In this article from 1993, Christine Hall takes a look at the New Age community as it existed in America at that time. Looking back, some things are timeless, for in many ways this same article could be written today, more than a fifth of the way through the 21st Century.
Under the light of a full moon, three men and two women stand around the circumference of a small clearing in the woods. To the north, a wooden table is set up as an altar, holding an oil lamp, a dagger, a silver goblet, a wooden pentacle and an ornate, crystal tipped wand.
The men and one of the women are in street clothes. The second woman, the priestess, is clad in a hooded robe. After a moment of silence, she turns from the circle and takes the wand from the altar. She solemnly approaches the east and draws a pentagram in the air.
“Lords of the watchtowers of the East,” she calls. “Lords of Air. I do summon, stir and call you up to witness our rites and guard our circle.”
A scene out of the pages of prehistory? No, this particular drama took place near my home in suburban North Carolina one evening last month. But it, or something like it, is as old as time itself.
Long before Christ blessed the gathering on the mount, people coming together to celebrate spirit under the light of the full moon was already an ancient practice. Long before Moses received the law, communities gathered under the full moon, or on the eve of the equinox, or at solstice to celebrate life and spirit.
The players in our moonlit woods scene are Wiccans, or modern-day witches, the hard core of the social phenomenon known as “New Age.” But they are only a slice of the New Age, for the movement is composed of many diverse groups that often seem more different than alike.
The term New Age is not universally embraced. The hard core – the witches and magicians – think the term too diluted, associated with Shirley MacLaine and commercial ripoffs like the Psychic Hotline. Those more aligned with the mainstream find that the term tends to separate them from the rest of society.
“I find myself rather annoyed with the term ‘New Age,’ says Catherine Jourdan, who teaches meditation and stress-management techniques at The Center for Life Enrichment in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina. “I find that I don’t really know what New Age is. I’ve gotten out books on our shelves when people have asked me this question before, to try and see if anybody has a definition of what New Age is, and they (definitions) are as diverse as there are trees outside.”
Some say that New Age refers to the astrological changing of the millennium, the age of Pisces giving way to the age of Aquarius. Others attribute the term to occultist Aleister Crowley’s “age of Horus,” a reference to Egyptian mythology. Crowley said that this would be a time when the “conquering son” Horus would take the throne to avenge the death of his father, Osiris. Still others say that the New Age actually began some 2,000 years ago with the birth of Christ.
“I prefer the term that was used before New Age,” says Vincent Bridges, a counselor in Winston-Salem who is one of the movement’s most visible spokespeoople. “That is, ‘the human potential movement.’ We’re going to be completely human. We’re going to be more than human. I like that perspective. This means that if we find some old techniques that really aid the human potential, they’re cool. But if we come up with some new techniques that give us a whole new grasp on the human potential, that’s just as good.”
Perhaps the main problem with the current term has to do with public perception.
“I find that the people who do the best job of defining what they believe New Age to be,” Jourdan says, “are its detractors – the people who are afraid of the term New Age.”
Almost every Christian bookstore in the country carries several titles condemning the New Age, and televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson often preach against the evils of New Age thought. To the religious right, New Age is often equated with Satanism, an idea that many New Agers find amusing. As one Wiccan priestess says, “Satanism is a Christian concept. We don’t believe in the devil.”
The front-door approach to discovering the New Age is through middle-of-the-road establishments such as The Center for Life Enrichment. It is here, and places like this, that people learn to cope with stress through simple techniques like mediation or deep breathing, improve their health with proper diet and with more esoteric techniques like Reiki, or gain self-esteem through “right thought and right speech.” It is here that many people first encounter the real meaning of the word holistic.
“We’re trying to nourish every aspect of the human being and say that somebody isn’t just their psychology,” says Jourdan, who runs the non-profit center with Richard Pinneau, who founded it. “They are not just how their toilet training went when they were two, or how many disappointments they’ve had in life.
“They are also their body, but not only their body. They’re not just a mechanism of neurons and neutrons and blood all put together with bones and flesh. What happens with the body affects the mind and affects the spirit.”
The term holism was popularized by the hippies in the late ’60s, but the idea dates back to antiquity. The concept was succinctly stated by Hermes, the Greek god of communication and medicine, when he said, “As above, so below,” an expression often quoted in New Age circles. A body does not become diseased on its own but is helped by an unhealthy mind, for the two work in tandem. In the New Age community, however, holism refers to more than body and mind.
“More than anything else we are more overwhelmingly spirit that happens to be in the form of a body,” Jourdan adds. “So we try to address all those things.”
No matter what else the New Age might be, it is essentially a spiritual movement in which newcomer and latecomer alike are offered a smorgasbord of psychospiritual disciplines to sample.
