10. Neither a Traitor nor a Reformed Sinner

As I wrote in Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures, I didn’t have a crisis of faith. I had a crisis of conscience, which is a very different thing indeed.

After that essay was published, I was branded as a traitor by many in the New Age. That was hard, but also sadly predictable, since people often read only enough to rile themselves up and cement their current views. However, it was interesting to contrast the reaction of my former New Age compatriots to the reactions I received from many skeptics.*

*I’m going to make a distinction here between cultural skeptics and people who are skeptical because it’s normal to be. We’re all skeptics, and we’re all skeptical; you don’t have to join a group to be skeptical. Skepticism is a function of having a brain, but a cultural skeptic is someone who identifies strongly with the skeptical culture, knows what skeptics are supposed to know, and shares a reliable set of references with other cultural skeptics.

When I wrote my essay, I unconsciously adopted the style of Shakespeare’s “Friend, Romans, countrymen…” speech, where I came in under the defenses of cultural skeptics, called myself out as their enemy, and told them I agreed with them. However, I also gently but persistently asked them why they were such complete failures at communicating their concerns. The response from the skeptical community was amazing. I only got one crank letter, and the rest were from smart and contemplative people who could not only take a punch, but actually suggested that I hit a little harder next time.

It was very freeing to write for people who weren’t thin-skinned, because my experience of the sensitivities of the New Age reader meant that I had to be so careful that I almost couldn’t write at all. Writing dissent material from inside the New Age (where dissent, judgment, and critical discernment are considered rude, unspiritual, and hyper-intellectual) was a linguistic challenge, but I think I did it fairly well.

When I wrote my piece for the Skeptical Inquirer, it was nice to take off the gloves somewhat, say some very challenging things, and then have readers take the challenge and run with it. It was fun to have people actually ask to be argued with and challenged!

I also met some very smart and excellent skeptical friends who agree that the cultural skeptical approach doesn’t really translate into the New Age very well. Many cultural skeptics also understand that you can be skeptical and be a member of the New Age or a religion at the same time (for instance, I certainly was a skeptic in all of my books and tapes, and a dissenter from many New Age tenets). Some of the cultural skeptics I met did not look down on me for an instant, though some of them had to do mental calisthenics to fit me into their worldviews. Bully for them that they did so.

Even so, I didn’t find a way to be comfortable in the cultural skeptical community. I don’t feel comfortable in groups anyway. I am very skeptical, and I always have been, but I don’t need the T-shirt and the coffee mug and the membership card with my picture on it. The skeptical culture is an entirely distinct social world, and it involves many social norms that I don’t feel comfortable with.

I’m a rebel, Dottie

For instance, in many cases, arguing is an important touchstone in cultural skeptical discourse. If you and I are in a skeptical group and I say something to you, you can argue with me about my meaning, my word choice, my grammar, my inference, my understanding, my scholarship, my tone (okay, maybe not tone), or my intentions. You can also freely correct me by providing examples, research, and citations. As you can imagine, this often makes a conversation sputter and lurch like a poorly maintained car. It can be fun for a while, but if you’re arguing with people who are not educated about the topic at hand, the arguing can become really tiring and pointless.

I have also seen that people can be truly hurt if they try to share something about their subjective feelings (which usually requires an assent gesture or a supportive response from the listener). For a cultural skeptic who sees arguing as a form of friendship, an emotional statement can be torn apart even more handily than a logical one can.

Back in 2004, I was on a skeptical e-mail list where the arguing got so absurd that you’d think it was a Monty Python skit. It started when a man named Dave wrote an emotional and nearly poetic response to an unfortunate world event. It was a very good essay, but a fervent cultural skeptic on the list came in with disconfirming evidence and a verbal slap about the inexactitude of emotionalism.*

*In many areas of cultural skepticism (okay, and modern culture!), there is a belief that the emotions are inferior to the intellect. In this belief system, a decision made emotionally is seen as less useful and less intelligent than a decision made intellectually. However, this belief ignores recent neurological research that finds that subjects with damage to the emotional centers of their brains are actually incapable of making decisions and incapable of living independently. Without the emotions’ ability to attach value and meaning to data, all data and inputs have equal value, and there is no way for a person to confidently choose one fact over another, or to skillfully navigate through the social world or. We need intellect and emotion, not merely one or the other. See Antonio Damasio’s books Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, and The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

In defense of Dave’s brilliant pairing of emotion and intellect, most of us on the list chimed in to defend his essay. However, the cultural skeptic, thinking that the argument was now getting interesting, took on the rest of us one by one. As the conflict dragged on, he didn’t think it was important that people being were made miserable by his unrelenting contentiousness. He thought everyone was being illogical and emotional, and he couldn’t understand that he was being socially inappropriate. Eventually, we got so far from the original subject that everything fell apart. I unsubscribed from the list, because I don’t have the time for relationships like that.

