12 april, 1996
it's all the
my problem with the new age comes at a similar point with any movement - the point of sale. I like the Rolling Stones alright, I went to a Halloween '94 concert and they offered me a Rolling Stones Mastercard.
When you ply your image for bucks, duplicity or falsehood have greater room for rootage.
goods and services of new age religion/movements are often pitched to familiar mythology and comfortable assumptions.
distinguishing the helpers from the hucksters cen be difficult - often people peddling genuinely good helpful suggestions are pegged for pecuniary phonies
I myself feel often disillusioned at the mere mention of money, leaving in a tough place folks who would make a good old fasioned western living off of helpful ideas.
but clearly snake oil salesman purposefully prey on the lesser angels of our nature to solicit shekels,
orientalist themes, distant archetypes, other as screen for our projections, vestiges of colonialism sold as salves
can one adapt and distribute the wisdom of the east without being cheesy? (or oppressive for that matter).Two recent readings, James Redfield's Celestine Prophecy and Michael Harner's Way of the Shaman illuminate these questions, if not any answers.
What is this genre?
spiritual self-help books
disposable wisdom portable orientalism democratized papal indulgences
perhaps in a similar spirit as that of graham, kellogg, richard bach, robert pirsig
wondrous new ways of seeing the world actually grounded in the most ancient universal principles.
they offer a secret, or access to something relieving. So they perhaps empower, but they posit the source of that power in a galaxy far, far away.
This is the motherload sentence from Harner:Shamanism represents the most widespread and ancient methodological system of mind-body healing known to humanity.It heals, it's everywhere, it's old. it's super powerful, and it's "known", but somehow "ancient" puts it just out of reach.
- Harner, Way of the Shaman, page 40
what is for Harner proven, is potential for Redfield:She hesitated for a moment, sill looking at me intensely. "He said the Manuscript dates back to about 600 B.C. It predicts a massive transformation in human society."
- Redfield, Celestine Prophecy, page 4 ("Manuscript" being the ark of wisdom, the holy grail of Redfield's text)
So both systems are ancient, both have enormous power to radically alter humanity and human potential.
If these two were to compete for ancient veracity though, Harner would lick Redfield in two shakes of a Shaman's rattle;Archaeological and ethnological evidence suggests that shamanic methods are at least twenty or thirty thousand years old. Quite possibly, the mothods have greater antiquity - for, after all, primates that could be called human have been on the planet for more than two or three million years.
- Harner, Way of the Shaman, page 40 So mneyh.
according to Harner, there's something instinctively human, perhaps even primieval about Shamanism. In fact it's so innate, primates might have done it. It's utterly ancient, it's widespread.
So why do we need his book to learn it?
actually, there are "custodians" of these "ancient methods":These custodians of the ancient methods are very important to us, for almost none of their cultures left writen records. Thus it is only from their remaining living representatives that we can learn the shamanic principles.hold up homie,
- Harner, Way of the Shaman, page 40
primates could have done it, it may be millions of years old, but now it's in short supply?
so he posits something integral to our person, located in a former person-time, indeed, unequivocably our "ancient" past, and hence integral to our healing today. at the same time, it is something slipping from our grasp, intangible, literally dying.
a leverage power trick, it gives the author the priviledge to speak and the ability to sell.
is he selling orientalism?
Edward Said, speaking of Chateaubriand in his book Orientalism, "[he] attempts to consume the Orient. He not only appropriates it, he represents and speaks for it, not in history but beyond history in the timeless dimension of a completely healed world..." (page 174).
Harner's principles are at once held by dying wise dark folks and accessable within as inner truth, he is thus the re-presenter of the sacred and the self.
These propositions of the integral inaccessable, and the power grab beneath, wither under the orientalist critique
the shamans, like the people of the east, they are both our inner child and eternally beyond our grasp.
Redfield requires no oriental interpretation, he slings the lingo himself:The insights speak directly to his main question. They reveal that the thought of both East and West can indeed be integrated into a higher truth. They show us that the West is correct in maintaining that life is about progress, and about evolving toward something higher. Yet the East is also correct in emphasizing that we must let go of control with the ego. We can't porgress by using logic alone. We have to attain a fuller consciousness, an inner connection with God, because only then can our evolution toward something better be guidied by a higher part of ourselves.
- Redfield, Celestine Prophecy, page 142 mmmm, candy.
Why orientalist? Because of the mention of the East?
He's preaching integration! What's wrong wit' 'dat?
Mister Said?When one uses categroies like Oriental and Western as both the starting and the end points of analysis, research, public policy, ... the result is usually to polarize the distinction - the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner more Western - and limit the human encounter between different cultures, traditions, and societies. - Said, Orientalism, page 45 Ka-blam.
It'd be one thing if Redfield was at all questioning his notions of east and west, rending knowledge into one universal indeterminable hodgepodge, but he is proposing a unity of two distinct halves, the naming and description of which offers immediate heirarchy.
Moreover, its heirarchy that serves. There's a sense that Redfield is advocating not only objectification of "Eastern" principles, but through that, incorporation of "Easternness" into a spiritually productive lifestyle.
Similarly, with Harner, trips into the lowerworld can make shaman of all of us.
largely unabashed, unqualified harnassing of the east.
wandering the asiles first of Whole Foods, in Marin County, probably geographic ground zero for new age enlightenment. In this popular 90s version of the supermarket, you can by inscence, essential oils, ginko leaf tea, ginseng powerders, Native American smudge sticks.