Some of these, like the various forms of yoga, are as ancient as history itself. Others, like biofeedback technology, are the cutting edge of late 20th century research. Here students learn about chakras, the body’s energy centers, and how these affect not only the health of the physical, but of the mental and spiritual as well. Here people learn to talk with angels or to delve into their own psychology through astrology.
There are so many different disciplines that no person could possible become adept at them all. Participants are encouraged to shop around and try different ideas on for size. The hope is that such exposure will lead the individual to discover his or her path, the discipline or blend of disciplines that resonate uniquely to that person. Some might choose a path that is similar to their religious upbringing. Others might go in entirely new directions, perhaps inventing their own path.
Every path will ultimately be different, but all paths share some ideas. Most people in the New Age eventually claim to discover that all of existence is infused with the divine and, therefore, with life. The earth upon which we walk, they say, is alive and acts as a parent, nurturing and feeding us. With this realization comes the knowledge that our ecological predicament is a spiritual predicament as well. This leads many to a quest for a religious system that will honor the earth.
The earth-honoring spiritual practices of the ancient Europeans have not survived; the last vestiges were wiped out with the witch burnings of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many turn to the earth-based spiritual systems that have remained intact in an attempt to forge a spiritual connection with nature. For this reason, most New Agers eventually dabble in the spiritual practices of the Native Americans.
Tom, an Iroquois spiritual guide, says that much of the recent interest in native spirituality is mere window shopping. “I’m turned off by people who come up to me and want to know about Native American spirituality, but when you ask them about Christianity or some of the other Europeans belief systems they say, ‘No, that doesn’t work for me’ or, worse than that, ‘I have no respect for that.’ That tells me, right off the bat, that I could spend two or three days with them and, if it didn’t work for them, they would be turned off by Native American spiritualism.”
This has been made worse since the movie “Dances With Wolves” made interest in Native American culture fashionable. In fact, the Indians have a term for it: “BDWW” (Before Dances With Wolves).
“If a person comes in and shows respect for our ways, good,” Tom says. “But don’t do it like grocery shopping. Don’t say you’re going to take this, but not have anything to do with that. That’s very rude to us.”
Native spirituality is not a prepackaged, get-on-your-knees-and-be-healed concept, which is something that is sometimes hard for fast-food Americans to understand. A connection with spirit, it is believed, must be earned and, ultimately, must come from within the person.
“We had a ceremony one time, and this guy was sitting around watching everybody. He could realize the spirit was there, but he had this look on his face like he was saying, ‘When is it going to hit me?’ One of our elderly grandmothers leaned over and said, ‘Honey, if you didn’t bring it with you, then you aren’t going to find it here.'”
To the Native American, spirituality is something that is integrated into every facet of life. The preparation of food, the earning of a living, even sleeping are done with spirit in mind. Sleep is dream time, work is the chance to be creative, food preparation is the time to honor that which has died so that you can live.
Native Americans also believe that each person is responsible for seven generations – which means that every person is responsible for the well-being of everyone from his great grandparents to his children’s children’s children. In a Native American community, the elders are not left alone and lonely in their golden years, nor are they warehoused in retirement homes. Instead, they are honored for their wisdom.
As is all of creation. The owl is recognized as having a peculiar vision that only an owl can have, just as a bear is honored precisely for being a bear. When a wolf kills for food, he is not being evil, he is merely being a wolf.
Attempting to see the world through the eyes of the owl, the bear, the wolf or any other creature is said to have great transformative powers. The experience is humbling as well, for no longer is human consciousness the only game in town, but is seen as a component of a greater whole. With this practice can also come self acceptance, for if the owl can be nothing but an owl, how can a human be anything but him or her self?
Which brings us back to our witches in the sacred grove, celebrating the fullness of the moon.
Cathy Buck, proprietor of The Circle of Avalon, a New Age botique in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a Wiccan high priestess. “I have a regular customer who’s Native American,” she says. “He won’t believe me when I tell him that paganism is nearly the same thing as his path.”
She is not the first to make that observation. Indeed, the religious practices of the indigenous Europeans before the advent of Christianity were akin to the practices of the Native American. This is not to say that they are the same, only that they are very much alike – on more than a superficial level.
A good example of this is the use of sweat lodges. A key component of Native American spiritual practices, a sweat lodge is a fur-covered structure built over a hole that has been dug in the ground. The hole is to hold rocks that have been heated in a bonfire until they glow red. When the rocks are placed in the lodge, water is poured over them, filling the structure with steam. The rocks are brought into the lodge in groups, each group having a special significance, some being for the woods creatures, some being for relatives who have died, and so forth. The ceremony is intended at be a cleansing of the body, mind and spirit.
The sweat lodge is not peculiar to the North American Indian, however. The ancient Nordic used the sweat lodge as well, in much the same manner. Today the sweat lodge, stripped of its sacredness, is still evident in modern European culture as the sauna.
