New Age Paths:
Now it's all about business

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

It's not a new criticism to notice that much of the New Age spirituality and self-improvement movements are motivated by the same kind of values that drive capitalism. Even the famous book of recent years on happiness, Flow, makes work and productivity the source of all good feeling in life.

It's little wonder then that the New Age is finding such a cozy home in the business environment now. The magazine Fast Company ran a feature in its July issue about business execs on retreat at pricey Canyon Ranch in Arizona, where many enroll in programs in Dan Baker's Life Enrichment Center.

The article profiles some success stories of stressed-out overworked executives who reclaim real lives. Or so they claim. Typical is this statement:

"He began delegating at work, and he cut his workweek back to 55 hours. With his newfound time, he carved out a personal life. He took up squash, hiking, and skiing, and he joined several local charity boards. He chose to end his first, unhappy marriage and…remarried and became a stepfather."

Newfound time? In other words, he "cut back" to 55 hours of work so he could attack his personal life like he runs his business. No wonder he needs to return to the ranch several times a year.

As a contrast, the March/April issue of New Age, where you'd expect a less self-critical examination, included a section on "spiritual responsibility." In one article, Clark Strand, formerly senior editor of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, criticizes guru culture. He reports how the estate of Chogyam Trungpa Rinopche refused to let the magazine print material from the Buddhist leader's books after it printed some articles critical of his sexual relationships and alcoholism. In other words, he writes, it is one problem for the guru to be imperfect. It's a more serious problem for the guru and his followers to attempt to hide imperfection.

Strand, after years inside guru culture himself, makes the predictable argument that "truth is within" and that we don't need gurus. To "wake up from guru culture" in his view is to realize "it was never possible to find a truth other than our own, and never possible to give our truth away."

In another article, Linda Ilene Solomon, writes facetiously on "spritual promsiscuity" - the continual drifting by seekers like herself from one path and teacher to another. She ultimately concludes that forging personal religious hybrids is "okay." On the other hand, Steven Hassan, a former Moonie turned psychotherapist, reports that he pilgrimed many paths but "finally reconnected to my Jewish roots" and attends a temple led by a "postdenominational" rabbi.

It seems to me that most of these authors and the hard-playing business executive labor too much under a singular belief more problematic than time management or guru discipleship. May the problem not be excessive valuation of interiority and individuality? Perhaps "truth" is neither "inside" me nor "outside" in the teacher but in what is constellated between us as individuals, in the dialog. (Even prayer is dialog.) After all, Strand only woke up from the delusions of guru culture and to his own truth after absorbing himself in it.

One might compare it to Dorothy's trip to Oz, an archetypal tale of the search for wisdom. Yes, she has to leave home and encounter a wizard before appreciating her home, but it's foolish to say that the Kansas to which she returns is the Kansas that she left. The experience of home is radically altered by the journey. Unless you are a fundamentalist, or a complete essentialist, you can't say that "home," as a literal place or metaphor for spiritual enrichment, is a fixed place. Most of us cannot penetrate the significance of the immediate without distancing rather radically from it at first.

Thus, I'd argue, a real spiritual life requires - as the traditional religions have taught - active engagement with people both like us (in our congregations) and very different from us too (in mission and charity work). It also requires intellectual and aesthetic stimulation, opening to new ideas and the beauty in the world. The teacher must open us to others, not command our sole devotion.

Years of writing this column - to say nothing of my own participation in guru culture - have taught me how narcissistic most modern religious, psychological and spiritual movements have become through their embarassing valuation of interiority and that outrageous mantra, "I am god." I think the self-examination demonstrated by the New Age Magazine writers indicates that we are perhaps on the way back to a more open-hearted spirituality in which god is the other, not my internal fantasy.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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