New Age describes a broad movement in Western culture characterised by an individual eclectic approach to spiritual exploration. Rather than follow an organised religion its members construct their own spiritual journey based on material taken as needed from the mystical traditions of all the worlds religions as well as shamanism, neopaganism and occultism. The name also refers to the market segment in which goods and services are sold to people in the movement.
This movement is particularly concerned with the unity of mind, body and spirit. Its members may dip into many diverse teachings and practises, some main stream and some fringe and formulate their own beliefs and practices based on their experiences in each. No clear membership or rigid boundaries actually exist. The movement is most visible where its ideas are traded, in specialist bookshops, music stores and fairs.
The New Age movement has some attributes of a new, emerging religion but is currently a loose network of spiritual seekers, teachers, healers and other participants.
The name New Age originated in 1960s counterculture. It was popularized by the American mass media during the late 1980s, to describe the alternative spiritual subculture interested in such things as meditation, channeling, reincarnation, crystals, psychic experience, holistic health, environmentalism, and various “unsolved mysteries” such as UFOs, Earth mysteries and Crop circles. Typical activities of this subculture include participation in study or meditation groups, attendance at lectures and fairs; the purchase of books, music, and other products such as crystals or incense; patronage of fortune-tellers, healers and spiritual counselors.
Judging by its name, the New Age movement ought to involve millenarian claims, perhaps of a glorious future age which is about to begin. As such it could theoretically be traced back to the time of Zoroaster, or to biblical apocalypticism. While such expectations are encountered often enough—e.g., the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, pole shifts and paradigm shifts, the imminent end of the Mayan calendar—the predominant themes of the New Age are mystical rather than apocalyptic. Hence the widespread interest within this subculture in the mystical traditions within the world’s various religions, especially Vedanta, yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Sufism, Taoism, shamanism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and mystical forms of Christianity.
While the term New Age covers a large number of beliefs and practices, certain modes of thought are fairly commonly held:
- The primacy of subjective experience. In keeping with its roots as a counter-cultural phenomenon and its syncretic nature, New Age adherents tend to emphasize a relativist approach to truth, often referring to the Vedic statement of "one truth, but many paths," the mainstay of Hinduism, which idea is also found in the later Zen Buddhist spiritual dictum of "many paths, one mountain". This belief is not only an assertion of personal choice in spiritual matters, but also an assertion that truth itself is defined by the individual and his or her experience of it.
- This relativism is not merely a spiritual relativism, but also extends to physical theories. Reality is considered largely from an experiential and subjective mode. Many New Age phenomena are not expected to be repeatable in the scientific sense, since they are presumed to be apparent only to the receptive mind; for example, telepathy may not be achievable by a skeptical mind, since a skeptical mind is not pre-conditioned to expect the phenomenon to exist.
- Rejection of scientific physics. There is typically a mysticism-based (rather than experiment-and-theory-based) view of describing and controlling the external world; for example, one might believe that tarot card reading works because of the "interconnectedness principle", rather than regarding the success (or failure) of tarot card reading as evidence of the interconnectedness principle. The various New Age vitalist theories of health and disease provide further examples.
In contrast to the scientific method, the failure of some practice to achieve expected results is not considered as a failure of the underlying theory, but as a lack of knowledge about (hidden) extenuating circumstances. This stance has led some skeptics to pronounce the New Age movement to be primarily anti-intellectual in nature.
The emphasis on subjective knowledge and experience is a connection between New Age beliefs and postmodernism.
The shift to a feeling of control over one's expression of spirituality reflects a trend towards personal responsibility, as well as personal empowerment.
The New Age subculture already existed in the 1970s, and arguably continued themes from the 1960s counterculture. Earlier generations would have recognized some, but not all, of the New Age's constituent elements under the practices of Spiritualism, Theosophy, or some forms of New Thought / the Metaphysical movement, all of which date back to the nineteenth century, as does alternative health. These movements in turn have roots in Transcendentalism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, and various earlier Western esoteric or occult traditions, such as the Hermetic arts of astrology, magic, alchemy, and cabbala.
In the English-speaking world, we should make special mention of study groups devoted to American trance-diagnostician Edgar Cayce, who inspired many of todays channelers. The British neo Theosophist Alice Bailey's writings may have supplied the term New Age (or New Era). The Findhorn Foundation, an early intentional New Age community in northern Scotland founded in 1962 played a significanr role. The movement in Russia has been heavily influenced by the legacy of Nicholas Roerich and Helena Roerich, who taught in the Theosophical tradition. Another former Theosophist, Rudolf Steiner, is a major influence, especially upon German-speaking New Agers. In Brazil, followers of Spiritualist writer Allan Kardec blend with the Africanized folk traditions of Candomblé and Umbanda.
