DISCLAIMER: While I may later break this up into pop morsels, I would imagine this is better digested en masse.
There is a new religion out there. Not new, actually. Newly revealed. Its membership is large - you, me, Oprah, too large to count. Not all of its members know they’re members. Most of them don’t.
Religioneers don’t take it seriously. They think it has no dogma. Secularists don’t take it seriously. They think it has no power. Meanwhile, both crowds are in it. Deep in it - they’re devotees. I’m a devotee. I’d bet you are, too.
Forget the image of the white-haired and turtle-necked hippy eye-gazing you without your permission. Forget the resurgent sea of crystal-beaded folksters my band played a part in… manifesting. This is bigger than all that. This is about the at-last formation of a religion of self:
Progenitor of intentional nonsense.
WHAT BROKE SENSE
It has become a niche American pastime to explain the recent breakdown in collective “sense-making”.
From the siloed realities of QAnon to the echo-chambered algorithms that reinforce them, “alternative facts” seem to define the undefined era. Collective agreement on even the most basic propositional knowledge seems suddenly at risk. 2 + 2 doesn’t necessarily equal 4 and Earth isn’t necessarily round. Yet while most agree that the breakdown is happening, there is, fittingly, little agreement as to why.
Some say secularism and its erosion of the lulling certainties of the mythic has caused a collective schizography. Others says postmodernist distrust in institutionalized truth is to blame. Such assessments are inherently prescriptive (if fairly contradictory): return to some variety of the mythic, or rebuild trust in common truth.
Both assessments make plenty of sense. But they seem to miss the biggest wrench in the spokes. For the reality (if I may borrow a term from yesterday), is far less academic – and far more bewildering.
The New Age movement has rarely been considered a substantial factor in political power writ large. In its tropes of séance and crystals and clownish hippiness, it seemed to sequester itself to certain Californian fringes, its perceived impacts relegated to yoga pants and digital detoxes. Of the few thinkers who demonstrated comprehension of the true ubiquity and power of New Ageism, Slavoj Zizek had the likeliest chance to convince us. From his co-authored The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic:
“The reason for this (New Age) shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.”
Unfortunately, the world made the identical mistake of finding him, too, clownish for saying so. In all its apparent innocuity, New Ageism thus bloomed into the mainframe of the western operation with astonishing ease, unthwarted by whatever enfeebled criticism of it broke through.
So when, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was noticed that a peculiar overlap began to emerge between QAnon and New Age communities on Facebook, common wisdom presumed that the New Age crowd and its seeming penchant for naivety had been unwittingly coopted by the Right.
That was the wrong assumption.
STOP MAKING SENSE
The pandemic sent New Agers into an enumerated MAGA frenzy - from Instagram life coaches to the “QAnon shaman”, the spiritual crowd suddenly loved Trump. He was one of them. A savior. A “lightworker”. (Seriously, click on that last link. Read the comments. Go down the wormhole. I’ll be here when you get back).
Trump’s blatant hubris in the face of a pandemic – specifically his refusal to wear a mask and his claim that he was “probably immune” – resonated deeply with New Agers who had come to believe that they too had manifested their own, personal, sovereign immune systems through positive thinking. For both, to wear a mask would be a sign of self-doubt that might fundamentally disturb the sovereignty of their own “personal realities.”
The ultimate allure of New Ageism, it turns out, is the ability to hold oneself out of reach of life’s interconnectivity.
Such a removed position, often called “spiritual bypass” by its detractors, not only places the self out of reach of the external world, but relieves the self of any responsibility for the struggles of it. While bypassing so fundamental a truth as life’s interconnectivity might seem too illogical to comport with the experience of living, by identifying collective reality as fundamentally oppressive to one’s personal reality, collective sense-making itself is discarded as an archaic ruse.
This is what the sense-making community hasn’t seemed to fully confront: The new sovereign individual doesn’t want to “make sense” with them. To the sovereign individual of the disembodied age, the more collectively verified the information, the more oppressive the information becomes.
The only way to verify one’s ideological “sovereignty”, then, is to take up a minority opinion.
In its super-sizing of the personal, sovereign, independent state of the individual, New Ageism encourages us to disregard the most fundamental aspect of life as erroneous – its interdependence. This disregard is not accidental but, rather, New Age’s most fundamentally religious - and ancient - allure…
Perhaps something of us has always secretly desired separation from it all. To create our own, siloed, personal realities. To forge our own religion of self.
