By SUSAN HURRELL
It has been 50 years since we first sang “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars.” The dawning of the Age of Aquarius brought forward two counterculture movements to challenge the standards of Western society – the hippie era and the New Age movement. Hippie life was infused with rock music, casual drug use, sexual liberation and women’s empowerment – liberating people from the shackles of post-war propriety and restricted cultural thinking. What flower power did for our bodies and minds, the New Age movement did for our souls and spirits.
The New Age movement was the contemporary manifestation of philosophies that influenced spiritual thought and practice over one hundred years before the swinging sixties. Occultism, Freemasonry, spiritualism, Theosophy, Mesmerism, secret orders like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis and the breakaway Christian “New Thought” churches of Universalism, Unitarianism, and Religious Science were powerful influences on spiritual thought from the mid-19th century forward. New religious movements like Wicca, the Bahá’í Faith, Christian Science and Scientology, continue to emerge, rise and fall, fascinating the academic community even as they satiate seekers of spiritual fulfillment.
Back in the 60s, the Beatles went to Rishikesh, the Rolling Stones went to Marakesh and Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism became a more present part of the cultural mix for Europeans and North Americans. Incense mixed with the pot smoke, tarot cards were read on tie-dyed tablecloths, we meditated transcendentally and attuned our bodies to our minds with yoga. Many diverse threads became woven together to form the fabric of what we call the New Age.
Yoga, as discussed in previous issues of The Aquarian, originated as a Hindu spiritual discipline. Tarot was a centuries-old card game adopted by 19th century occultists and imbued with esoteric meanings. The use of crystals – semi-precious gems – as sources of spiritual energy and inspiration can be found in many ancient religious texts, including the Old Testament. Spirit guides have appeared in visions and dreams generations prior to Edgar Cayce taking his first nap. Intentional communities existed long before Findhorn. And when it comes to astrology, many cultures had their own interpretation of the dance of the stars in their night sky.
When I reflect on 50 years of contemporary New Age thought, and the 25 years of this publication, I am reminded of so many trends and themes that emerged, as well as those that have faded in their influence. How many of these do you remember? How did these concepts, places, thinkers and writers touch you?
- Est, Esalen, Primal Scream Therapy and isolation tanks (which are back in vogue at local salons like Float.calm).
- The Harmonic Convergence planetary alignment in 1987.
- Channelers like Jane Roberts (Seth), J.Z. Knight (Ramtha) and Neale Donald Walsch (Conversations with God), Lee Carrol (Kyron).
- Winnipeg appearances by Deepak Chopra, Anodea Judith, Sylvia Brown, James Van Praagh, Starhawk, Neale Donald Walsch.
- The Gurus – Neem Karoli Baba, Sai Baba of Shirdi, Meher Baba.
- Hindu devotees who became teachers – Ram Dass, Jai Uttai, Krishna Das. (Does anyone else remember the Hare Krishnas that used to chant and dance their way through downtown Winnipeg?)
- Teachings about the Gaia Hypothesis, Gnosticism, the Essenes, Atlantis, Lemuria, the Pleiades and extraterrestrials.
- For the body – Diet for a Small Planet, macrobiotic diets, fasting, etc. – and Feng Shui for the home and office.
- New Age music featuring bird songs, dolphin and whale sounds, world music instruments like Tibetan bells/bowls, didgeridoos, and harmonic chanting enhanced our meditation and movement, which included circle dancing and drumming circles.
- Writings by Carlos Castenada, Shakti Gawain, Louise Hay, Brooke Medicine Eagle, Zechariah Sitchin, Michael Harner enlightened us. Books about the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar and Rosslyn Chapel challenged the standard perceptions of Jesus of Nazareth.
Local authors had traction:
- Winnipeg’s own Ben Willemsen’s Don’t Water the Stick made quite a stir in the local metaphysical community and beyond.
- Move over, Dan Brown. Have you read Manitoba’s own Frank Albo’s Hermetic Code or his newest book – Astana: Architecture, Myth and Destiny?
We shopped at Genesis, Revelation, the Philosopher’s Stone, Oracle Grove, Shifting Sands (and others of blessed memory) and still visit Radiance, Elemental and the veteran Prairie Sky Books.
Goddess spirituality pioneers StarHawk, Z Budapest, Carol Christ, Diane Stein among many others helped half of us see a face of the divine that looked like us.
