The average Australian does not know what the term "New Age" stands for. This is because New Age ideas are not yet part of mainstream thought; perhaps they never will be. In fact 'alternative' is a defining characteristic of New Age. There is confusion because of widespread talk about "New Age Men" (not the same as men who are New Age) and at least one girls' magazine takes New Age to mean 'hip'.
Mainstream journalists cynically dismiss New Age as people with naive beliefs in crystals and spirits, together with unscrupulous organisations that exploit them by selling fake enlightenment. Also part of this jaundiced view are cults that dry-clean the minds of their followers, a childishly egotistical obsession with self and far-fetched make-believe covered by a cloud of meaningless psycho-babble. While few of my readers would hold this view, it is useful to remember that not everything New Age is positive and good. How could that be so in any movement, let alone such a diverse one? There is ample room for humbug and the brandishing of unfulfillable claims, including various forms of cargo cult: you can get anything you want just by asking for it.
New Age is sometimes referred to as a Clayton's religion, the religion you're having when you're not having one. There is some truth in this since New Age beliefs answer much the same spiritual and psychological needs that religions do, or used to. These needs include finding something beyond ourselves, larger than the sweaty little ego; dealing with the fear of death; and answering large questions such as, What am I? and Why am I here?
It seems to me that karma and reincarnation make much more sense than a once-only chance to go to Heaven by obeying a celestial father, who though omnipotent and benevolent, allows suffering and evil. Another advantage of New Age over traditional religion is that it does not require submission: one can retain the freedom to think and need not join any group.
In essence New Age is a search for meaning in an alternative way. Thus it is the search for a belief, for something beyond the dehumanised world of science and technology. New Age is looking for more to life than the pursuit of pleasure, security, comfort and wealth; more to personal development than the normal progression to a static end-state called maturity; more to spirituality than ritual and doctrine; more to the mystery of life than science will ever dissect. In a word it seeks transcendence. Like religion, New Age goes beyond materialism and bourgeois aspirations (though admittedly, parts of New Age are directly focused on 'creating' money), beyond received doctrine, beyond narrow scientific views (that all that is real is what can be studied by the rigorous procedures of science; that the human body equals the human being).
This search for meaning is a search for spiritual values, one that tries to avoid the ruts of outworn beliefs. It is a quest for the ultimate of what the human potential has to offer.
New Age is not this or that, it is a simultaneous exploration in many divergent directions - psychological, philosophical, moral, spiritual, psychic, physical and emotional. New Age is not the sum of numerous paths in this vast terrain. It is the search for a path that engages the individual heart, wherever that may lead. It is not a destination but an openness to new meaning.
The above was a right brain description. Now for a left brain one.
I define New Age as a loose collection of alternative perspectives having psychological, religious and philosophical components, together with diverse practices. New Age includes transpersonal psychologies, Eastern philosophies, alternative religions, personal growth disciplines, alternative health, psychic phenomena, and mysticism.
John Noss writes that the orthodox Hindu can be a pantheist, polytheist, monotheist, agnostic or even atheist, dualist, pluralist or monist. Although New Age offers a similar variety, there are a number of attitudes or beliefs held in common by the majority of New Agers. These include: that it is better not to judge people; the importance of acceptance; that all one's life experience is a series of lessons; that all human behaviour is at bottom motivated by love or fear; that people are basically good; the necessity of having a positive attitude to life; that we need to look within ourselves to solve our problems; the need for personal growth; reincarnation and karma.
Perhaps the two most basic ideas concern love and responsibility. Love is seen as the most important thing, giving life its deepest meaning. We are here mainly to learn to love, especially to love unconditionally. Karma can be interpreted as the burden of separateness - the illusion that we are separate selves, one in each body. Love helps us overcome separation and eventually to realise we are all united, that there is actually only one Self. Unfortunately, this process seems to take very many incarnations.
The second is the radical notion that we choose all our experience and are hence responsible for it. It follows that we are entirely responsible for our own happiness. Not only do we choose all our experience, but we also choose how we respond to everything that happens to us. A consequence is the idea that all disease is emotionally based, in fact, self-willed.
Though it embraces many Eastern elements, New Age is a development of affluent Western culture, where the prevailing scientific world-view fails to fill the spiritual void left behind by religion. Holistic thinking, which tries to take into account the interconnectedness of things, is an important aspect of New Age, and this tends to make the movement somewhat anti-science, which is by nature reductionistic. Holism is also a reaction against the fragmentation of knowledge that has taken place in the twentieth century.
Since New Age is a loose grouping that can include the most diverse streams of psychology, philosophy and spirituality, it follows that way-out fringe groups cannot be excluded. Yet there are 'alternative' people I exclude from New Age: fundamentalists of all persuasions and members of hard-line cults, who believe that they are the sole possessors of truth and enlightenment. New Age is not really about movements or organisations but rather about disparate individuals each searching for their own path. Unlike Greenpeace, New Age is not a social movement that tries to change the world. It is mainly about individual, not social salvation. New Age is compatible with religion, but not with rigid orthodoxy, though some people may disagree. On the other hand, there is a definite affinity with environmentalism. "Back to nature and the natural" is a major theme of New Age. There is also a strong affirmation of yin values, of the feminine, of the right brain view of things. New Age definitely puts heart before head.