Even at the Swarthmore-local pathmark, more grounded in traditional American values than the flighty flakey NoCal outpost, ginseng, even ginko enjoy prominent places on the shelves next to garlic pills, amongst the non-prescription painkillers. They are billed as stimulents, and clearly noted on some packages is the oriental point of origin.
Whether the package is foreign, or the name, or the resource itself,...now the Orient must be made to perform, its power must be enlisted on the side of "our" values, civilization, interests, goals. Knowledge of the Orient is directly translated into activity...the supermarket stocks oriental uppers, the celestine prophecy provides a means of integrating oriental principles into our lives; both offer easy oriental contributions to workaday stress relief as well as productivity.
- Said, Orientalism, page 238
if we identify new agism with grown up hippies, the new age has its roots in folks that lived close to the ground, distancing themselves from mass consumer culture.
having come into money of their own, too busy to tread a decided, difficult spiritual path, but still yearning for higher wisdom, they attempt to consume their way to enlightenment.
oriental religions aren't the only ones to find people purchasing participation,most new age discourse, through mass media channels, is comprised of appropriating voices. native critics are given short shrift.
During a spring break trip to Daytona Beach, I landed in the midst of Bike Week '96. There was a sense, through the denim and leather, that one could use certain commodity signifyers to join the group.
simultaineously, there was a feeling that poseur yuppies had invaded,
I saw one t-shirt:
15 grand and 15 miles
don't make you a biker.
are natives being done a disservice by their wisdom incorporation?
in some cases, they themselves directly profit from spiritual tourists pilgrimmage to their states, or packaging their cultures for new age audiences, Deepak Chopra for one.
judging this captial influx corrupting and denying foreign folks their democratic consumption choice is problematic as well,
so about all we can safely say is that nothing is pure.
For a Physics class I'm in this semester, "In Search of Reality", I was assigned to explore an other reality system; the syllabus lists mostly "oriental" resources, from faraway places.
I chose the I Ching, an "ancient" chinese oracle.
I studied western sources, western translations and reintepretations of old materials.
I found R.L. Wing arguing for the use-value of appropriation,In an attempt to bring the essence and idea of the ancient text into the light of contemporary Western understanding, the workbook contains modern terminology in place off the original word symbols, the meaning of which are lost on those unfamiliar with the significance of the wild goose, the flying dragon, the withered poplar, and so forth. While some persons are gifted with mythic understanding and are quite able to comprehend fully the beautifully imagistic translations, for most the everyday catch phrases of a cultural work nearly five thousand years old are obscure.this is for me stomachable, if not ideal. I sort of enjoy archaic/obscure references - R. L. Wing, The I Ching Workbook, page 29 probably for similar reasons I spell colour, or I would rather have the 30's editions of the Hardy Boys books that refer to trousers, instead of pants.
This essentializing, cleansing process is made whitewash by the grandfather of western I Ching translation, Richard Wilhelm:the chief concern has been to bring to light the spiritual aspect of the book, the wisdom concealed under its frequently odd forms.
- Wilhelm, I Ching, page 255
The New Age revolves around this idea of accessibility, here we see the judgement implicit.
When I wrote about Way of the Shaman, I mentioned my tai chi class.
traditionally a steadily paced lifetime pursuit, and yet I could make it work for me just by dedicating just a few hours a week.
dalliance, dilletantism. most of the new age folks I know have such a broad range of interests that one particular strain of spirituality is not at risk for holding their attention too long
it's like spiritual attention deficit disorder.
maybe I'm just projecting.
jack of all trades, master of none?
am I just wildly appropriating to fill my colonial hole? following in the footsteps of cultural pioneers, who discovered the east and built a highway so I could come and go as I please.
Before I start feeling guilty about that, I think about my publishing experience. I haven't taken enough english classes to be a writer, and yet, here I am, beyond dabbling to have made it integral.
there's something wonderful about being able to assimilate perspectives, pursuits
(like Harner and Redfield, I too offer a means to transform society (computopia!) (at least I'm not yet selling audio tapes).
If it helps people it ain't bad, right?
New Age Magazine cracked this nut for me, with a close reading of Redfield, "The Celestine Prophet":More troubling is Redfield's treatment of his characters. Most of the "good guys" the narrator meets during his romp around Peru are educated white Americans or Europeans; most of the "bad guys" are "native Peruvians." And all of the leading characters are guys -- the codependent female love interest is sent packing when she can't get past the Third Insight. The "native" Peruvians are often left nameless, or get described as "short and squat," or speak English even among themselves. Painful stereotypes are reinforced throughout the book, as in this early passage: "The streets were filled with people, mostly native Peruvians. But here and there I passed some Americans and Europeans. Something about seeing the tourists made me feel safer." This kind of unconscious racism and sexism is hardly in keeping with the spiritual message of the book or its avowedly progressive new "Interpersonal Ethic."so not only are we getting "Spirituality Lite" it's still saturated with colonial prejudice and pugilism. - from New Age Journal, July/August 1994, "The Celestine Prophet", by Alan AtKisson
if you read elsewhere in that interview, you'll see that he claims the story is just decoration on his ideas - a spoonful of sugar...
unfortunately, sugar does not replace a meal, indeed it often sours the stomach.