Book of the Week (2): Democratising mysticism as positive, but dangerous, legacy of the new age

I believe that at one level these universalizing tactics were a sincere attempt at a kind of mystical ?democratization‘, a leveler of the spiritual playing field, and a disavowal of privileged religious perspectives. I wish to affirm here, that on these grounds, it seems to me, that there is something inherently well intentioned behind the unifying mind. However, if tilted toward the direction of one absolute or universal spiritual strand it can look like a resurgence of spiritual ethnocentrism, essentialism, narcissism and totalitarianism seemingly inherent in human beings and their religious traditions or formulations.

Below, we are excerpting the second part of an as yet unpublished book in progress by Gregg Lahood, which, after a cogent critique of the self-centeredness of contemporary new age spirituality in part 2, examines how a democratic spirituality could be rescued from its imperial universalising tendencies. In part 3, on friday, Gregg will present the emerging p2p alternative, i.e. relational spirituality.

Gregg’s full paper/book manuscript has a detailed historical overview of the origins of the new age movement as religious syncretism/creolization.

* Essay / Book in progress: Paradise Unbound. Relational Spirituality and other Heresies in New Age Transpersonalism. G. A. Lahood

A version of this paper is to be published by The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 2010

Part 3. Democratising mysticism: towards cosmological detente

Greg Lahood:

“According to Christopher Lasch, in his influential work The Culture of Narcissism (1978), our increasing hopelessness in the face of the global disasters of our times has culminated in the dead end of extreme narcissistic self-preoccupation. During the past 100 years the Western ?trust in human progress, as a way toward universal peace and happiness, was progressively abandoned due to its empirical disconfirmation by a number of bloody wars?(Introvigne 2003, 65). If two world wars, ongoing wars against communism (now Islam) and the shadow of an horrific third world war destroyed the notion of a utopian paradise ofuniversal peace and prosperity through ?progress‘, it also gave birth to a more individualized, personalized and privatized utopia. After WWI it was held that ?positive thinking‘ might still win the day through the attainment of a ?higher state of peace? (65).Massimo Introvigne points out that while all this could be easily be construed as wishful thinking, a convergenceof Christian New Thought and secular positive thinking coalesced in The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) by Norman Vincent Peale (1898 -1993) which turned out to be one of the best-sellers of the 20thcentury (65)—positive thinking is now a central dogma of New Age thinking.For the 1960s religious counter-culture the American Dream (messianic and unchallenged as it was) had dissipated into an apocalyptic nightmare of Biblical proportions. For many the wisdom of putting blind faith or trust in dualistic science and Christianity had also been disconfirmed in an atmosphere of moral turmoil, rampant materialism and violence both internal and external. This is important: according to the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah, the ?counter cultural criticism of American society is related to a belief in nondualism? (Bellah 1976, 347). As one researcher into the emerging new religious consciousness put it, ?previous beliefs had not worked; people were searching for a spiritual absolute that would lead them beyond war, strife and chaos? [my emphasis] (Johnson 1976, 34).If the counter-public of America (and beyond) could find a spiritual absolute, then a New Age of peace and love might dawn, but only if the people could awaken from their dualistic dream (as I see it – a wholly commendable desire). This New Age would be a psychological one arriving through the ?transformed consciousness of millions of people? (34). Thus, if the counter-culture was unified at all, it was in an ?obsession with personal experience…each individual was urged to pursue freely a personal state of ecstasy (Johnson 1976, 42) and this programme would, so the dual logic goes, end the war and save the planet. I suggest that this cherished spiritual absolute would have to be found in an amalgamating inclusivity; a hybrid—One absolute truth— to avoid the chimera of exclusivism (central to Christianity), it would somehow have to be inclusive of all truths and this amalgamation would be billed as arriving through consciousness ?evolution‘. And in this we get the basic formula of the New Age:The two main tenets of ?classic‘ New Age were, firstly, that a golden age of higher consciousness was manifesting itself on Planet earth; and secondly, that it was possibleto co-operate with this happy manifestation without the need for a dogmatic creed or formal structures (Introvigne 2003, 60). Or as Paul Heelas put it: New Agers are averse to traditions, with their dogmas, doctrines and moralities. Yet New Agers continually draw on traditions—shamanic to Buddhist. The solution to this seeming paradox lies in the fact that New Agers are perennialists. Before explaining this apparent paradox, let us dwell for a moment on the perennialized nature of the New Age. Unity firmly prevails over diversity. Having little or no faith in the external realm of traditional belief, New Agers can ignore apparently significant differences between religious traditions, dismissing them as due to historical contingencies and ego-operations. But they do have faith in that wisdom which is experienced as lying at the heart of the religious domain as a whole. From the detraditionalized stance of the New Age what matters is the ?arcane‘, the ?esoteric‘, the ?hidden wisdom‘, the ?inner or secret tradition‘, the ?ancient wisdom‘. And, it can be added, New Agers attach equal importance — because it is an aspect of the spiritual realm as a whole—to the essential unity of the human species, scorning nationality or ethnically differentiated modes of being (Heelas1996, 27).Now let us return to Abraham Maslow the founding father of the self-spirituality movements (humanistic and transpersonal) for the similarities,Among humanistic perspectives on mystical experience, no others are as well known as Maslow‘s (1964, 1968). In the course of his famous studies of self-actualizing persons, Maslow noticed that it was common for these exceptional individuals to report having had mystical experiences. … Maslow called them peak experiences, a term that other psychologists have adopted as well. In describing peak experiences, Maslow reiterated the ecstatic feelings of egoless fusion with the world, of wholeness and integration, and of effortless existence in the here and now… Eager to make such experiences and their putative benefits widely available in an increasingly secular world, Maslow argued (1964) that the traditional religious contextualizations of this intrinsic core of experience serve not only to distort and suppress itbut also to create divisiveness where otherwise there might be profound accord. According to Maslow, by studying and promoting this core outside of its traditional contexts, humanistic psychology could revolutionize human existence by making the peak experience and its values the ultimate goals of education, if not of every other social institution as well.[my emphasis](Wulff 2000, 422- 423).

