Tag Archives: new age

Spiritual unease

The pandemic seems to have pushed rather a lot of New Age folk into the arms of the far right. At first glance this all seems very strange – what are the peace, love and light brigade doing cosying up with white supremacists, and people who seem to be all about conflict, hatred and control? And yet there they are, shoulder to shoulder at anti-vax protests and sharing the pages of publications.

I honestly wish I was more surprised, but I’ve been aware for some years now of the many issues in peace-love-light culture. There’s the toxic positivity, which really crushes people who are struggling. There’s the mistaking privilege for having the magical power to manifest good fortune. There’s like-attracts-like thinking which is a brutal and unjust philosophy to apply to people who are poor, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged. The idea of pre-life contracts make it seem ok to ignore people in distress because hey, they chose these lessons. The New Age movement has always had a problem with appropriating from other cultures, treating the global majority with disrespect, feeling entitled to take anything from anyone… 

Perhaps the most problematic bit is the assumption that if you’re all about peace and love and light, the people around you are good. Feeling that you can afford to be uncritical of yourself and others, and that you can just assume that goodness is what’s around you. If you think like attracts like you’re hardly going to want to consider that you’ve become attracted to Nazis. 

To be genuinely spiritual, you have to be willing to keep an eye on yourself for smugness, self-importance and feelings of superiority. The spiritual life will only stop you turning into a total narcissist if you’re actually invested in the idea of not becoming a massive, self-serving ego. To be spiritual you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Learning and growth are pretty much impossible if you aren’t able to be uncomfortable sometimes. If you only seek out things that make you feel good about yourself, you can end up with more of an ego trip than a spiritual journey.

It does matter who you associate with. The people we spend time with have a huge impact on us. Do the people we encounter really help us become our best selves, or are they making us feel like we’re above criticism? What does the freedom we demand cost other people? Who is hurt by what we do? If we aren’t willing to ask awkward questions sometimes, our desire to have everything pleasant and easy can turn us into monsters.

It’s all so easy in the New Age (and why that makes me want to punch people)

Sometimes I read New Age stuff – don’t judge me, work requires it now and then. I am struck, over and over by how easy it is all supposed to be. Just say your positive affirmations, cut out the money attraction symbol and stick it in your wallet. Know that the universe loves you. Buy a very expensive rainbow unicorn Atlantis faerie guide object and never worry again!

I see the New Age memes go by on twitter all the time, the ones that say you have the power to change everything, fix everything, make everything good. And I wonder how that’s supposed to apply if you live in a war zone, if your child is dying of starvation, if your family are lost, if you are in the sea having fallen out of a refugee boat… I wonder what the homeless and the hungry are supposed to do in terms of positive thinking. I wonder how much a paper charm in your otherwise empty wallet helps when deciding whether it’s going to be heating or eating.

I come back to the same thought, over and over and over again. That if your problems are small, fixing them is easy. If you have resources – time, money, health, education, security, safety – then you probably can do much of what you want to do if only you believe in yourself. If you live in a country where your sexual identity is punishable by death, less so.

It troubles me because it sends such a clear message to anyone who can’t magically fix their life in five minutes. It sends a message of blame. You aren’t positive enough. Like attracts like, so you deserved it. The war. The injury. The bereavement.

I can’t bear how cruel that is. I hate the way in which it allows those who have a lot to feel no responsibility for those who have nothing. I hate how like attracts like thinking acts as an enemy to compassion. I hate how this whole attitude is a barrier to making real change. Not everyone can wish themselves out of their problems. Many people need actual help, real interventions, support, aid, care, food, heat, water… And not some smug, entitled git telling them it’s all about karma or that this is part of their life plan.

Think Positive!

Or don’t. There is no tidy, one size fits all and solves everything answer to anything, ever. That assertion is one of my key bits of dogma, along with ‘shit happens’ and ‘there are always choices of some sort.’ Positive thinking can be really helpful. It can carry you through challenges, inspire you to do better, it can nourish, uplift and enable. You probably know that because the productive power of positive thought is rather self announcing. It may require effort and minor discomfort, but when it works for you, the payoff always makes that feel reasonable.

There are times when positive thinking doesn’t work. I‘ve got some examples from my own life which I can talk about easily, but no doubt there are other forms and manifestations out there, too. Sometimes, positive thinking is a trap with really sharp and pointy teeth.

