“The “spirituality” of nurses who tell dying cancer patients that they
“make their own pain” would be right at home in Dachau.” —Andrew Vachss
By Cat Saunders
Before I say anything about New Age fundamentalism, let me say up front that I have no clue what causes what. Nor do I believe it’s even possible to know. At best, people can form opinions about the nature of causal reality. But these opinions may or may not have anything to do with what’s actually happening.
Frankly, I encourage those who think their belief system is airtight to hold fast to whatever they need to feel safe. In a world as challenging as ours, security blankets can be comforting. Sometimes a blanket full of holes can feel better than no blanket at all.
This article is intended only for those who aren’t afraid to question authority (including mine and their own). It’s for people who reevaluate their beliefs regularly. And it’s for those who are willing to stand naked in the wind, so to speak, if they discover that their security blankets are too full of holes to keep.
These brave souls are the ones who might enjoy this weed-pulling romp through the garden of New Age Fundamentalism. I especially want to address three major New Age beliefs—or NABs, in honor of their ability to nab people, including me at various points in time.
NAB #1: You create your own reality.
This is the New Age belief from which all other New Age beliefs grow. To be fair, it has a high side, in terms of moving people out of a victim mentality. However, in the same way other fundamentalist belief systems allow no room for contradiction, the shadow side of this New Age axiom is deeply repressed. As a result, the notion that “you create your own reality” can actually disempower people.
Let me explain. I first heard about “New Thought” ideas in the early 1980s. Since then, I’ve noticed that this “create your own reality” belief is often taken to mean that you actually cause everything in your life to manifest. Literally!
Such megalomania hardly requires further skewering. But let me just add that this form of thinking is also infantile. Now before you get your hackles up, let me explain that I’m speaking neurologically.
That is, human infants go through an early developmental stage where they perceive the world as an extension of themselves. Newborn infants don’t know that their caregivers are separate beings. So babies may experience separation anxiety as they gradually begin to realize that caregivers are not within their (the infants’) control.
I began studying functional neurology a few years after I was first exposed to New Age thinking. Curiously, I noticed that the “create your own reality” belief system essentially represents a stage of arrested development. Grown adults with this belief system act as if the world is an extension of themselves and therefore within their control.
In relation to this notion, my favorite shaman, Michael Harner, wryly observed, “I think that the human mind is not necessarily the biggest thing in the universe.”
Of course, not everyone takes this “create your own reality” belief to its infantile extreme. Some people simply believe that you’re responsible for your perceptions of reality. In turn, your perceptions then determine the quality of your experience. This interpretation has its high side, too, but there are still some problems with it.
For one thing, anyone who has been legally insane—or has experienced significant mental impairment as a result of physical, chemical, nutritional, or environmental imbalances—knows firsthand that one’s perceptions are not always subject to conscious control.
Indeed, the main problem with this whole “create your own reality” thing is that it’s all about control. Dressing it up with words like “mastery” and “personal power” cannot disguise this age-old struggle for control.
Control is the dirty word that no one wants to talk about. And addiction to control is the elephant in the New Age living room. New Agers are supposed to be spiritually minded. Yet those who are truly spiritual know that a control-oriented existence is fear-based, and therefore the antithesis of empowerment.
NAB #2: Illness is the result of mental thought patterns.
I confess that I’ve learned a lot from using this NAB to unravel underlying messages of physical symptoms. However, I’ve also used this NAB to beat myself up mercilessly.
What’s worse, I once used this belief to “encourage” (i.e., shame) counseling clients and friends to look at how they “created” whatever was happening in their bodies. As if they caused their own pain or illness! Talk about disrespectful.
It’s disrespectful of sick people to treat mental thought patterns as the sole cause of illness. It’s also disrespectful of illness. I agree with Arny Mindell, who says that illness is ultimately mysterious.
Another wise man, M. Scott Peck, taught me that illness is like a tree, with many roots. I love these ideas because they allow my thoughts to be part of the equation, but not the whole story.
It’s overly simplistic, if not downright arrogant, to insist that illness is merely the result of people’s thoughts. For example, consider the survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster who developed radiation sickness. Do you think mental thought patterns caused these people’s suffering? Would any sane person say that their cancers would disappear if they’d only affirm their well-being vigorously enough?
