We’ll make quick work of the next two decades of my healing career. I did what I set out to do.
I studied, taught classes, performed healings, taught other people to heal themselves, traveled, researched, and eventually wrote nine titles on spiritual healing and metaphysics – all of which questioned and challenged the New Age status quo. My work focused on grounding yourself, staying present in your body (instead of floating off in some dissociative meditative practice), and healing your own aura and chakras, instead of paying someone else to do it for you.
I also focused my practice on survivors of trauma, and on helping emotionally troubled people center and calm themselves (I learned to do this first on myself, and then on the students at the FCPA who were unraveling and decompensating all around me).
In my career, I challenged the unhealthy “your thoughts control the world” belief (which has now returned in the form of The Secret, because that idea just won’t die!). I did psychic readings and healings for free or barter (I made my money through teaching, writing, and odd jobs), and I worked to maintain normal relationships with people I taught or healed (instead of creating a false hierarchy like they did at the FCPA).
I also did everything I could to avoid (often to the chagrin of my publishers and publicists) the cult of the personality that is so rampant in the New Age. Whenever I got promo materials, I’d delete anything that suggested I was a chosen one (such as
world-renowned chakra expert and spiritual leader Karla McLaren).
In my work, I focused on teaching people to heal their own auras and chakras so that I’d be out of a job. I decided early in my career that my books would provide my income, because I had noticed that people whose income is based on healing others generally have a vested (though often entirely unconscious) interest in keeping their customers, no matter what.
When your income depends on sick people, you tend to focus on sickness and imperfections, and you tend to create dependencies. I saw it with my chiropractors, who scared me away from other kinds of practitioners (“Western medicine is all about cutting and poisoning, but chiropractic works with the body naturally,” etc.), and with my homeopaths, acupuncturists, and massage therapists, who usually voiced similar warnings about any other form of medicine.
To be fair, I also saw this tendency in conventional therapists, physicians, and psychiatrists; I think it’s universal to think that what you’re doing is better than the alternative. When your livelihood depends on repeat business, you have to create brand loyalty. However, when your income also depends on people being sick or hurt, there is an unfortunate tendency to slide down a slippery ethical slope.
Being an expert in someone else’s life is amazingly self-affirming, and your ego can very easily sweep you away into a kind of self-absorbed grandiosity* where you think you have all the answers and can do no wrong. I saw it at the Lake of Li, at the FCPA, and in the green rooms and back stage areas on the New Age lecture circuit.
*However, healers have not cornered the market on self-absorption; I also see it in college professors and skeptics, I see it in the researchers I read, and I see it in academic peer review committees. Being an expert can easily trip you up and make you stop questioning yourself. It’s an expertise problem, and it’s not something that many people become aware of until it’s too late. In my own practice, I tried like mad not to fall down that slippery slope, but it was ridiculously difficult. I think the fact that I was watching for grandiosity and pomposity is what pulled me up so sharply when I heard myself tell that story about Atlantis. I had completely crossed a line.
Empathic Activism Dollars!
When I became better known and experienced a sudden, time-consuming demand for phone consultations, I did begin charging – but I created a pretty ingenious system through which people could still work with me for free. I called it Empathic Activism Dollars, and it consisted of my clients doing a few hours of volunteer work or social activism within their communities in exchange for my consultation. That was fun, because I knew that good was being done in the world, and that’s much better than money, to me anyway.
I didn’t do a great number of consultations, because I was very busy (I produced my nine titles in five years and toured constantly) – but I was glad to consult because I was able to remain in direct contact with my readers. This contact was very important, because it supplied me with a continually updated understanding of the issues, difficulties, and aspirations of people in the New Age community.
This level of accessibility is uncommon for New Age teachers, who often become isolated in their celebrity and begin charging ludicrous sums for their consultations. But because I didn’t become isolated, the close contact I maintained with readers meant that my books and tapes could challenge (in a non-threatening way) many of the fashionable ideas of New Age spirituality – for instance, that the physical world and the body are illusions, or that the intellect is a hindrance to enlightenment, or that the emotions are a sign of imbalance or spiritual immaturity.
I also challenged the idea that spirituality or the spiritual aspect of the psyche is the highest, greatest, and most valuable part of the self – and I most strongly challenged the idea that judgment should be forbidden to spiritual seekers.
In a very Pythonesque turn of events, one of my books about the aura and chakras (Your Aura & Your Chakras: The Owner’s Manual, 1998) became a suggested text at the Flying Circus Psychic Academy! They don’t seem to realize who I am, but they chose the book for its frank information about psychic shenanigans, professional ethics, and the down-to-earth use of psychic skills. I even wrote an entire book about the irreplaceable necessity of emotions (Emotional Genius, 2001, updated in 2010 as The Language of Emotions) that was warmly embraced by the traditionally emotion-averse New Age community. For that, I think I deserve a parade or something.
And yet … after the terrorist attacks of 2001, and after decades in the New Age, I looked back over my long career in healing and teaching – at all the books and tapes I produced with tremendous care and concern for the audience – and I found myself reeling. I truly thought that I could write to the center of the trouble in the New Age, metaphysical, and spiritualist movements. I thought I could help people retrieve their good judgment and protect themselves from victimization or just plain loopy thinking. I thought I could help people retain what was true and valuable in New Age spirituality and separate out the rest.
But I taught all over the country – at Naropa University, the Omega Institute, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Whole Life Expos, the Association of Humanistic Psychology, and all the best venues – and what I saw made me question nearly everything I wrote, said, or did.
