Book of the Week: Gregg Lahood’s critique of new age narcissism

New Age transpersonalism leans toward a restrictive non-relational spirituality because of its historical affirmation of individualism and transcendence. Relational spirituality (which is central to the emerging participatory-paradigm) swims against strong and popular currents in New Age-transpersonal thinking, belief, and practice which tend to see spirituality as an individual, personal, ?inner‘ pursuit (often) into Eastern/Oriental non-dualism (e.g. Ramana Maharshi etc) as promulgated in popular quasi-Christian, Western, New Age thinking (e.g. A Course in Miracles or Eckhart Tolle, and in transpersonal psychology (e.g. Ken Wilber or Stanislav Grof), whatever the merits of Advaita Vedanta (and I assume there are merits) it is not ?relational spirituality‘ not in the way that I understand the practice.

Below, we are excerpting an as yet unpublished book in progress by Gregg Lahood, which, after a cogent critique of the self-centeredness of contemporary new age spirituality, which Zizek called the ideology of empire, presents 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


“I write this paper with the aim of teasing out from the New Age religion and religious transpersonal psychology a more “relational spirituality” New Age transpersonalism leans toward a restrictive non-relational spirituality because of its historical affirmation of individualism and transcendence. Relational spirituality (which is central to the emerging participatory-paradigm) swims against strong and popular currents in New Age-transpersonal thinking, belief, and practice which tend to see spirituality as an individual, personal, “inner” pursuit (often) into Eastern/Oriental non-dualism (e.g. Ramana Maharshi etc) as promulgated in popular quasi-Christian, Western, New Age thinking (e.g. A Course in Miracles or Eckhart Tolle, and in transpersonal psychology (e.g. Ken Wilber or Stanislav Grof), whatever the merits of Advaita Vedanta (and I assume there are merits) it is not “relational spirituality” not in the way that I understand the practice. I will show first how cosmological hybridization (a process in which paradises arebound together) is a process much alive in American religious culture beginning with a Romanticized-Christianized version of the Buddha. I will demonstrate how this religious Creolization gathers speed after the Second World War and peaks in the psychedelic era during the Vietnam War and the civil unrest in America between 1963 and 1974. A complex spiritual revolution took place in America in which “transcendence” became a central orientation. This revolution, while successful in stopping the war, sets the scene for the emergence of non-relational transpersonal psychology (“centered in the cosmos beyond human needs” ala Maslow) in which Americanized non-dualism gains ascendency. Recent critiques have suggested that popular transpersonalism traps the spirit in a subtle Cartesian prison, a structure that can breed a self-serving, “Self-as-everything”, form of spiritual narcissism. Given that some are calling the New Age the religion of global capitalism, a more relational spirituality may be a much needed salve for New Age- transpersonalism‘s self-centeredness and a world in Creolization.


Gregg Lahood:

“Religious hybridizations can occur when beliefs Christian and secular or “Christian and native” are merged creating a “third religion” (Pieterse 2004, 73) — but the same is true of Non-Christian hybridizations such as found in the spread of Buddhism and Islam. For example with the spread of Greek culture in to India through Alexander the Great statues of the Buddha were carved in the gesture of peripatetic philosophers wearing togas and adorned the sacred grapes of the sacrificial demi-god Dionysus. I argue here that transpersonal psychology also came to be a kind of third religion (an Orientalized hybrid cosmology) and it began to crystallize in San Francisco in the hey-day of the psychedelic 60s along with Garcia and The Grateful Dead, the Vietnam War, and a widespread religious awakening that involved communal living, and changes in clothing, values, music, drugs, psychotherapy and a host of other counter-cultural innovations. More importantly, as suggested, transpersonalism (its search for the ?inner truth‘) may well be the skeletal structure which the New Age has grown around.Central to this project was a series of strange marriages, juxtapositions, and cultural borrowings largely (but not exclusively) between the mysticism of the East and the psychology of West— between America and Asia.