For Maslow religious traditions created divisiveness (even war) and it is to be remembered that some of Maslow‘s most influential works (1964, 1968, and 1971) were created during the Vietnam War years, in fact Maslow (1908-1970) published throughout WW2, the Korean and the Vietnam Wars).xivAt the Esalen Institute in California during a seminar there Maslow declared that he had ?the feeling of historical urgency… that there‘s a fire that we have to putout. The world is burning. It’s literally possible there (will be) atom bombs next week‘(Hoffman 1988, 293). Maslow urged his readers and followers toward an individual, inner, privatized ? religious experience‘ that went beyond, but included all traditions – I quote Maslow: This private religious experience is shared by all the great world religious traditions including the atheistic ones like Buddhism, Taoism, Humanism, or Confucianism(Abraham Maslow 1964:28). Ferrer in his useful deconstruction of subtle Cartesian dualism in transpersonal theory(specifically Maslow‘s perennialism) writes: ? To lump together these different awarenesses into one spiritual liberation or referent reachable by all traditions may be profoundly distorting? (2002:148). I agree, from a contextual position (e.g. Katz 1979) this conflation is profoundly distorting (on one level), but the term ?lumping together‘ (while certainly not very elegant) points to an intentional process in the American context – one of hybridization and amalgamation, which, I believe, had an anti-racist, anti-hegemonic, anti-essentialist intention. It is a ?conflation‘ based on respect for other traditions and a desire to join with them. I believe this amalgam/hybridity was originally used as an occult fetish with which to democratize religious traditions. The process of hybridization writes Nestor Garcia Canclini ?can serve to work democratically with differences, so that history is not reduced to wars between cultures. …We can choose to live in a state of war or in a state of hybridization? (2005, xxxi). American One-Truthism (in reality an unrecognized and complex religious hybridization glossed as perennialism) (Lahood 2008) gained acceptance and popularity because, at face value, it was a defense (by amalgamation) against the force of religious exclusivism, ideological domination, and spiritual ranking (Ferrer 2002, 159-162) – the way religious traditions, groups or creeds subtly belittle one-another by placing their aspired ultimate states above others. According to Ferrer, the elevation of ?one‘s favored tradition or spiritual choice as superior? is itself a form of ?spiritual narcissism? (2009) and which appears to be inculcated into religious cultures as ethnocentrism (a cultural version of egocentrism).Americanized One-Truthism was/is cherished by hippies, transpersonalists, New Agers, and contemporary Western spiritual practices alike because it was also seen as a simple solution to spiritual competition and one-up-man ship (see Cortright 1997, 31). If it is believed (and performed) that all religions were inherently the same—that all religions arerivers running into the same transcendental ocean—then this goes to the relaxing and easingof tensions between competing groups or even warring religions (Lahood 2008).xvi

