Spiritual AF: On Why the Notion of “New Age” Has Been Making Me Uneasy

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time contemplating my spirituality.

Let me first disclaim that I actually kind of hate the word “spirituality” because it automatically suggests “religion”, which isn’t necessarily the case: spirituality, for me, is represented by my sense of wholeness and well-being. It’s about being present and trusting the process and honouring the knowledge of my highest good.

I suppose you could say that on the spirituality spectrum, my sentiments and beliefs fall under the heading “new age” — though the notion of “new age” is what prompted me here in the first place, to try and unravel why this label has felt a little uneasy for me these days.

I wasn’t raised with any kind of organized religion, so my views of spirituality during childhood were somewhat vague. My dad’s mom attended church regularly, and my sister and I were required to tag along whenever we were visiting, but I never enjoyed it. It seemed pointless and uncomfortable, and I used to try and feign sickness to not have to go.

My only other firsthand exposure to religion was when my parents enrolled my sister in Catholic school in the fourth grade, not on the premise of a religious upbringing, but because they were pissed off by the small town politics of our local school district.

Of course, it was no surprise that my sister was influenced by her new environment, and our job as a family was to support her in her discoveries. This meant for a short time we attended the odd Sunday mass, until the novelty of her teachings wore off and she eventually resumed public school in the seventh grade.

So, needless to say, religion wasn’t a big factor for me growing up, nor did I have any interest in exploring it.

What did influence me, however, was my mom’s own interest in new age spirituality.

In those mid-90s days, the new age, self-help movement was gaining mainstream popularity, but remained a largely private affair. Mom had a small collection of esoteric books discreetly tucked in the corner of her room — titles by Starhawk and Lynn Andrews and other similar writers — but we were gently cautioned not to share this fact with our classmates and friends. Having “new age” beliefs was still strange and offbeat, and she didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention.

While I wasn’t especially interested in the matter of spirituality as a teenager, I did, over the years, inevitably absorb much of what Mom shared with us of her own opinions and views. In particular, we were taught the importance of honouring nature and the seasons, and to recognize their lessons of change and renewal.

So while I didn’t care much in those days about heightened consciousness or personal transformation, I did recognize the power of nature to comfort and heal. I spent many afternoons clambering along the beach, letting the steadying rhythm of the tide carry away my troubles.

It wasn’t until I reached my early 20s that I became actively interested in exploring my own sense of spirituality. A big part of this I attribute to the fact I began spending time with a newly formed group of friends I worked with, and that we regularly smoked cannabis together.

The comforting security of friendship combined with the mind-opening qualities of cannabis triggered many deep and revelatory conversations. It aroused my senses and inspired me to begin seeking meaning in my experiences.

Then, during a meeting at work one afternoon, we were shown the movie The Secret.

Our office was a small, family-run business. The owner’s wife had a strong interest in the esoteric, which is probably what inspired her to share the movie with us.

At the time, The Secret was new and revelatory, and its teachings had a big impact on me. For anyone not familiar with the film (based on the book by the same name), the premise is that according to the Law of Attraction, we each have the innate ability to use our thoughts to manifest our wishes into reality. That by envisioning what we desire, instead of what we lack, we can successfully coax our dreams into being.

In the years since its release, The Secret has been heavily criticized for presenting as metaphysical pseudoscience, for mysticizing what could otherwise be considered a simple shift towards positive motivation, for giving its followers a false sense of hope and entitlement and for blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

And while I admit I can’t stand the film anymore for these exact reasons, the time I first saw it, I was completely enthralled.

The Secret served as a bit of a spiritual gateway for me, if you will. For the first time as an adult, I became fully aware that I had the power to positively influence my life. I was excited. It made me want to dig deeper to tap into this power, triggered a thirst for transformation and healing.

I spent the next several years actively seeking whatever I could find on new age spirituality and personal enlightenment. I was fuelled by my friends’ shared desire to learn and discover as much as we could, and our time together was often spent smoking cannabis and excitedly discussing the things we had learned.

The challenge I’m having in writing this piece — as I delete and retype paragraphs a dozen times over —is that “new age” is ambiguous territory encompassing a million seeming sub-genres, with no concise definition of what it is, exactly.

In my own experience of spiritual growth, “new age” has come to define anything intended to improve my sense of wholeness and well-being. Exploring my spirituality through a range of teachings and tools — from quantum healing to yoga, meditation to crystal therapy — has helped me gain a better sense of who I am and what it is I desire from my life.