These include, the American Transcendentalists embrace of the Vedas, Mahatma Gandhi with Henry David Thoreau, Nashida Kitaro with William James, D.T. Suzuki‘s Zen with Romantic Nature worship, Aldous Huxley with Vedanta, Allan Watts with the Tao, Zen, Advaita Vedanta, the Beat poets Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsburg, and Gary Snyder with Buddhism and Peyote, Timothy Leary with LSD and Tibetan Buddhism, Ram Dass with Hinduism, The Beatles with LSD, the Beatles with the Maharishi, George Harrison with the Hari Krishna Movement, Fritz Perls‘ Gestalt therapy with Mahayana Buddhism, Eric Fromm (psychoanalysis) with Zen Buddhism, Abraham Maslow‘s human potential with Zen Buddhism, and, Stanislav Grof with psychoanalysis, LSD and Kashmir Shaivism. This long cultural procession of religious blending is the fertile cultural mélange out of which Ken Wilber‘s influential ladder of consciousness grew: a hybrid cosmos of Neo-Platonism and Neo-Advaita Vedanta (which as we will see is also the backbone of the New Age movement). The characteristic blend of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity and the dominating spiritual hierarchy that runs through Wilber‘s worldview (and the New Age) are due in large part to the strange force of hybridity long alive in the religious imagination of America (Lahood 2008). I have suggested in Paradise bound: A perennial tradition or an unseen process of cosmological hybridity (2008) that Wilber‘s Orientalized cosmology is the inevitable outcome of religious globalization and the civil strife occurring in the 1960s in which religions of the East and West were brought together in America in a psychedelically informed subaltern resistance culture. The religious symbolism of this culture and its postulate “cosmic consciousness” reveal not some ultimate perennial postulate beyond culture; nor a “One Truth” coming from all directions but a hybridized postulate deeply embedded in, and springing from, a complex cultural matrix embroiled in war in South East Asia, an internal civil revolution, an effervescent religious outpouring and the creation of a zealously enacted counter reality (Lahood 2008).

In this article I would like to further explore the procession of cosmological hybridizations that came together in the American context and show how this amalgamation of religious flavors begins to favor a somewhat disembodied, non-relational, patriarchal and authoritarian “One-Truth” religion — one that came to overvalue individual transcendence at the expense of relationship. It is my belief that relational spirituality is the key to undoing the spiritual narcissism that plagues contemporary Western spiritual culture (Ferrer 2002, 2009).

Part 1: New Age Transpersonalism

The transpersonal movement has substantially changed the religious menu of the Western world. Furthermore, the counter-cultural psychologies of the humanistic (e.g. Abraham Maslow and Fritz Perls) and transpersonal movements (e.g. Ken Wilber) were “a key influence in the emergence of New Age as a social phenomena” (Morris 2006, 305). But even more importantly the New Age‘s mystical occultism—has been called the religion of postmodern globalization—which is to say that transpersonalism is either tacitly informing the religion of globalization or it is the unseen religion of global capitalism. The New Age is mostly a religion for white people (Hanegraaff 2003, 23) and has been called “the secret religion of the educated class” (Heelas 1996, 124). It is so secret in fact that many a person has no idea that he or she is part of it (or if they do they aren‘t saying). Indeed many a soul engaged in the widespread channelling phenomena, many a person practicing shamanism, many a yoga teacher and her students, many a religious tourist on her pilgrimage, or many a Western tantric practitioner, may be completely unaware that they are part of globalizing religion with roots in the 60s “consciousness expanding movement”. Furthermore, and this is the thesis of this paper, the New Age may well be contributing to the great spiritual malady of our times — spiritual narcissism. People often don‘t identify themselves with the New Age yet an examination of their belief systems will often reveal deposits of New Age-transpersonalism in their psychic inventories.