Frankly, I fail to see how anyone can deny environmental—and numerous other—factors in human illness. After all, people’s lives intertwine with very complex system of known and unknown variables.
People who think mental thought patterns cause illness become strangely silent when it comes to babies who are born with life-threatening illnesses. What thought patterns are these babies even having beyond pure instinct? Some people sidestep this sticky wicket by saying that sick babies “come in” with faulty thinking. Other New Age fundamentalists say these babies are simply manifesting their parents’ sick thoughts.
Either way, somebody takes the blame. Thus, the idea that illness results from faulty thinking begins to sound dangerously similar to the fundamentalist belief in pain as punishment. Or the belief that illness is a sign that you’re doing something wrong.
Personally, I’ve worked with chronic pain and illness, including a few life-threatening ones, for more than 30 years. In that time, I’ve noticed that body processes yield much more information when they’re approached with curiosity and respect. Also, as paradoxical as it sounds, I do best when I trust that my body is inherently wise, including experiences of pain or illness.
This doesn’t mean I’m a masochist, martyr, or victim. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t work to alleviate distressing symptoms, if they can be alleviated. However, I refuse to make illness wrong. Why? Because illness has helped me deepen my compassion and increase my humility. Illness has also allowed me to learn amazing things about life processes that I would never have learned otherwise.
How could I not be grateful for such a profound teacher?
NAB #3: Do what you love and the money will follow.
This NAB casts such a huge shadow that it’s amazing any of us can still find a place in the sun. To be blunt, it just ain’t so. If it were true, monks and nuns would be rich. Numerous well-known writers and musicians would not have died paupers. And the term “starving artist” would not be an all-too-accurate stereotype.
To be fair, this aphorism says nothing about when the money will follow (it could come after you’re dead). Nor does it say whom the money will follow (your efforts could make someone else rich).
Seriously, though, if this NAB is taken at face value, it’s an enticing way to sweep materialism under the love rug. That is, if proponents of this axiom did not want money in the first place, this NAB would simply say “Do what you love.” Period.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting money. And there’s nothing wrong with doing what you love. The problem arises when someone promises a causal relationship between the two. If you do this, then that will happen.
That’s what creates the shadow effect of this extremely seductive New Age fallacy. Those who do what they love may expect money to follow. If it doesn’t, people may feel cheated, tricked, or ashamed that they didn’t do something “good enough.” Therefore, they might try even harder to force the world to do their bidding.
People may contort themselves in a million ways before it dawns on them that maybe they’re fine and the belief is baloney. This may take time, depending on a person’s level of enmeshment with others who believe that money follows love.
To make matters worse, those who don’t make money doing what they love may be too ashamed to speak up. Contradictory evidence is generally unwelcome in fundamentalist circles. Thus, the conspiracy of silence continues, and the belief prevails.
Antidotes to New Age Beliefs
Instead of worrying about “creating your own reality,” how about exploring reality as it is? Cultivate beginner’s mind. Act as if you know nothing about anything, including yourself. See what happens if you treat yourself and the world as awesome mysteries, rather than tools to be manipulated and controlled.
If pain or illness visits you, find ways to be responsible to it, instead of obsessing about being responsible for it. Discover what happens to your response-ability if you imagine that your body is acting intelligently even when it’s sick. Imagine that your body is wise even when it “interrupts” your life or forces you to change, however momentarily or permanently.
Most importantly, have compassion for your body. Health has less to do with the state of your body and more to do with the quality of your relationship with all-that-is.
If whatever is happening for you includes money, please respect this privilege. Don’t insult those less fortunate by assuming your relative wealth is merely the result of your own efforts. After all, if money was the inevitable result of hard work, there would be a lot of rich Third World farmers!
On the flip side, if you don’t have a lot of money, don’t assume you’re doing something wrong. Even if you decide to alter what you’re doing around work and money, do it in the spirit of ongoing experimentation.
Be careful not to make cause-and-effect assumptions about what you think should result from your efforts. This is easier said than done, but an openhearted attitude about results will get you farther than an attitude of expectation and entitlement.
Last but definitely not least, be sure to do what you love, even if you do something else for money. Otherwise, part of your soul might die, and a dying soul is worse than poverty.
This article was originally published by The New Times in January 2002 and updated in July 2017.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).