Sunday, April 17, 2011

Definitely Maybe

Mitch Horowitz:

For all of its inroads into mainstream life, New Age became a term (and sometimes an epithet) that for many serious people connoted nothing more than a softheaded jumble of spiritual-therapeutic remedies or bromides. But the New Age did, in fact, have a core set of beliefs and a definable point of view. Most people, thought schools, or movements identified as New Age from the 1970s through the early twenty-first century shared these traits:

  1. Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas
  2. Belief in a mind-body connection in health
  3. Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages
  4. Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality
  5. Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine

Most twenty-first century Americans, whatever their background, would probably agree with a majority of those statements.

Well, let's see how I do:

1. Meh. I'm sure a lot of spiritual or religious ideas are comforting and reassuring, especially those that reinforce core features of our identity, the ones we don't like to question. On the other hand, Catholicism, to name the most obvious example. Assuming you're not forced to spend a lifetime in therapy to recover from being raped by a priest, you're still going to have all that infamous guilt to work through. And on the other other hand, I see intelligent people put themselves through unnecessary anguish over the state of their soul and the purpose of their life, straining their third eye to try to perceive supposedly hidden clues to the Meaning Of It All behind the presumed façade of empirical reality. And that doesn't even touch on whether believing in manifestly false ideas can be said to be truly good for you in the long run (assuming, of course, that at least some metaphysical ideas are indeed false), regardless of whether they make you temporarily happy or not. Is ignorance truly bliss, then?

2. Given that the mind is part of the body; more specifically, the brain, then yes, obviously. The problem comes when you're asked to rigorously define "connection".

3. No. And what does "higher" mean anyway? Better? In what way? I have a terrible suspicion that a lot of people think there can and should be an ideal world in which nothing "bad" or "negative" ever happens, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how necessary those things are in order for there to be anything "good" or "positive". I don't need to elaborate here, since Alan Watts wrote many fine books about this concept before I even existed. Check them out.

4. Thoughts can determine how effectively you act upon and react to reality, but there is still something going on out there independent of your ego that you simply do not control with the power of your thoughts, no matter how much of a market there is for books telling you otherwise.

5. First, we would have to agree that there is such a thing as "spiritual understanding", rather than just metaphysical nonsense, so once again, let's define our terms. Even if we can't, though, I can certainly agree that ordinary individuals are perfectly capable of coming up with their own nonsense without having to be instructed in the proper methods by any supposed authorities.