New Age can be separated into seven major components, though these are interconnected and overlap:
(1) Western psychologies that are not part of the mainstream of academic psychology. These include Bioenergetics, Gestalt, Jungian, Maslow's, Psychosynthesis, Reichian, Rogerian and Transactional Analysis. Some of these are transpersonal i.e. they in some sense embody the fundamental notion that the "separate self sense" is an illusion. These alternative psychologies have in common a non-mechanistic view of human beings and generally seek to understand the whole person, including the spiritual dimension, long ignored by Western psychology. Many personal growth courses are based on such psychologies. This is because these approaches to the human psyche have in common an orientation of helping people find a path of growth, rather than fixing up neuroses, as in traditional psychology. There are also a number of ambitious character typologies such as that of bioenergetics, the enneagram (originally from Sufism) and Jung's character types.
(2) Important ideas derived from Eastern philosophies. Some of the sources are Buddhism, Hinduism, Zen, Taoism, Sufism, various schools of yoga, and philosophers like Krishnamurti. Key ideas that have entered New Age thought from these sources are: karma and reincarnation; the concept of the Self; the non-existence of any kind of self; that truth is ineffable and is best expressed in paradox; the unity of opposites; yin and yang; holism; the essential unity of all religions; that the divine is within each of us, rather than outside; self-realization or spiritual liberation as the goal of life; non-attachment; the importance of acceptance; the veil of Maya; living in the moment; that we are all One (Brahman).
(3) Various techniques of personal growth, physical well-being and psycho-therapy, whether of Eastern or Western origin. These include: active imagination (inner dialogue), Alexander Technique, Bioenergetics, biofeedback, dream analysis, Feldenkrais, floatation, group therapy, guided visualisations, hatha yoga, Huna, journal writing, macrobiotics, meditation, muscle testing, Neuro Linguistic Programming, primal therapy, psychodrama, rebirthing, Reiki, relaxation, subliminal tapes, Tai Chi and many others. One could also add the many Eastern self-defence disciplines or martial arts. The men's movement is a recent addition.
Especially important is positive thinking - in particular affirmations and visualisations. Though this sometimes degenerates into the naive belief that we will receive anything we want simply by asking. Personal growth is a major aim of life for New Age people. This is a highly positive attitude, where one seeks to overcome the limitations of one's own nature.
Then there are the courses that teach these, and other techniques as part of a personal growth programme. The courses are characterised by an experiential, as opposed to theoretical approach to learning. Some of the better known ones are: Forum (formerly est), Self-Transformations (now split and renamed), Insight, Psychosynthesis, Neuro Linguistic Programming, Silva Mind Control. Many of the courses combine Western psychology with Eastern philosophy. They teach assertiveness, conflict resolution, relationship skills, stress management and relaxation, meditation, self-confidence, positive thinking, the removal of blocks to expressing emotions, and self-understanding. Undergoing one of these courses can be an I-opening journey into self and a very uncomfortable one at times.
(4) Probably most people first encounter New Age through one of the numerous schools of alternative medicine: acupressure, acupuncture, aromatherapy, Bach flowers, body therapy, chiropractic, colonic irrigation, crystal healing, herbalism, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, iridology, kinesiology, massage, moxibustion, naturopathy, reflexology, Reiki, Rolfing, Shiatsu. Alternative medicine differs from the familiar variety in that its approach is more holistic. Since body, mind and spirit are seen as intimately connected, alternative medicine seeks to heal the whole person. It also differs from orthodox medicine in that it focuses on causes rather than symptoms.
(5) Diverse forms of psychic or paranormal experience. These include: astral travelling (out of body experiences), astrology, aura analysis, chakra balancing, divination (such as I Ching), fire-walking, meditation, numerology, palmistry, parapsychology (ESP), past lives recall, sacred sex, shamanism, spirit-channelling, tarot, UFOs. These modes seek to experience a reality normally unknown to us or else to gain knowledge in an unorthodox way.
(6) Apart from New Age as a whole being a pseudo-religion (or religion, depending on your definition of the word), a number of alternative religions and religion-like movements fall under its aegis. Here is a list: Ananda Marga, Anthroposophy, Charismatic Christians, A Course In Miracles, Divine Light Mission, Findhorn, Gurdjieff-Ouspensky, Hare Krishna (ISKCON), Rajneeshism, Rosicrucians, Sai Baba's following, Scientology, Steiner schools, Summit Lighthouse, Theosophy, Unification Church (the 'Moonies').
(7) Varieties of mysticism such as raja yoga, Sufism, Christian mysticism, Kabbala and Zen. Note there is considerable overlap with (5) and (6) above. I single out mysticism separately because of its fundamental nature. It has been defined as the art of union with reality, or as direct experience, as opposed to through the senses. Perhaps Near Death Experiences belong in this rubric.
I hope you agree that this classification is exhausting rather than exhaustive. Obviously, it reflects my own bias, though I have tried not to favour any particular approach, nor dismiss what I disagree with. Sorry if I have omitted your favourite therapy or form of personal growth. Of course no-one can sample all the factors I've mentioned - what each individual experiences as New Age is likely to be a small slice of the above. If all this is new to you, then you can find out more by visiting a New Age bookshop.
So New Age cannot be categorised in a quick definition. Perhaps it can be summed up as the attempt to explore the largely unknown potentials of being human, in other words a striving for wholeness.