New Age

New Age describes a broad movement characterized by alternative approaches to traditional Western culture. The New Age movement is particularly concerned with spiritual exploration, holistic medicine and mysticism. Although no rigid boundaries actually exist, the term New Age covers general perspectives on history, religion, spirituality, medicine, lifestyles, and music.

Until the late 1960s, the term New Age movement referred specifically to followers of Alice Bailey's ideas about a coming New Age. Since then, however, the term New Age has come to have a broader meaning. It no longer represents a single belief system, but is instead an aggregate of beliefs and practices (syncretism), some of which come from established myths and religions. Inside the New Age category one may find individuals who use a "do-it-yourself" approach, other groups with established belief systems resembling religions, and still other fixed belief systems, such as clubs or fraternal organizations.

Meanwhile, some individuals whose beliefs may be labeled New Age (including neo-pagans) may feel this is inappropriate because it might link them with other beliefs and practices. Any broad category can appear meaningless or misleading; one use of New Age may be: not a mainstream Christian church.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 History
3 Philosophy
4 Religion
5 Spirituality
6 Medicine
7 Music
8 Lifestyle
9 Related Topics
10 External Links

Origins

As well as its diurnal rotation upon its axis, the Earth also has a precessional motion involving a slow periodic shift of the axis itself; approximately one degree every 70 years. (A similar phenomenon can be observed in the motion of a toy gyroscope or spinning top.) This motion, which is caused mostly by the Moon's gravity, gives rise to the precession of the equinoxes whose exact dates shift gradually with time.

The Solar Age is defined by the constellation in which the Sun appears during the vernal equinox. Since each sign of the zodiac subtends (on average) 30 degrees, each solar age lasts approximately 70 x 30 = 2,100 years. Thus the current solar age (Pisces), which began around the time of Christ, is due to end some time in the 21st. Century Common Era, and will be replaced by the "New Age" of Aquarius.

Astrology associates the Age of Pisces with the yang, i.e. rationality and materialism. Aquarius, on the other hand represents the yin, with its emphasis on spirituality and intuition. The New Age Movement sees itself as the harbinger of this future change-over of values.

History

Although the idea of a new age has clear precedents in Jewish apocalypticism, New Age people may derive their beliefs from religious and philosophical traditions originally outside the Western mainstream, including the occult and Hinduism and Buddhism. Most of the phenomena listed below under Related Topics can be traced to less common practices in Europe and North America over the past few centuries. For example the Theosophical Society of the mid-19th century espoused many principles, whose roots may be linked to present time New Age ideas:

The degree of acceptance with which these beliefs and practices have been viewed by society at large has waxed and waned over time.

At the onset of its most recent waxing, the New Age movement emerged as a disorganized coalition out of the 1960s counter-culture movement or "happening" in North America and Europe, perhaps only tangentially informed by Alice Bailey's neo-theosophy. In a manner similar to the grass-roots political and life-style movements of that time, New Agers dissatisfied with the then widely-accepted norms and beliefs of western society offered new interpretations from a spiritual viewpoint of science, history, and the religion of the Judeo-Christian establishment. An important center for the New Age movement during the twentieth century was the Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland.

In 1967 the successful musical Hair with its opening song "Aquarius" and the memorable line "This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius" brought the New age concept to the attention of a huge world wide audience.

These recent populist origins may indeed help characterize the New Age approach, which emphasizes an individual's choice in spiritual matters; the role of personal intuition and experience over societally sanctioned expert opinion; and an experiential, rather than primarily empirical, definition of reality.

Philosophy

Many adherents of belief systems characterised as New Age rely heavily on the use of metaphors to describe experiences deemed to be beyond the empirical. Consciously or unconsciously, New Agers tend to redefine vocabulary borrowed from various belief systems, which can cause some confusion as well as increase opposition from skeptics and the traditional religions. In particular, the adoption of terms from the parlance of science such as "energy", "energy fields", and various terms borrowed from quantum physics and psychology but not then applied to any of their subject matter, have served to confuse the dialog between science and spirituality, leading to derisive labels such as pseudoscience and psycho-babble.

