Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dying of New Age

Do Not Vaccinate Your Child
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.


  1. From that post you linked to:

    "And once we no longer require the ground to create our false sense of security, it is then, that we begin to feel that we can effortlessly float through the challenges that arise in life…. And oh, how lovely a feeling that is."

    Sounds like a good drug or psychological disassociation. I'm not trying to pick on this woman particularly but this typifies the woo approach. Perhaps she could read a little of Chogyam Trungpa about "basic ground". Without the feet on the ground we have our head in the clouds. The Buddha "touched the earth" for a reason.

    Floating through life without a care in the world strikes me as the epitome of delusion. There is no engagement with reality, either personal or social if one wants to "escape" suffering by putting a big cushion of nonsense between one's self and reality.

    I lament the New Age approach since so many people spend so many years going from angels, indigo children, high-priced, hyped-up seminars to fluffy "chicken soup for the soul" self-help books and wonky gurus and they are essentially back where they started only a little more bitter and a lot less likely to attempt something like a Buddhist path which would actually be of some benefit.

  2. Interesting and informative stuff, as always.
    I certainly am no expert on New Age, nor have I known too many people devoted to it, but I've always seen it (other than as a way to make money off the more credulous among us) not as a philosophy or a religion but as a modern day big bag of superstition.

    It also seems to be a bit about nonconformity, for those who want to rebel at least a little in a soft way, but who aren't ready to file their teeth into points and get tatooed as lizards.The fact that it seems to attract the harmless and well-meaning is unfortunate. It reminds me of how a lot of perfectly nice and totally vulnerable people got into drugs because they were told it would 'expand their minds."

    I can see how it would be very irritating to have it egregiously mixed into and conflated with a serious study of Buddhism, or indeed any mental discipline or religion.

  3. I have to say as a long time practitioner of alternative medicines, including acupuncture, herbalism, ayurveda, and yes, sometimes homeopathy, I'm a little irritated that you include holistic medicine practices in the same category as stuff like "aura healing" and "crystal healing." Modern, Western allopathic medicine has it's pluses, but I'd completely disagree with any assertion that the only way to treat illness is by going to the doctor and using pharmaceuticals. Maybe cancer requires a doctor's care, but my experience and that of millions of people throughout the world - today and historically - is that many illnesses, from common coughs to chronic fatigue syndrome, have responded much better using alternative forms of medicine.

    I understand your distaste for the fluffiness of New Age approaches; I share that to some extent. You might want to consider though that some of the things that get mixed in with New Age philosophy aren't, in and of themselves, fluffy garbage.

  4. Nathan, that was sort of my point -- that the things that New Age blends into a fluffy mess full of shit don't start out as shit. That's why I get so annoyed at it -- it takes something that's worth something, and turns it into worthless superstition.

    As to allopathic versus alternative medicine, that would be worth a whole another blog post. Suffice it to say that I do think that modern society is way over-medicalized, and a lot of stuff that people get pills for (mood "disorders," pain, fatigue, various lifestyle diseases etc.) would be better treated in other ways, or, even better, prevented from arising at all. Stuff like acupuncture, ayurveda, or herbalism can be highly useful for this purpose. But, then again, so is advice given by allopathic medicine, if people would only follow it -- you know, eat a balanced diet, get some exercise, find ways to deal with stress, balance out your work and social life, that sort of thing.

    Anyway, I only have a problem with alternative medicine if it turns people away from allopathic medicine in cases where it really is indispensable -- such as vaccinations, bacterial infections, or cancer.

  5. That makes sense, thanks for the clarification.

  6. You know what offends me about people (not really, my life is so not that easy)? When they try to set themselves apart from a bunch of gullible and clueless neurotics for no reason, instead of humbly and diligently pursuing their Buddhist endeavours.

    Not that I'm prepaired to cast the first stone. I used to explain to anybody that would listen how Tai Chi Chuan wasn't a thing for pansies but actually a powerful martial art. Although that was for a good reason: I didn't want my beer buddies to think I was gay.

    Is it possible that those pussies that pretend to look for enlightment make us mad because they make us aware of a maladjustment we would prefer not to ackowledge? Or is it because deep inside we fear that our chosen magic rituals may be as hopeless and ridiculous as theirs? Just saying.

    Disclaimer: I'm not crticizin Zen or anything. We all know that rosiness in countries ofBuddhist traditions is several orders of magnitude higher than in the West.

    P.S. Allopahtic medicine as opposed to irrationality. That was a good one.

  7. It's possible, of course. I'd never do such a damn-fool thing, naturally.

    (BTW, you might want to re-read the article and try to discern my intent this time, instead of just projecting what you like to think on it. Just sayin...)

  8. Oh boy, if only I could do that!

  9. Perhaps you could try treating it as practice? Surely the aspiration to see things as they are, rather than as they appear to be through the distortions introduced by your ego, is a part of your practice?

  10. Thanks for the tip but aspiration and intent (even false ones) require a fatter, I mean stronger, ego than mine.

    Not doing things is more suited for me. For instance, not minding when people I don't like try to associate themselves with stuff I respect. Final score: not minding 2 - Dislike (and respect) 0.

  11. With all due respect, Anon, if you think that you've transcended your ego so far as to be beyond aspiration and intent, I believe you're far more deeply deluded than, for example, little ol' me.

  12. I don't think you have much to gain comparing yoursel to anonymous posters on the internet or to proverbial new agers.

    My point about intent was really a reminder that struggling (for truth, virtue) might be counterproductive, which sounds logical (when acting on intent isn't one really working out his ego?), but I'm sure you already know that.

    Oh and BTW, you might want to re-read reply and try to discern my intent this time, instead of just projecting what you like to think on it.

    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

  13. Ah, but I didn't make the comparison for my benefit. I made it for yours.

    (Also, I tried. And failed. But then, that's what practice is all about, isn't it?)

  14. What can I say? I thank you for your gift in the same spirit you made it.

    It wasn't really necessary, though. I benefit the same or more when you're not trying.

  15. As always, I'm happy to be of service. :bows:

    Still, don't you think that it might be more helpful to thank me without any attachment to the spirit in which I made the gift?

    For example, it'd be a shame if you imagined that I was less than sincere in making that gift, and therefore you were less than sincere in thanking me for it, wouldn't it? Lots of unnecessary akusala karma all around?

  16. But, myself being far more deeply deluded than you, as we agreed a couple of comments ago, wouldn't it be pretentious on my part to claim that my reply bore no attachments?

    You don't deserve that (except when it comes to the reasons for your disliking new age, of course).

  17. Has that ever stopped you before?

  18. I take the fact that you have to ask as a compliment.

  19. Take it as you like. It was intended as an expression of frustration. I'm getting frankly tired of your covert-aggressive sniping. You're not being anywhere near as clever, original, or interesting (let alone egoless, non-striving, non-aspiring, non-judgmental, nor non-offended) as you appear to think, and, frankly, I would prefer that you took it somewhere else.

    I'm certainly done with this conversation.

  20. Good to see this piece and it does need saying. The New Age movement is a perversion of genuine spiritual practice, not an expansion of it.