The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Spirituality for Sale



Geoff Olson takes on the heavily commodified New Age scene in his piece, Spirituality for sale in the New Age of ‘me,’ in the Vancouver Courier.

From the late ’30s to the early ’60s, a clutch of gurus and gadflies blew into the Bay area with the foundational texts of the human potential movement. The most notable included the “British mystical expatriates:” novelist Aldous Huxley, playwright Christopher Isherwood and thinker Gerald Heard. The three wise men would have nodded in agreement with the words of American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “The misconception which has haunted philosophical literature throughout the centuries is the notion of ‘independent existence.’ There is no such mode of existence; every entity is to only be understood in terms of the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.”
Whitehead’s pre-hippie homily doesn’t sit well with today’s culture of ego-targeted marketing, however. Over decades, the best minds in consumer psychology have helped engineer a background buzz of dissatisfaction and disconnection, in service of marketers. And the heavily commodified New Age scene, a subsidiary of the self-help industry, offers a solution of its own: even deeper exploration of the “me” meme. This probably isn’t the best approach to get people out of toxic patterns of self-absorption, yet it’s fully in keeping with the American cult of individualism, which began as one part Protestant work ethic and two parts frontier mentality. 
The “self-as-source spirituality” of early 20th century America “dovetailed ever so neatly with the individualism promoted by corporate marketers and their psychology departments,” observes author Douglas Rushkoff in his 2009 book, Life Inc.“Throughout the 20th century, personal freedom would become the rallying cry of one counterculture or another, only serving to reinforce the very same individualism being promoted by central authorities and their propagandists…. While you might expect the marriage of progressive sociopolitical goals and the culture of spirituality to ground activism in ethics, it turns out the opposite is true. That’s because what we think of spirituality today is not at all a departure from the narcissistic culture of consumption, but its truest expression,” the author observes.Rushkoff may lay it on a bit thick — he fails to acknowledge the scientific evidence of health benefits from meditation and other spiritual practices — but I get where he’s coming from. I grit my teeth when I hear someone go on about the so-called “Law of Attraction,” which contends that if you think enough about something, good or bad, you will draw it toward you. This reminds me of former First Lady Barbara Bush’s response when asked on Good Morning America if the impending showdown with Iraq was putting a strain on her son in the Oval Office. “But why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it’s gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” she offered in 2003.


Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

2 thoughts on “Spirituality for Sale

  1. A much welcome observation. I’ve sincerely explored ‘new age’ and drawn much meaning and value from it, but I’ve also come to recognize how the “human potential movement” morphed into “individual success by gaining recognition as superior” (especially as measured by income, and/or fame, and/or “consistently unruffled cheerful equilibrium”). “Human community potential movement” was never promoted.

    To be fair, I think it was an unintended oversight – but most unfortunate. As Olsen says – the human potential movement and it’s sub-culture of ‘new age’ enthusiasm, dovetailed into the American mantra of “rugged individualism” but did so with commitment to achieving aforementioned ‘unruffled cheerful equilibrium’.)

    I’ve also discovered a ‘Calvinistic’ twist to “karma”. Those who suffer do so because they’ve chosen it, or because previous lives ‘set it up’ – there is no ‘societal factor’. This is a close match to ‘predestination’ determining who might prosper-in-spirit and who might not.

    In both cases, “social activism” on behalf of greater equality of access to resources, and on behalf of justice, are considered less relevant than “reality is what you make it to be” (new age) and “acceptance” (both “new age” and Calvinism).

    “Suffering”, to ‘new age’ excessive versions described by Olsen, does not exist. Barbara Ehrenreich addressed excessive positive thinking in “Brightsided”. The beliefs end up contributing a measure of brutality by ‘dismissal’ of suffering or worse – suggesting “it is meant to be”.

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