We seem to believe we can be reborn without ever dying. Such is the spiritual version of the American Dream.
—Rollo May, The Cry For Myth
Over the past few decades, the so-called “new age” has emerged out of the American underground, the bastard child of a beatnik father and a hippie mother, midwifed by renegade Western psychologists and sages from the East. This multi-headed creature is made up of myths and symbols and practices from every corner of the world, all united under the dominant American gene of utopian idealism. Included in this new age are a few very wise people trying to figure out ways to evolve, some hucksters trying to make a buck on a good thing, and a whole lot of lost souls just looking to make a connection.
I often try to deny any identity with the “new age.” The concept itself sounds pretentious, as if this movement is the next step in evolution, ahead of the rest of the culture or the species. But when the Dalai Lama was asked if he was part of the new age, he said, “I hope so. I think we should all be happy to have a new age.”
Although I am skeptical about a lot of what goes on in these psycho-spiritual subcultures, I must say that I have participated widely in various fads and cults and fallen for my share of outlandish gurus, and through all the shuckin’ and jivin’ I continue to believe that something is happening here, but we don’t know what it is yet, do we Mr. Jones?
Aside from whatever wisdom I have gained as a participant, I have derived great pleasure watching the new age unfold in America, and as a journalist I have been afforded a close look at the phenomenon. And what a strange show it has been so far! I remember visiting a famous California retreat center in the mid-’70s where I saw a group of people walking around completely naked except for tiny pyramid shaped hats which they wore on their heads. They said they were experiencing “pyramid power.” I myself have never felt anything special inside of a pyramid, and I wonder if their reputation is based solely on the fact that they preserved Egyptian mummies for so long. Maybe I am too skeptical; perhaps I will only feel pyramid power if I sit down on top of one.
Much of the new age seems to be about the search for one elusive grail or another, usually some combination of perfect health, higher consciousness, and happiness ever after. Part of my own attraction to it is the possibility of gaining some new understanding about my life and the universe, but another part of me is after that feel-good state, the old beatnik and hippie desire for the endless series of perfect moments—Oneness, ecstasy, bliss.
I believe the new age can be roughly divided in half: one camp is concerned with enhancement of the individual self, while the other camp seeks to diminish identity with the self. My friend, author Jerry Mander, separates the new age into right wing and left wing groups. Both will try to deprogram you, but the right wing will then try to re-program you, while the spiritual left tends to leave you relatively free of dogma.
Whichever new age path you are on in America, chances are that it is lined with hawkers selling their wares. All sorts of aids and accoutrements have been invented to serve the Western seeker, products that promise to hasten you toward your “true nature,” or toward nirvana or satori or wherever else you thought it was you wanted to go. The spirit of commerce cannot resist the commerce in spirit.
Of course, the material and the spiritual are One, and who can deny that there are many ways “into the mystic.” Even stones may be of use. I once saw an advertisement for a “Lapis Meditation head band” which promises to “open your mystical third eye.” If that helps, you can also try an Indian stone pyramid necklace, advertised to give you “strong, strong vibrations.” You might even want to wear a belly button stone which has the ability to focus the energy of lapis and silver on your “will chakra.” The chakras are seven energy centers in the body, and there are special stones and colors and mantras to help you develop or “open” any particular one of them. I think I would be happy if I could open up my “will-not” chakra, but nobody seems to know where it’s located.
You can get your biorhythm charts read, buy a biofeedback machine to monitor your stress levels or alpha waves, purchase an isolation tank to create a perfect environment for meditation, try some full spectrum lighting to enhance your “light-chemical mood balance,” and purchase the “Natural Rhythm Futon” which is not, as the name seems to imply, a birth control bed, but rather a way to get in some kind of moving bodily harmony with your mattress while you sleep. You might also want to try sleeping on a new age product called the “Dream Pillow” which is made out of hops, the same plant ingredient used in making beer. The people who sell dream pillows cite “herbal literature documents” to conclude that hops—not in your brew, but under your head—can promote restful sleep and pleasant colorful dreams.
Some new age magazines have run ads for teachers or products that seem to have no connection to any specific tradition. I once cut out a small ad that reads, “Getting rid of what you haven’t got! A one dollar book on Mantra, Inner Self, Value of Dying, Guru, Flying, Paradise. Enclose one dollar and write to OM, 113 Friar Way, Campbell, California.” Another ad offered a slightly different range of eclectic pursuits: “We excel in matters of holistic health, biomagnetism, earthradiation exposures, ESP, the Unexplained. Only $13.50.”
One of my favorite products from the new age was a simple massaging devise I bought called the “MA-roller,” perhaps named after the Great Mother Masseuse Goddess, if there ever was such a deity. You can roll yourself out a spinal massage and back rub anytime you want on top of your MA-roller, and then sink back into your body to experience the “suchness” of relaxed muscles. According to the ads, this wondrous wooden massaging wheel was “designed by a student of Chinese acupuncture who is also a student of yoga . . . and is a result of meditations on the five elements as given in the Huang Ti Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperors’s Classic of Internal Medicine).” Mercy me! I bought it. I used it, and I loved my MA-roller.