Key moments in raising public awareness of this subculture include the Harmonic Convergence organized by Jose Arguelles in Sedona, Arizona in 1987; and the wave of interest in the broadcast of Shirley MacLaine's television mini-series Out on a Limb (also 1987). This was an autobiographical account of her mid-life spiritual exploration. Also influential are the claims of channelers such as Jane Roberts (Seth) and J.Z. Knight (Ramtha), as well as revealed writings such as A Course In Miracles (Helen Shucman ), The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield), Mutant Message Down Under (Marlo Morgan ), and Conversations With God (Neale Donald Walsch).
The question of which contemporary cultural elements ought to be included under the name of "New Age" is quite vexed. New Age channelers have many points of similarity with Spiritualist mediums. Many spiritual movements, such as neo-paganism and transpersonal psychology partially overlap with it. Many groups prefer to distance themselves from the possible negative connotations of the "New Age" name such as the media hoopla, commercialism, and perhaps hucksterism. For example, key individuals in the New Thought movement, such as Ernest Holmes, have focused on a more scientific approach and do not share New Age beliefs in reincarnation, magic, or channeling. The New Age is a wide menu of ideas and activities, from which participants in the subculture select their own preferred streams to patronise or identify with.
The following are some common — though by no means universal — beliefs found among New Agers:
- All humanity—indeed all life, everything in the universe—is spiritually interconnected, participating in the same energy. “God” is one name for this energy.
- Spiritual beings (e.g. angels, ascended masters, elements, ghosts, and/or space aliens) exist, and will guide us, if we open ourselves to their guidance.
- The human mind has deep levels and vast powers, which are capable even of overriding physical reality. “The individual creates his or her own reality.”
- Nevertheless, this is subject to certain spiritual laws, such as the principle of cause and effect (karma).
- The individual has a purpose here on earth, in the present surroundings, because there is a lesson to learn. The most important lesson is love.
- Death is not the end. There is only life in different forms. What some refer to as an afterlife does not punish us but teaches us, perhaps through the mechanisms of reincarnation or near-death experiences.
- Science and spirituality are ultimately harmonious. New discoveries in science (evolution, ESP, quantum mechanics), rightly understood, point to spiritual principles.
- It shares with many major world religions the idea that Intuition or "divine guidance" is a more appropriate guide than rationalism, skepticism, or the scientific method. Western science wrongly neglects such things as parapsychology, meditation, and holistic health.
- There exists a mystical core within all religions, Eastern and Western. Dogma and religious identity are not so important.
- The Bible is a wise and holy book. Many important truths are not found in the Bible, or are referred to only very obliquely.
- Feminine forms of spirituality, including feminine images of the divine, are viewed as having been subordinated, masked, or obliterated by patriarchal movements that were widely practiced when sacred teachings were first committed to writing. A renaissance of the feminine is particularly appropriate at this time.
- Ancient civilizations such as Atlantis may truly have existed, leaving behind certain relics and monuments (the Great Pyramid, Stonehenge) whose true nature has not been discovered by mainstream historians.
- There are no coincidences. Everything around you has spiritual meaning, and spiritual lessons to teach you. You are meant to be here, and are always exactly where you need to be to learn from what confronts you.
- The mind has hidden powers and abilities, which have a spiritual significance. Dreams and psychic experiences are ways in which our souls express themselves.
Though many New Age terms are associated with Eastern religions, they should not be considered as being identical with the concepts and practices of those religions. Ancient traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism can hardly be referred to as New Age religions,it just so happens that the New Age movement has 'adopted' many of the ideas of eastern religions and incorporated them into their own beliefs and practices.
Its populist origins help characterize the New Age approach. This emphasizes an individual's choice in spiritual matters; the role of personal intuition and experience over societally sanctioned expert opinion and an experiential definition of reality.
In addition, some New Age practices and beliefs could make use of what British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer termed magical thinking, in The Golden Bough(1890). Common examples are the principle that objects once in contact maintain a practical link, or that objects that have similar properties exert an effect on each other. Some also consider magic in sacred texts, such as the Bible, to be actual rather than allegorical or metaphorical. Walking on water, turning water into wine, parting of water, a staff turning into a snake, or a spontaneously combusting bush may be taken literally by some New Age practitioners, as they would by some fundamental Christians.
