For all of its inroads into mainstream life, New Age became a term (and sometimes an epithet) that for many serious people connoted nothing more than a softheaded jumble of spiritual-therapeutic remedies or bromides. But the New Age did, in fact, have a core set of beliefs and a definable point of view. Most people, thought schools, or movements identified as New Age from the 1970s through the early twenty-first century shared these traits:
- Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas
- Belief in a mind-body connection in health
- Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages
- Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality
- Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrineMost twenty-first century Americans, whatever their background, would probably agree with a majority of those statements.
De Botton promised his series would be “a ground-breaking experiment”, offering rigorous self-help books that hark back to the days when – in the hands of Epicurus and Seneca – such tomes were highly valued, rather than the much-ridiculed genre of today. “We need self-help books more than ever before,” he said. “In the age of moral and practical confusions, the self-help book is crying out to be redesigned and rehabilitated.”
Is there a sniffy faction within the world of philosophy that takes a dim view of attempts to make the subject more widely accessible?“Oh, I’m absolutely sure of it. But I also think that attitude has moderated considerably over time. Ten to 15 years ago, when I started to try to do this, I’m pretty sure there was a lot of sniffing going on.” He does a bit of his own sniffing, though, a moment later, when I mention the popularity of bestselling writers whom he has described as quasi-philosophers.“Hmm, yes, the [Alain] de Bottons and so on,” Grayling murmurs rather sorrowfully. “He’s a perfectly nice fellow, but it’s not philosophy. It’s cream-puff stuff. What worries me is that someone will go to it thinking, ‘Ooh, this is an opportunity to think and find out something’, and then they find that it’s actually very shallow and doesn’t have deep roots. And I do think that people who do this kind of thing should really have done some work and got engaged in something serious, and then they won’t make too many mistakes when it comes to trying to introduce others to it.”
A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with “self-help,” which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.
It may be the foundation of modern biology, but fewer than 40 percent of Americans say they believe in the theory of evolution. While frustrated scientists sometimes blame religion for this knowledge gap, newly published research suggests the key factor isn’t faith per se but rather a benefit it provides that Darwin does not: A sense that our all-too-short lives have meaning.
The common shoot-from-the-hip explanation—people fear death, and religion makes them believe that it is not the end—is certainly insufficient because the human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear. Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long. Also, inasmuch as some religious thoughts do allay anxiety, our problem is to explain how they become plausible enough that they can play this role. To entertain a comforting fantasy seems simple enough, but to act on it requires that it be taken as more than a fantasy. The experience of comfort alone could not create the necessary level of plausibility.
Reassuring religion, insofar as it exists, is not found in places where life is significantly dangerous or unpleasant; quite the opposite. One of the few religious systems obviously designed to provide a comforting worldview is New Age mysticism. It says that people, all people, have enormous “power”, that all sorts of intellectual and physical feats are within their reach. It claims that we are all connected to mysterious but basically benevolent forces in the universe. Good health can be secured by inner spiritual strength. Human nature is fundamentally good. Most of us lived very interesting lives before this one. Note that these reassuring, ego-boosting notions appeared and spread in one of the most secure and affluent societies in history. People who hold these beliefs are not faced with war, famine, infant mortality, incurable endemic diseases and arbitrary oppression to the same extent as Middle Age Europeans or present-day Third World peasants.
“Yes, yes,” say the proponents of magic, “but there’s still a mystery: how can all this vivid conscious experience be physical, merely and wholly physical?” (I’m assuming, with them, that we’re wholly physical beings.) This, though, is the 400-year-old mistake. In speaking of the “magical mystery show”, Humphrey and many others make a colossal and crucial assumption: the assumption that we know something about the intrinsic nature of matter that gives us reason to think that it’s surprising that it involves consciousness. We don’t. Nor is this news. Locke knew it in 1689, as did Hume in 1739. Philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley was extremely clear about it in the 1770s. So were Eddington, Russell and Whitehead in the 1920s.One thing we do know about matter is that when you put some very common-or-garden elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, etc) together in the way in which they’re put together in brains, you get consciousness like ours – a wholly physical phenomenon. (It’s happening to you right now.) And this means that we do, after all, know something about the intrinsic nature of matter, over and above everything we know in knowing the equations of physics. Why? Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter.