Looking for the best in things, and in people, being upbeat and hopeful that things will get better, and that everything happens for a good reason and that there are life lessons to learn… I tried that in one context. I tried it for years, and it helped me do the following. I was able to stay positive about the way in which my life was getting ever narrower. I was able to work with the increasing demands being placed on my body, and on my emotional self. I learned how to roll with the knock backs, the put downs, and the physical pain. I saw the best, and I encouraged it, and in so doing I made it really easy for all the shit around me to continue. I was so busy being positive that I did not challenge over the negatives, protect my boundaries, deal with the massive problems in my life and I was not happy.

Only when I let myself admit that it had all gone to hell did I make the choice to get out, and only on getting out of that situation did my life stop going downhill exponentially and start improving. Sometimes, a hearty dose of negativity, failure, and giving up will save your life.

Then there’s the one that I pick up more casually, in the flows of online conversation. Those friendly ‘think good thoughts and you will attract good stuff to you. Be positive and you will heal. Your own negative energy is what’s getting you down and making you sick.’ I am not (I am encouraged to think) to speak of the stuff that depresses, frightens or ails me because that’s dwelling on the negative and will bring more negative energy into my life. The reason it has fallen apart for me before is clearly that I’m not positive enough (see above, if only I’d tried harder!). But when you’ve given your all and it wasn’t enough, and your body is just plain ill, and you need the human relief of speaking about the things that hurt… other people waving the power of positive thinking can be a bloody alienating experience.

Which is interesting, when you stop and think about it. The whole New Age think positive attract good stuff philosophy is supposed to be inherently good. It’s supposed to make everything better. How can something that is good have the effect of alienating, depressing and feeling like an attack if you are in a vulnerable place? The measure of a philosophy is what it actually does, and if a big part of what it does is knock people down, then it’s not a benevolent philosophy, no matter what it claims. So here’s The Real Secret.

Shit happens.

Sometimes we bring that upon ourselves a bit, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we can fix it, sometimes the best answer is to quit.

Some things you will get over in your own time, others less so. Your attitude may have a role in this, but there are no guarantees. It is ok not to get over things if you are, for whatever reason, not able to get over them.

There are always choices. Sometimes none of those choices are good ones.

Sometimes there is no win, but only the person who quits is definitely beaten. Sometimes quitting is the only thing that can save you.

Shit happens, because the universe is a big place with a lot of different stuff going on and most of it isn’t personally aimed at you, whether that shows up as good stuff or disaster,

Shit happens, and when we are gentle with ourselves and each other and don’t use philosophy as an offensive weapon, the shit is a tad easier to bear.

The problems of positive thinking

I see a lot of pieces online about how we can improve our lives with more positive thinking. Practice gratitude. When you are angry with someone, look at how you are projecting your negativity onto them. Minimise your problems. Love everybody. Now, if the only problems in your life exist because you’re a miserable, negative sort of person who projects this onto others, feels no gratitude and has no love in their heart, this may in fact work. In some situations, it can get you killed.

The trouble with glib positive thinking prompts, is that they do not have any nuance, or any capacity for detail. They also make you wholly responsible for your life experience. Yes, you can change any experience by changing how you feel about it. If you are being bullied at work, or beaten at home, you can make this easier to bear by feeling grateful for even having a job or a partner. You can tell yourself that it’s not so bad, and that you are creating the problem by projecting your negativity. You can love them unconditionally. This will destroy you, one way or another.

Then there are the positive thinking ideas that reassure us that we’ve chosen this life-experience for a reason. There is something we must learn. And ‘God’ would not have given us more than we can deal with. Fantastic, not only is you life awful, but you chose this before you were born, and your deity thinks you can take it. Again, people who stay in dangerous situations can and do end up dead. Every time I read an assertion that the challenges are here for us to find loving answers to, I want to scream. Some people, if you stay around and love them, will take you apart, metaphorically, literally… Sometimes the only lesson to learn is how to get out as safely and quickly as possible. It’s worth being very careful about this one, because leaving a dangerous situation can trigger rage, and statistically you are most likely to die at the point when you try to escape. Help and a good plan are essential.

