After nearly two years of study (and that final wake-up call from my Atlantean pelvis alien), I was so alarmed by the implications of my support of New Age ideas that I slammed the brakes on my career.
I cancelled all of my workshops, stopped doing consultations, edited my website, and turned down a number of book contracts. I made these changes as quietly as possible because I knew I’d get very little support or understanding from anyone. I also cleaned out my snail-mail and e-mail files and reread thousands of pieces of correspondence from people all over the globe.
Until I did that – until I reread all of those letters and e-mails in a row, I hadn’t noticed how alike they were. They were all from New Age people who – no matter their age, gender, educational status, or nationality – were wrestling with the same basic difficulties in protecting themselves from misinformation, untestable claims, untrained teachers and healers, and general confusion (including confusion about my work, which veered significantly from many accepted New Age ideas).
I had originally responded to each of these concerns as unique, and when I answered each one, I know I was thinking to myself: If I can just write well enough, if I can just present models that will help people think clearly, if I can just help people find safe resources, if I can just….
I see now that I was like Sisyphus of the Greek myth, endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, only to watch it fall back down every time I got to the top. Though I meant well and was honestly trying to protect people, I finally saw that I was doing no lasting good.
I saw that by just using New Age jargon, or talking about unverifiable metaphysical concepts of energy, or imagining that there is another world and that people survive beyond death, I was helping people maintain their confirmation biases and support their motivated reasoning.
The ideas of the New Age are interesting, but they unfortunately exist within a framework that can invite all sorts of confusing and even damaging information into people’s lives. Though I realized that people needed to be responsible for themselves, and that I didn’t hold a hypnotic sway over my readers, my concerns were intensified because I knew my audience. I knew that many people in the New Age, spirituality, and metaphysics were there because they were in pain, because they didn’t fit in, or because they hadn’t been able to find help or comfort anywhere else.
It’s important to understand that alternatives become necessary when the conventional fails.
Many people in the New Age are just fine, but there is a significant percentage of the population that is in pain, highly sensitive, and highly susceptible to suggestion and harm. Yet since the conventional world had already failed them, they were unlikely to return to it; this was the only support they had.
People in pain are particularly susceptible to magical promises of hope and healing. These promises come fast and furious in the New Age; without exaggerating, I can say that new promises and cures debut (or old ones are modified) on a monthly basis. However, because New Age attempts at research are self-validating and uncritical, New Age followers have no culturally sanctioned ways to ascertain whether any of these thousand promises are valid or not.
And if people in the New Age try to seek out critical or skeptical information (if they even know such information exists) most of them will be completely turned off by its polarizing tone – which means that they’ll be completely unprotected in the face of misinformation, unverified healing modalities, and outright deception.
Though I don’t feel that I personally injured people in my healing career, my horror arose when I realized that I was supporting a culture that had no checks or balances whatsoever. This was totally unacceptable to me.
I had no idea where to go or what to do. I careened between rage, self-hatred, and despair – not simply because I had swallowed a great deal of information that I didn’t fully understand, but because I had intentionally become a purveyor of that information. I was also dreadfully isolated, since even my close family couldn’t deal with the shocking changes I was undergoing. I tried to keep myself afloat and functional, and I tried to keep everything contained, but I was falling apart.
During that excruciating time, some good friends visited us for a weekend – and my husband Tino wondered how I’d do, because these friends were deeply involved in the New Age. I didn’t want any scenes or philosophical arguments, so I put on my best pretend face for their visit, and tried to steer our conversations toward movies, politics, cooking … whatever. We actually had fun, yet it was a strange weekend, because I discovered that, when you got right down to it, these friends were incredibly anxious and uncomfortable – though I had never been able to see that through all of their New Age attitudes and behaviors.
Every hour or so during their visit, one or the other of our friends would take a wellness formula, a healing tea, a meditation break, a Bach Flower remedy (these are flower tinctures used for emotional upsets), a reflexology foot rub, a chanting session, or something else. Our friends had brought special foods, special soaps and shampoos, special healing crystals, and their own pillows with special neck rolls.
Three or four months prior to their visit, I would have joined my friends in each of these special activities and rituals; however, as a part of my self-directed research, I had stopped using all of my usual props and remedies to see just what would happen. I found that nothing did happen, though I missed the routine and comfort that were provided by my endless cures, remedies, meditation techniques, teas, vitamins, and dietary restrictions. It was fascinating to observe this couple from my new perspective, because I had finally become separate enough from their lifestyle to see it objectively.
My houseguests showed me something I really hadn’t been able to see before – and strangely, my despair lifted that weekend as my curiosity returned. I had always known that the New Age attracts a very large number of traumatized and dissociated people (that’s actually one of the central premises of my books and tapes). However, I had never been separate from New Age beliefs, rituals, and paraphernalia long enough to observe how these rituals help people manage their depressions, dissociative tendencies, post-traumatic anxieties, and other uncomfortable conditions.
Throughout my life, I had noticed that the New Age population was in large part a very sensitive group of people. In conventional medicine or psychotherapy, the level of awareness and sensitivity these people struggle with has been characterized as a form of pathology. However, sensitive people like my friends and me are made very comfortable in the New Age. With the endless treatment choices offered in the New Age, sensitive people can find an abundance of ever-changing supports, crutches, or remedies for just about anything they suffer, think, feel, or imagine.