For where Zizek says this religion of self exists because “it is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism”, history might disagree. New Ageism is at once the progenitor and the larger form. Capitalism serves it - as its messenger.
In proper historical context, New Ageism is not as an emergent property of capitalism per se, but the final formulation of the millennia-long emergence of a religion of self - an integral play in which capitalism has merely played a vital part.
While I don’t want to get too sidetracked in ancient history, here is a run-on sentence with sufficient hyperlinks to get you started should you desire some holes to rabbit:
The full history of this religion of self can be perfectly tracked from early Gnosticism’s belief in mind over matter, to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, to the Protestant reformation’s emphasis on an individualistic relationship to God, to the enlightenment’s empirical emphasis on subjectivity, to capitalism’s “mutual self-interest”, to Emerson’s “self-reliance”, to New Thought’s “personal manifestation”, to Ayn Rand’s the virtue of selfishness, and on, finally, to New Age’s “you create your own reality”.
Zizek’s analysis, all things considered, was only relatively astute, as capitalism’s role must be inverted to assume its right position as merely instrumental: Capitalism is the economic form that best fits today’s religion of self.
THE QUIET RELIGION
While capitalism has always contained cultic overtones - unpredictable “market forces” deciding our fates and an economic priestly class (bankers and forecasters) advising and admonishing their devotees - it was never sufficiently pious to protect itself from that keeper of the downtrodden – the Church.
Referencing both old and new testament passages with either bluntly socialist or anti-capitalist overtones, evangelicals raged against the monopolistic greed and inequality of 19th century capitalism.
The father of modern revivalism, Charles Grandison Finney :
“The whole course of business in the world is governed and regulated by the maxims of supreme and unmixed selfishness”
“…The rules by which business is done in the world, are directly opposite to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the spirit he exhibited.”
By 1925, up to 25% of Christian ministers in the United States identified as socialists. In England, the Christian Socialist movement was gaining political steam. In Russia, communism was being piloted as a more humane and moral alternative. Capitalism needed help – of the spiritual variety.
Help was on the way.
An obscure movement called “New Thought” (later New Age) had begun to spiritualize the capitalist individual by latching on to an occult notion coined a few decades earlier:
The law of attraction.
It was a continuation of our growing romance with subjectivity - but where serious philosophy resisted the urge to play God, 19th century spiritualists took the leap:
By simply thinking, the law of attraction asserted, we can create not just our subjective experiences, but our objective material conditions.
A true religion of self, it turned out, required a personal godhood.
Wallace D. Wattles’ The Science of Getting Rich, 1910:
“Man can form things in his thought, and by impressing his thought upon formless substance can cause the thing he thinks about to be created.”
“The men and women who practice the foregoing instructions will certainly get rich”
Enlisting material desire, the religion of self finally had its messenger - capitalism.
And yes – this time it brought along a dogma.
THE DOGMA OF SELF
What has made New Ageism succeed in formulating a religion of self where other attempts failed is owed mostly to its unabashed integration of dogma. I have here distilled the New Age dogma into a lineal tripartite against an eschatological backdrop.
1. The Law of Attraction – that a positive thought can attract what is desired.
2. Personal Manifestation – the enactment of this law into reality.
3. Personal Sovereignty – through enactment, the ultimate embodiment.
A lineal tripartite. First, the belief in the law. Second, the devoted use of the law. Third, the ultimate individual embodiment.
The basic dogma for the basic devotee of self.
From Oprah (“You become what you believe”) to self-help icons like Jane Roberts (“You create your own reality”) and Tony Robbins (“whatever you hold in your mind is exactly what you will experience”) to celebs like Jay Z (“I believe I can speak things into existence”), the rhetoric of the religion of self has used the messenger of capitalism to become utterly, completely, astoundingly ubiquitous.
Such notions stuff the pages of every other non-fiction best seller. Every third book at the airport seems to be some variation of “How to Think Yourself To Success” - ideas in such practice they now dominate the late capitalist lexicon.
And why not. The wellness industry’s global value is roughly $5 trillion (just about the combined GDP of the UK and Canada). Meanwhile, practicing positive self-visualization has demonstrably positive effects. Additionally, positive self-affirmations can brighten the mood, reduce anxiety, and make you more affable, likable, and energetically attractive.