New Age fluff is fine if the biggest problems in your life are that can’t have everything you desire, your ego is not stroked enough, and you have no idea how to be satisfied with what you’ve got. If your problems are first world issues of excess luxury and too much advertising then yes, those positive thinking prompts may be good for you, and won’t do any harm. If you go to bed afraid of the person who lies next to you, then lying there in the darkness trying to figure out why you are projecting this negative emotion onto them, will keep you there, and keep you hurting and frightened. If you’re being shouted at, if your days are a barrage of criticism, mockery, and humiliation, if there are normal things you do not dare do because you fear the consequences… stay away from the New Age noises. You do not need more love and patience. You do not need to accept that you chose this life course and have work to do. You do not need to buy into the idea that it is somehow your life’s purpose to deal with a person who makes you want to die.

Every time you read some statement about changing your thinking to improve your life, please, please add a mental footnote: This only applies if you are not dealing with a psychopath. This is only true if you are not surrounded by assholes, by petty, mean-hearted gits, or by those who enjoy knocking other people down.

The trouble with Chakras

I’m going to come right out and say it: I do not have any chakras. I was first introduced to them as a concept when I was sixteen, and nothing at all happened. Since then (twenty years!) I’ve been meditating, visualising, working with my body’s energy, and every so often being talked into having another go. I am entirely certain that nothing resembling chakras is happening down the front of my person. No one is going to persuade me otherwise.

The trouble with chakras is that they are treated as a universal truth. What was originally a feature of Hindu belief, has been embraced wholesale and turns up everywhere. It doesn’t seem to matter what path you claim to follow, someone will be waving it at you. The New Age Movement treats chakras as fact, as indisputably how your body works and I cannot begin to tell you how sick I am of finding it thrown casually into all kinds of books where really it has no place or point.

Other ways of thinking about bodily energy are available. I was exposed to Tai Chi fairly early on (I was about 20). There are no chakras in Taoism. Instead I was introduced to ideas of energy flow, of the circular nature of energy as it moves through the body. That makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve listened to Theo Wildcroft (http://www.wildyoga.co.uk/) talking about physical structures in the body, creating flows and connections in ways that, while I don’t grasp visually too well, make a lot of emotional sense to me. Acupuncture works on a theory of energy meridians in the body, and those aren’t lined up down your middle like the standard ruddy chakras.

But then, actual, Hindu chakras don’t have much to do with New Age chakras either. What the original idea of chakras offers is a complex and subtle system of body energy, and when you start looking at that it compares rather coherently to the meridians and flows that I’ve run into other places. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakra for a quick sense of what’s really out there).

What has happened is that the western New Age movement has latched onto a complex ancient system, picked on the ‘important’ bit – those ‘main’ seven chakras, hauled them out of context and proceeded to deal with them with no reference to the systems, bodily and spiritual that they actually pertain to. We in the Pagan community are all too guilty of picking up the western seven chakra rubbish and passing it on as an absolute truth, without even knowing properly where it comes from or how it works. This is shoddy in every way.

If you’re going to do chakras, throw away the books that tell you how there are seven of them, and how to clean them, and flowers to associate with them, and precious little else. Go back to the original culture, and learn this stuff properly. If you want to do body energy, you have a body, and energy, and sitting down with what you’ve got, to contemplate it, ponder, study, experience and investigate it will serve you perfectly well. And if it turns out that you do not feel like you have chakras, and that you see and understand your body in some other way, you are not alone!

The Tyranny of Healing

We’re all supposed to want to be perfectly functional. To be well, stable, capable, not inconvenient for others. Being well is not all peace and light.

On the New Age side there can be a lot of pressure towards wellness, with a sense that being ill represents a personal failure, a not having tried hard enough. The more extreme end of other religions will ascribe illness to being out of favour with God. Good Christians don’t get cancer, in some people’s book, therefore to get it is to have failed religiously, on top of everything else.

There are a lot of chronic and on-going illnesses out there that can, at best, be managed well. No amount of healthy lifestyle choices or positive thinking will cure you of Multiple Sclerosis or arthritis. Then there are the psychological ailments, because it simply isn’t the case that you can positive-attitude yourself out of suffering from severe depression. There are life experience too painful and serious to heal from as well. I know people who have lost children, and who carry that grief. No one should be asked, or expected to ‘get over it’ but the pressure to be convenient to those around you, is vast. Grief is something we are supposed to knuckle down and heal from, and if we can’t or won’t, we will be treated as though we need a medical intervention. There are occasions when not healing should be a perfectly valid option.