This phenomenon is additionally compounded by the propensity of some New Agers to pretend to esoteric meanings for familiar terms; the New Age meaning of the esoteric term is typically quite different than the common use, and is often described as intentionally inaccessible to those not sufficiently trained in the area of their use. This is usually intended as a means of protection for the uninitiated against the danger inherent in the power of the underlying idea (as noted below).

While the term New Age covers a large number of beliefs and practices, certain modes of thought are fairly commonly held:

  • The primacy of subjective experience. In keeping with its roots as a counter-cultural phenomenon and its syncretic nature, New Age adherents tend to emphasize a relativist approach to truth, often referring to the Vedic statement of "one truth, but many paths" which is also found in the Zen Buddhist spiritual dictum of "many paths, one mountain". This belief is not only an assertion of personal choice in spiritual matters, but also an assertion that truth itself is defined by the individual and his or her experience of it.

This relativism is not merely a spiritual relativism, but also extends to physical theories. Reality is considered largely from an experiential and subjective mode. Many New Age phenomena are not expected to be repeatable in the scientific sense, since they are presumed to be apparent only to the receptive mind; for example, telepathy may not be achievable by a skeptical mind, since a skeptical mind is not pre-conditioned to expect the phenomenon to exist.

  • Rejection of scientific physics. There is typically a mysticism-based (rather than experiment-and-theory-based) view of describing and controlling the external world; for example, one might believe that tarot card reading works because of the "interconnectedness principle", rather than regarding the success (or failure) of tarot card reading as evidence of the interconnectedness principle. The various New Age vitalist theories of health and disease provide further examples.

In contrast to the scientific method, the failure of some practice to achieve expected results is not considered as a failure of the underlying theory, but as a lack of knowledge about (hidden) extenuating circumstances. This stance has led some skeptics to pronounce the New Age movement to be primarily anti-intellectual in nature.

Within this context of relativism, one still finds many commonalities regarding the nature of the world:

  • Forces. It is commonly held that there exist certain forces, independent of spiritual beings or agencies, and also distinct from forces as defined by science (e.g., gravitation, electro-magnetism, etc.). These forces are elemental in nature; and are held to operate in an automatic fashion as part of the natural order (for example, the force which causes seeds to sprout, grow, and bloom). It is worth noting that this view is incompatible with contemporary science: the forces posited by physics are supposed to exhaustively describe the behaviour of the universe, so anything acting according to another force would have to break the laws of physics.

  • Power. The "forces", and everything else, are energized by a mystical power that exists in varying degrees in all things. Power is transferable, through physical contact, sensory perception, or mere proximity. Power may be accumulated or depleted in a person or object through a variety of mechanisms, including fate and esoteric practices. This power is held to be physically observable as "auras" and "psi energy"; and when encountered in great concentration, may even be dangerous.

  • Energy. In some belief systems, "forces" and "power" may seem to merge; e.g., in the concept of "vital force" that exists in so many traditional belief systems, and finds its expression in New Age concepts such as the alleged "energies" in Therapeutic Touch and Reiki, and ideas of flowing streams of power in Earth, like "leylines" in Britain and Europe and earth energies addressed in the Chinese geomantic system of feng shui. The New Age use of the word "energy" should obviously not be confused with the scientific one.

  • Spirit. All beings (particularly sentient beings) are accompanied by a specific, intentional "energy" which corresponds to their consciousness, but is in some way independent of their corporeal existence. This energy typically is more primary than the physical entity, in the sense that it remains in some form after the physical death of that being.

  • Holism. A coherent, interconnected cosmos. Everything in the cosmos is actually or potentially interconnected, as if by invisible threads, not only in space but also across time. Further, it is held that every thing and every event that has happened, is happening, or will happen leaves a detecable record of itself in the cosmic "medium" such as the Akashic records or the morphogenic field.

  • Cosmic goal. There is typically a belief that all entities are (willingly or unwillingly) cooperating in some cosmic goal of achieving a "higher" or more complete coherence with a cosmic "consciousness" (or some other goal state of "goodness"), often described as an evolutionary process or simply to learn. This underlying cosmic goal gives direction to all events, reducing the concept of coincidence to one of ignorance of hidden meaning.

In addition, many "New Age" practices and beliefs may make use of what may be termed "magical" thinking (as defined in, for example, The Golden Bough by James Frazer). Common examples are the principle that objects once in contact maintain a practical link, or that objects that have similar properties exert an effect on each other.