But just what beliefs do have currency in New Age-transpersonalism? This is a very difficult question to answer, but very briefly, two anthropologists David Young and Jean-Guy Goulet, suggest that the New Age is a religion and it tends to “view reality in terms of different dimensions, and enlightenment as a movement to ever higher dimensions [of consciousness], either in this life or in lives to come” (Young & Goulet 1994, 8). “Reality, according to the perennial philosophy”, writes Ken Wilber, “is composed of several different but continuous dimensions” (1997, 39). New Age religion joins psychology and religion with a millenarian impulse (the coming of: a New Age of Aquarius, Total Bliss, the coming of the Cosmic Christ, twenty-twelve, etc) and an evolutionary design — the result is a self-oriented spirituality in which the transformation of, or the attainment of, a higher “inner self” is of paramount importance. Furthermore, for many, the action of “expanding one‘s consciousness” is deemed an activity that can “save the planet” (this means of course that everyone on the planet must participate in the consciousness raising). New Age religion advocates a perennial philosophy stressing the “transcendent unity” of all religions although it expresses a religious metaphysic that reflects a Hindu/Gnostic, impersonal, non-dual, transcendentalism (Cortright 1997). Likewise the transpersonal psychology movement has been called “an openly religionist psychology” (Hanegraaff, 1996, 51) because it has the perennial philosophy (esoteric unity) as its foundation (Wulff 2000). The perennial construct is imagined as a universal spiritual reality that “strikingly resembles the Neo-Platonic Godhead or Advaitin Brahman” (Ferrer, 2002, 89). Like the New Age, transpersonal psychology‘s interests are defined by a mingling of psychology and religion. Interest in “peak experiences” and “expanded consciousness‘\” resulted is a strong focus on self-spirituality – the sacralisation of the “inner self” (Heelas 1996). For roughly 20 years transpersonalism was dominated by, and conflated with, the religious worldview of Ken Wilber. Wilber joined the perennial philosophy with an evolutionary telos and a ladder of consciousness design with Hindu/Gnostic impersonal non-dualism as end-state enlightenment. Thus the New Age and Wilber‘s transpersonalism deeply mirror each other in basic structure. The basic metaphysic structuring its beliefs and practices is Eastern/Gnostic in flavour in that it holds everything is God without beginning or end and the ultimate purpose of life is to transcend the individual self and merge with the Divine (Hollick 2006). The Upanishads and the Vedic writings of ancient India conceive of Brahman as an impersonal world-spirit sustaining but beyond the phenomenal world. The individual soul or atman is considered a manifestation of Brahman—and the Vedantic system of Shankara developed the concept of liberation (moksha) from the world. An organic hybridity can easily occur between the East and West through Gnosticism and Vedanta. Morris points out that “Oriental”religious traditions are generally seen to be different to Christianity and “Occidental” thought, however, he says the Upanishadic doctrine has close affinities with early Gnostic doctrines (2006,119). Gnostic Christians held an “absolute division between an evil material world and a good spiritual realm” (Tarnas 1991, 141). Man could escape his entrapment in the gross material world through an esoteric knowledge gleaned from spiritual intuition. But, writes Morris, “in its stress on the concept of salvation by knowledge (Greek gnosis), in its devaluation of the mundane world as a realm of “unreality‘”[maya], and in its advocacy of mystical union [unio mystica] between the individual (soul) and this transcendental realm the Upanishadic doctrine … resembles that of Gnostic religion” (Morris 2006, 119). I would take this insight a step further and say these two religions (Western esoteric Christian and Eastern Vedantic mysticism) have found hybridized expression in the New Age, and that this is mirrored in Wilber‘s transpersonalism, indeed, Jorge Ferrer claims Wilber‘s transpersonal psychology as “a hybrid of Neo-Platonism and Neo-Advaita” (2002, 65). Thus we can say that the New Age and transpersonalism have historically tended to value the Eastern/Gnostic ideal of transcendence over a devalued phenomenal world for identification with a metaphysical Big Self. Such identification is traditionally based on the yogic impulse to yoke the soul to the spirit by cutting the ?bond‘s and severing the ties to the world, severing the (so-called) limiting desires that connect us to the world – the bonds that sustain and renew relationship. The human potential and transpersonal movements (e.g. Maslow) have also been important foundations in the materialization and affirmation of what is called “self-spirituality” an internalized religiosity (Heelas 1996). The touch-stones of self-spirituality were about getting in touch with ?inner divinity‘ and ?self actualization‘ through ?consciousness expanding techniques‘ which could deliver a “peak experience” and enable the aspirant to attain “higher levels of consciousness” – this is favourably seen as “consciousness evolution” (Heelas 1996, Hanegraaff 1996, Morris 2006). However, it is this very programme, that brings us inevitably to self-spirituality‘s inherent problem—and what is perhaps the foundation of a growing spiritual malady in our globalizing times — that New Age-transpersonalism is prone to breeding an overt focus on only one half of what could be a more relational spirituality. Put crudely—its concern is with a highly individual self and not the Other.