I believe that at one level these universalizing tactics were a sincere attempt at a kind of mystical ?democratization‘, a leveler of the spiritual playing field, and a disavowal of privileged religious perspectives. I wish to affirm here, that on these grounds, it seems to me, that there is something inherently well intentioned behind the unifying mind. However, if tilted toward the direction of one absolute or universal spiritual strand it can look like ar esurgence of spiritual ethnocentrism, essentialism, narcissism and totalitarianism seemingly inherent in human beings and their religious traditions or formulations. Perennialism flourishes because it is a source of hybridization – a process which can exhaust the authoritative voice within each tradition. But each hybrid also carries the force of totalitarianism and resistance – and power configurations arise and assert. Let me a give a few pertinent examples, A Course in Miracles, something of a New Age gospel or Bible (widely touted by Oprah Winfrey and rightly appraised as Christianized Vedanta and a form of non-dual perennialism) extols a blatant assimilation/colonization process with all the arrogance and gusto of 19th century Christian missionaries: The Name of Jesus Christ as such is but a symbol. But it stands for love that it is not of this world. It is a symbol that is safely used as a replacement for the many names of all the gods to which you pray [my emphasis] (Teachers manual, 59).I wonder how the Muslim or Buddhist populations would respond to this ?teaching‘. This appears to me as a thinly disguised form of spiritual totalitarianism and New Age/American imperialism carefully removing itself from its culturally relative context and human responsibility by claiming metaphysical authority while brutally effacing all other gods – the term ?safely‘ brimming with conceit and subterfuge. Canclini observes that in the vertigo inducing worlds of hybridization the human imagination becomes ?afraid of losing itself? and historical movements, both hegemonic and subaltern, ?time and again institute essentializations of a particular state of hybridization?(xxii). This leads us inevitably to Ken Wilber‘s ethnocentric paradise – and may explain Wilber‘s break from the more relaxed universalism of Huxley, Watts, Maslow, Ram Dass (and others in the first epoch), to his more essentialized, hierarchical hybrid in which he ranks his nondualism above the other contenders. Malcolm Hollick in his Science of Oneness(2006) explains,