But while anything from Alcoholics Anonymous to Weight Watchers can have steps to liberation, it is the backdrop of a religious eschatology that confirms New Ageism’s place amongst the world’s religions, producing the tell tale signs of inter-narcissism and religious exceptionalism.
New Ageism’s eschatology, for which the term “New Age” actually stands, selects for the survival of the New Ager beyond the apocalyptic end of the rest of humanity. Similar to Christianity’s notion of end times or Rapture, “New Age” refers to, literally, a new age or “next great awakening”, in which only those who have achieved personal sovereignty will advance to “the 5th dimension”.
Meanwhile, any poor soul who has not achieved personal sovereignty will languish behind in the awful, terrible, interconnected 3rd dimension. (This was the subject of my New Age Eugenics Instagram rant that went a touch viral.)
So what, you might say. New Ageism’s end times predictions are a bit exclusionary… and eugenicist. Plenty of religions see themselves in the same exceptional way…
…At least that tripartite dogma seems ok…right?
“THE LAW WORKS IN REVERSE”
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years… for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”
When Kanye West uttered the above in 2018 while “running for president,” the world guffawed and blamed mental health. But it may also have been a case of New Ageism.
In the previous section titled Stop Making Sense, I wrote at some length about “spiritual bypass”, but it is such an insidious thing that its precise mechanics deserve full illumination.
Spiritual bypassing works to skirt both responsibility and the annoyance of empathy by interpreting the law of attraction in reverse.
Here New Ageism’s most successful book, The Secret, explains away “events in history where masses of lives were lost” by candidly blaming the victims themselves:
“The frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event.”
“Whatever you choose to think will become your life experience.”
This view is even more jarringly expressed in The Secret author Rhonda Byrne’s response to a question about the law of attraction in the context of mass casualties:
“In a large-scale tragedy, like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc., we see that the law of attraction responds to people being at the wrong place at the wrong time because their dominant thoughts were on the same frequency of such events.”
Poverty, classism, ableism, genocide - all victim-generated. An astonishingly sociopathic worldview.
This has not gone unnoticed. Conducting meta research on self-help books, psychologist John Norcross noted of The Secret:
“Cancer victims. Sexual assault victims. Holocaust victims. They’re responsible? The book is riddled with these destructive falsehoods.”
And yet such falsehoods have proven too delicious for the sovereign individual desperate for immunity from collective responsibility. The individual who wants the convenience that those who suffer are wholly to blame - to believe that they manifested their suffering alone. The sovereign individual who wants to believe the increasingly popular notion that You Don’t Owe Anyone Anything.
But while the law of attraction may have commenced the battle against the inter-relativity of things, it is personal sovereignty that completes the war on shared reality and sense-making.
Yes, I am aware of competing notions of the sovereign individual, and that “personal sovereignty” is Silicon Valley’s favorite woke-cum-libertarian phrase. Nevertheless, I have little choice but to engage in redefinition and reclamation. To begin, “personal sovereignty” is the phrase that New Agers use to describe peak self-attainment.
For the New Ager, as for the techno-libertarian, personal sovereignty refers to personal autonomy. But where most rationalist application does not presume total autonomy over all aspects of experience is possible, New Age sovereignty does.
For the New Ager, personal sovereignty creates the personal reality.
Given this equivalency (which I will explain momentarily), I could have used the more distinctly New Age “personal reality” to title the 3rd dogma, and avoided any rub. But then it would have only been too easy for you, my valued reader, to presume that personal reality must refer to some strange, alien species or incel cult - that you yourself would never subscribe to an alternate, private, personal reality… when, in fact, we all are already dabbling.
Of course, having sovereignty over our own embodied lives (and associated private information) is a laudable goal. It’s just that we are now increasingly disembodied.
As our lives are increasingly lived out on the net, "sovereignty” deals less in physical autonomy and more in ideological curation. Ideology increasingly describes the total territory of the disembodied life. We are now less lives marked by ideologies, and more ideologies marked by life. Hence the dramatic increase in the fervency of identity politics shattering sense-making today.
From deep fakes to the looming immersive augmented technologies, “personal sovereignty” increasingly refers not to our freedom from Big Brother, but to our freedom from the collective experience.
Collective sense-making is impossible in such conditions.