All of these New Age remedies and paraphernalia are quite soothing – and yet I finally saw during my friends’ weekend visit that the soothing had no lasting effect.
If it did, people like my houseguests (or, until recently, me) wouldn’t need to dose themselves regularly, or go from my books to this therapist to that workshop to this herbal remedy to that training – and then to those healers and that ancient power site to that guru and back to my books again ad infinitum (or ad nauseam). The New Age culture and all its trappings can indeed be very soothing, but only for a moment.
Distracting ourselves from the reality of the situation
That weekend, I saw that my houseguests were moving from distraction to distraction in an almost musical rhythm. It was as if they were leaping from rock to rock in search of comfort and meaning – and yet no matter how many rocks they traversed, there was always another magical rock just ahead. They never had to feel discomfort long enough to become fully aware of it. They were distracted by everything, yet told themselves that they were living fully, spiritually, and deeply in each moment.
It was a very important weekend for me because I was able to spend quality time with people from what I considered to be the evolved upper echelon of the New Age (educated, politically aware, middle class). However, what I saw was that my friends’ gullibility and neediness (and mine) wasn’t really that different from the sad people who call dial-a-psychics or drink their own urine as a health tonic.
I had thought that my echelon of the spiritual community was somehow healthier than any other. We had a better vocabulary, better education, a nicer dress code, and freer access to the endless stream of new remedies and teachers – but were we healthier? For me, the answer was no, because no matter how funny, lovely, and bright we were – no matter how politically and socially aware – we were made more vulnerable and less effective through our adherence to New Age cultural norms.
I was strangely relieved to discover this, and I was silently grateful to my friends when the weekend was over, because they helped me look at my own nearly compulsive remedy-seeking tendencies within a cultural framework. I no longer felt as if I were unstable or ignorant for having relied upon all of those magical treatments. Instead, I finally identified my own seemingly excessive remedy-seeking and self-soothing behaviors as normal, expected, and correct within our shared New Age cultural framework.
That weekend was also important for another reason. I had been reeling over being snubbed by the (very few) people who knew that I was questioning New Age beliefs. I felt that those people were choosing their beliefs over me, but I learned that weekend that the situation was a hundred times deeper than any mere disagreement about beliefs could ever be.
I saw that my friendship couldn’t possibly act as a replacement for all of the magical cures and lovely promises made in the New Age – which are so very seductive, psychologically manipulative, advertising-savvy, and slipperier than a handful of salamanders.
The people who had snubbed me had a clear choice: to maintain a worldview that offered them everything or to maintain a relationship with someone who seemed to be losing her faith, falling into despair, and criticizing everything they held dear. Now I understood their choice. I didn’t like it, but now I saw the logic in it.
I also saw that one of my early, self-protective ideas (to ask people to limit their New Age jargon and behaviors around me) was hopelessly absurd and insensitive on my part. I thought I could somehow reorder my existing relationships, but in watching my houseguests, I realized that my requests to people (to lighten up on the New Age references) were tantamount to asking my friends and family not to answer to their own names, or not to have grown up in their own neighborhoods. New Age, spiritual, and metaphysical beliefs were central to the identities of almost everyone I knew.
Leaping across the chasm
That weekend helped me know that I was in way over my head, and that I would never find help or support within my own culture. After my friends left, I did something I would not have even considered before: I took my life into my hands and leapt across the fiery chasm that separates skeptics and believers – and I sent skeptic Robert Carroll an e-mail.
I was frightened about the reception I would receive, but Bob wrote back the very next day in a warm and welcoming way. He was funny, insightful, supportive, and informative, and he became an unofficial mentor to me. Though we sent less than a dozen e-mails back and forth over a period of months, his support (and his willingness to be a sounding board for my questioning process) kept me going through one of the most excruciatingly painful periods of my life.
Bob continually treated me as an intelligent person, and with his help I was able to explore my beliefs as cultural artifacts (instead of signs of gullibility or recklessness). I laugh and say that I was “Healed by skeptics!” but Bob truly did help me avoid falling further into despair.
Bob Carroll’s considerate behavior was unexpected, to say the very least. In the New Age, skeptics are known to be mean-spirited, condescending, and unwelcoming people – but Bob wasn’t any of those things. Bob’s congeniality allowed me to challenge my culturally-sanctioned prejudice against skeptics and delve more deeply into the skeptical culture (online and off). The Skepdic site listed a number of vital books on skepticism and critical thinking (none of which had been available at my local library) – and I was finally able to read works by some skeptical authors who were not rabid, condescending, or one-sided. These authors helped me to see skeptics as people instead of combatants, and slowly, I learned how to reach out to skeptics as people.
I started reading the online skeptical magazines, and I even called the editors of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine to talk about the dangers created by the massive chasm that exists between our two cultures. I ended up having a good conversation with managing editor Ben Radford, and he invited me to write an essay about this epic clash of cultures.
That essay (Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures, published in the May/June 2004 issue) publicly signaled my exit from the New Age. As I look back, I’d probably do it differently if I had it to do over again, because the backlash in the New Age community was pretty disheartening. However, the essay did stop people from thinking I was having a crisis of faith that I would get over in time, as if I were suffering from the flu.
Next post: 10. Neither a Traitor nor a Reformed Sinner