New Age Thought


The New Thought schools, of which Christian Science is the most famous, mistake the correct notion "Godhead creates all," with the notion, "Since I am one with God, I create all."

This position makes two mistakes, I believe, which both Emerson and Thoreau would have strongly disagreed with. One, that God is an intervening parent for the universe, instead of its impartial Reality or Suchness or Condition. And two, that your ego is one with that parent God, and therefore can intervene and order the universe around. I have found no support for that notion in the mystical traditions at all.

Advocates of the new age themselves claim that they are basing this idea on the principle of karma, which says that your present life circumstances are the results of thought and actions from a previous lifetime. According to Hinduism and Buddhism, that is partially true. But even if it were totally true, which it isn't, the newagers have, I believe, overlooked one crucial fact: According to these traditions, your present circumstances are the results of thoughts and actions from a previous life, and your present thoughts and actions will affect, not your present life, but your next life, you next incarnation. The Buddhists say that in your present life you are simply reading a book that you wrote in the previous life, and what you are doing now will not come to fruition until your next life. In neither case does your present thought create your present reality.

Now I personally don't happen to believe that particular view of karma. It's a rather primitive notion subsequently refined (and largely abandoned) by the higher schools of Buddhism, where it was recognized that not everything that happens to you is the result of your own past actions. ...

And so where does that notion itself come from? Here I am going to part ways with Treya and spin out my own pet theories on the people that hold these beliefs. I am not going to relate compassionately to the suffering these notions cause. I am going to try to pigeonhole them, categorize them, spin theories about them, because I think the ideas are dangerous and need to be pigeonholed, if for no other reason than to prevent further suffering. And my comments are not addressed to the large number of people who believe these ideas in a rather innocent and naive and harmless way. I have in mind more the national leaders of this movement, individuals who give seminars on creating your own reality; who give workshops that teach, for example, that cancer is caused solely by resentment, who teach that poverty is your own doing and oppression something you brought on yourself. These are perhaps well-intentioned but nonetheless dangerous people, who in my opinion, because they divert attention away from the real levels - physical, environmental, legal, moral, and socio-economic, for example - where so much work desperately needs to be done.

In my opinion, these beliefs - particularly the belief that you create your own reality - are level two beliefs. They have all the hallmarks of the infantile and magical worldview of the narcissistic personality disorder, including grandiosity, omnipotence, and narcissism. The idea that thoughts don't influence reality but create reality is the direct result, in my opinion, of the incomplete differentiation of the ego boundary that so defines level two. Thoughts and objects aren't clearly separated, and thus to manipulate the thought is to omnipotently and magically manipulate the object.

I believe that the hyper-individualistic culture in America, which reached its zenith in the "me decade", fostered regression to magical and narcissistic levels. I believe (with Robert Bellah and Dick Anthony) that the breakdown of more socially cohesive structures turned individuals back on their own resources, and this also helped reactivate narcissistic tendencies. And I believe, with clinical psychologists, that lurking right beneath the surface of narcissism is rage, particularly but not solely expressed in the belief: "I don't want to hurt you, I love you; but disagree with me and you will get an illness that will kill you. Agree with me, agree that you can create your own reality, and you will get better, you will live." This has no basis in the world's great mystical traditions; it has it basis in narcissistic and borderline pathology.

While much of the mail and response to the original New Age piece shared my sense of moral outrage at what these ideas were doing to so many innocent people, the hard core newagers reacted with rage, saying things like, if Treya and I thought that, she deserved to get cancer. She was bringing it on herself with these thoughts.

This is not a blanket condemnation of the entire new age movement. There are aspects of that movement - it's a large and varied beast, after all - that are indeed based on some genuinely mystical and transpersonal principle (such as the importance of intuition and the existence of universal consciousness). It's just that any genuinely transpersonal movement always attracts a very large number of prepersonal elements, simply because both are nonpersonal, and it is exactly this confusion between "pre" and "trans" that is one of the major problems with the new age movement, in my opinion.

Here's a concrete example based on empirical research. During the Berkeley riots protesting the war in Vietnam, a team of researchers gave a representative sample of the students the Kohlberg test of moral development. ... What researchers found was that a small percentage of the students, something like 20%, were indeed operating from the post conventional stages (or "trans" conventional stages). That is their objections were based on universal principles of right and wrong, they were not based on any particular society's standards or on individual whim. On the other hand, the vast majority of the protesters - around 80% - were found to be preconventional, which means their moral reasoning was based on personal and rather selfish motives. ... And, as we would expect, there were almost no students at the conventional level, the level of "my country right or wrong" (since these students would not have seen any reason to protest in the first place). ...

... Just so in the new age movement, I believe, a small percentage of genuinely mystical or transpersonal or transrational elements and principles (levels seven through nine) have attracted a huge number of prepersonal, magical, and prerational elements (levels one through four), simply because both are nonrational, nonconventional, nonorthodox (levels five and six). And these prepersonal and prerational elements then claim, as the preconventional students did, that they have the authority and the backing of a "higher" state, when all they are doing, I'm afraid I have to conclude, is rationalizing their own self-involved stance. As Jack Engler pointed out, they are drawn to transpersonal mysticism as a way to rationalize prepersonal inclination. It's a classic "pre/trans fallacy."

... Our "flakier" friends get rather mad at us, because they tend to think that there are only two camps in the world: rational and nonrational, and so we should join with them against the rationalistic camp. But there are in fact three camps: prerational, rational, and transrational. We're actually closer to the rationalists than to the prerationalists. The higher levels transcend but include the lower. Spirit is translogic, no antilogic; it embraces logic and then goes beyond, it doesn't simply reject logic, and then, but only then, move beyond it with its added insights. Buddhism is an extremely rational system that then supplements rationality with intuitive awareness. Some of the "flaky" trends, I'm afraid, are not beyond logic but beneath it.

So what we are trying to do is tease apart the genuine, universal, "laboratory-tested" elements of mystical development from the more idiosyncratic, magical, and narcissistic tendencies.

Ken Wilber - Grace and Grit