The perennial philosophy claims to be tolerant and inclusive of all religions. Yet it establishes a single spiritual truth against which all traditions are judged. Those that do not match its criteria are rejected as inauthentic, merely exoteric, or as representing lower levels of spiritual insight. For instance, according to Ken Wilber‘s influential ladder of consciousness development, the Eastern concept of non-duality is the highest form of spirituality, whereas the Sufi and Christian traditions of union with an impersonal One come a rung lower at the Causal level. Platonic archetypes and Christian gnosis are a further rung down at the Subtle level, while the mystery religions and many indigenous faiths are relegated to the Psychic (2006,)It is because of this tilt toward assimilationist and totalitarian ?one-truthism‘ that I suggest wethrow the One-Truth of New Age /transpersonalism or as Wilber puts it ?the Immortal One in and beyond all forms? (1996, 107) on to the ?bonfire of the vanities‘ (to borrow from Tom Wolfe). New Age AuthoritarianismThere is also an inherent problem with the universalizing tactic that feeds the problems of spiritual narcissism and New Age ethnocentrism (a belief that one‘s own culture is superior to others) it sets up the New Ager to feel as if she has ?evolved beyond‘ the older traditions. Thus, Hanegraaff writes that the New Ager can ?reject all exoteric religions … because they fall short of universal esoteric wisdom? (1996, 328). In doing so she sees herself as, paradoxically, more advanced than traditional religions by laying claim to a superior vision of spiritual ?wholeness‘ (see Lahood, 2008, Hanegraaff 2003). This can create for the New Age global villager a somewhat ethnocentric and conceited spiritual outlook. Sociologist Paul Heelas observes; So, what has perennialization have to do with how New Agers treat religious traditions? The perennialized view point involves going beyond traditions as normally conceived, going beyond differences to find – by way of experience – the inner, esoteric core. This means that New Agers can ?draw‘ on tradition whilst bypassing their explicit, authoritative doctrines and dogmas, and moral codes. Instead, in detraditionalized fashion, they can discern – by way of their own experience, their gnosis or experiential knowledge – those spiritual truths that lie at the heart of, say, Vedanta or shamanism. And although these truths – by virtue of their intrinsic nature – exercise authority, they do not curtail the authority of the New Ager‘s Self: the truths within the ?traditions‘ and within the New Ager are the same (Heelas 1996, 28).xxParticipatory theorist John Heron has placed a great deal of (useful) emphasis on what he calls ?authoritarian religion‘ and its correlate ?spiritual projection‘ (onto external authority/s) within religious traditions (1992, 1998) from which he smartly takes his leave (2006). However, as far as I am aware, Heron nowhere attends to the non-traditional New Age spiritual ego or its unique brand of religious authoritarianism. No doubt some in the New Age run spiritual projections on traditions, or cults, or leading lights (e.g. the Dalai Lama or Rajneesh, or Eckhart Tolle) as suggested in Heron‘s thesis but in the main most New Agers do not stay in authoritarian groups—and a central aspect of contemporary spirituality its anti-authoritarian stance (Morris 2006, Heelas 1996, Hanegraaff 1996). Indeed, according to sociologist Donald Stone (1976, 114) in times of rapid change[globalization is marked by rapid change], people join these religious groups in a manoeuvrethat enables them to assume the ?special status? of a ?member of the elect? – it is not a case of spiritual projection (ala Heron), rather, it is a form of spiritual elitism. In this there is nothing new, says Stone, for people seek a new authority to compensate when their worlds are ?dislocated? – what is new is the reliance on an ?authoritative basis of direct experience?without reference to an outside power) (113). This trend is an epochal revolutionary movement away from conformity to an external ?higher truth‘ toward what is commonly held to be a ?subjective turn‘ (Heelas and Woodhead 2005). Thus the New Ager does not really go in for tradition. Hanegraaff states for example that, Although New Age adherents tend to have a positive view of enlightened ?masters? or gurus who impart insights to their pupils, the idea of being dependent of somebody else (rather than on one‘s own inner self) for spiritual illumination is not congenial to New Age individualism (Hanegraaff 1996,400).Or, as Heelas points out, the New Ager largely bypasses tradition (1996, 28) giving herself an unassailable position of spiritual authority and superiority by drawing on the religious capital within each ?ancient‘ tradition while at the same time disavowing traditional authority. This means the New Ager does not project onto religious authority – she is the authority. She will not claim membership with religious institutions but rather with ?Shelley‘s ?white radiance‘, which transmitted through ?the dome of many-colored glass‘ expresses itself in the world in the multifarious imagery of the institutionalized religions? (Prince 1974, 256).

Nevertheless, this ?white‘ person‘s ?light‘ supposedly shining through all religions is still a culturallyrelative position brought about by globalization, and, as we have seen, it was not only ?the light‘ that gained ascendency in transpersonal/New Agism but a species of Oriental nondualism. Thomas Dean, reviewing the perennialist position writes:A transcendent referent nondualistically conceived (with the help of language drawn from Hindu, Buddhist, or mystical traditions), in which all culturally derived religious differences are ultimately transcended … This transcendent reality is what is alreadyand always there, and our knowing of it, which involves a mode of thinking that transcends our ordinary mode of cognition, is similarly a knowledge (gnosis) that is ?already there.? Knowing is primarily a matter of clarifying, of ?removing the veil of darkness that obscures,? this primordial truth (Dean, 1984, 213).The dichotomy between light and darkness can very easily translate into New Age hubris (2003). If I do not locate myself in the dissociated ?Nirvanic defense‘; if I refuse to pay cultto the esoteric light of New Age Oneness/nondualism (or if I am critical) – then I can be swiftly relegated to some dark/samsaric/unawakened realm—such is the nature of interpersonal one-upping. This hybrid ?esoteric core‘ garners some of its emotional power and authoritative force by proclaiming that it‘s One Truth, is a pure, pre-existing or ?given?truth (see Ferrer 2002), a truth ?always already there‘ (in life and presumably in death) awaiting our evolutionary ?arrival‘ (so says the credo of the New Age).

Charismatic authority is also secured through the idea that it is a truth that blows in from every direction e.g. ?the world‘s Great Wisdom Traditions‘ (Hammer 2003). By way of example, let us observe the following proclamation by perennialist philosopher Georg Feuerstein in a work on Tantric yoga; As the great spiritual traditions of the world affirm, truth is always one, though there are many pathways to it. Truth is Reality, which is singular, what is relative are our angles of perception and comprehension (Feuerstein 1998, 42-43).xxiAffirmations of this ?perspectivist perennialism? (Ferrer 2002) are numerous among New Agers and transpersonalists and are easily found. Nevertheless Feuerstein‘s perspective, like Shelley‘s, is relative to its context which is, inescapably, a product of globalization.