Via Ruairí, I see that a long-overdue documentary about Alan Watts is in need of funding. I’m pretty sure I can do without several nonessential expenditures this month in order to throw in my share.
For the point is not, in our accustomed egocentric mode of thinking, that it would be good to return to our original integrity with nature. The point is that it is simply impossible to get away from it, however vividly we may imagine we have done so. Similarly, it is impossible to experience the future and not experience the present. But trying to realize this is another attempt to experience the future. Some logician may object that this is a merely tautological statement which has no consequence, and he will be right. But we are not looking for a consequence. We are no longer saying, “So what?” to everything, as if the only importance of our present experience were in what it is leading to, as if we should constantly interrupt a dancer, saying, “Now just where are you going, and what, exactly, is the meaning of all these movements?”
We have a proverb that to travel well is better than to arrive, which comes close to the Oriental idea. Wisdom does not consist in arriving at a particular place, and no one need imagine that it is necessarily obtained by climbing a ladder whose rungs are the successive stages of psychological experience. That ladder has no end, and the entrance to enlightenment, wisdom or spiritual freedom may be found on any one of its rungs. If you discover it, it does not mean that you will not have to go on climbing the ladder; you must go on climbing just as you must go on living. But enlightenment is found by accepting fully the place where you stand now.
The notion that human sanity has a good deal to do with self-restraint has persisted for many thousands of years, and has had some very wise exponents. But it has usually had an end in view—a temporal, future end—some sort of pie in the sky. No one can really abstain, however; no one can effectively overcome the mad greed of anxiety, until he has realized that the future is a mirage which does not contain the answer to anything. The true ascetic is not forcing himself; he is just acting naturally in accordance with reality as he sees it.
The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous ring of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and present experiences. You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.” But as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves. There is simply experience. There is not someone or something experiencing experience!
Still more important, it is quite obvious to the canny observer that most Christians, including clergy and devout laity, do not really believe in Christianity. If they did, they would be screaming in the streets, taking daily full-page advertisements in the newspapers, and subscribing for the most hair-raising television programs every night of the week. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are polite and genteel in their door-to-door propaganda. Nobody, save perhaps a few obscure fanatics, is really bothered by the idea that every man is constantly haunted by an angelic fiend, more imminently dangerous and malicious than the most depraved agents of the Nazis. Most people are sinners and unbelievers, and will probably go to hell. So what? Let God worry about that one!
But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously. He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will either be “beat” or “square”, either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other.
What this means for practical action is that we accept the standards of logic and morals, not exactly with reservations, but with a certain humor. We will try to keep them, knowing that we shall not altogether succeed. We shall commit ourselves to positions and promises as best we may, knowing always that there must be a hintergedanke—a thought far in the back of the mind which, like crossed fingers, gives us an “out” when pressed too far. We shall realize that behind our devotion to duty there is always a strong element of self-admiration, and that even in the most passionate love of others there is inevitably the aspect of personal gratification.
But up to now the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not want to actually impose this law upon oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.– Nietzsche
Jung’s work on himself and his patients convinced him that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals. Our main task, he believed, is to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak, or the caterpillar to become the butterfly. Based on his study of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, and other traditions, Jung perceived that this journey of transformation, which he called individuation, is at the mystical heart of all religions. It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Jung thought spiritual experience was essential to our well-being.
A letter to my fellow skepticsWhat if, Dr Dawkins (or any fellow skeptic), you had an experience of a particular kind that you can’t really explain?You catch a fleeting glimpse of, well, you can’t really say. Words fail you, but you try anyway: “I’ve witnessed, uh, something… some distinct experience in which I’ve seen the perfection and limitless beauty of the world. I believe, no… I know that I was seeing with utter clarity, and that it was not the way I normally see the world. I saw clearly that I was one with the universe, that unconditional love is its basis, and that I am an eternal being and not a hapless, mortal creature.” Already you sound nuts, even to yourself.You search for the terms to explain the quality of it, and cringe when the only word you can summon is “divine.” Every stab you take at conveying your experience only amounts to a disappointing, evasive-sounding cliché:•There is something more to us•Everything is in its right place, we just can’t see that•There is a higher intelligence behind all thisWhatever it is, you have a very strong sense that its cultivation is immeasurably valuable, not just as a means of achieving peace and ease in your life, but for others to do the same. It is, clearly, exactly what humanity needs in order to overcome — no, transcend — its current palette of troubles. For this reason you feel it is important for others to have this experience too.
