evolution of human consciousness. But I like to think that if there is any truth to the New Age anticipation of humanity's transformation, such changes will occur irrespective of the state of the New Age movement per se. Lasting social change shouldn't be confused with the movements which help bring it about.

Admittedly, no one whose hopes and dreams are entangled with the ideals and goals of a given movement likes to watch it slowly fade, least of all anyone whose livelihood depends on it. Yet the term New Age, at least, has become so overexposed that even those who have benefited the most by their association with it are searching for alternative labels. (Case in point: NAPRA, the New Age Publishing & Retailers Alliance founded in 1985 as a trade association and publicity vehicle for New Age publishers and companies, recently changed its name to New Alternatives for Publishers, Retailers, and Artists.)

This stems in part from the way in which the term "New Age" has been applied to anything that even vaguely smacks of nonorthodox spirituality or "wellness" (another vague term in its own right). The New Age music bins at the local CD stores have included everything from space music and Tibetan singing bowls to Windham Hill pianists and movie soundtracks. If such uses of the term are on the wane, this is not necessarily a cause for mourning.

But even if we restrict what we consider New Age to those groups and ideas that perceive -- and wish to encourage -- a shift in mass consciousness, that doesn't prevent the likelihood of disappointment and decline. I don't want to spoil the party, but every past prediction of imminent Armageddon, rapture, or global shift in behavior and consciousness has fallen through, or so it would seem.

In the late twelfth century, Joachim of Fiore predicted that the Ages of the Father and of the Son would be succeeded by the Age of the Holy Spirit. This was to occur following a great cataclysm in 1260.

Six centuries later, Adventist preacher William Miller proclaimed that the return of Christ was to occur in 1843. The faithful gathered, the day came and went, and 150 years later Christ's return is still elusive.

Closer to our own time, the Woodstock Gathering in 1969 was seized upon as emblematic of the rise of "Woodstock Nation," the countercultural youth tribe that was going to turn everything on its head. Less then twenty years later, José Argüelles and friends announced the Harmonic Convergence as a turning point in history. This was succeeded by the more obscure 11:11 and 12:12 events, and now we have both the Mayan calendrical climax of 2012 to look forward to and the computer-based Y2K disaster to live through.

The star-crossed proponents of Marxism-Leninism in the 1970s had a derogatory term for this kind of thinking -- "premature triumphalism" -- which they usually threw at boisterous radicals who spoke as if the revolution were just around the corner. Perhaps in the case of the New Age we should speak of "recurring triumphalism," given the succession of energy shifts, time shifts, star gates, and other openings that just keep on coming.

This brings to mind a Sufi story I was told in Turkey a few years ago. Like Christianity, Islam has its own millennarian traditions regarding a climactic end of history or day of judgment. The Islamic name for this is the Qiyamat, and it is usually divided into two stages: a Lesser Qiyamat and a Greater Qiyamat.

As the story goes, the venerable Mullah Nasruddin is discussing the ultimate outcome of life with some students. "Oh, Mullah," they ask him, "when is the Qiyamat going to come?"

"That's obvious," the Mullah answers. "The Lesser Qiyamat will come when my wife dies."

"And the Greater Qiyamat?" they ask.

"That comes when I die!"

At the risk of explaining the joke, the point is that Armageddon is not so much a historical event as a personal bridge to cross. The great archetypal moments of religious history -- the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the End Times -- are always with us, as timeless markers of inner growth and challenges to one's soul. Perhaps the New Age should be considered in similar fashion: as a symbol of personal transformation that may or may not be shared with humanity as a whole.

© copyright 1998 by Jay Kinney and GNOSIS Magazine
All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form requires permission from copyright holders.

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