The New Age is a coherent social and religious movement. It isn’t an organized group and it doesn’t have a confession of belief, but there is a set of attitudes and beliefs, put forward by a comparatively small group of writers, teachers, gurus, “therapists” and coaches. It draws some of its ideas from Western religion, and more from Eastern religion, from Freudian and Jungian therapy, and from popular culture. It favours what old hippies and some modern women find to be nice, interesting, or aesthetically pleasing. Or, it likes the off-beat, the trendy and the cute.
My wife Jan, her sister Sharon, her mother and her aunt had been involved with New Age interests for a long time before my wife and I separated, probably before I met Jan. They knew I didn’t believe in it, and kept it to themselves. In the later days of the marriage, I heard how important these interests had become to my wife, and I faced accusations that my disbelief and skepticism had suppressed her beliefs and silenced her “voice.” She said she was leaving because I was skeptical and critical. I thought those were valuable skills for survival and employment. My wife claimed, when she left that my skepticism about her New Age values was a form of emotional abuse. I think my skepticism must have been painful and difficult for her. Her loony activities were painful and difficult for me.
Jan had not discussed her spiritual beliefs with me when we met, or became engaged, or got married, or had children together. There was always something there – a vague Romanticism, a self-absorbed sense of superiority. When she left she said she realized she could not share them with me a long time ago. I think these ideas were held within her family since she was a child. I began to get an inkling of her beliefs around the time (1990-92) that her sister claimed to have received channelled messages from a presence who told her to go to England to meet Sting, to India to meet the Dalai Lama, and to Rome to meet the Pope who would each help her reveal a great truth to help humanity transcend itself. I had suggested that this grandiose message had come during a psychotic episode. Jan wanted to be “open to the possibilities.” The tension escalated after she became involved with Network Marketing, which had led to my criticising the way this activity intruded on our life and our friendships.
In 2000, at Christmas, my wife’s family gave me some books to help me understand the New Age, with a letter in which my father-in-law, the psychiatrist, explained that a skeptical person has low self-esteem. I had a difficult Christmas – I was experienced a bowel blockage that was diagnosed as colo-rectal cancer, and I spent the next few months in a medical crisis. My wife was supportive although we argued when she wanted me to take high doses of vitamins manufactured by USANA, the network marketing company she was associated with, against medical advice. She favoured the advice of Dr. Ray Strand – a doctor who writes books explaining why the medical community is biased against vitamins and nutritional supplements (and who is incidentally a USANA distributor).
During that time, I experienced the prayers of my parents, and I became interested in religion again, although that has not endured. I started to go Church again. Jan came with me to Sunday Mass on Easter that year but complained that the service was not inspiring.
She appeared to me to be strongly committed to the marriage when I was sick and when I recovered. She seemed to be passionately in love with me that summer. On the other hand she was becoming involved with the Spirit’s Call counselling practice, which was the central point of her New Age involvement. She was learning Reiki and becoming involved in Geotran. She read some of Matthew Fox’s books or parts of them, in which he takes the New Age line that all religions are the same, and that the New Age represents the highest synthesis or evolution of religion. She was writing out her personal mission statement. By the spring of 2002, she was insisting that I had a problem and needed therapy. By the spring of 2003, she was demanding a divorce. But faced with my depression and some new disclosures about my life and my feelings, she seemed to change. She seemed to accept that I was depressed, and she seemed to me to be willing to continue if I could deal with the depression. I should have listened more carefully. She said she wanted me to change. She expected a conversion to her way of thinking.
I thought things were still going well, in spite of the problems with n., into January and February 2004, but things seemed to change rapidly. I found that Jan was planning to leave again when I asked her to plan a summer holiday in March 2004. She said that she was planning to go to Geotran conference at the end of July. A few minutes later she said that my skeptical reaction when she mentioned Geotran had convinced her that she had to have a divorce. That wasn’t an honest statement because she had already gone to see a lawyer, and had been recently introduced to a man by some of her New Age connections and was beginning to date him. She seemed to have made up her mind, was just trying to work out the timing and to find a fresh way to fasten the blame on me. Her versions of events was that I was intolerably skeptical, and that she had found comfort and strength in her New Age friends and that she was forced to leave to be herself.
I was upset with Jan and generally angry when I read Sleeping with Aliens. I thought that she had changed over the years, and that her involvement with the New Age had isolated her from ordinary social connections, influenced her perceptions, and had been essential to her withdrawal from the marriage. I enjoyed myself when Kaminer poked holes in some of the New Age windbags. I found that Kaminer helped me to understand a few points. She looked at the way the New Age markets itself, and how the New Age is a specialized part of the entertainment industry. I already knew that it ran on books, lectures and private teachings and Kaminer helped to confirm my view that the New Age is driven by people who dream up fictitious ideas and sell them it to the needy and gullible. The New Age is a decentralized amalgamation of interests and opinions that holds together around self-appointed teachers, healers and writers. It is free-enterprize and fee-for service. Teachers, healers and writers compete to get supporters and buyers. People judge their gurus by how inspiring and insightful they are – which is usually in proportion to how they make people feel. Teachers compete for clients and followers, and one area of competition is in the delivery of vivid and distinctive experiences. The New Age sells feelings of safety, knowledge and power.
Kaminer also looked at some of the connections between the New Age and popular culture. The New Age is for people who think they are entitled to feel good all the time. This comes out in the social dynamic of the movement. Basically, people who become involved in New Age activities are supported in their crazy ideas instead of challenged or criticized. This supports a tendency to withdraw from the rest of the world into the comfortable applause of the like-minded.
The New Age rejects conventional morality, but is very moralistic in its own way. The New Age morality is a self-centered morality that judges actions by how good they feel. The New Age has the arrogance that comes with believing that one holds secrets and is secretly superior to everyone else. A New Age believer is someone who knows that most people think he is a kook, but believes he is going to get the last laugh because he has secret wisdom. While the New Agehas tried to follow Buddhism in supporting an attitude of detachment, Kaminer points out that many New Age gurus avoid critical questions, and that some are sensitive or hostile about questions and criticism.
I had a “eureka” moment when I read Kaminer’s discussion about the marriage of the post-modern idea of the importance of the subjective to victim/abuse/recovery ideology. In this system of ideas, someone who thinks she has been abused has been abused, criticism equals disrespect equals abuse. These are mischievious ideas. People who expect applause for every action and utterance and who think that criticism is abuse really need to be by themselves, with like-minded people, because they must find the world to be an intolerably abusive and hostile place.