That which seriously harms us, in body or in mind, leaves marks that endure long after the obvious damage has gone away. The damage to a rape victim’s body will heal, but the damage to self, to relationship with the world, may be there for the rest of their lives. There is no way back from certain kinds of experience, no way of unlearning it, or ceasing to be aware that it can and does happen, that it could happen again, and that it will happen to other people. Extreme pain and sickness, violence and dire accident change our relationship with the world. Afterwards, we are not the same. We can’t be. We become more cautious, more aware, and we see differently. The damage becomes a part of self, a part of life, and to be asked to heal after that is to be asked not to recognise your own harsh journey.

The pressure to heal, put upon us by well-meaning people can add insult to injury. Are we to forget, then? Are we not to learn the lessons a failing body has taught us? Are we to pretend it never happened? Those who have not been put through hell at some point, quite understandably do not want to have to think about what might be out there, waiting for them. Those who have, may not wish to be reminded by seeing it happen to someone else. But what kind of answer is that? It’s not healing that is sought here, it’s not about what the survivor may need, but abut rendering them less problematic to those around them.

Sometimes, the best you can hope for is to make peace with things. A place of acceptance that makes it possible to get by, and from which you can make something of life. Peace is not the same as healing. One can be at peace with the open wounds in the psyche, with the lost parts of self, with an innocence that can never return. One can be at peace with grief while still carrying the razor-sharp sense of loss. Healing is not always available, for body or for mind. It is not always the best response. Sometimes we have to adapt and become some new thing, and let the damage shape us. The pressure to be well, to be normal, to be convenient is of no help at all in that process. Healing people might seem universally heroic and good, but there are times when it isn’t the right answer, and where honouring the transformation and allowing the change would be a good deal more helpful.

Emotional Pain and Sanity

My recent blog about psychological violence elicited a very good point from Robin Herne – namely the way in which more New Agey approaches to life suggest that it’s up to us not to feel hurt or upset. We shouldn’t in this system, need or want to experience pain, and we can let it pass over us, and not be affected. This is an approach that facilitates bullying, and is often deeply unhelpful. Part of the problem is the tendency towards a glib simplicity that isn’t equal to real life situations.

Firstly there’s the issue that being able to cheerfully ignore that which might hurt, is insane, and not something to aspire to. We need negative feedback, it tells us when we are short of the mark, actually wrong, or causing pain to others. There are few things more difficult to deal with than the person who will not hear that they are causing pain and distress. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, to be a sane and functional human being we all need to be able to hear that we’ve messed up. That can hurt. We need to take that pain on the chin, and respond to it. We also need a culture in which is it allowable to make mistakes (and therefore to learn), but that’s a whole other issue. It’s very easy to tune out the negative feedback, maintaining your inner calm through total disinterest in the feelings and needs of the rest of the world. That’s not Druidry.

Then there’s the kind of hurtful stuff that comes as a result of other people’s pain, fear, insecurity and so forth. Fragile egos and wounded souls can inflict hurt, not out of malice, but sometimes because they have no idea how to do better. The ‘do unto others before they can do unto you’ mentality. Responding in kind will further entrench hostility and increase pain all round, which helps no one. Ignoring it certainly isn’t guaranteed to make them go away, and may also reinforce erroneous beliefs. If the flailing person is your partner, parent, colleague… they need dealing with, compassionately. It requires seeing past the spikey surface and finding a way to engage with what is underneath. Think about how you might try and work with an injured wild animal, and take that as a model. Move slowly, make no sudden movements or alarming noises, be patient, expect to get bitten. People who cause hurt out of their own pain can be helped out of that place and it can be well worth the effort and the odd bite. They need to learn that not everyone is going to hurt, attack or humiliate them.

