Some of you are asking me to clarify how seemingly benign “love and light” New Age belief systems could possibly be damaging, especially to BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled folks. So let’s unpack a few common New Age teachings (that I tried on years ago like a new sundress and discarded them after I realized how damaging and unempathic they could be). Forgive the length. I have a lot to say about this. Lest you think I have not also been guilty of drinking the Kool-Aid with these New Age beliefs and perpetrating some of the unempathic behaviors that tend to go along with them, I have been both traumatized by these teachings and probably have traumatized others as well.
When I was still under the hypnotic trance of some of these charismatic New Age teachers, I was quite helped by many of these teachings, and I thought I was helping others by parroting them. I now see that this was my whiteness, my privilege, my ableism, my heteronormative blindness showing, and for this, I’m truly sorry. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I hope that those in the New Age community can question these beliefs without black and white thinking. If we unpack these beliefs with nuance, we can be gentle with ourselves, appreciate how such teachings have helped us, examine how such beliefs might harm others, and grow into more compassionate, empathic beings at a time when we really need to be able to embody and practice our spiritual values through our sacred activism and respect for social justice.
1. Be here now.
While there is great benefit in spiritual practices that allow us to be more present, not everyone has an equally easy time being here now. Consider the utopian idea that “enlightenment” means you live only in the present moment and don’t get lost in ruminations about the past or anxieties about the future. First, that assumes that you’re safe in the present moment. Because if a cop is pulling you over for a traffic stop and you’re a young Black man, no amount of being here now is going to stop you from being legitimately scared about the reality of the dangers of such a moment, which is informed by the knowledge that so many innocent Black men pulled over by cops wind up abused, imprisoned, or dead. Add to this that if you have Complex PTSD from lifelong trauma, including the trauma of being BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ in America, you’re likely to have frequent emotional flashbacks, even if you don’t have visual ones. Unless you get treatment for all that lifelong trauma, you will not be able to meditate yourself into focusing only on the present moment without dissociating, which is a trauma symptom, not enlightenment. Even if it’s safe in that particular moment, it wasn’t safe in the past, and it may not be safe again in the future. While these teachings may be very helpful for some, Eckhart Tolle and Ram Dass reveal their privilege through such teachings. Not all sentient beings on the planet have the luxury of basking in detached, peaceful, dispassionate equanimity right now. Until all beings have equal access to this bliss state of true presence, we are not all free. I appreciate Thomas Hubl’s trauma-informed attempt at nuance around his presence teachings. After years of spiritual teaching in post-holocaust Germany, he realized you cannot ethically or successfully teach presence without first unpacking and healing generational wounding and collective trauma. Check out his new book with Sounds True Healing Collective Trauma.
2. Your negative thoughts are not real and need to be fixed.
Sure, it can be helpful to question your thinking when you’re looping negative thoughts. But some teachers take this valid teaching to an abusive extreme. I once attended an event with Byron Katie, where the marketing logo promised that after a weekend of learning “The Work,” we would never suffer again. So I watched Byron Katie do “The Work,” which is really a kind of distorted cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) performed by someone who is not a therapist. She demoed The Work on a Latinx woman whose husband had just died unexpectedly the day before. The widow was shocked and grieving, yet Katie told her she was only suffering because she had the false belief that her husband should still be alive and that arguing with reality works 0% of the time. The abusive gaslighting and victim shaming I witnessed aimed at a legitimately suffering and appropriately grieving widow in the name of some spirituality and enlightenment teaching left me so sick to my stomach that I had to leave the room (and offer the woman a hug, an “I’m sorry,” and a referral to a good trauma therapist later).
In “The Work,” if you ever find yourself in a “victim story” that leaves you angry at someone who hurt you, you’re supposed to challenge your thinking and fill out the “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet. Which basically means you’re supposed to find out how you are the very thing you are judging in the other. And then what, you’re supposed to ignore the boundary violation of what the other person did to hurt you? What a convenient and racist way for a white woman to say that BIPOC people do not have a right to be angry at white supremacists. Teachings like The Work are anger-phobic, spiritual bypassing, boundary-wounding, and abusive to traumatized, suffering individuals who actually need real trauma healing. The Work and other teachings like it can cause people to passively tolerate abusive behavior in the name of “I’m so compassionate and spiritual.”
3. Reality is an illusion. Only love is real.
This common Advaita Vedanta teaching is an easy way to promote bypassing social justice activism. If I am not my body, I am not my thoughts, this reality is only “maya,” and only God/Love/[fill in your name for it] is real, then marginalized people can be easily dismissed for getting legitimately lit up about social injustices.