Part 2. The New Age as Narcissism

The foundations of this self-oriented spirituality in transpersonal psychology were laid by its founding father Abraham Maslow who brought together Western psychology and mystical states (the term he favoured was peak experiences). In terms of psychology, Maslow wanted freedom from the Freudian obsession with psychopathology and a new focus on maximized psychological health (self-actualization). In terms of religion, Maslow believed that traditional religious contexts obscured or retarded a universal core experience and skewed the potential of the peak experiences and he wanted to “dissociate such [peak states] from their traditional religious contexts” (Wulff 2000, 422-23). Maslow is undoubtedly a pioneer but there was a danger here because in Maslow‘s peak experiences (1964, 1968) the emphasis was on “the individual’s experience over, if not to the exclusion of, the reality that is encountered” (Wulff 2002). This sounds very similar to Donald Evans description of monistic subjectivity as a narcissistic mode of consciousness; “In general, everything outsideof me has significance only in relation to me; what concerns me is not this or that reality but my experience of it” (1993,42). In a discussion of “justice” in Maslow‘s motivational model, Anthony Taylor, points out that “the state of self actualization or psychological perfection that Maslow outlined, was supremely self-centered” (2006, 184). Maslow described self-actualization in “ethereal terms, showing a benign indifference to the outer world of reality while fostering internally a state of Nirvana of sublime spirituality … such a state of existential withdrawal … cannot be construed has anything but a major symptom of avoidance, inadequacy, and selfishness that is uncharacteristicin mature people (185). Self-spirituality emerged in western culture where the ego is historically “constructed dissociativly from nature, community, ancestors (Kremmer 1996, 46) and, as such, is an ego already prone to dualism, isolation, “solipsism” and self-centeredness. Self-spirituality coupled with the logic of ?individual competitiveness and consumer capitalism” can result in what is called ?spiritual narcissism (Ferrer 2002 34-36), in other words—extreme egocentrism spiritualized.

Furthermore the New Age has been described as spiritual consumerism (Arweck 2002) in a pick n‘ mix, spiritual marketplace‘ (Roof 1996). Once counter-cultural, the New Age sanctifies capitalism (Mikaelsson 2003) and promulgates a search (journey) for prosperity and a means to wealth (Morris 2006). Spirituality has in a sense become a “commodity”; a fetish linked to purchasing power and economically based self-esteem. Lavish spending on spiritual commodities (e.g. expensive New Age group events, spiritual tourism or showy?donations‘ to Gurus buy power and participation mystique (without the transmutitive suffering required to reduce narcissistic alienation). This kind of conspicuous consumption may also be intended to create envy in others – (there is perhaps nothing of more value to the spiritual egoist than the envy of others). Using Donald Evans‘ account of spirituality as “a basic transformative process in which we uncover and let go of our narcissism so as to surrender into the Mystery out of which everything continually arises” (Evans 1993, 4), Ferrer argues that “narcissistic modes of consciousness… preclude a genuine availability to others (2002, 36). Or, to quote Evans, “Where love inclines and enables us to engage in the mutual giving and receiving of “I-Thou” encounters with other human beings, narcissism‘s self-enclosure precludes such intimate encounters (1993, 207). The problem is self-centeredness, and the inability to care about the other—but the paradox here is that immersion in self-spirituality can fail to transform these dynamic defences and “spiritual growth” simply becomes another narcissistic activity. “Inner” spiritual experiences and practices (sought for therapeutic ends) are easily appropriated by the ego in a form of narcissistic survival (Ferrer 2002) in what has been called spiritual materialism (see Cortright 1997). Here the person dons the spiritual garb and talks the spiritual language but ducks the appropriate transmutative suffering – her self-serving continues – a wolf in lamb‘s clothing. Ultimately, this means her self-denial and suffering are prolonged rather than transformed because the spiritual aspirant mistakes “spiritualized self-gratification” for authentic self-fulfilment (Battista 1996, 255) which is the opposite of authentic spirituality. Narcissistic spirituality, then, is the use of an inflated spiritual persona which claims itself to be spiritually developed (evolved, advanced or higher) as a means of constraining, controlling and exploiting other persons (which others naturally feel as oppressive and offensive) (Battista 1996) and in my opinion should rightly oppose with healthy human anger. Adherents of the New Age claim they are overcoming “attachment to self” for altruistic purposes, but this “defence allows an apologist for “higher consciousness” (Battista1996, 255) with its implicit claim to psychological superiority. The New Age votary, self-elevated in this way, has trouble recognizing, owning and working through her subtly manipulative, deceptive and dominating side. Another related defence is “spiritual bypass” or “transpersonal rationalization” wherein the person reframes her compulsive self serving behaviours in spiritual terms (Cortright 1997). A similar strategy is to invent a spiritual facade, and cleave to it, in the hope of annihilating her inner suffering.