Have you visited Mount Shasta, Glastonbury, Sedona, HollyHock, Stonehenge, Macchu Pichu or Chichen Itza? What about our own petroglyphs?
More recently, The Secret, The Power of Now, and What the Bleep Do We Know/Down the Rabbit Hole (the rise of quantum physics & spirituality) challenged us to think differently yet again.
How many of these have you read?
- A Course in Miracles
- The Celestine Prophecy
- The Alchemist
- The Art of Happiness
- The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
- The Road Less Traveled
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull
- Eat, Pray, Love
- Tuesdays With Morrie
- The Four Agreements
- Love is in the Earth
- Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
New Age spirituality is a buffet table of beliefs, practices and modalities with the broadest guiding principles connecting many divergent philosophies. While there are “New Age churches” like The Sanctuary in Winnipeg, they are quite often light on both dogma and doctrine. The teachings of the New Age are not a “religion” in the typical sense and we fill our spiritual plate with the items we like, reject the rest and keep all doors open, because “all paths are valid” and “all the faces of God are God.” We cross-pollinate our spiritual influences and develop a highly-personalized faith practice.
I’ve attended both weddings and funerals for friends who were devout New Age believers that were held in a traditional religious setting (usually Christian) which felt completely incongruent with the spirituality of the person I knew. A crystal-wearing, spirit-guide channeling, Goddess-worshipping Reiki master in life, but a plain vanilla non-denominational Christian in death or at the altar? “It’s for the family” is what is usually said – but the feeling of disconnection remains for me and conversations with others tell me I’m not alone in this. The struggle to define ourselves is real – we worry about being perceived as “woo woo” or weird or freaks. We are “out” as “alternative faith practitioners” among our likeminded friends, but maybe not to our family, or our coworkers, or the people with whom we share a pew on Sunday morning. Even though we seek congruence, there may still be conflict within us about broadcasting what we believe.
A question I have asked for years is “what’s so new about the New Age?”
Given the historical roots and the fact that this alternative movement can qualify for a senior’s discount in some places, our New Age is more middle-aged – a baby boom religion no longer relegated to the baby boom generation. What used to be alternative and hush-hush is now mainstream and has business cards, with some formerly alternative healing modalities now covered by employee insurance plans, and some employee wellness programs incorporating meditation, yoga, aromatherapy and more into their mix of offerings.
How deep does the vein of our New Age faith run through us as a community, as individuals? If we are still in the spiritual broom closet, what are we afraid of? I can buy crystals at gas stations, yoga happens in public spaces, and Marianne Williamson ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
What’s next for our New Age movement? We’re seeing the integration of technology into our alternative medical and spiritual practices – biofeedback machines, brainwave accelerators, negative ion-generating jewellery and machines that can download a new program directly into your DNA – magic! Some may feel that this is a further disconnection as they reach for an earth-centric, green composting, permaculture existence or a purity of spiritual practice that shields them from technical intrusion. Others embrace their tech – apps, programs, devices, social media platforms that help them move more freely, learn more easily, connect more broadly, or open more fully on their spiritual growth trajectory. It is not for me – or you – to say what is right for anyone other than ourselves.
Everything old is new again and those ancient roots may provide some New Age believers with validation that what they believe is “real” or “true” or “legitimate.” Those of us who are seekers will continue to find whatever it is that we are looking for. My question is: what do we call it now that the New Age is blending into the mainstream? Does it need a name? How do we encapsulate what we believe when we meet those who appear to be likeminded others? Does it matter?
Have we changed the world in accordance with the higher principles shared by the higher beings, which are the foundation of so many aspects of New Age teachings? Have we changed ourselves? Have we broadly manifested the teachings of love and light, peace and harmony and the rainbow connection? Is the world a better place? Have we risen above our human natures to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? Sadly, I don’t think that we have. Does this invalidate New Age philosophy? No religious or spiritual teaching seems to be able to keep us free from poverty, war, violence, hate and fear; we have been no more successful than any other faith path in saving humanity from itself.
The Age of Aquarius has long since passed dawn and the sun may be setting on this new religious movement as a distinct or alternative belief system as so many of its components have become part of our common culture, infused into our everyday life. It is the dimming of the Age of Aquarius, even though we are still waiting for peace to guide the planets and love to steer the stars.
Susan Hurrell sees the Sacred in strange and wonderful places in popular culture. Fascinated by new spiritual movements, she is a contributing editor to The Aquarian.