Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Is Your 'Spiritual, not Religious' Orthodox?

This piece was originally drafted January 2012, in the midst of reviewing my spiritual beliefs.

I don't believe in magic
I don't believe in I-Ching
I don't believe in Bible
I don't believe in tarot
I don't believe in Hitler
I don't believe in Jesus
I don't believe in Kennedy
I don't believe in Buddha
I don't believe in mantra
I don't believe in Gita
I don't believe in yoga
I don't believe in kings
I don't believe in Elvis
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that's reality

    John Lennon, 1970

‘You can’t afford a negative thought.’  ‘All gossip is bad.’  ‘You can control conditions.’  ‘Prosperity is your divine right.’ ‘If you can dream it, you can achieve it.’  Great slogans,  motivational but beware may lead to magical thinking.  These and many other nostrums have been sold to millions by spiritual teachers and self-help authors for over a century.  One of the earliest of these platitudes was James Allen's 'As a Man Thinketh' (1902).  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, desperate times attracted thousands to Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rick In recent years we have seen The Secret Rhonda Byrne and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay.

Millions of dollars are made (oops ‘circulated’) by promising that you can have anything you want.   Adherents of these teachings are often refugees from religions that seemed stifling with dogmas such as good people get 'pie in the sky by and by' and bad people suffer weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth down below.  Some promulgators of this New Age culture also promise ‘pie,’ but this pie you can eat right here on earth.  Pretty seductive allure.  But I think we are better served to live authentically right here and now with all of its glory and the muck and the mire.

In my case, I sipped the Kool Aid of the New Age but didn't down a whole pitcherOn the surface my life was quite mainstream: I pursued a professional career for almost thirty years, purchased my home with a mortgage, and paid for everything in cash--pragmatic.  Concurrently,  for the past thirty plus years I was a 'fellow traveler.'  As a dedicated acolyte of the cutting age of the Age of Aquarius, I found a spiritual home, positive lifestyle, and a sense of community.  I lived in both worlds.  You could say I rendered unto Caesar that which was of Caesar and that which was of god, spirit.

How did I find this path?  As a former Catholic and recovering Berkeley Marxist, my faith and hope was dim in my twenties.  In a period of deep depression after a romantic break-up, I attended a transformational seminar.  The rest is history, and I joined the New Age with its amalgam of Eastern mysticism and Western psychology, a natural fit for someone coming out of the hippie/ radical movement of the sixties.  It became my organizing principle:  personal and spiritual growth. In this world I gained many deep friendships, personal insights, practical skills, and a lot of fun.   But I can see when the emperor wears no clothes.  

New age culture is usually based on ancient spiritual traditions that have proven the test of time.  Sacred texts act as metaphorical teachings that are often applied to modern situations.  For some it is a half way house between traditional religion and atheism.  Well and good, but just as in traditional religion you'll find the orthodox:  They follow the latest fad and science and logic be damned, whether it be alkaline water or acai berry. The latest fads that cure everything that ails you.  Evidence?  Who needs science when you have anecdotal testimonial by a channeler? Too often modern day snake oils that promise the world.

Even Carl Jung, arguably the greatest psychiatrist of the 20th century and on whose groundbreaking work many New Age theories are based, admitted that he was only modestly successful with clients two thirds of the time.  He was not one to make grandiose and sweeping claims.  Popular New Age author, Don Miguel Ruiz (author of The Four Agreements and other very popular spiritual/ self-help books) argues for careful analysis in his new book,The Fifth Agreement: Be Skeptical but Learn to Listen.

The past few years have seen an explosion in popularity of these new/ old ideas (The Power of Now, Eat, Pray, Love).  Helpful and valuable but like dessert, not enough for a healthy life.  I am not saying that ‘positive’ thinking is bad or useless.  It is indeed better to affirm, to expect the best, and to dream of a prosperous life (see Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness).  Even Seligman, who is the founder of positive psychology, has modified his views to include a range of attitudes--not just positive thinking.   Unfortunately, literal New Agism, like any fundamentalism can seduce the vulnerable into a fantasy world where thinking, praying, and hoping is all it takes to have whatever you want.  

I have known hundreds of 'seekers' of this counter-culture orthodoxy and many are sincerely seeking hope as I was:  ‘If you can dream it, you can achieve it.’ But those wise philosophers the Rolling Stones wrote back in 1969, ‘you don’t always get what you want, you get what you need.’    Maturity has taught me to accept my life and the conditions of it and at the same time work for the things inner and outer that are important to me.  And knowing that, I won't get everything I want.  That is how it works here on planet earth.   

For a long time I had a smug self-righteousness--'I am special because I am in this vanguard of 'consciousness.'  Now, no longer an evangelist for the new age, I am skeptical and curious, even of  'science.' As my close friend, the Ravendove says "Facts are changeable." In my earlier pieces, I was a promulgator of these meatless notions but now looking in the mirror with bare honesty and after too much denial, magical thinking, and disappointment, I see things differently--no more flabby thinking.  I subject what I have gleaned from the new age to the scrutiny of critical thinking.  Does it make sense?  Is it useful?  What is the evidence?  What does my gut say?  Only then I act and pay attention to my experience
Sometimes the result looks and feels like heaven OR hell but it is usually in between.  The old saying rings true, keep it real or another way of putting it--be mindful.

POST-SCRIPT:  I attended the recent GATE (Global Association for Transformational Entertainment) #3 in Beverly Hills.  The tribe of sincere aspirants for a kinder and healthier world was out in force.  We could certainly do more to make a better world.  Admirable, they have a vision.  In Jamaica night dreams are called visions, we all dream.  I deeply support the vision of GATE and the hard work and love that propels it.  As is often said, 'keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground.'  We can get there one step at a time with our hearts and heads working together.

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