There are hurts that come because someone enjoys causing pain. I think these are often more subtle, so you won’t even notice at the time that you have been reduced. Instead, you’ll be apologising for having got it wrong again, for misunderstanding, for not being good enough, clever enough, patient enough. These are the hurts that don’t (unlike the first set) offer ways to improve. They give you a sense of failure, unworthiness, insufficiency. There’s often no sense that you could do something to fix it, either. You *are* a bad person, a waste of space, a nuisance. You can’t fix that, and they treat you accordingly no matter what you do. The hurt doesn’t necessarily come in the moment of abuse, either. It’s a slow desolation of self. If you are a never good enough child, self-esteem trampled by parents or teachers, you may never even realise there are alternatives, you just internalise how rubbish you are, and that puts spikes on the inside, that will shred you perhaps for the rest of your life. It can happen in workplaces and in relationships too, although there we stand a better chance of spotting it, but not everyone does. You can break a person and them not realise what you have done, which is truly awful.

The only way to respond to the third kind of pain, is to recognise it and get the hell out. The person who will wound you and declare you never good enough, will never be impressed or won round. They may well encourage you to think it’s possible, the eternally dangled and unreachable carrot that allows them to beat you conceptually (and sometimes literally) when they please.

Emotional pain can be dealt with productively. There’s the sort we learn from to grow and develop. If you can grow and develop by taking onboard something that hurt, then it was useful pain and you benefit from it. There is the pain caused by the suffering of others, and if you spot that and deal with it compassionately, things can improve for both you and the other one, and for people around you, too. The third kind of pain serves no purpose beyond entertaining the sadist who practices it. The only thing to do is recognise them for what they are. If you can never get it right and never be good enough, you are experiencing the kind of pain that needs not only to be ignored, but to be escaped from. The greatest agony in this can be the requirement to recognise that someone whose opinion you have respected, and you have trusted, is actually rather awful. That one hurts, and fear of that pain can keep us prisoners when we should be running away. It can be easier to internalise the blame, than face the hideousness of a corrupt soul. We can fool ourselves into thinking we can save such a person, or that they only do it out of pain, but stay there long enough and you’ll see that nothing changes – you do not become ‘good enough’ to please them and they do not become secure enough to let go of their justifications for abuse. There comes a time when sanity demands saying ‘enough’ and walking away.

The power of expectation

One of the memes that crops up in many New Age lines of thinking is that we get what we look for, and like attracts like. Certainly, you are going to have a hard time seeing something you don’t believe is there. Yesterday I was exploring the way in which negative people are often acting in ways intending to reinforce their own world view. I want to follow on from that today. Not thinking so much about the implications of believing, or not believing in fairies and angels here. More about what we believe of ourselves and the world.

It’s so easy to manufacture the experiences that confirm expectations, without necessarily being conscious off the process. Back in my teens there was a boyfriend who had been through some awful stuff and didn’t really think anyone cared about him, as a logical consequence of this. If anyone got too close, he’d become increasingly demanding, difficult and challenging until he forced them (and in my turn, me) to give up and walk away. Thus he kept confirming his belief about his relationship with the whole of reality. Eventually, I gather he got his head straight enough to give someone a chance. There’s nothing like believing you are unlovable to make it hard for those around you to manifest care.

How many such beliefs are we all lugging around? I’m conscious that I may be viewing the world as more hostile than it inherently is. I don’t see the New Age reality of benevolence and love, I see something that is at best, neutral. As a consequence the odds of me recognising an experience of benevolent angels, for example, are pretty slim. I probably wouldn’t notice them until they bit me on the bottom, by which point they wouldn’t seem quite so benevolent anyway… What else have I got? I don’t know, but I’m looking.  I don’t want to be at the mercy of my own unconscious misapprehensions if I can help it.

How much conflict in life comes from the clashing together of stories and beliefs on this personal level? The person who assumes they won’t be believed, and who consequently stays silent. The person who believes they are inherently unacceptable and so has to keep acting out until they find what you can’t tolerate. The person who cannot believe anything good, kind, altruistic or generous really exists so will keep imagining terrible, hidden motives to explain the compassion their reality has no space for. How many people are lugging round a unique reality and bludgeoning other people with it as a consequence?

None of us has a perfect view of self or wider reality. We all have blind spots and illusions, and I suspect that’s just one of those things about being human. We also have differences of opinion such that my functional reality may seem like crazy fantasy to other people. It’s just as dangerous to assume you are right as it is to default to the assumption that you are wrong in this.

