When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
– ‘The Age of Aquarius’ (5th Dimension)
Origins of western esotericism
The origins of the New Age movement that flourished in the West during the 1970s and 1980s heralded the coming of a new age. It was an inspiration to music, politics, education and therapy as part of the 1960s counterculture fostering values in opposition to mainstream consumer capitalism, such as a search for social justice and equality. It grew up in the late 1960s West Coast of the US out of a blend of cross-cultural spiritualism and a new awareness of Eastern philosophy and ascetic practices that sought to provide a mantle that emphasised progressive change and the possibility of deep personal transformation. It contributed to anti-Vietnam war protests: ‘make love, not war.’ Love and peace were terms commonly used to describe the anti-violence orientation based on an alleged higher awareness about the nature and future of human beings and, in particular, what the species might become – a kind of spiritual evolution that preserved a Christian New Testament optimism about a coming spiritual age. Esoteric knowledge, known to a few wise people or gurus, or spiritual teachers, was passed on through many ascetic practices, including fasting, dieting, purification rites, yoga, meditation, and encounter group sessions that adopted a variety of psychological techniques and procedures.
In ‘The New Age 40 Years Later,’ Rick Heller interviews Mark Satin, who suggests that the New Age has gone mainstream, resulting in an American interpretation of God at once both personal and on a literal reading of the Bible but also life experiences and revelations based on non-traditional encounters. Satin himself argues that our problems are not a result entirely of capitalism but rather point to a prison-like ancient consciousness based on ‘patriarchal attitudes, egocentricity, scientific single vision, the bureaucratic mentality, xenophobic nationalism, and the “big city outlook”’ that together anchored materialistic values. New Age proliferated, and there appeared new age spirituality, politics, music, theology, cosmology, astrology, healing and alternative medicine, science, ethics, education, business, media, religion and paganism, and non-Western and indigenous applications. By the 1990s, a number of commentators suggested the Age of Aquarius had not taken place, and astrologers argue whether it is the current age or the one to come. As the 1990s drew to a close, critics began to question its politics and whether it was too acquiescent to both capitalism and liberalism. As an ideology, it easily lent itself to the age of conspiracy converting many of its positive ideas into anti-science, anti-state, anti-politics and, some also argued, anti-Christian beliefs. In the years following, especially those of the Trump administration, much of the progressive elements of the New Age had been stripped of their critical components to expose a malleable and vulnerable core of beliefs that could be recruited for any cause and even forms of violence. The holistic health movement, including massage, yoga, homeopathy, psychic healing, bodywork, biofeedback and so on, gave way to the commercial instinct and became big business.
New Age spiritualism developed out of the western tradition of modern esotericism that can be traced to early Christian religious Gnostic movements. The esoteric tradition was based on the rediscovered Coptic texts in the 18th and 19th centuries (the Nag Hammadi collection) that belonged to the Egyptian Hermetic tradition, emphasising secret philosophy taught only to an inner circle of disciples. The word ‘gnostic’ connotes ‘knowing,’ and the term came to distinguish early followers of Christ that claimed direct personal knowledge and revelatory experience of God based on ‘authentic truths of existence’ and secret sacred traditions and rituals. This direct knowledge based on personal experience and revelation rather than rational propositional knowledge became the basis for western mysticism and the ‘uncreated self,’ the so-called ‘spark of divinity,’ where to know oneself was to also know God. Gnosticism also had a referential attitude to sacred texts and the experience of mystical union and oneness that began the ancient tradition of inner knowing. Elements of esotericism can be found in both Freemasonry and Theosophy.
Freemasonry traces its origins to stonemasonry in the 13th century based on the medieval craft guild, said to be based on the Regius Poem, the earliest of the Old Charges, that describes how masonry was brought from Egypt to England during the reign of Kind Athelstan. The manuscript, however, dates from 1390 and, with over 100 other manuscripts, it details masonic rituals. Freemasonry is a non-religious organisation that, nevertheless, affirms a belief in a supreme creator and is a social organisation that began in 17th-century Scotland with William Schaw, who was Master of Works to James IV in 1583. Schaw issued a series of statutes that include reference to renaissance esotericism and the ‘art of memory,’ a set of mnemonic techniques. The teachings of Freemasonry were devoted to fellowship and moral discipline.