I also once owned a “Footsie Roller” which was kind of a MA roller just for the feet. As we all must know by now, the soles of the feet contain the nerve endings and therefore the connections to all other parts of the body, including internal organs. If you can just break up all the “crystalizations” in your feet you will probably become as happy as a clam. It may be possible to achieve similar foot massage benefits by wearing—if you can possibly stand it—those little sandals and slippers with the rubber points sticking up all over the insole. “No pain, no gain,” say the gurus. Walk on, oh seeker, walk on.
Speaking of pain, many of my friends who meditate have gone through agony just trying to find a comfortable way to sit down on the floor. Sitting cross legged seems to come quite naturally to most Asians, as does squatting. But most Westerners don’t seem to be genetically programmed to grow legs that move easily into the preferred Asian posture for meditation, which is the cross-legged, thigh-locked, reverse twist of legs and feet known as the “lotus pose.” According to some Eastern master yogis, the lotus posture encloses the body’s energy in a special way that enhances meditation. For this reason, and also because it looks stylish and cool, many of us Westerners have struggled over the years with pillows and straps and bolsters and a multitude of specially constructed contraptions in an effort to remain seated on the floor in some facsimile of the lotus pose while meditating. I see people coming to meditation retreats carrying benches, back rests, knee pillows, straps and elaborate balloon-like chairs, all invented to keep you from suffering while you contemplate the inevitability of suffering.
After arriving in California in 1967, I did sessions of various body therapies such as polarity and rolfing. The idea behind these techniques was that your musculature reflected your neurosis, and if you could somehow release the “blockages” in your body then your energy would flow more smoothly and you might become as happy as a jellyfish. I went to a couple of these “bodyworkers” who seemed to literally tear my muscles and tendons off my bones, and then tried to shove them into new positions in order to make me more symmetrical or get me into “alignment,” as it is called. I suspect that these bodyworkers were the very ones who coined the new age phrase, “No pain, no gain.”
For several years I had a negative ion generator in my house. Negative ions are supposed to be good for you. They supposedly counteract air pollution, and some claim they even get rid of bad vibes. I remember being somewhat skeptical, but I eventually broke down and bought a negative ion generator at my local health food store. After trying it out for a few weeks, I carted my negative ion generator back and told the salesperson that the device didn’t seem to make any difference in my mood or general health. I’ll never forget him looking me in the eye and saying, very sincerely, “Maybe you just aren’t sensitive enough to notice the difference.” I should have let my anger show, but I was into simply labeling and watching emotions at the time, so I reluctantly took my negative ion generator back home and plugged it in for a few years. Eventually it got tossed into a back closet as a periodic reminder of how much I have fallen for in my search for salvation. On the other hand, I will never know whether the negative ion generator actually worked or not, because there were just too many other variables in the mix. It is possible that I would be very sick or even dead today if that generator hadn’t been filling my living space with negative ions throughout the late 1970s.
Negative heel shoes were a new age fad for which many of us leaned over backwards. It is hard to believe now, but for a few years back in the 1970s there were entire shoe stores that sold only shoes with negative heels. You could buy sandals or hiking boots or even dress shoes made with negative heels. I forget the exact claims for these shoes, but they did slope downward in the heel and gave the wearer a slightly backward slant. People who wore negative heel shoes always looked a little more remote than other people. Some say they felt “laid back” while wearing them, while others report feeling more like one of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in the famous “truckin’” cartoon—in a kind of perpetual strutting mode.
Of course I fell for the spirulina fad. Spirulina is algae, and for awhile the entire new age population was buying it up like a pod of hungry whales. You can take spirulina in pill form or else buy the powder and mix it into shakes and fruit drinks. Algae tastes terrible. It must have been the original bitter herb way back before land was created. I forget exactly what eating algae was supposed to cure or enhance. Maybe it got you in touch with your “inner fish.” After all, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Another piece of seaweed, Gill?
Why have I felt compelled to pursue all these therapies, cures, health fads and consciousness-raising techniques? Am I newly self-aware, or merely self-absorbed? Perhaps, after being given an abundance of worldly goods and pleasures, and almost as much social freedom as I could ever want, I simply turned to the next challenge, the illusive pursuit of absolute freedom. More to the point, however, I believe that what led me and many of my generation into the “new age” was the possibility of relief from the suffering—personal and collective—not only caused by the condition of being human, but exacerbated by our society’s over-emphasis on the individual self. We were turned by our moment in history toward the necessary reconnection with our own humanity, as well as toward community, nature, and the larger powers of biological and cosmic evolution.