But still, one might wonder what the very big harm is, anyhow. After all, “I create my own reality” could carry a Christ-like charm in our own innocuous hands.
Sure. But what happens if it is believed by a political class? Indeed - what happens when “I create my own reality” is believed by the president of the United States?
A CHURCH OF SELF
Yes, we have come at last to the section concerning DT. While I don’t want to subject you to any more Donald than you have already been subjected to, his story is preposterously germane. If you already are familiar with DT as a New Ager, you may still find my amalgam of his attempts at personal manifestation entertaining. Or, if you prefer, skip down to the section titled Shadow Time. If you don’t know much about DT as a New Ager, you’re in for a strange treat.
To be fair to Donald Trump, he was never part of this new congregation of clean-shaven “life hackers” and Instagram “lightworkers” and Burning Man “starseeds” trading stocks while earnestly posting about their imminent ascent to the “5th dimension”. No, Mr. Trump is an O.G. in the “I create my own reality” game. Most only hadn’t noticed that his was not an eponymous tower of self, but a church of self all along.
Donald, after all, was one of New Age’s first apostles – and it all did begin in a church.
In 1952, the famed pastor of New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church, Norman Vincent Peale, celebrated the release of his first book: The Power of Positive Thinking. The book centered around a central idea:
“A confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether."
As he sermonized in his blustering, invocational tone, a six-year-old boy sat in the audience next to his father. The boy was Donald Trump. Peale’s declarations of a godhood of self – a self capable of reality distorting powers – would win him legions of followers. But it would be young Donald who would become one of the most preternaturally adept.
Indeed, Trump took Peale’s ideas astoundingly literally.
Take the example of a deposition in 2007, in which Trump was asked – under threat of perjury - what his net worth was:
He responded by saying that his net worth fluctuates “with feelings, even my own feelings.” To clarify, the lawyer questioning Trump, Andrew Ceresney, asked: “You said your net worth goes up and down based on your own feelings?” “Yes, even my own feelings, but I try,” Trump replied.
He tries. New Age 101.
Decades later, Donald Trump would win the presidency of the United States by littering us with his personal reality in which:
“I know more about drones than anybody,” and “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” and “Nobody knows more about trade than me,” and “I know more about renewables (energy) than any human being on Earth,” and “I know more about Cory (Senator Booker) than he knows about himself,” and “Nobody knows more about construction than I do,” and “Nobody knows more about technology than me,” and generally touting his “tremendous” IQ and “billions and billions” of dollars.
“A confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether."
Narcissism? Perhaps. New Age 101? Absolutely.
After his inauguration, which was attended by a crowd one third of the size that of Obama’s, Trump would claim that his own attendance numbers were greater. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s never-fired confidant, would then defend Trump’s assertion by proclaiming on Meet The Press that Trump’s statements were “alternative facts.” Not lies. Attempted truths.
“A confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.”
Trump would then go on to rule by again touting his “genius” ability to simply know things he had never studied – like pandemics. After hundreds of thousands of deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump would lose re-election in the shared reality - while simultaneously declaring himself the winner in his own.
Trump’s rise to the most powerful position on Earth should sufficiently remove any inclination to dismiss New Ageism as one of the most influential ideologies on the planet. But his capital “insurrectionists”, MAGA believers, OANN watchers, and yes, even the “QAnon Shaman”, should tell you he was less an aberration and more a canary in the coal mine.
“A confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether”… but who’s pattern…and what fact.
To a Jungian psychologist, it would be no big wonder that all of this “confident and optimistic” thinking created so much disjointment. How too-convenient to simply avoid the shadows and struggles and pathogens of the external world.
And how obviously they spring anyhow.
Psychologist Carl Jung presaged much when he posited that the denial of our “shadow” self – that is, the aspects of us that are not “positive thoughts” – results in neurotic, disintegrated states. The idea being that, when we avoid our darker natures, they manifest anyhow - only in more uncontrollably damaging ways.
One of the more famous and common manifestations of neurosis is projection.
As Jung explains it in Archaic Man:
“Projection is one of the commonest psychic phenomena…Everything that is unconscious in ourselves we discover in our neighbour, and we treat him accordingly.”
In other words, when we do not integrate our unconscious fears, we tend to project their darker natures out into the world. Demons abound. Hollywood liberals feast on the adrenal glands of sex-trafficked children. Marina Abromovic becomes a witch. Anderson Cooper is actually a death lizard. Everything is connected – not in the smiley woo-woo way – in the bad trip way.