Anthroposophy aimed to present a spirituality open to objective and rational inquiry and demonstration: it found roots in German idealist and mystical humanism of spiritual knowledge and human freedom – principally Goethe’s notion of humans as supernatural entities capable of spiritual development and inner transformation. Steiner’s unification of science and spirituality was based on Goethean science and epistemology, but he also had an extensive knowledge of the history of spiritual life in the East that he tracked back before the Vedas and Vedanta philosophy. He sought to discover a perspective on spirituality that was based squarely on the mystical traditions of European culture. Theosophy, as an older esoteric religious movement in the US, was founded by Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), a Russian immigrant who drew on Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, the ‘masters of ancient wisdom’ and Asian philosophies, including both Buddhism and Hinduism. She was one of the first to convert to Buddhism, arguing that Buddha sought a return to the Vedas was more accurate than Hinduism, and she pursued an anti-Christian occultist line of Hermetic thought that preserved the ancient tradition of magic and ancient wisdom religion. Blavatsky was clearly responsible for the revival of western esotericism and occultism, and her influence was strong, especially in India with the Hinduism Reform movement and also with the modernisation of Buddhism.
Theosophy is ‘teaching about God and the world based on mystical insight.’ It was founded by Helena Blavatsky in the US in 1875, following her writings drawing on forms of Neoplatonism, as well as Buddhist and Brahmanic theories that emphasised pantheistic evolution and reincarnation. As a new religious movement, it drew on the occultist movement of Eastern and western esotericism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, involving ‘liberation through hearing in the intermediate state (bardos)’ composed in the 8th century, was first published in English in 1927 and translated by Evans-Wentz, who used a Theosophical framework to interpret it to which Carl Jung added his commentary that included in the 1965 English edition. It was appropriated by Timothy Leary, who interpreted it as a spiritual guide to those seeking the path of liberation.
The significance of Eckhart’s mysticism
Eckhart’s mysticism was another source of guidance after his work was rediscovered by German Romantics in the 19th century and later also served as an inspiration to Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Many since have expressed approval for Eckhart’s relationship between God and the individual soul. Eckhart is now the source of inspiration for many New Age therapists and religious mentors. Meister Eckhart (b.1260–d.1328) was a Dominican mystic influenced by Thomas Aquinas, who taught that there were four stages in the union between God and the soul, a process of detachment from nothingness, through identity with God to breakthrough where the soul no longer seeks anything at all. He held that ‘All creatures are pure nothingness’ only receiving being derivatively from God. His mysticism emphasised that the ‘quiet mind’ free from all self-seeking becomes receptive to the presence of God, and he taught detachment of the mind from all things earthly. His mystical teachings influenced the anonymous Theologia Germanica written during the Avignon Papacy (1309–1308), edited by Martin Luther in 1516, that held a mystical union with God could be achieved by following the exemplary life of Christ. It helped shape the German philosophical tradition of mysticism that included Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein, and influenced western esotericism and spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle. Eckhart also clearly influenced Jung and analytical psychology in depicting the mystical experience, the psychoanalytical notion of the subject and the displacement of ego psychology.
Eckhart’s mystical works were also the ground for fertile comparisons with Theravada Buddhism and Zen Buddhism by the likes of D. T. Suzuki, Shizuteru Ueda and others. The English translations of Eckhart’s German sermons and Latin works have only recently taken place since the late 1970s – first begun by Maurice O. C. Walshe and revised by Bernard McGinn. Walshe begins his introduction to Eckhart’s Sermons by tracing the Christian mystical tradition to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (c. 204–270) ‘who in his Enneads taught that all things emanate from the One, the return to which can be achieved by the contemplative path of detachment from all compounded things and a turning to ‘pure simplicity’ (p. 3). It was a metaphysics incorporated into Christian thought by Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 500) and highlighted by German Hugo of St. Victor in Paris (d. 1142) ‘who in turn influenced the famous St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153).’ He continues his analysis by claiming, ‘In Germany, the so-called St. Trudperter Hohelied (ca. 1140) is the first work to show true mystical tendencies,’ which is an interpretation in the vernacular of the Old Testament Song of Solomon, attributed to the alleged place of origin in the St Trudpert Monastry in Breisgau.
Supposedly written by nuns, it emphasised that God can be found in isolation from the world in prayer and meditation, where the soul might be prepared for union and the divine embrace. The Dominicans, a monastic order to which Eckhart belonged, were influenced by both mysticism and scholasticism in a fierce rivalry with the Franciscans, the other order of medieval Christianity in the 1300s, debating what was the highest power of the soul and the nature of Platonic ‘universals.’ In this same tradition, Walshe mentions both William of Ockham (d. 1349) and St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). He also mentions that Eckhart was not the type of mystic who had visions, but, in Sermon 19, he writes of a where Man ‘became pregnant with Nothing, like a woman with child. And in the Nothing God was born: He was the fruit of Nothing.’ Eckhart’s mysticism was ‘speculative’ in the sense that mystical experience came from above but expressed in intellectual (and ‘orthodox’) terms where God is regarded as ‘pure being’ and all other beings are derived from God such that God in the trinity represented knowledge, life and love in radical union with one another ‘not one Person: unum non unus.’