Religion

The New Age movement has evolved in the so called Western and industrialised countries, which have inherited a Judeo-Christian tradition. As such then Jesus has been reinvented by the New Age movement as a guru.

However, in keeping with its relativist stance, New Agers believe they do not contradict traditional belief systems, but rather fulfill the ultimate truths contained within them, separating these truths from false tradition and dogma. On the other hand, adherents of other religions often claim that the New Age movement has a superficial understanding of these religious concepts, leaving out that which may not seem "negative" or contradict contemporary Western values and that New Age attempts at religious syncretism are vague and self-contradictory. The New Age movement have been particularly interested in Buddhism, Sufism and Taoism.

Spirituality

Many individuals are responsible for the recent popularity of New Age spirituality, especially in the United States. James Redfield, author of The Celestine Prophecy and other New Age books, provides an open-ended, spirituality-based, life system derived from his own macrocosmic philosophy concerning mankind's state of spiritual evolution. Marianne Williamson updated A Course in Miracles when she penned her work A Return to Love. The spirituality of the New Age coexists and correlates with each individual's fundamental paradigm shift.

The gnostic approach of experiential insight and revelation of truth may be closer to the New Age methodology of prayers and spirituality. Due to the personal individualist nature of revealed truth, New-Agers often walk down the old road of gnosis, paved with modernized eclectic stone. In Experiential Spirituality and Contemporary Gnosis Diane Brandon writes:

And this emphasis on spirituality and consciousness reflects an acknowledgment that we are, in essence, spiritual beings - and beings of pure energy, as consciousness is a form of energy - even though we are 'in the body.' As Wayne Dyer says, 'We are spiritual beings having a human experience.' Or, as Deepak Chopra says, our bodies are contained within our consciousness, not our consciousness contained within our bodies.
Many have theorized that the current interest in spirituality and metaphysics may in part be viewed as a reaction against the Age of Reason and the perceived pursuant overemphasis on the strictly material and empirical - that there is a longing for the transcendently spiritual, instead of feeling bogged down in a strict immersion in the physical. I.e., after a couple of centuries of emphasis on the empirically provable and concrete, there is a longing for the spiritual as an antidote.
Small wonder, then, that New Agers and those into metaphysics want to experience their spirituality, so that they may feel it, rather than simply think it, and that they want to have some control over their practice or manifestation of it, rather than strictly going through an external intermediary. This shift to a feeling of control over one's expression of spirituality also reflects the trend towards personal responsibility, as well as personal empowerment.

Medicine

Many people have adopted alternative methods of medicine that incorporate New Age beliefs. Some of the techniques in this list are herbal medicine, Ayurveda, acupuncture, iridology, and the use of crystals in healing therapy. Users of these techniques find them helpful in treating illness; at the very least, their personal involvement in their own treatment increases. Some rely on New Age treatments exclusively, while others use them in combination with conventional medicine.

It should be noted that, when considered purely as medical techniques, most of these systems of treatment are viewed with extreme skepticism in scientific circles. When tested using the same types of regimens as those applied to pharamaceutical drugs and surgical techniques (for example, double blind clinical studies), these systems typically do not yield demonstrable improvements over standard techniques, and may even produce harm in a greater number of cases.

However, one benefit of New Age medicine's popularity, and its criticism of conventional medicine, has been to encourage many medical practitioners to pay closer attention to the entire patient's needs rather than just her or his specific disease [1]. Such approaches, termed "holistic medicine", are now becoming more popular. Conventional medicine has recognised that a patient's state of mind can be crucial in determining the outcome of many diseases, and this perception has helped recast the roles of doctor and patient as more egalitarian.

While a broader understanding of the patient's health is clearly useful, this requires communication between patient and doctor: relying on New Age treatments exclusively carries the risk of neglecting a treatable condition until too late. Patients using herbs and other unconventional approaches need to be sure their doctors are aware of what they're doing. Herbal remedies can interact in a variety of ways with prescription drugs or mask symptoms of the underlying disease.