Globalisation was and still is an important social phenomenon of the 20th and early 21st centuries, with religious syncretism inevitably being one consequence. New Age religious developments are eclectic, hence multifarious. Some synthesize Christian ideas with beliefs involving many gods or goddesses, pantheism, include aliens, reincarnation, even the use of drugs, together with other spiritual beliefs from different parts of the world. Likewise, the movement may incorporate differing beliefs about, or attempts to practice, magic.
However, in keeping with its relativist stance, New Agers believe they do not contradict traditional belief systems, but rather some of them say that they are concerned with the ultimate truths contained within those systems, separating these truths from false tradition and dogma. On the other hand, adherents of other religions often claim that the New Age movement has a vague or superficial understanding of these religious concepts, leaving out that which may not seem "negative" or contradict contemporary Western values and that New Age attempts at religious syncretism are vague and self-contradictory. Some people within the New Age movement claim a particular interest in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and Taoism — however eclectic or in-depth such an interest may be depends arbitrarily upon each individual's pursuit and focus.
The gnostic approach of experiential insight and revelation of truth may be closest to the New Age methodology of prayers and spirituality.
Many adherents of belief systems characterised as New Age rely heavily on the use of metaphors to describe experiences deemed to be beyond the empirical. Consciously or unconsciously, New Agers tend to redefine vocabulary borrowed from various belief systems, which can cause some confusion as well as increase opposition from skeptics and the traditional religions. In particular, the adoption of terms from the language of science such as "energy", "energy fields", and various terms borrowed from quantum physics and psychology but not then applied to any of their subject matter, have served to confuse the dialog between science and spirituality, leading to derisive labels such as pseudoscience and psycho-babble.
This phenomenon is additionally compounded by the propensity of some New Agers to pretend to esoteric meanings for familiar terms; the New Age meaning of the esoteric term is typically quite different from the common use, and is often described as intentionally inaccessible to those not sufficiently trained in the area of their use. See the following list:-
- Forces. It is commonly held that there exist certain forces, independent of spiritual beings or agencies, and also distinct from forces as defined by science (e.g., gravitation, electro-magnetism, etc.). These forces are elemental in nature; and are held to operate in an automatic fashion as part of the natural order (for example, the force which causes seeds to sprout, grow, and bloom).
- Power. The "forces", and everything else, are energized by a mystical power that exists in varying degrees in all things. Power is transferable, through physical contact, sensory perception, or mere proximity. Power may be accumulated or depleted in a person or object through a variety of mechanisms, including fate and esoteric practices. This power is held to be physically observable as "auras" and "psi energy"; and when encountered in great concentration, may even be dangerous.
- Energy. In some belief systems, "forces" and "power" may seem to merge; e.g., in the concept of "vital force" that exists in so many traditional belief systems, and finds its expression in New Age concepts such as the alleged "energies" in Therapeutic Touch and Reiki, and ideas of flowing streams of power in Earth, like "leylines" in Britain and Europe and earth energies addressed in the Chinese geomantic system of feng shui. The New Age use of the word "energy" should obviously not be confused with the scientific one.
- Spirit. All beings (particularly sentient beings) are accompanied by a specific, intentional "energy" which corresponds to their consciousness, but is in some way independent of their corporeal existence. This energy typically is more primary than the physical entity, in the sense that it remains in some form after the physical death of that being.
- Holism. A coherent, interconnected cosmos. Everything in the cosmos is actually or potentially interconnected, as if by invisible threads, not only in space but also across time. Further, it is held that every thing and every event that has happened, is happening, or will happen leaves a detectable record of itself in the cosmic "medium" such as the Akashic Records or the morphogenic field.
- Cosmic goal. There is typically a belief that all entities are (willingly or unwillingly) cooperating in some cosmic goal of achieving a "higher" or more complete coherence with a cosmic "consciousness" (or some other goal state of "goodness"), often described as an evolutionary process or simply to learn. This underlying cosmic goal gives direction to all events, reducing the concept of coincidence to one of ignorance of hidden meaning.
In Experiential Spirituality and Contemporary Gnosis Diane Brandon writes:
- "And this emphasis on spirituality and consciousness reflects an acknowledgment that we are, in essence, spiritual beings - and beings of pure energy, as consciousness is a form of energy - even though we are "in the body."
As Wayne Dyer says,
"We are spiritual beings having a human experience." This is a paraphrase of an idea first developed by Christian theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
As Deepak Chopra says,
- "...our bodies are contained within our consciousness, not our consciousness contained within our bodies."
