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Defining the New Age

by Paul Naras

QUESTION: What do all of the following people have in common?

The Pope, white supremacist groups (including the Ku Klux Klan), certain present and deposed South American dictators, people who blow up abortion clinics, the residents of a polygamous community in Utah, televangelists Robertson, Schuller et al, and a roomful of individuals lying flat on the floor and speaking in tongues.

ANSWER: They all identify themselves as (proper) Christians.

Semanticists, theologians and the third estate have been drafting theses and definitions for almost 2000 years with regard to Christianity - canon and creed. In fact it most probably would have been easier and more feasible to outline what Christianity was not. Similar problems exist concerning any universally acceptable statement of meaning in connection with the term 'New Age'.

So many people and organizations have adopted this watchword that any number of interested observers are already debating whether or not the New Age is simply the latest faddish distraction, a complete red herring or, on the other hand, a countersign of the impending Age of Aquarius. It has certainly become a topic to be lampooned and disdained by the cynical mass media (who usually fail to grasp the totality of the movement and instead choose to caricature one or two aspects of it).

There is agreement that the New Age is not really new. An unprecedented agitation within the collective stream of consciousness is inaugurating divers changes but these sentiments are not unique to our time and place. The most noble New Age aims and philosophical concepts were fathered thousands of years ago and have been re-echoed by discerning thinkers and sages over the centuries. Students of history will tell you that profound societal disgruntlement has periodically produced insurrection against then prevalent scientific, political or spiritual concepts. And today the existing order is being questioned as a significant percentage of the population is bemoaning rampant materialism, consumerism, greed, violence and decay - a status quo that is smoldering on an outmoded worm-eaten paradigm. Once again inflexible institutions (religious and political) seem to be letting everyone down. Once again there is a search for "meaning".

Those people whose daily intake of wisdom is channeled through the talk show circuit have already arrived at certain conclusions about New Agers. They seem to be, for the most part, opportunistic Woodstock fossils in Birkenstocks dabbling in massage therapy, Reiki or biofeedback. Or very ego centered spiritually proud upper middle-class hippies turned yuppies with their own 'on call' craniosacral therapists, trance psychics and past life consultants. These generalizations are partially accurate in that the movement does have its fair share of affluent elitists and apocalyptic groupies superficially sampling a smorgasbord of what appear to be bizarre ideologies and practices. And it is for this very reason that many exponents of the cause refuse to label themselves as New Agers because they do not want to be associated with the more outlandish and 'flakier' aspects of this growing cultural/spiritual phenomenon.

In point of fact psychism and occultism have about as much to do with bona fide New Age philosophy as bra-burning did with the woman's movement. And the Shirley MacLaine of the 1980's was no more the demigoddess of the New Age than Billy Graham is the official spokesperson for organized Christianity. Serious students on the path towards self-realization appreciate the fact that so-called 'enlightenment' cannot be procured over the course of a couple of spiritual fast food weekend study classes. Most of them don't wear twelve pounds of crystals around their necks. And most of them don't outlay hundreds of dollars to channelers because they know that they can imbibe the self-same insight from a variety of fifteen dollar paperbacks. New Age window shopping can certainly lead to dilettantism. We have to accept the fact that there are going to be casualties. Many seekers waken from one unreality only to enfold another. They are constantly moving from one castle in the air to the next.

Living in a society that worships at the altar of 'personality' and 'life style' and devours its gospel via tabloid journalism and the fifteen second sound bite, it is perfectly understandable that the squeakiest wheels have been getting whatever little grease the mass media have been willing to accord them. Quick fix New Age merchants and costly seminar peddlers motivated by their own petty avaricious aims are cashing in on the surging wave of spiritual exploration. No where is this better exemplified than by the sheer number of false prophets (and downright charlatans) masquerading as channelers - all fully capable of conjuring up 3000 year old entities at a moment's notice (spirit guides who will patiently wait until commercial breaks are over before resuming their fearless exhortations).

The obvious hucksters and buffoons with their fortune cookie forecasts who are exploiting people in the name of 'cosmic consciousness' have made it that much easier for the press to trivialize and denigrate everyone affiliated with the New Age movement. But since duplicity and misrepresentation are not hanging offenses, metaphysical imitators will have to be tolerated as long as there are comparison shoppers willing to subsidize the "guru of the month" club. Most human beings are not born equipped with foolproof mystical claptrap detectors. Some people have to learn the hard way that there are no short cuts to self-actualization. And when and if that simon-pure mentor is encountered he or she should then be honoured as a guide and teacher - and not worshipped as a tutelary deity.

So then - exactly what is New Age and what does it encompass? It has certainly nothing to do with clear-cut time frames but it can be seen in an allegorical sense - an awakening to a deeper individual and collective consciousness. We could say that it involves a cumulative spiritual unfoldment of the human race brought about by a genuine transformation of individual realization. It is a human potential movement with a holistic blueprint for living that embodies everything from the sciences, government and education to health, ecology, civil rights, ethics, and personal relationships. And it is much, much more because in attempting to delineate New Age one usually ends up constricting it.

But are not the pages of history books replete with cycles of transition, with fluctuating political/religious climates? Haven't unwieldy and impassive institutions deceived and taken advantage of the rank and file many times before? Yes, and each time someone or something was 'fixed' and society plodded onwards. The question we have to ask ourselves today could very well be - Is the body politic going to be satisfied with a "new and improved" capitalism, with a reformed "50% stronger" Catholicism, with a remolded "guaranteed to last longer" social psychology? Or could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of a five thousand year old power structure? Are we proceeding through the portals of revision or are we on the threshold of total transformation?