We find out where the issues may be when two incompatible realities are banged together. How to tell which is real? Am I the ungrateful, demanding, unreasonable one, or is what I want normal, and is the other person a lazy slacker who does not know what decent behaviour looks like? We won’t ever figure that out by looking just at the two people involved. Wider context tells us a lot about how we fit in elsewhere. I’m wary of taking ‘normal’ as a measure for anything because it’s so flawed. In a room full of killers, the mass murderer is pretty normal, after all. But if only one person finds us wildly unreasonable and nobody else does, that’s certainly indicative.

The more diverse a pool of people we can draw on for this, the better. How does my work self compare to my social self, my parent self, my pagan-gathering self? Am I getting the same kinds of responses across the board? How do I feel about the people I clash with? Do I respect them and want to respond to the clash, or do I think they are idiots? Where do I want to fit? These can be useful measures, although if we are the killer in a room full of killers, metaphorically speaking, conforming to peer standards may be letting us stay in a crappy place and resisting opportunities to grow.

Someone too entrenched in their own sense of self importance will never be able to make a good assessment in this regard. Someone who cares more about seeming right than being right, will never be able to explore to see if their relationship with reality is faulty. If you can ask, and seriously consider whether you’re going the wrong way, there’s every reason to think you can also consider the issue well. Doubt and self questioning are vital tools. Self belief is also necessary to sanity. There’s a balance to strike, but if you aren’t looking for it, you won’t find it.

Druidry and healing

This week I’ve been talking to some lovely people who run a healing space, and they had questions about healing within the druid tradition. Now, I know there are strands in the druid weave where healing is very much the focus, particularly on the ovate side, and that there are druids who work as healers. I also think that in New Age practice, there is a huge emphasis on healing work, and I wonder about this. Partly because healing is what you do after damage. Druidry, for me, is more about the day to day living, and not getting to a place of damage should be part of that.

Relationship within druidry includes relationship with self. We can’t be in good relationship with the rest of the planet if we abuse, neglect and mistreat our own minds and bodies. Lack of care for self opens the way to illness and ongoing damage while care taken will work to minimize risk, and also helps us cope with anything we couldn’t dodge. I’ve been on the wrong side of this, unable to look after my own most basic needs and conscious of the wounding that caused. Good health, bodily, mentally and spiritually, depends on self care. In order to take care of the self, you have to think that’s worth doing, you need self esteem, self respect, a sense of usefulness, some reason to value your own condition.

Druidry is also very much about creativity and inspiration, and I think this is a huge wellbeing consideration too. There’s nothing like being trapped in a situation to push you towards distress and sickness. Inspiration is the tool for escape, for re-writing the rules, reinventing the job, the relationship, the lifestyle, so that wellness can follow.

In terms of mental health, community and a sense of belonging can make a lot of difference. Emotional support and recognition can keep a marginal person sane. Being heard helps to ward off depression. The work we do in ritual, hearing and supporting each other, holding circles of community, helps to keep us well, and upholds the self esteem essential for self-care.

There’s plenty of mainstream science that says being outside is good for you. A little walk relieves stress, and is good exercise. Time in green spaces is good for mental health. A little dancing, meditating, or drumming is good for the body as well. Many of the things that we do as part of our druidry, has beneficial effects in terms of health.

I think when we make healing into an event, focusing on the action of a few hours or days, we do ourselves a disservice. Wellness is not a thing to tag on as an afterthought. It’s not something to do once a week for half an hour. A good life has wellness at its heart. Granted, there are illnesses and setbacks that won’t be triumphed over just by application of regular druidry, but there is no ailment out there that isn’t alleviated to some degree by living well. So for me, druidry is less about healing work, more about not being so vulnerable to sickness in the first place. No amount of magical or new age healing work will save a person who will not change their life. I was unwell for years because my diet was wrong, I was sleep deprived, living with things that made me anxious, and things that caused me misery. No amount of healing intervention would have done more than paper over the cracks. Only a lifestyle change, and a recognition of the need to take myself seriously could get a healing process under way, and take me into a new phase of life where I am not continually being damaged.

I think the move to seek healing can be a way of starting that process, the recognition of problems, and the recognition of self as someone who merits being cared for. But ultimately, being well is a full time job, and the implications of going after it can be enormous.