Critiques of the New Age
Major critiques of the New Age have emerged from evangelical Christians who reject all forms of occultism; from skeptics suspicious of paranormal claims and wooly beliefs in general; and from New Agers themselves. Some, including neo-pagans, who are frequently labeled as New Age, might find the term inappropriate since it appears to link them with beliefs and practices they do not espouse. Others think that the classification of beliefs and movements under New Age has little added value due to the vagueness of the term. Instead, they prefer to refer directly to the individual beliefs and movements. Indeed, use by religious conservatives, scientists and others has caused the term "New Age" to sometimes have a derogatory connotation.
Many adherents of traditional disciplines from cultures such as India, China, and elsewhere; a number of orthodox schools of Yoga, Qigong, Chinese Medicine, and martial arts (the traditional Taijiquan families, for example), groups with histories reaching back many centuries in some cases, eschew the Western label New Age, seeing the movement it represents as either not fully understanding or deliberately trivializing their disciplines.
New Age detractors also say that a true understanding of reason and empiricism produces just as rich an experience as the New Agers claim for themselves, but with emotions and feelings based on thinking and logic instead of the other way around. They also point out that the definition of empiricism is: "the view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge."
Many people with a New Age perspective also adopt Complementary and alternative medicine. Some rely on New Age related treatments exclusively, while others use them in combination with conventional medicine. This is completly compatible with New age belief in the unity of mind body spirit and the emphasis on things natural. Some techniques worthy of mention are herbal medicine, Ayurveda, acupuncture, homeopathy, iridology, auras and the use of crystals in healing therapy.
Some New Age writers have taken the belief that You create your own reality and applied it to disease with the conclusion that illnesses have a metaphysical origin and can be treated by a deep evaluation of long held negative emotional and spiritual attitudes. This has a parallel in the Christian notion that "it is done unto you as you believe." Notably, Louise Hay has published books containing lists of diseases and the associated negative belief, accompanied by the correcting positive belief. A cure may be sought by repeating the correcting positive affirmation. This approach has its origins in Christian Science. It has been criticised as seeming to blame the sufferer for causing the condition. Its supporters claim the intent is to enlighten the individual so that he or she can change the thinking that exacerbates the condition.
Some followers of New Age thought may also believe certain individuals have the ability to heal, in a similar way to the healing practices reported to have been used by Jesus of Nazarath in the New Testament.
It should be noted that, when considered purely as medical techniques, most of these systems of treatment are viewed with extreme skepticism and even as quackery by most scientific professionals. When tested using the same types of regimens as those applied to pharmaceutical drugs and surgical techniques (for example, double blind clinical studies), these systems may not yield demonstrable improvements over standard techniques, and some may even produce harm.
However, one benefit of New Age medicine's popularity, and its criticism of conventional medicine, has been to encourage many medical practitioners to pay closer attention to the entire patient's needs rather than just her or his specific disease San Francisco Medical Library. Such approaches, termed "holistic medicine", are now becoming more popular. Conventional medicine has recognised that a patient's state of mind can be crucial in determining the outcome of many diseases, and this perception has helped recast the roles of doctor and patient as more egalitarian.
Critics of New Age medicine continue to point out that without some kind of testing procedure, there is no way of separating those techniques, medicinal herbs, and lifestyle changes which actually contribute to increased health from those which have no effect, or which are actually deleterious to one's health. The National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, USA, are at 2005 carrying out research on determining which of these practices may be useful in support of conventional medical practice.
See a longer description at the New Age music article
Although more rock than new age in genre the 1967 successful musical Hair with its opening song "Aquarius" and the memorable line "This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius" brought the New Age concept to the attention of a huge world wide audience.
A large percentage of music described as of New Age genre is instrumental, and electronic. Arguably, this music has its roots in the 1970s with the works of such free-form jazz groups recording on the ECM label such as Oregon, the Paul Winter Group, and other pre-ambient bands; as well as ambient performers such as Brian Eno and easy listening artists like Solomon Keal.
Vocal arrangements are also common. Enya, although claiming her music is not of this genre, has won a New Age Grammy for her music which utilizes vocals in a variety of languages, including Latin. Less well known is Medwyn Goodall , who relies mainly on electronic keyboard effects, and includes acoustic guitar as well.