Critics of New Age medicine continue to point out that without some kind of testing procedure, there is no way of separating those techniques, medicinal herbs, and lifestyle changes which actually contribute to increased health from those which have no effect, or which are actually deleterious to one's health. Even seemingly "innocent" techniques such as Therapeutic Touch may potentially cause physical, spiritual, and religious harm (see Therapeutic Touch: What Could Be the Harm?, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine). Yet some hospitals, such as St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam, New York, offer patients Healing Touch or Therapeutic Touch therapies which complement traditional medicine (see St. Mary's Center for Complementary Therapies).

Some motion in this direction has occurred; for example, there is one noteworthy trial study in San Francisco on breast cancer in women [1], [1]. Dr. Yeshe Donden, former physician to the Dalai Lama, prescribed Tibetan herbs for treatments in a double blind trial. The Phase I trial involving 11 patients closed November 2000. On March 13, 2002 Debu Tripathy, M.D., Director of the CAM program at UCSF Breast Care Center, commented on the study findings at a breast cancer research forum:

The FDA would only approve 7 formulas. We only enrolled 11 patients of the hoped for 30. The result showed no safety problems. Of the 9 patients who were evaluated, we found one patient with a temporary response, the other 8 had progression of their cancer. Our next step is to do an expanded study with all the herbs and a much larger number of patients. This will probably have to be done outside the U.S.

Music

A large percentage of New Age music is instrumental, and electronic, although vocal arrangements are also common. Enya, who won a Grammy for her new age music, sings in a variety of languages, including Latin, in many of her works. Medwyn Goodall, not as widely known, relies mainly on electronic keyboard effects, and includes acoustic guitar as well. To understand this musical category may help shed light on the New Age perspective.

Arguably, this music has its roots in the 1970s with the works of such free-form jazz groups recording on the ECM label such as Oregon, the Paul Winter Group, and other pre-ambient bands; as well as ambient performers such as Brian Eno.

Music labeled New Age often has a vision of a better future, expresses an appreciation of goodness and beauty, even an anticipation, relevant to some event. Rarely does New Age music dwell on a problem with this world or its inhabitants; instead it offers a peaceful vision of a better world. Often the music is celestial, when the title names stars or deep space explorations. Ennio Morricone wrote the entire score for the movie Mission to Mars, and while the credits flash we hear All the Friends, New Age orchestral style.

The titles of New Age music are often illuminating, because the words used by the artists attempt to convey their version of truth, in a few short words. On listening to the music, one may understand the idea within the title. Examples of titles: Bond of Union, Sweet Wilderness, Shepherd Moons, Animus Anima.

Lifestyle

The following subjective description of a New Age lifestyle illuminates the sociological dimension of the New Age movement. Note the references to the "inter-connectedness" of all things: "...people feeling somehow, mysteriously, they have met before or known each other from a distant time..." and an implicit cosmic goal "...two people meet and sense there may be a hidden meaning, or reason why...". Rather than reliance on social forms such as regular church attendance, New Agers "recognize" each other through their mutal perception of shared values, and the shibboleths of New Age terms and usages:

New Age lifestyles can be observed anywhere that people meet, congregate, and visit. To an outside observer, the eventful outcome of this meeting differs from other similar meetings she may have seen before, because something changes. Something clicks in people's behavior making them exchange information, most always with everyone getting more out of the event than was individually put into it. This often happens in New Age lifestyles, becoming so common one would think the new age has already left a mark on the mainstream! At one time before the New Age lifestyle silently, without any fanfare, changed western society, the outcome of interaction was: someone wins and the other loses. Although this is an overly simplistic view of social intercourse, it did exist in general, at large. New Age introduced a think tank style of social interaction, which results in a synergy--all involved in a meaningful event are left with more clarity, higher and more focused than beforehand. Again, this is an overly simplisitic view. People may not even believe they are New Agers, though they fit the general pattern.

A typical conversation may begin in groups or in pairs, where the subject involves insights, deeply held truths, or even revelations, from a known or unknown origin. The result of this interaction may bond the people involved who share similar visions or outlooks. Feelings of déjà vu may occur, with people feeling somehow, mysteriously, they have met before or known each other from a distant time in history.

Shopping at a store dealing in herbal supplements, two people meet and sense there may be a hidden meaning, or reason why they just happened to be purchasing ginseng tea at that particular moment, in that particular place, at the same time. Rather than overlooking the event, tucking it away as a mere coincidence, they talk, more often about themselves to each other, and interact, a key component of this lifestyle.

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