Eckhart’s doctrine of Incarnation and the birth of Christ are not historical events but given a mystical reading: ‘God begets His Son in the soul continually and without interruption …. What, then, is the essential prerequisite for the birth of Christ in my soul? It is detachment, self-abandonment (gelassenheit, abegescheidenheit).’ It’s the ‘spark in the soul’ (synderesis) that allows for the birth of the Son in the soul, and the soul and mind must be made receptive. As Walshe indicates, Eckhart’s mysticism is the result of personal experience both ‘indescribable and ineffable’ – and thus, ‘negative (or apophatic) theology.’ Eckhart’s neglected treatise On Detachment treats detachment as the highest virtue by which a man can attach himself to God: ‘only pure detachment surpasses all things, for all virtues have some regard to creatures, but detachment is free of all creatures.’ As he says, ‘I extol detachment above any love’ (St Paul) because ‘detachment compels God to love me’ and because ‘love compels me to suffer all things for God’s sake, whereas detachment makes me receptive of nothing but God’; ‘detachment is receptive of nothing but God.’ Eckhart extols detachment above humility, but ‘perfect detachment cannot be without humility’; and he praises detachment over compassion.’ As he writes: ‘true detachment is nothing else but a mind that stands unmoved by all accidents of joy or sorrow, honour, shame, or disgrace, as a mountain of lead stands unmoved by a breath of wind. This immovable detachment brings a man into the greatest likeness to God.’
During the 1970s, I was introduced to Buddhist texts and The Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thodol), revealing the dharma of self-liberation and describing experiences after death. Earlier during my years of study, I was introduced to the I Ching (The Book of Changes; Book of Zhou), an ancient Chinese text (10–14 century BC) divination through random numbers to form hexagrams (six broken or unbroken lines) that became cosmological with layers of philosophical commentary and spread rapidly through Asia, spreading the philosophy of yin and yang. A Westerner introduced me to the ancient text and then used it to determine the future (or divine in the original use); he was interested in its use, whereas I was fascinated by its history, including its foundational status for Confucianism and Daoism. Leibniz wrote a commentary in 1703, and there had been much discussion thereafter by western philosophers. The French Jesuit missionaries were early translators. Richard Wilhelm’s translation in 1923 (itself translated into English in 1950) is perhaps the most popular and came to play an important role in the new age movement. Wilhelm spent twenty-five years in China as a Jesuit missionary. He invited Carl Jung, another ‘new age’ inspiration, to write the introduction. In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung writes about Wilhelm whom he met at the ‘School of Wisdom’ in Darmstadt in the early 1920s. Jung recounts how he experimented with reeds trying to sort the ‘riddle’ of the I Ching. The oracle gave him answers he could not fathom. Speaking of Wilhelm, he writes:
He was deeply influenced by Chinese culture and once said to me, ‘It is a great satisfaction to me that I never baptised a single Chinese!’ In spite of his Christian background, he could not help recognising the logic and clarity of Chinese thought. ‘Influenced’ is not quite the word to describe its effect upon him; it had overwhelmed and assimilated him. His Christian views receded into the background but did not vanish entirely; they formed a kind of mental reservation, a moral proviso that was later to have fateful consequences.
Jung described Wilhelm on his deathbed as a conflicted man torn between East and West, a conflict that ran so deeply he couldn’t explain or talk about it: ‘because such matters went straight to the bone.’ Jung continues: ‘There is, as Goethe puts it in Faust, an “untrodden, untreadable” region whose precincts cannot and should not be entered by force; a destiny which will brook no human intervention.’
Esalen, humanistic psychology and new age therapy
New age spiritualism was a heady combination of German transcendental idealism (Kant); Gestalt, humanistic and transpersonal psychology; the western post-war rediscovery of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies; the assemblage of Eastern techniques of ‘self-cultivation’ such as meditation, yoga and martial arts; and the fostering of experimental psychotherapies and therapeutic cultures of the self, based the encounter group, the workshop and ‘trusting the process’ that defined therapeutic practices at Esalen. It is ‘a holistic education centre’ established at Big Sur in 1962 that explored ‘emergent transformation and internal exploration’ during the 1960s and after. Founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price, Esalen came to represent the eclectic new mix of Eastern philosophy, therapeutic culture, and spiritual transformation that served as a catalyst for a holistic philosophy of humankind with early programs by Alan Watts, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Will Schutz. Maslow, one of the most cited psychologists of the 20th century, fell under the influence of anthropologist Ruth Benedict and Max Wertheimer, the Gestalt psychologist, while studying in New York and laying the foundations of humanistic psychology with his hierarchy of needs, Being-values (e.g., truth, goodness, beauty, uniqueness, playfulness, autonomy) and positive regard for persons who were held as responsible for their own actions.