Many hold to the latter view and are unshackling themselves from Old Age orthodoxy and conditioning. They are no longer relying on politicians and clerics for guidance. They are looking within for answers instead of hoping for another Messiah to set the world straight. They are investigating, learning, sharing their discernment, knowing full well that the collective mind will forge ahead towards universal harmony once a certain number of individuals reach a comparable level of understanding.

The pedestals upon which society has placed its leaders have never exhibited such obvious signs of corrosion as they do today. Everywhere we look the good earth seems to be littered with the slaughtered corpses of sacred cows.

Today millions of people are meditating. Many report having mystical, out-of-body or near death experiences. Thirty percent of the North American populace believes in reincarnation and countless others are into Yoga, Zen Shiatsu, transformational therapy and so on. The highways are bristling with Porsches driven by prosperous zombies who can't quite put a finger on their intrinsic unhappiness but who do know that the answer does not lie in the orthodox faith in which they were raised.

How are the traditional churches reacting? Many of them (and the fundamentalists in particular) see New Agers as pawns of the devil; as offshoots of secular humanism with the fixed purpose of establishing man as the universal be-all and end-all (instead of what human beings really are - the personal property of God). The apprehension that the clergy are presently experiencing concerning declining attendance in the pews and in their own profession does not seem to have effectuated very much self-examination or, more importantly, the will to adapt. In fact some churches are retreating into a Middle Ages conservatism and absolutely refusing to deal with issues such as sexuality, the role of women, birth control, historical Christian mysticism and spiritual healing. They remain preoccupied with the seven deadly sins, the Second Coming and the recitation of moth-eaten doctrine (which they claim is God-inspired but which was really formulated by monkish old men who have been dead for over 1500 years).

With the number of scandals suffered by traditional Christendom recently (sexual, fiscal and otherwise) it would be natural to assume that the blatant hypocrisy and moral turpitude afflicting many of these servants of God would drive even more people away. But judgmental finger-pointing is not productive. Most New Agers simply no longer believe in the old personification; in the rigid, angry, vindictive God of the Old Testament. They will no longer summarily swallow unpalatable dogma from sectarian pulpits. They do not want credos. They do want a personal knowing. Spirituality is not just a Sunday 'thing' but entails diligent everyday attentiveness (which again explains why so many new consciousness individuals have set up home sanctums where they daily attune with the God of their hearts).

So faith is not extinct. It has simply been remolded. It stems from a person's capacity to acquire knowledge and to then initiate change - and then to be prepared to change again. The importance of assuming accountability for every aspect of one's life has been recognized. And there are just so many issues being deliberated and transfigured. Male-female attributes and roles are being reinterpreted and transformed (witness the higher percentage of women who are more assertive and independent; men who are (slowly) becoming more sensitive and nurturing). People are reevaluating their professional lives and trading in high profile careers for jobs with less money and more personal fulfillment. Many more are volunteering countless hours on behalf of the environment, the homeless, the hungry, peace efforts, substance abuse and other causes too numerous to mention. Most of them realize that existence is a 'whole' and that what they think and do influences everything else. They are all interconnected at every level by their respective perceptions and crusades. Old Age people believe in pluralism, division, separateness and in the perdurability of same.

If there is one myth that has to be consigned to the grave it is that New Agers are self-indulgent navel-gazers fixated on personal soul development and oblivious to everyone and everything around them (mind pictures are quickly formed of the narcissistic nouveau riche stepping over intoxicated bag ladies as they make their way to chakra balancing workouts and prosperity consciousness seminars). New Age is not a spectator sport (although many adherents have not yet realized this). Wisdom must be converted into pragmatic service. Though not mutually exclusive, when it comes to the question of personal evolvement versus duty and communal service the latter should always outrank the former. The ego-bound will ever have a preference for preaching rather than for rolling up their sleeves. There will always be those who choose to subsist in their insular little worlds or experience temple life on some mountain top but the New Age has to be action-oriented lest it become mere lip service. There has to be cooperation, mindfulness and a reverence for the planet. Isolated private growth engenders minimal societal change but people growing collectively can transform the world.

Astrologers tell us that we are in that transitional phase between the Piscean and Aquarian Ages. The symbol of Aquarius is the maiden pouring water (representing wisdom) and we are told that this denotes the rising tide of female energy and influence in this millennium as women reclaim their power and bolster mutual understanding between the sexes. None too soon! But transformation can be a slow process. Certain mores and practices are not easily swept away. Old and new perspectives usually coexist in concert for decades (and sometimes centuries) because many people are intellectually and emotionally harnessed to convention and formality, rigidly holding fast to superannuated notions. Let's imagine a squire hundreds of years ago waking up in his comfortable middle-class bed, fully confident that the earth is still flat, still the center of the universe, and then later that morning being confronted by the news about Copernicus or Galileo. How could these heretics possibly be right? Their views conflict with the theological beliefs of the established Church. The Bible says the earth is flat.

You get nowhere castigating people for their allegiance to tradition.

In essence then, the New Age movement is shapeless and indeterminate. It transcends the purlieus of any particular typification, branch or country. It celebrates diversity of thought and conclusion. It is not an ideology. It will never have a central hierarchy or a Grand Guru because its devotees will be embracing the 'Master Within'. Every sheep will be a shepherd waiting to happen. There will be few (if any) official manifestos or commandments since the bedrock of the New Age will be engineered on personal creativity, accountability and integrity consecrated for the welfare of everyone and determined to transform society at its innermost level - from a mechanistic worldview to a more holistic one. There will be no prototypical man or woman, no stereotypical New Age trekker - and the pilgrimage itself will never come to an end.

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