Feuerstein‘s claim on the nature of ?Truth‘ gains authoritative power not only from the juxtaposition of ?great‘ wisdom traditions – but in the subtle promotion that this One-Truth Reality comes from all around the globe. Taking the religious theme of ?life after death‘ to outline how perennialism comes into being, Olav Hammer, taking a contextualist position (e.g. Katz 1979), notes that the more onelooks at ?the structures, interpretations, ideological uses and narrative details of the various speculations on life after death the more they appear to be unique. Hindu reincarnation is not the same as kabbalistic reincarnation? (2003, 52) and so on. xxii?However?, he writes ?for a synthesizing mind intent on finding a perennial philosophy underlying the divergent traditions, there is ample material from which to synthesize, and every opportunity to claimthat the divergences are insignificant details?(2003, 52). The act of ?synthesizing‘ is what I think of as cosmological hybridization; a process that has everything to do with globalization (Lahood 2008) also leads to the disembedding of these so-called ?wisdom traditions‘, Hammer continues;Bits and pieces of non-Western traditions [e.g. satori, samadhi, prana, mana, chi] are disembedded from their original religious contexts [e.g. India, Tibet, etc]. Through an incessant bricollage carried out by leading religious virtuosi, [e.g. Wilber etc] these fragments are re-embedded in a modern, Western esoteric religious setting[transpersonal psychology, workshops, New Age groups and books]. The principal mechanism of doing this, is by forcing these exotic elements into a fairly rigid, pre-existing interpretive mould [perennialism, a religious frameworks, Western psychology, cartography]. Thereby, to the believer, the same message does indeed seem to come from everywhere [my parenthesis] (2003, 56).This act of ?forcing‘ together is cosmological hybridization. In the writings of Ken Wilber, who many see as the leading transpersonal/perennial nondual virtuosi, we find exactly this procedure, I quote Wilber: This is the phenomenon of transcendence or enlightenment, or liberation, or moskha, or wu or satori . . . This is what Plato meant by stepping out of the cave of shadows and finding the Light of Being, for Einstein‘s ??escaping‘‘ the delusion of separateness. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation, of Hindu Yoga and Christian mystical contemplation

. . . there is nothing spooky, occult or strange in any of this and this is the perennial philosophy (Wilber 1996:9).If Wilber‘s perennial philosophy is a site for disembedded and re-embedded spiritual objects (after Giddens), it is also a product of what Hammer calls ?synonymization‘, a process which lends the writer a mask of authority. Synonymization is linked to a psychological process in which we ?return to the trust in experts? (Hammer 2003). The crafty use of exoticwords (e.g. moksha, wu, satori) in English texts expresses a double meaning and gives an ?air of authenticity? hinting that the author is ?cognizant with the writings of an exotic culture?(or many cultures) or at the least a grasp of ?specialized vocabulary? not accessible to the layperson. Hammer points out that, ?the sheer incomprehensibility and untranslatability ofthe terminology ensures that the reader will have little choice but to accept the interpretations of the writer. To what extent is it reasonable to claim that mana equals prana? The averagereader has little possibility to evaluate the author’s claims? (2003, 55-56). This all goes to thesecuring of charismatic, religious, and esoteric authority.xxiiiWith the ?esoteric core‘ of perennial-transpersonal psychology thus exposed, as—a trick of the light or sleight of hand—brought about by religious globalization, ?One-Truthism‘- the New Age paradise fall from grace. Throwing perennialism on to the philosophical funeral pyre is one thing—but this cultural ?tradition‘ of cosmological hybridization (glossed as perennialism), as we have seen, runs deep in America‘s (and beyond) cultural psyche and many remain bound to it. Nevertheless, with New Age-transpersonalism‘s paradise unbound spiritual alternatives become available to the New Age and the grass roots contemporaryspiritual community which are perhaps closer to the New Age‘s original values before the upsurge of its more narcissistic, ?up and out‘ or totalitarian elaborations – collaboration, healing and the reappraisal of divinity.

The recovery of a Martin Buber‘s relational spirituality is becoming a possible alternative — if not a crucial one. “

1 Comment Book of the Week (2): Democratising mysticism as positive, but dangerous, legacy of the new age

  1. Avatarcoursie55

    a course in miracles actually states that a universal theology is impossible but a universal experience is necessary.

    it talks about acim

    this passage here about ACIM is silly.

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