Esalen was emblematic of the Human Growth Potential Movement (HGPM) that grew out of the 1960s counterculture and the belief that human beings have untapped resources to lead happy, self-fulfilling and creative lives by achieving their full potential. Abraham Maslow first introduced the term ‘self-actualisation,’ and, with Rollo May, Carl Rogers and Charlotte Buhler founded the American Association of Humanistic Psychology in 1963. HGPM represented a third way between Skinnerian behaviourism and psychoanalysis where the emphasis shifted to ‘personal growth’ and ‘the peak experience’ (Maslow) that highlighted the legitimacy of emotional experience in a ‘person-centred approach’ (Rogers) where the therapist became a ‘facilitator.’ Therapists of the HGPM sought to open up people emotionally, to help them expose their cultural conditioning, to achieve psychological insight through altered states of consciousness through transcendental methods of meditation and experimentation with psychedelic drugs such as LSD. It was a marriage between Eastern religions and Western humanistic psychology to achieve personal growth and interpersonal sensitivity. Esalen was directed toward health and spontaneous healing rather than the mainstream psychiatric treatment of mental disease, emphasising the mystical experience in relation to the larger cosmos. Later Maslow worked with a group of practitioners such as Victor Frankl, Anthony Sutich and Michael Murphy to found the school of transpersonal psychology devoted to the empirical study of mystical, ecstatic and spiritual experiences and established the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1969.
‘The Age of Aquarius’
New Age Spiritualism was given expression as ‘The Age of Aquarius,’ the dawn of a new astrological age based on the Earth’s precessional slow motion, taken by the New Age movement to signal harmony of the spheres, peace and love on Earth. Some astrologists indicate that 2021 is the beginning of the Age of Aquarius and the attempt ‘to find commonality across what it means to be human.’ The New Age movement specifically grew up in the 1970s out of the counterculture of the 1960s, embodying spiritual themes and occultist influences that represented a spiritual holism dating back to a philosophy of self that is both transformative and healing. It was an age that sought to redeem ancient wisdom and to develop a self-spirituality that achieved a oneness often through experimentally altered states of consciousness and the experience of religious ecstasy, achieved in secret cults of the Greco-Roman worlds and by prayer in the early Christian tradition of mysticism.
‘The Age of Aquarius,’ made popular by the rock musical Hair (1967), was characterised by the passage of the vernal equinox through the air sign Aquarius every 2,160 years, a slow rotation of the Earth that purported influenced the cultural tendencies associated with the rise and fall of civilisations and humans to take responsibility for their own destiny based on the revelation of truth and the growth of consciousness. The age of Aquarius was based on the revival of medieval astrology, the return of Christ, the equality of women (the age of feminine) and the age of peace and love: ‘When the Moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets And love will steer the stars’ (‘The Age of Aquarius,’ Hair). It also represented the restoration of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) and the ecological movement, who founded an esoteric spiritual movement that attempted to find a middle path between science and spirituality in holistic education, biodynamical agriculture, and alternative medicine.
Marilyn Ferguson’s (1980) The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time was warmly praised and became an instant best-seller. Ferguson was the editor of the Brain/Mind Bulletin for nearly 20 years and was a founding member of the Association of Humanistic Psychology. The book was well-received by a range of luminaries, including Carl Rogers, Arthur Koestler, and Jacob Needleman and touted to infiltrate the fabric of American life in a non-threatening way. Ferguson was unashamedly positive about fear and death, and she claimed that the ‘movement that had no name’ had implications for the whole of life by integrating magic, science, art and technology. Aquarius Now, though less successful commercially, hammered home the same message of hope and personal transformation. Deepak Chopra wrote in his appreciation:
Ferguson was a uniter and a futurist. By showing feminists what they shared with environmentalists, New Age spiritual seekers with peace activists, her book inspired a movement that didn’t define the future in terms of technology. Cell phones and computers were incidental. The real future lay in consciousness-raising on a global scale.