Wicca, the modern form of witchcraft, is an attempt to recrete the earth-honoring practices of pre-Christian Europe. The religion was born in the British Isles in the 1950s and had gained a toehold in the United States by the late 1970s. Although there are several forms of Wicca, their belief systems are similar.
The earth, and all of nature, is seen as a great goddess, and outdoor rituals are performed in her honor. “It’s recapturing a lot of the small things that nature gives you that you don’t really notice,” says Buck. The rituals are basically passion plays whose purpose varies according to the time of the year, as the seasons are seen as representing stages in a person’s life.
At this level, most participants quit identifying with the “New Age” handle and start identifying with a terminology that is more specific to their path. These are Wiccans, or pagans, or neopagans. They belong not to the New Age but to the craft or “the neopagan movement.” Many, fearing career reprisals from being associated with witchcraft, will not publicly use their real names when speaking about their beliefs, but adopt “craft names” instead.
Central to the Wiccan belief is the belief that the divine is female as well as male, with the triple goddess of “virgin, mother and crone,” representing the three stages of a woman’s life, being central to the belief. This focus on the goddess has made the belief an attractive alternative to some feminists who’ve found Christianity to be too patriarchal. Covens that are exclusively female are common, and women within these groups claim that they’ve been able to find power within their own femininity through Goddess worship.
This same emphasis on the “nurturing feminine” has also given rise to the “fairy circle,” covens composed of gay men who have found that Wicca offers them a way to express their spirituality without denying their sexual nature.
“A lot of the appeal to gay men is that it’s unstructured and spontaneous,” says Steve Wessels, a gay pagan. “It gives a lot of room for expressing your creativity in new and exciting ways. It gives men, in particular, an opportunity to be children again but with a kind of grown-up aspect to it. So it’s both serious and humorous at the same time. I think that combination breaks down a lot of inner barriers.”
But Wicca is more than ritually communing with nature and finding power within the feminine. Wicca is also a belief in magic.
In the New Age, magic comes in many shapes and sizes. To some, it’s a belief in “psychic powers,” a belief that it’s possible to intuitively know that events are going to happen before they do. To others, the magical connection is found through working with crystals and the belief that stones like amethyst, opal or quartz have powers to heal the body or soothe the emotions. Still others believe in “creative visualization,” that events can be made to happen by visualizing the desired result.
A Wiccan priestess, craft name Maria, who conducts classes on magic in Winston-Salem, cautions her class on the pitfalls of the later technique. “I had a friend who needed to make a lot of money, so she visualized people handing her money. The result of that visualization is that she got a low-paying job at a bank as a teller. Her magic worked, people were handing her money all day long, but it wasn’t hers.”
Some take their magic very seriously, spending big bucks on ornate wands and other magical paraphernalia to enter darkened temples in hooded robes to chant strange incantations and perform complicated rituals. These modern-day Merlins, or ceremonial magicians, believe that the physical universe is essentially a spiritual construction, part of the mind of the Godhead, that can be manipulated through emotional, mental and spiritual means.
Its practitioners believe that ceremonial magic can be dangerous if not precisely performed and entered into with the proper frame of mind. Vincent Bridges, who has conducted workshops on magical basics, refuses to teach some more complicated forms of magic to any but a select few because, “you don’t give loaded guns to children.” The late Israel Regardie, who at one time was secretary to Aleister Crowley, the 20th century’s most famous magician, was of the opinion that a year’s therapy should be a prerequisite to the study of magic.
In the area where I live, there are many anecdotes of magic gone wrong. There’s the story of Sam, a budding young magician who gathered with a group of friends to perform a ritual to increase his business. During the ritual he called upon spiritual forces to “make my business as big as my competitor’s company.” According to the story, his competitor was seriously injured in a car wreck that same afternoon, effectively putting him out of business for a time.
To those who believe in magic, this story is cited to illustrate the importance of ethics in magical practice. Black magic, the use of magic to cause harm to others, is considered a forbidden practice. Even when harm is done accidentally, the person who caused the harm is accountable. To avoid such accidents, beginning magicians are repeatedly told to append any request with the phrase “without interfering with free will and causing harm to none.”
Better that the magic not work, it is said, than it bring bad karma.
Terms like “karma” are a daily part of the New Age vocabulary. Expressed in popular culture as “what comes around goes around,” karma is seen by New Agers as an extension of Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal reaction. Smile at a baby, and the baby smiles back at you. Tithe to your church, and God will reward you with financial abundance.
In his book “Modern Magick,” Donald Michael Kraig tells the story of a black magic priestess’ karma. “She told me that she could always tell when a curse or black magick spell she had worked had come to fruition because something unfortunate would happen to her.”
