If this post seems “New Age” to you, then that proves my point.
I think the only reason a category exists for “New Age” things is that the institutions of the Old Age dropped the ball. Religions monopolized all the rituals and stories Western people used for spiritual sustenance, and then the religious gatekeepers suddenly became ashamed of spirituality and dropped it all. Ever since then, when people start bringing back any of the instinctual, quintessentially human rituals that religion once used to bootstrap itself into power, the mainstream treats this behavior as some kind of deviant innovation, hence “New Age.”
But every practice I’ve ever seen called “New Age” is — perhaps not in its content but in its essential form — something that Western religion used to do. The most revered figures in the Bible spontaneously build altars out of stones, meditate in fields, pour essential oils on things, and take their shoes off and run around barefoot outside cavorting with nature spirits. Such practices are relegated to the hippie bin in these days, but the very cultural system that gave rise to Western values is steeped in them. It would be one thing if only secularists stigmatized these practices as “New Age,” but I can assure you from experience that even devoutly religious contemporary people think building altars while barefoot in fields is deviant and weird.
In one of the best articles I’ve read in a while, Sarah Perry argues that the loss of ritual is dangerous, and that it’s a consequence of a kind of Walmartization of states of consciousness by today’s social and economic demands. The virtues of Western religion gave way to those of capitalism, and the socially acceptable mental states in Western society had to follow suit. So the Western world conveniently forgot all its consciousness-altering rituals (and banned the ingestion of all but the most exploitable consciousness-altering molecules), and anyone who tries to reconstruct those rituals (or ingest those molecules) gets branded “New Age.”
But again, it’s not new, it’s old, and as Perry writes, it’s critical for social and psychological health. We need rituals on a level lower down than ideology. Even people of differing religions have analogous rituals, because human brains have pretty well-defined needs. The stories we tell ourselves about them might vary wildly, but that’s fine. What’s important is that rituals are as human as smiling and crying, and they aren’t scary “New Age” innovations. On the contrary. If they threaten the established social order, that can only be because the established social order runs contrary to human nature.
The photo at top is of my bedside altar, which I finally just built last night. It’s called the 6:00 AM Sleep Portal, in the tradition of the artist Harlan Emil Gruber, a friend and teacher of mine. The purpose of this portal is to prepare me for entering and exiting sleep, a supremely weird state of consciousness that is sometimes sublime and sometimes terrifying. We all enter the sleep state every night, and Western religion used to consider it a medium for prophecy, but now I guess dreams are just weird neuro-whatevers that we’re just supposed to deal with and forget about when we wake up to go drive Uber and Lyft at the same time for a living.
No, screw that. Dreams are part of our emotional life, and I’m not content to just stuff it in the laundry basket where capitalism insists emotions belong. My surrounding culture of living human role models didn’t offer me any techniques for dealing with dreams, so I’ll just scrape one together myself from the weird old books this culture has lying around. I’d like to live in a world where we do teach each other rituals and practices to help with the weird parts of life, so I’ll start by writing about it on the Internet and hope you’ll share some, too. Even just your everyday fidget tools are ritual objects, and I want to know about them and celebrate them. Remember, these are technologies every bit as much as your telephone is.
If you need more reasons this is a good idea, Perry’s essay is full of them.