Part of the appeal of Ferguson’s work was that it seemingly made connections among disparate elements in a comprehensive analysis that offered hope and light to a new generation with the promise of leaving the prison of our conditioning to achieve enlightened awareness. In an age dominated by the wars and skirmishes of great powers, overpopulation, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse and the prospect of nuclear war, her message might be deemed overly optimistic and not focused enough on forms of world apocalypse and the very survival of humanity.
Ferguson’s message and text were very different to Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture, only a decade earlier. Roszak’s message, by contrast, was against technocracy and technocratic control that sought to rationalise all aspects of life. Roszak is in a tradition that owes multiple allegiances to critical theory, existential phenomenology, poststructuralism and to the growing antipsychiatry movement comprised of R. D. Laing, Tim Leary (‘turn on, tune in, drop out’), Gregory Bateson, Herbert Marcuse, Paulo Freire and Michel Foucault taught us to seek freedom from totalitarian practices and institutions. This was conscientisation of a different sort, relentlessly political based on the suspicion of ‘one-dimensional society’ and responding to the growing totalitarian tendencies in Western society. Yet it was still premised on the possibility of a change of consciousness and on the work that such a change might provide to enhance and improve the human condition.
New age spiritualism and far-right conspiracy
In the first decades of the 2000s, there have been a number of new appropriations of New Age spiritualism by right-wing and far-right organisations. Eva Wiseman, for instance, notes the connections between spiritual beliefs and far-right conspiracies. Lisbeth Latham similarly suggests that ‘The Australian far right has joined forces with New Age spiritualists, snake-oil salesmen, and wellness gurus to take advantage of social alienation caused by the pandemic. Despite the new branding, their anti-union, anti-working-class politics remain the same.’ Joachim C. Häberlen argues that ‘understanding the fascination with spiritualism’ by West German ‘alternative’ leftist authors and organisations:
as part and parcel of a moment when old, confrontational forms of politics were rapidly losing appeal and were replaced by a politics concerned with questions of self-hood. Spiritual politics were, to quote Michel Foucault, part of the struggles that attacked ‘not so much “such and such” an institution of power, or group, or elite, or class, but rather a technique, a form of power,’ namely a power that determined ‘who one is.’
Marisa Meltzer is another critic who observes the ‘strange convergence of counterculture and hate’ in ‘QAnon’s Unexpected Roots in New Age Spirituality.’ Triumph Kerins has written about ‘The Disturbing Relationship Between New Age and Far Right Movements,’ where ‘The targeting of the New Age community by these far-right agitators was clearly deliberate.’ Jules Evans notes that ‘Both the New Age and the far right are drawn to conspiracy theories.’ The relationship between the New Age and extreme forms of nationalism is also clearly evident when notions of ‘state’ are dressed up in religious terms and white supremacist hate symbols.
White supremacist and the ultra-right or far-right consciousness use both mysticism from Christianity and racial pagan Nordic mythology based around Odin ‘to justify threats, criminal activity and violence.’ Just as in the 1970s and ’80s, New Age spirituality was used politically to bolster leftist ideologies of freedom from ‘democratic’ forms of totalitarianism, so, today, far-right groups dress up their racism through appeals to aspects of the New Age movement. Mark Townsend reports on ‘Fascist fitness’ and how ‘Anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate says extremists present self-improvement as part of wider political struggle.’ Certainly, it is clear that strong elements of the wellness/wellbeing/naturalness movement have been to the forefront of anti-vax and anti-state movements around the world, pushing so-called ‘natural remedies’ to the Delta and Omicron viruses while backing political and health conspiracies as weapons against public health and governmental health officials. These conspiracies have the effects of bonding radical disparate groups of protestors, including anti-vax and anti-state appeals to a crude notion of negative ‘freedom’ and an ideological commitment to violence.
While New Age spiritual encouraged universal peace, hope and love as the basis for spiritual transformation in the 1970s and ’80s, today, aspects of these beliefs have been peeled away from the spiritual heart of the movement to emphasise the ‘dark Enlightenment’ and the organising forces of the European and American far-right, often dressed up with allusions to Nietzsche, and embellished with spiritual values of health and self-improvement. Spiritualism and experiences of closeness to God that underlined the New Age movement and produced much value in humanistic psychology and education, not least a persuasive narrative of personal transformation, can be easily ideologically manipulated and appropriated by far-right groups. Perhaps the time is ripe for re-appropriation and interpretation by the left of spiritual values that sustain social democracy, given that many of the main inspirations came from those like Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, and other German or Austrian existential humanist psychologists of Jewish extraction, who fled the Nazi onslaught?
Note: This column was first published in Educational Philosophy and Theory.