Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Do Not Vaccinate Your Child, Helsinki, 2009
My gym teacher almost died of New Age.
I was in high school. I'd never been much good at gym class at school, mostly because I believed I was the clumsy, nerdy kid who isn't good at gym class. In retrospect, that doesn't make all that much sense, considering that I biked to school on most days, which was about 9 kilometers either way, and since I was (still am) chronically late, I usually cycled really fast in the morning. However, even though I was in pretty good shape, I was no good at running after a ball, and consequently hated gym class and got lousy marks in it.
Until high school. That teacher was different. His approach was to figure out what each of us liked to do for sport, and then encouraged them to do that. Thanks to him, I found my way to aikido, and stuck with that for a few years. My marks went up, too, not to mention my body image and physical self-confidence.
He was into New Age big time. He followed a macrobiotic diet, went on about how the Atlanteans, who were really astronauts, built the pyramids in Egypt and Central America, how you can bend spoons with your mind if you try hard enough, and all that kind of stuff. That was harmless and a bit endearing, until he got a strep throat and refused to take antibiotics because he figured that homeopathy and holistic medicine would do the job better. The pustules in his throat grew so big he couldn't breathe properly anymore, and someone finally dragged him to the hospital. The doctors had to lance and curette the pustules out, and then put him on IV antibiotics.
This isn't why I have such an intense dislike of New Age. I had that before. Perhaps it sealed the deal, though.
While I am some sort of rationalist, I don't make a religion of it. We humans are, generally, pretty irrational. We waste our time doing stuff we know doesn't make much sense – smoking, drinking, eating too much, playing video games, blogging, getting into arguments about semantics on the Internet, collecting comic books, that sort of thing. Personally, I try to keep my irrationality to areas where it does as little harm as possible, to myself and others, but I don't pretend to be rational except in some limited areas of my life. I'm not particularly offended by irrationality, whether it's of the religious or secular variety.
I am offended by harmful irrationality, though. The kind that hurts people. And New Age irrationality is a very serious offender.
New Age fosters a particular kind of woolly-headedness: the kind that makes for a fertile ground from which exploitative gurus sprout up like poison ivy; the kind that makes people withhold vaccines from their children, treat cancer with energy healing, or (nearly) get themselves killed from a simple bacterial infection that's routinely treated every day in every polyclinic on the planet with a cheap life-saving drug that's been available for half a century.
It's also intellectually a horrible mess.
Many oriental philosophies are coherent, practical, and often useful. They have conceptual frameworks that make a great deal of sense in the contexts in which they're used. For example, the stuff related to yoga has concepts like the chakras, prana, kundalini, meridians, and what have you. My mother is a physician and yoga instructor, as well as being congenitally allergic to anything smacking of woo, and she says that you can experience the chakras and stuff related to them – like colors – if you're doing yoga, and you can actually make use of them in some ways that go completely over my head. I believe her. And I can't stop wondering how she copes with all the chinking crystals and whispering angels endemic to yoga circles.
What I don't like is when some jackass takes all this out of context, parrots it to an adoring audience, and then starts directing the flows of kundalini energy between the chakras of his followers to rid them of their delusions, transmit shaktipat, and solve all of their personal, interpersonal, health, and spiritual problems forevermore, throwing in a bit of palmistry, crystals, The Secret, and Tibetan astrology into the bargain. Om tantra rama rama om. That irritates me just about exactly as much as when some other jackass starts jabbering about quantum shifts and the wave-particle duality and etheric vortices to prove the existence of poltergeists, or something. In each case, you have somebody who really has no fucking clue what they're talking about, but just lifts a bunch of fancy words and disconnected concepts, and then blends it into a fluffy mess that smells like incense and patchouli but is actually pure unadulterated shit. It's not spirituality, it's not religion, it's not even art, and it's a hell of a long way from science.
In our neck of the woods, Buddhism is right bang in the middle of it all, and I hate that.
The relentlessly cheerful and all-around good egg Markus "Uku" Laitinen, who is also the instructor and founder of Dogen Sangha Finland and as such an emerging public face of Zen around here, just did an interview (PDF) for Voi Hyvin, a New Age-ish lifestyle magazine. (Voi Hyvin is by no means the worst offender. Still, the headline articles in the latest issue include "Energy from Crystals," "Grandma's 54 Pieces of Life Wisdom," "Get to Know Macrobiotic Food," and "Clairvoyant Niina-Matti Juhola: Nobody Walks Alone.")
I read the interview. It was pretty good.
My problem is that the association between Buddhism in the West and New Age is very strong. Buddhist books are published by New Age publishers and sold at New Age bookstores. New Age mags publish articles by and about Buddhists and Buddhism. I've been asked if what I do is New Age, and I've had to explain that yes, we do burn incense and meditate, but no, we don't tinkle any crystals, we don't play mood music, nor do we compliment each other's auras, do energy healing, nor commune with ancestral spirits. While I had been interested in Buddhism for years – at least since I first encountered it "in the flesh" as it were, in Nepal in 1987 – I never even bothered checking out the Buddhist groups here, because I was so certain they'd have nothing to do with the real deal that I had seen. In fact, the first Buddhist group I did check out was pretty much that – lots of fluffy talk about everybody being your kind mother and all your problems disappearing, a gently hummed prayer to Shakyamuni Buddha (to New Age mood music), and "meditation" where we sat very very quietly as the instructor repeated the salient points of his dharma talk in what was intended to be a hypnotic monotone, not to mention that he was constantly singing the praises of his guru. Yuck.
By some miracle, I didn't stop there, and eventually discovered people such as Uku who hadn't checked their brains at the door.
Buddhism is not New Age. It's about as Old Age as the Old Testament. It's also a demanding, rigorous, and coherent system of thought, ritual, and practice. It's gotten that way through a couple of thousand years of progressive, gradual, evolutionary change, as it's adapted to new cultures and circumstances and slowly incorporated innovations from them. I hate it when New Agers appropriate its words and mangle its concepts and repackage it as something that looks superficially the same but really isn't. It's even more annoying if it's presented in a Buddhist context, as Buddhism.
That's why I get annoyed at folks like Ken Wilber and Genpo Roshi who inject New Age pop philosophy from a dumbed down Carl Jung or an already dumb Eckhart Tolle into it, trademark it, and market it to gullible buyers. If somebody shits in the pool, I don't want to swim in it, even if there's only a little shit in it.
Idealism? Perhaps. In the short time I've practiced Zen, I've found it much tougher and more demanding than I could ever have expected, but also much more meaningful and rewarding. I think it has a great deal to offer to a great many people – but not as New Age Dharma-Burgers. That's why I'd be a great deal more impressed if Uku scored an interview with Tekniikan Maailma the next time around.
And given a choice, I'd much rather die of old age than New Age.