But greedy reductionism is far from the majority view, and it is easy to show why it is wrong. As the philosopher Hilary Putnam has pointed out, even the simple fact that a square peg won’t fit into a round hole can’t be explained in terms of molecules and atoms but only at a higher level of analysis involving rigidity (regardless of what makes the peg rigid) and geometry. And if anyone really thought that sociology or literature or history could be replaced by biology, why stop there? Biology could in turn be ground up into chemistry, and chemistry into physics, leaving one struggling to explain the causes of World War I in terms of electrons and quarks. Even if World War I consisted of nothing but a very, very large number of quarks in a very, very complicated pattern of motion, no insight is gained by describing it that way.
Even today, the public discussion about moral and political issues is no longer framed in an explicitly religious context, but the change in terminology only conceals the all-pervasive influence of the unexamined theological ideas underlying it. Our vocabulary has changed, of course: We no longer speak about the soul but about the psyche; we have exchanged original sin for inherited, psychological guilt. But the cultural soil on which these ideas flourish has remained the same, and all too often our worldview is inherently religious without our even realizing it.…Christianity is the religion of the suffering God. Christ was made flesh and had to die, to be tortured to death, thus allowing God the Creator to forgive humanity for its wickedness. Holbach and Diderot wrote all there is to be written about the perversity of this argument, but even the most irreligious of Westerners still believe in the positive, transformative value of suffering. We have all internalized the Romantic stereotype of the solitary, suffering genius (a figure almost singlehandedly invented by Rousseau in his Confessions). We love stories in which people triumph over adversity, in which they are almost crushed by wickedness or misfortune, only to emerge again, to be resurrected. This kind of story is found in many cultures, but not in all. The ancient Greeks attached no moral value to suffering. After journeying around the Mediterranean for twenty years and surviving many dangers, Homer’s Odysseus is older—but not a wiser or better man.
Hello, what’s this? A link to a post on “techno-spirituality”? Well, that sounds potentially interesting — does it have something to do with online cults? Kurzweil-style babbling about “spiritual machines” and immortality through science? Modern-day whirling dervishes who dance themselves into mystical ecstasy to the accompaniment of programmed beats and synthesizers? Aw, it’s just a guide to taking five minutes out of the day to practice breathing.
Spirituality — that ability to stay calm, focused and compassionate in a constant sea of change — is therefore more important than ever.
Outwardly, Ramadan upholds the ideal of open-mindedness. But it’s an open-mindedness that avoids critical thinking and making judgments. His call for embracing multiplicity and diversity is about avoiding the challenge of intellectual clarification and moral judgment. Yet his celebration of diversity is deceptive, too, because his cheering of difference is actually oriented only towards those whose views echo his own. His acceptance of ‘all outlooks’ certainly does not extend to classical liberal thought; indeed, it’s worth noting that the only strong argument consistently pursued through his book is a critique of the liberal virtue of tolerance.…In line with the values transmitted by the therapy culture that is currently widespread in the Western world, Ramadan wants, not toleration, but respect, validation and uncritical acceptance. That is why he, like numerous other multiculturalists, rejects tolerance on the ground that it is patronising or is ‘not enough’.Ramadan’s claim that people do not want to be tolerated is another way of saying that they don’t want to be judged – but they do want to be affirmed. In his own way, Ramadan gives voice to the Western therapeutic imagination’s estrangement from making value judgments. Contemporary Western culture’s refusal to judge goes hand-in-hand with its celebration of the therapeutic value of affirmation and boosting self-esteem. This sensibility inexorably leads to the affirmation of individual and group identities, an act which has become something of a sacred duty in recent years. It is this gesture of granting respect-on-demand which constitutes the real insult these days, since it does not actually take people seriously. It is about making people feel good about themselves rather than seriously engaging with them – and that is the real form that patronising ‘intellectual charity’ takes today.