Another common term is synchronicity, the belief that there are no coincidences. To many in the New Age, everything revolves around synchronicity. It would never occur to the magician Sam, for example, that his competitor’s mishap might be unrelated to the ritual he’s performed. Even being late to an engagement is taken to indicate an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
Take, for example, the case of a magician who was to meet with her group to “take her oath of obligation” – a type of initiation. As it happened, it rained heavily that night, and when she went to her car she discovered her windshield wipers wouldn’t operate. She phoned the group to explain. At first they agreed to give her a ride, but then thought better of it and decided to postpone the meeting.
“You should listen to what this is telling you,” she was told. “Meditate on not being able to see your way clear.”
Another commonly held belief within New Age circles is reincarnation. At one time or another, most New Agers undergo a hypnotic technique known as a “past life regression.” Many go into these sessions hoping to find that they were some historically important figure. Most are disappointed.
“Historically, most of humanity has lived rather plain and ordinary lives,” says Vincent Bridges, who conducts past life regressions as part of his counseling practice. “Most regressions tend to echo that fact.”
Still, so many people believe that they must be the reincarnation of a famous person that “Paganspoof,” a parody of neopagan journals like “Harvest” or “Green Egg,” ran an announcement for a seminar for “all the people who are the reincarnation of Cleopatra.” Elsewhere in the issue was this warning: “The man who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley should make sure that the man standing next to him isn’t.”
Karma and reincarnation are often bound together as “past life karma.” Ill fortune in this life is seen as being caused by misdeeds in past lives. Synchronicty enters here as well, as most friends, family members, even parents are believed to be chosen before birth.
“Who you were in the past, or what you’ve done in the past isn’t really that important,” says Bridges. “What’s important is what you’re doing now with this life.”
Which is what the Native American elders mean when they say, “Everybody’s been your friend, everybody’s been your lover, everybody’s been your enemy. Just let it go.”
Whether framed as New Age, neopagan, human potential or metaphysical, the work done within this community takes on a decidedly psychological tone at times. As a psychology, Carl Jung is the patron saint of the New Age. Everywhere, one is confronted with Jungian terminology. Even the word “synchronicity” is a Jungian term.
People talk about their “shadow issues” – the shadow being the part of the personality that a person denies. “You can always figure out what your shadow issues are by noting what you can’t stand in others,” Bridges says. “The things in others that drive you crazy are the things in yourself that you deny.”
Then there’s the anima or animus, Jung’s term for the opposite gender portion of the psyche. Everyone is a blend of masculine and feminine energies, and the balancing of these polarities within the individual is considered to be of ultimate importance. This is what the witches are addressing with their concentration on god/goddess polarity.
“The aspect of the goddess is actually androgynous,” explains Cathy Buck, “because you’re using the concept of the male god and the female goddess. You’re working with the concept of understanding the loving, caring nature of the female and the aggressive, dominant warlike nature of the male. Females teach males how to love. Males teach women how to protect.”
Also adopted from Jung are the notions of the personal and collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is that part of the individual that holds all personal psychological imprinting – the toilet training, so to speak. The collective unconscious is that part of the unconscious that contains shared experiences.
Jung saw this as being a symbolic world filled with archetypes, and reasoned that this is what the gods of the ancients were meant to address. In the Egyptian system, for example, Isis represents the archetypal mother, both loving and nurturing, while Osiris represents the archetype of the father, managing home and finances for the benefit of all involved.
Jung considered working with these archetypes to be a powerful psychological tool. Some New Agers work to give life to the old Celtic and Nordic gods and goddesses, others work with the Greek pantheon, still others with the Egyptian.
But the collective mind is fed not only by the myths of antiquity; there are modern myths as well, and much modern mythology is couched within science fiction. This has given rise to those who turn to the works of Heinlein and Tolkien for their archetypal inspiration. Still others blend the old gods into a futuristic framework.
Vincent Bridges, for example, tells a story that puts the Egyptian deities in the middle of Star Wars. Some of the Egyptian gods, he states, were highly evolved aliens who came to earth to conduct biological and genetic experiments that resulted in the creation of mankind.
“We’re awful smart, and we’re awful dangerous, and we’re awful unconscious,” he says. “This would seem to indicate that we’re animals that somehow mutated beyond their level or that we’re some kind of spiritual beings – true conscious beings – that developed below their level. Nowhere do we seem to be the normal flow of evolution.”
Maybe, he says, recent UFO activity might mean that we’re being considered for greater things, like inclusion into some kind of galactic community. Maybe we’re just being watched for scientific or other purposes.
“They’re obviously here, in a certain sense, observing and taking readings. What’s going on on this planet may be important to the rest of the galaxy, or it may be that we’re a side experiment that went wrong for some people who have the leisure to plan things over a millennium.”
Maybe. Then again, maybe Star Trek will be the religion of the future.