Oh my word, going from the extreme of New Age non-judgmentalism to the extreme of argumentativeness in the skeptical culture was too much for me! Banishing judgment is a terrible idea, but too much argument is exhausting, and I began to wonder if the people who enjoyed it had an inability to process emotions effectively. I still do.

These people who love to argue don’t seem very sensitive or perceptive to me, but the arguing may just be a cover for a depth of feeling they don’t know how to manage. I don’t know. But I do know that there’s nearly as much trouble in the skeptical culture as there is in the New Age culture. It’s a different kind of trouble, but it’s trouble nevertheless, and I don’t need more trouble.

I also didn’t enjoy the way some cultural skeptics celebrated me as a reformed sinner who finally became intelligent when she threw off the yoke of supernaturalism, or some such nonsense. It was really hard to take such people seriously. And anyway, I prefer my smart, sensitive, emotionally aware, skeptical, and artistic friends who don’t like to argue merely for the sake of arguing.

Outcast again, but this time by choice 

I’m glad I was a part of both communities, but now, as a person with no country, I look at them both from the outside and ask why? Why can’t intelligent people in the New Age culture and intelligent people in the skeptical culture see the similarity of their wants and needs? They all want to educate, protect, and support people in their quest to find meaning – so why do they engage in a feud that has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to prevent meaningful dialogue?

Certainly, both sides want to be proven right, and both sides want to win, but isn’t that how wars start? I expect ignorant, insensitive, and power-mad people to engage in futile combative behaviors, but if people want to be seen as spiritual or as critical thinkers, they need to stretch themselves and become more than culturally constructed stereotypes.

I am personally invested in these issues, because my journey was made infinitely more grueling by the feud that exists between the New Age and skeptical cultures. In my early visits to cultural skeptical sites, I didn’t feel like a free and unfettered reader – I felt like a traitor and a stumble-bum, and often was made to feel that my ideas and beliefs were ludicrous – and that’s not helpful to anyone.

People in spirituality, metaphysics, religion, and the New Age need to be able to access competent research on the thousands of things they are being taught, sold, and urged to believe – and they need to be able to perform their research without feeling as if they are betraying their cultures, their ideals, or their gods. I know that there could be a middle ground where rationality, faith, intelligence, and mystery might coexist without shots being fired.

The war between these two communities certainly hobbles all of us, but it also has the demoralizing effect of making many people in both feel hopeless and despairing about people in the other.

Some vocal cultural skeptics seem to think that many New Age people are reality refuseniks or deliberate frauds who are incapable of rational or practical thought – just as some vocal New Agers seem to think that many cultural skeptics are rage-filled, Godless reductionists who are incapable of respectful or empathetic communication. These prejudices help all of us treat each other in insensitive and inhumane ways, and that’s unacceptable. As we can clearly see in every other fight except our own, us-versus-them thinking isn’t any kind of thinking at all.

When I originally left my career back in 2003, I imagined that I could build a bridge between these two cultures, because each one has a piece the other sorely lacks. I also imagined that everyone would thank me for pointing this out. HAH! Ow!

Now I see that if I ever did manage to build a bridge between these two warring factions, one side or the other would continually try to tear it (and me) down. And even if I managed to make the bridge strong enough, walking across that bridge would require cultural shifts that I don’t think many people want to make. Many people seem to value a sense of belonging that demands the exclusion or the dehumanization of the other, whoever that other might be. This makes my idea of bridge-building a pretty futile one.

photo of Sisyphus cat In my New Age career, I had already spent decades rolling the rock uphill in futility like Sisyphus did; it wasn’t any fun. I don’t want to spend any more time on that tedious rock pile, so I’ve thrown out the approaches of both cultures and I’m heading out on my own journey … here, on this site.