The perfect neurotic inversion of the erstwhile “good vibes only” New Age trope - what starts out as a seemingly innocuous call sign of strict positivity toxifies into a neurosis so complete that it makes a biblical hellscape of the external world - all in an effort to keep the vibes “good” and the self “light”.
And yet within this bleak assessment, like a diamond in messy coal, sits a lesson.
As Jung states in The Symbolic Life:
“Neurosis is really an attempt at self-cure…It is an attempt of the self-regulating psychic system to restore the balance, in no way different from the function of dreams – only rather more forceful and drastic.”
and in Civilization In Transition:
“We should not try to “get rid” of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is.”
So, then, what would be the lesson here? What has the current breakdown in sense-making taught us?
If there is an opening kata to the fixing of sense-making, it may be in the shadows that we must learn it. Whatever suffering we were attempting to avert with the New Age brand of self-centered personal reality creation, we have inadvertently magnified.
Suffer or suffer more.
THE END OR THE BEGINNING
Sense-making’s incentives to share reality have always rested on a sometimes painful and always vital recognition of the interconnectivity of life. That recognition was, ironically, much more naturally grasped in the pre-connected, pre-disembodied age. And so those of us who care must be louder. Earnest-er. Goofier criers of that one fundamental law - the law that makes the “law of attraction” work to begin with - our interconnectivity. Our inexorable search for self spread into its wondrous mesh of interdependence. We must insist on changing our religionomic frameworks from fundamentally avoidant to fundamentally integrative. We must insist on this fundamental recognition to be injected like an epipen into the meat of our spoiled human endeavors.
But coevally, such knowledge is useless if it can be hijacked and erased by unmoored fears of our own shadows - for it is within the depths of our own fears that our truer religions of self are likelier to emerge.
Whatever the past four years have been, they have been painful for most. No matter where you sit - center, left, right - it was all a crush of rotten shadow.
And perhaps thats a good thing. Or, rather, we’d better make it one.
Yes, the law of attraction “works” - but precisely due to the interconnectivity of life interacting with thought.
Yes, then, manifestation is real - but “personal manifestation” is not! “Manifestation” comes from late Latin manifestare, which means “make public”.
“Personal manifestation” is not only erroneous, it’s an oxymoron! Co-manifestation is the correct usage. Spread the better word.
Sorry, Personal sovereignty = personal reality in the disembodied life. If what you actually mean to express is personal control (of your emotions, behaviors, etc.), simply say “personal control”. Not as sexy-smart but you’ll live.
Who are you and did you have to sell your soul at the crossroads to get the information that you just so prolifically shared?!? 🤯 I am a meditation teacher and Reiki practitioner and I try to be vigilant about not spreading the gospel of the New Age. And it ain’t easy because I truck on the edge of those waters all of the time. But I joined a yoga cult by mistake for a weekend once, so I am aware of the damage that selling “personal sovereignty” can do. I have just never had the vocabulary to back this up until I read your writing.
There is literally no check and balance in the industry that I work in so I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into topics like “spiritualism” and the perversion of yoga, so that I can show up for my clients as straight as possible. Ok, maybe a little too straight as I shared with a class that I was guiding meditation for the other night, that if COVID doesn’t show us how we are all intrinsically interconnected then I don’t know what will. I sit here in the Hudson Valley watching friends and family receive a virus that travelled over hill and dale and continents and crevasses because we all breathe the SAME AIR.
I don’t even know how to thank you for this forum.
Excellent essay, great work.
Is it really the affect of capitalism that caused this mutated denial of shadow or rather a focus on material gain at a cost of character or integrity? Universally humans have always gone for the lowest hanging fruit over climbing to a taller part of the tree for a perhaps a better piece of fruit. Combine that easy effort high reward approach with marketing strategies that play off of the brains chemistry and you have a sort of an evil scientist level of sorcery triggering mass impulse trends in energy exchange. Couldn’t we create a system where hard work and expertise still translated into individuals being rewarded for that effort? A system that also factored in the long term costs and deviated from quarterly global returns. Hasn’t socialism’s approach already been seen and it’s failures are already present?
Fundamentally currency is just a token for a measurable amount of energy. How do we inspire further innovation without an individual reward?