The New Ager‘s psychological narcissism (a result of primal repression ala Washburn or lack of mirroring after Kohut) is accentuated through,

A) perennialism: the notion of an inner esoteric core truth (Self, essence, etc) resides at the heart of all religions—a hybridity that allows the New Ager to claim spiritual authority for herself

B) New Age ethnocentrism (a conviction of cultural superiority) and closely related

C) religious narcissism — religious traditions almost always raise their aspired states over other systems which points to a form of narcissism where the New Ager mimics the authoritarianism within myriad traditions. Another way of saying this is that the person elevates her cult, group, or guru, tradition or practice, as higher up the chain of consciousness than others. This threefold structuring builds a spiritual facade trapping the authentic person and participatory consciousness in an alienating, self-separating shell.

In the following section I explore how the New Age spiritual ego comes into being.

2 Comments Book of the Week: Gregg Lahood’s critique of new age narcissism

  1. AvatarRobert Perry

    I am on the better-known interpreters of A Course in Miracles, and while I suspect I would disagree with Lahood in many fundamental ways, the fact is that I also profoundly agree that New Age spirituality is fundamentally narcissistic. I don’t know what is meant here by “relational spirituality,” but I spend my days trying to promote a more relational spirituality among Course in Miracles students, arguing that it is basic to the Course as written, though not as practiced. I have finally concluded that the beginning premise of the contemporary spiritual search is that it’s about me and my inner peace, so that when you tell people that helping, serving, and joining with others is central to the path, something deep inside them says, “This isn’t what I signed up for.”

    As for Wilber, I am not a devotee, but I do have a measured respect for his writings. And he has been moving more and more in this direction, with his focus on relationships, the “we,” shadow work, what he calls second-person God (God as Other), and Boomeritis (a culture-wide disease of narcissism or “no one tells me what to do”). I personally don’t feel he has gone far enough in the relational direction, but he has still gone quite far, and that doesn’t seem reflected in the Lahood excerpt.

  2. AvatarGary

    What was written by Robert Perry is very misleading.
    There is no way that something like A Course in Miracles can be turned into something other than narcissistic.
    The Course is quite clear. There is a workbook of narcissistic exersises that go with the course.
    Each and every one of the exercises contain the word “I”, “Me”, or “My”.
    It starts off as briefly nihilistic. This table does not mean anything to me.
    This chair does not mean anything to me… on and on.
    And then to the narcissism.
    I am the light of the world. I am one Self, united with my Creator.
    I am not an illusion, but a reality. Only God is real.
    The above statements taken together say in no uncertain terms,
    I am God, I am the only one thing that actually exists, Everything else in the entire universe (including you) is an illusion to be ignored.
    Nothing in the world you could write or think or feel could be more narcissistic than that.
    As a matter of fact it goes beyond narcissism into schizotypal.
    The course even claims to be non-dualistic but non-dualism in the course means “I” am the only one real thing.
    The entire universe constitutes a non-dualistic unity of the only one ME !
    The whole thing is the height of existential dysfunctionality and mental brokenness.

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