I am, thankfully, no longer the naïve 10-year-old I was at the beginning of my New Age journey. I don’t see myself as a rabble-rousing savior, and I don’t believe that my work will forevermore change the world. However, I do know that something needs to be done. Because after seeing what my early cultural training did to me and to my career, and what cognitive biases and distortions do to each of us and our society, I know that there has to be another, better, kinder, smarter, and more ethical way.

The magic of reality

For instance, I’ve found in my research that the skills I and other psychics have are actually very understandable from a scientific and rational standpoint, and we’ll explore them on this site. Intuition is real, and it doesn’t have to be supernatural in order to be fascinating and valid.

The sense that there is an aura is also real, and the understanding we can develop about neural body maps, proprioception, and interoception makes for a much fuller, deeper, and more useful explanation than the fall-back paranormal one (it’s the aura!) or the simplistic cultural skeptical one (it’s a hallucination!). Empathic abilities, which were my forte as a healer and teacher, are totally intriguing because they are also quite real … just not in the way I was taught to believe.

Now, with an understanding of body mapping, interoception, proprioception, emotions, empathy, sociology, social psychology, non-verbal communication and cues, animal behavior, post-traumatic functioning, dissociative tendencies, neurology, and human development, I can really see how my career worked and how my seemingly magical skills functioned. Without these understandings, however, it is very natural to think that strong empathic or intuitive abilities are magical (or are signs of intentional fraud). The truth is actually much more interesting than either of those polarized ideas.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to understand seemingly supernatural concepts without needing to rely on paranormalism, cognitive biases, motivated reasoning, traditionalism, hearsay, or unproven ideas? And wouldn’t it be even more wonderful to be able to gently let go of your superstitions and delve into a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, instead of having to throw yourself off a cliff like I did when I left the New Age?

On the other side, wouldn’t it be wonderful to throw off old, tired labels like sham, fraud, dupe, fantasy-prone, and gullibility and instead come to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of people and their beliefs?

It’s a possibility, but even so, this site won’t constitute a bridge from one culture to the other. That’s too much to ask. Instead, maybe it will become a soft, flame-retardant mattress at the bottom of the chasm between the cultures of supernaturalism and skepticism. That way, if you want to make the jump away from supernaturalism or polarizing cultural skepticism, you won’t end up all scorched and battle-scarred like I am.

And perhaps, instead of struggling to hear ourselves above the din of these two warring groups, we can leave them behind and forge a new path out of the chasm and into a discovery of the larger world. That’s the purpose of this site. That’s my quest.

If you can use what is here, do so with my blessings. If you can’t, go your own way with my blessings. This is the final post in this ten-post series of essays, and now we begin.


Next post: Science versus Religion and Other False Dichotomies



Filed under Cognitive Biases, Excellent Books, Metaphysics, New Age, Skepticism

11 responses to “10. Neither a Traitor nor a Reformed Sinner

  1. Huzzah, Karla! You have been busy writing! Nice work, love the pix.

  2. “The magic of reality”…..wonderful!!

    Thanks for these 10 ‘chapters.’ I thoroughly enjoyed the snippets from your journey thus far..

    I smile and feel a resounding “YES!” on the inside.

    I’m grateful to have crossed paths with your blog. It’s on my list now. The internet (figure of speech) has been a fascinating teacher for me. I’m thankful to have found folks who are able to walk in another’s moccasins.

    To life!
    ~Carol :)

  3. Steve Hunt

    I enjoyed reading about your journey and was reminded of two things straight away:

    First, writer Arthur C. Clarke’s “three laws”…
    1- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
    2- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
    3- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    And second, the quote by the geneticist JBS Haldane, shortened here… “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

    I enjoyed both Auras & Chakras and The Language of Emotion. From my point of view, A&C offers some useful imagery, particularly with regard to returning one’s attention to one’s body, connecting to earth, and with the practice of noticing and destroying “contracts” that we follow unconsciously. The troubleshooting guide and the chapter on Channeling Emotions in A&C nicely point readers to pursue a deeper understanding of emotions, how they may function, and why we need them, which you eloquently address in LoE.

    Your writing on contracts correlates nicely with Byron Katie’s 4 questions and Mike Dooley’s trademark quote “thoughts become things, choose the good ones”. Can’t wait to finish The Art of Empathy.