We, the modern people, are fortunate in a sense that these tools and teachings are no longer as strange or subversive as they once were considered. Yoga has become an everyday practice, crystals are worn as jewelry for their healing virtues and metaphysical shops no longer hide in out-of-the-way alleys.

New age spirituality is inarguably trendy, but it’s a double-edged sword.

Like how watching The Secret all these years laters makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, a little bit dirty.

It’s not that I disagree with the premise of the movie itself. It’s not a new concept: everything is energy, our thoughts have power, you are what you think.

The thing about The Secret, and about a lot of new age teachings and tools in general, is the promise of instant success, of immediate reward. Watching The Secret or practicing yoga or filling your home with crystals doesn’t equate to automatic enlightenment, but the people selling you these things might try and lead you to believe otherwise.

Over the past year or so I’ve been coming across the term “spiritual bypassing”.

A lot of people are drawn to new age spirituality — myself included — because it helps us learn and discover how to heal and transform. The problem is that sometimes the teachings and tools we use on this path of self-discovery serve as a distraction rather than a means of support.

Spiritual bypassing involves using spiritual ideas and practices to avoid the inevitable pain and discomfort of real spiritual growth. It’s using one’s superior sense of spirituality to justify harmful or destructive actions, and attributing these habits and behaviours on factors beyond one’s control (“It’s because I’m a Gemini” or “I was betrayed in a past life”). It involves focusing only on the positive to avoid taking responsibility, and looking down on others for being less “enlightened.”

I’m certainly no expert on this topic, but I also can’t help think that spiritual bypassing has a big role to play in the exploitation of new age spirituality — that it’s helped perpetuate the belief that we can skip over the hard bits with a proverbial “few easy steps”.

It’s true that part of the appeal of new age spirituality is the very fact it’s so loosely defined — that it encompasses such a broad spectrum of teachings and tools. It offers people the ability to focus on the parts that resonate for them personally, and to practice in whatever way feels right.

The thing is, many of the people drawn to new age spirituality are the ones most in need of healing — people eager to be “shown the light”, if you will, to be handed the answer to their problems.

Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that for the most part, the vast majority of people who identify as spiritual teachers and healers come from a place of genuine care and compassion.

But, I also can’t help notice there are many teachers and healers who appear to exploit their position of so-called authority, which is immediately what I thought when I once saw a woman at a wellness show charging $50 for 15 minutes of psychic insight. In this regard, these services become less about helping others find reassurance and meaning than they are about the potential for material gain and recognition.

And sadly, because so many people turn to new age spirituality in the hopes of healing their trauma and pain, they become easy targets for this kind of exploitation.

The other part of the equation I’ve also begun to struggle with the past while is the tendency of new age spirituality to borrow from other cultures.

While it’s unsurprising on the one hand, given the movement’s refusal to be easily defined, this ambiguity results in a kind of obliviousness.

Take California white sage, for instance, which is commonly sold at new age shops as a tool for “smudging”. Bundles of white sage are burned for purification processes, said to help clear one’s surroundings of negative energies.

The thing is, no one really paused to think about the origins of the ritual, the fact that white sage is considered sacred by many Indigenous cultures, and that for centuries, these cultures used it as a long-established part of their ceremonies and traditions.

This certainly never occurred to me when I first began exploring my own spirituality. Burning white sage was exotic and profound, but the bigger implications — the fact I was a white woman borrowing from a culture that wasn’t my own, or that by even purchasing white sage bundles, I was contributing to the over-harvesting and endangerment of a sacred plant — remained unseen.

I suppose that as I reflect back on my own spiritual journey over the years, a big part of it has been learning to discern what’s truly relevant to my own process of growth.

There was a point when it was all exotic and profound, exciting and extraordinary, and all I wanted was to take it all in.

In the years since, much of it has been shed away. I don’t feel the same kind of desperate need to prove my enlightenment, probably because part of being enlightened means recognizing you really know nothing.

Three years ago I began studying herbs. Herbalism had always fallen for me under the umbrella of new age spirituality, somewhere within the sub-genre of holistic health, but it wasn’t until I began working with plants intimately that things began to shift.

The anxiety I’d struggled with for several years prior gradually subsided. My health and vitality slowly improved. And I became the most grounded I’ve been in my whole adult life.

I can’t help think it was a return to nature — to the teachings Mom instilled in me all those decades ago — that set me on the right path, that showed me how to heal.

I’m not suggesting that herbalism — or any specific practice, for that matter — is the key to spiritual fulfillment.

Only that, when we learn to finally listen, the answer will appear.

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

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