Here’s why: Since I was a young girl, I had been working through a series of if-then assumptions that took quite a while to test thoroughly. I felt strongly that if I could just get away from the cults, the unbalanced schools, the magic promises, and the questionable leaders – if I could get to the serious spiritual venues and meet the serious people, then I would find the depth and the meaning in the New Age/metaphysical movement. But it didn’t work out that way.
What I saw – once I had finally made it to those serious venues – was that the audiences (and the presenters) were, for the most part, susceptible and sensitive people who had become frankly marginalized by their participation in New Age spirituality and metaphysics. But because the New Age community is so large and because it reaches into so many areas of life, it was hard for me to see that marginalization at first. Though I met many brilliant, funny, and caring people, what I observed throughout the movement (in both the creepy and the serious parts of it) made me deeply concerned – not just emotionally, but socially and politically as well.
I saw that the movement almost invariably taught people – most especially women – to become more susceptible, more gullible, and less able to identify faulty assumptions, improper behavior, and cognitive errors (the insistent New Age prohibition against judgment is a huge culprit here).
As a citizen of a post-Twin Towers country that was fast becoming less free and less democratic, I was deeply concerned that so many people in the middle class (and the intelligentsia) were paying good money to learn to think less and to question less (and to imagine that through their karma or their affirmations, they could have complete control over their circumstances, their health, their finances, or other people’s behavior).
I began to observe the world around me in a kind of protracted, slow motion way. Though I had once assumed that the plethora of spiritual beliefs and health choices available in the New Age was a positive thing, I began to question that assumption. I began to realize that I, my friends, my readers, and my colleagues were dealing with what can only be described as a “serial pelting” of spiritual ideologies and health fads.
Because no matter what your condition is, there’s always some magical curative just around the corner. These curatives come fast and furious in the New Age. Without exaggerating, I can say that new promises and new cures arise (or old ones are modified) on a monthly basis – like new Andean spirulina, secret Native cures, new African healers, pyramid hats, magic water, new Reiki* that’s totally different from the old Reiki because it’s channeled by dolphins, herbal hormones, shamanic healing, trips to newly discovered sacred sites (sacredness picks up and moves every couple of years, apparently), new and longer meditation workshops, miracle vitamins, miracle herbs, or an appointment with the Dalai Lama’s personal physician!
*Reiki is a Japanese form of energy healing that purportedly uses cosmic energy to revitalize people’s bodies, chakras, and auras. It has become ubiquitous in the space of a few decades, and in California at least, is often used by holistic nurses as a part of patient care. Therapeutic Touch is a similar energetic healing modality, and in some cases is more accepted by the nursing community.
My own books and tapes had made it into this cornucopia of curative choices, and for a while I was happy to have made my mark. But my happiness didn’t last very long.
As I looked around me at the unhappiness and anxiety that is everywhere in the New Age, I began to ask unsettling questions: “If any of these beliefs or healing modalities worked, wouldn’t they have worked by now? If any of these things actually healed people, wouldn’t we all be able to get on with our lives? If these modalities worked, then why do we all require such an overwhelming amount of new input? What’s really going on here?” It looked to me as if we had all become compulsive spiritual consumers without a consumer-protection agency!
We can only go so far in the New Age
Let me state emphatically that most of us in the New Age are free to point out (to each other, anyway) instances of fraud, deception, or improper behavior that we have personally witnessed. It is also commonplace for many of us to steer each other away from questionable teachers, dangerous remedies, or ineffectual ideas. We’re not zombies!
However, many of the foundations of New Age thought – its distrust of judgment and the intellect, its emphasis on the spiritual instead of the physical, its reliance on ostensibly God-approved authorities, and its unfortunate insistence that we all create our own reality – make thorough questioning nearly impossible.
We can only go so far in the New Age community. We can (sometimes) question a teacher’s behavior, but not the entirety of his or her teachings (which are almost always attributed to spiritual sources). We can question one form of energy healing that doesn’t work, but we can’t question the entire idea of energy healing. We can warn each other away from this week’s miracle cure, technique, or concoction, but we can’t openly question how closely miracle cures are tied to the placebo effect, the body’s miraculous (yet natural) capacity to heal itself, or whether supposed healing miracles are caused by fervent certainties about the unrivaled correctness of alternative medicine and alternative spirituality (as my mom’s early healing seems to have been).
We can only go so far in the New Age culture; therefore, when I understood the myriad disservices being done to people and needed to question everything about the New Age – down to the bone and back to the beginning – I hit a wall. There was no culturally sanctioned place for me to go to ask my questions. There was no opening, no path, no procedure, and no permission.
I also discovered that my questions had an extremely destabilizing effect on the people around me – far more so than they did in my youth (when I questioned my Lake of Li comrades or my FCPA schoolmates). Writing my books and becoming a recognized specialist had placed me in a position of power that gave my questions far too much weight and far too much importance.
In just the few deep conversations I had with other New Age people, I learned that I was no longer free to think or speak as I pleased. I had become some kind of figurehead, and though I was allowed to question the New Age up to a certain point, I wasn’t allowed to go any further in calling my culture’s beliefs onto the carpet.
Some people tried to argue me back into compliance with their beliefs, while others simply cut their ties with me (as if I were the carrier of an infectious disease). As I reflect on the situation now, I see that my deeper and more intense questioning (which came after I had tested so many of my early if-then assumptions) was a normal part of intellectual and moral development. Sadly, in my culture, that kind of development was unwelcome – so I had to ask my questions elsewhere.
Next post: 6: Becoming a Hermit