Music labeled New Age often has a vision of a better future, expresses an appreciation of goodness and beauty, even an anticipation, relevant to some event. Rarely does New Age music dwell on a problem with this world or its inhabitants; instead it offers a peaceful vision of a better world. Often the music is celestial, when the title names stars or deep space explorations. Ennio Morricone wrote the entire score for the movie Mission to Mars, and while the credits flash we hear All the Friends, New Age orchestral style.
The titles of New Age music are often illuminating, because the words used by the artists attempt to convey their version of truth, in a few short words. On listening to the music, one may understand the idea within the title. Examples of titles: Bond of Union, Sweet Wilderness, Shepherd Moons, Animus Anima.
The following subjective description of a New Age lifestyle illuminates the sociological dimension of the New Age movement. Note the references to the "inter-connectedness" of all things: "people feeling somehow, mysteriously, they have met before or known each other from a distant time" and an implicit cosmic goal "two people meet and sense there may be a hidden meaning, or reason why". Rather than reliance on social forms such as regular church attendance, New Agers "recognize" each other through their mutual perception of shared values, and the shibboleths of New Age terms and usages:
- New Age lifestyles can be observed anywhere that people meet, congregate, and visit. To an outside observer, the eventful outcome of this meeting differs from other similar meetings she may have seen before, because something changes. Something clicks in people's behavior making them exchange information, most always with everyone getting more out of the event than was individually put into it. This often happens in New Age lifestyles, becoming so common one would think the new age has already left a mark on the mainstream! At one time before the New Age lifestyle silently, without any fanfare, changed western society, the outcome of interaction was: someone wins and the other loses. Although this is an overly simplistic view of social intercourse, it did exist in general, at large. New Age introduced a think tank style of social interaction, which results in a synergy--all involved in a meaningful event are left with more clarity, higher and more focused than before. Again, this is an overly simplisitic view. People may not even believe they are New Agers, though they fit the general pattern.
- A typical conversation may begin in groups or in pairs, where the subject involves insights, deeply held truths, or even revelations, from a known or unknown origin. The result of this interaction may bond the people involved who share similar visions or outlooks. Feelings of déjà vu may occur, with people feeling somehow, mysteriously, they have met before or known each other from a distant time in history.
- Shopping at a store dealing in herbal supplements, two people meet and sense there may be a hidden meaning, or reason why they just happened to be purchasing ginseng tea at that particular moment, in that particular place, at the same time. Rather than overlooking the event, tucking it away as a mere coincidence, they talk, more often about themselves to each other, and interact, a key component of this lifestyle.
- A different viewpoint on New Age
Syncretism, Postmodernism, Karma, Vedas, Spirituality, Synchronicity, Myths, Mysteries, Aquarian Age, Transcendence, Multi-dimensionality
Angels, Dances of Universal Peace, Theosophy, New Thought Movement, Hinduism, Kabbala, Goddess Worship, Shamanism, Spirit guides, Jesus, Kardecist Spiritism, Anthroposophy, A Course In Miracles, Zen, Rosicrucian, The Rosicrucian Fellowship Galactic Federation
- Contemporary new age teachers
Andrew Cohen, Michael Sharp , Benjamin Creme, Barry Long , Da Free John, Ram Dass, Louise L. Hay , Caroline Myss, Marianne Williamson, Leonard Orr, Carlos Castaneda, Rajneesh
Acupuncture, Aromatherapy, Ayurveda, Biorhythms, Brainwaves, Breatharians, Crystals, Reiki, Self-help, Visualization, Iridology, Chakras, Kirlian photography, Pyramid power
Astral projection, Angels, Dakini, Auras, Consciousness, Elementals, Near-death experience, Out-of-body experience, Reincarnation, Soul travel , Past life regression , Double bodies
- Special Abilities
Automatic writing, Charismatics, Clairvoyance, Dreaming, ESP, Levitation, Oracles, Psychic phenomenon, Psychokinesis, Remote viewing, Palmistry, Sorcery, Telepathy, Channeling, Long life
- Geographic Energy Centers
- Systems involved in control, prediction, or description of the physical world
New Age communities
Significant New Age communities exist in the following places:
Arcosanti, Arizona, USA
Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India
Boulder, Colorado, USA
Byron Bay, Australia
Christiania, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Dornach , Switzerland
Esalen at Big Sur, California
Findhorn, near Forres, Scotland
Glastonbury, Somerset, England
- Monte Verità near Ascona, Switzerland
Mount Shasta, California, USA
Sedona, Arizona, USA
Totnes, Devon, England
See also the Global Ecovillage Network article.
New Age belief
New Age critics
New Age academic studies
Last updated: 10-12-2005 19:11:22