    Kind Regards, Steve Hunt

    • Hello Steve, and thanks for commenting! I’m very glad that I had those paranormal and metaphysical concepts available to me when I needed them, because early childhood traumas like mine weren’t yet being addressed well at all in the conventional world. As I said somewhere on this blog: “The alternative only becomes necessary when the conventional fails.”

      I’m also very glad now to be able to move away from those concepts, and instead of looking at them literally, to look at them metaphorically, sociologically, anthropologically, neurologically, and in as many ways as possible. I love being a free agent, thinking my own thoughts in my own way, beholden to no one, and able to carve out my own path intellectually, emotionally, and empathically. When I think of the lot of many people who truly don’t understand that they can change their world views, their ideas, and their referents, I’m amazed at how lucky I’ve been. It’s not magic, but I think it could look that way.

      I like what you say (through Clarke) about new technologies being mistaken for magic. I can’t remember who coined the term “the god of the gaps,” which means that many people attribute anything they can’t understand (the gaps of their understanding) to the realm of the gods or magic. I was talking to a skeptic friend of mine and we spoke of the “white-coated research scientist of the gaps” which is yet another mythical being some people place all their faith in (science has an answer; science will certainly explain this!). Though I’m clearly closer to the camp of the mythical researcher, I’m looking at leaving the gaps alone, and attributing them to nothing at all. Free the gaps! Let them breathe!

      I was talking with someone about my father’s definition of his agnosticism (which I inherited). He said, “I’m an agnostic; I believe in the mystery!” Huzzah Dad.

  4. Laura

    Thank you so much, Karla, for your deeply thoughtful writing. You are a blessing on this planet.

  5. Dear Karla
    My name is Maya, I’m a fair way through a PhD in creative writing, memoir, writing about relationship to place, Australian indigenous culture, my personal ‘mystical’ experience, illness and climate change (sounds like a handful, and is, the linking factor being the body/brain(s)/ evolutionary process). Your Language of Emotions is a key text for me, and also I cannot thank you enough for the fabulous stories on this website. I’m loving your clarity, your reference lists, your interest in fostering a dialogue between cultures, for it’s something I attempt as well. I live within a broadly new age culture (which at least in Australia is tempered by our cultural tendency towards a teasing sort of skepticism), but cannot abide what I call ‘hippy orthodoxy’ and have deeply appreciated the PhD process which includes exploring the neurology of profound spiritual experience. I’ve discovered a myriad of ways to language my experience, some of the most exciting for me being from cutting-edge areas of plant biology. There’s a work called Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Buhner, and I am called to tell you about it because of his detailed exploration of the concept of the ‘Imaginal.’ You briefly mention the imaginal in one of your posts on your website; in his book he looks at how scientific, philosophical, religious and poetic traditions can work together to reveal this fascinating realm. Anyway, I am very grateful to your openness to your fans through your web accessibility, I would adore the chance to ask you dozens of questions but will hold myself back for of course you must be beseiged, and I thank you heartily for the wonderful intellectual, healing and creative space you’ve carved out of the experiences of your life.
    Maya Ward

    • Thank you Maya, and welcome! Yes, I work with the imaginal realm a great deal. The emotions and empathy live there, and it’s where the most interesting and useful information about them has been stored for centuries.

      Some theorists and neurologists are catching up to what artists and poets and mystics have already figured out, so that’s very nice! But when people are dealing with serious issues in regard to emotions and empathy, we often need to bring in the imaginal, including ritual, in order to illuminate the issues and find solutions. The fun thing now is that I get to do it in a way that’s sociological and anthropological in nature, rather than paranormal or metaphysical.

  6. Kim

    Your flame retardant mattress is my bridge… thank you! Reading these essays have been like reading a different version of how my own would read. I have not been through the exact same experiences, however I have been through my own version of… falling into new age and while never buying it all still effected by it’s lure. Coming out of it has not been easy and I’m still in the finishing stage. I’m grateful for your sharing as it makes me feel less alone and hopeful. I look forward to reading more of your perspective on the interesting experiences we do experience while engaged in new age like activities – like psychic insight as that has been on my mind lately ;)


    • Welcome Kim. I’ve been looking a lot at psychic experiences, and it seems to me that much of what people see as psychic ability is hyper-empathy. There’s so much communication going on between people that is not obvious, and so much signaling that people aren’t aware of. It’s a fascinating subject, and one of my favorite books on it is Supersense by Bruce Hood. He’s got a very interesting approach. The book is here on my Resources page.

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