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MYSTICISM AND BUNK IN THE NEW AGE
All forms, be they human, animal, plant, or even apparently inert mineral, radiate a surrounding field of energy into the environment. This field or aura expresses the quality and nature of the form which it interpenetrates and surrounds.
(Tansley, 1984, P. 2)
What we call "consciousness" consists of waves of information that move from spirit into matter and then back again into spirit.
(Wolf, 1991, P. 43)
I believe there is a system around us that transcends time as it transcends space.
(Vallee, 1988, P. 253)
[Dr. John E.] Mack says, "The furthest you can go at this point is to say there's an authentic mystery here. And that is, I think, as far as anyone ought to go. But that's a poweful, poweful place to come to at this point."
(Bryan, 1995, P. 269)
Back in the 1970s, when I could still find Earth Shoe stores, I pretty much memorized Carlos Castaneda's books about his apprenticeship with Yaqui shaman, Don Juan Matus. No matter that they more closely resembled novels than anthropological field work. They had a ring of truth to them. The "impossible" events they described had parallels with Buddhism and Sufism (Islamic mysticism) as well as with mythic themes from all over the world. Furthermore, I could vouch for a few of the incidents as being close to my own experience.
I had had a minute or two of religious ecstasy myself in the early 60s that had convinced me of the truth of theology and led me to enter a kind of monastery. There, my dreams told me I had no business pronouncing monastic vows. A close friend introduced me to the writings of C. G. Jung. But instead of working on my dreams, I dived into a psychological account of the depth, significance, and universality of mystical experience—a breath of fresh air that freed me from the dogmatic constraints of Christianity. I earned a Ph.D. in psychology and religion, and wore my Earth Shoes into the college classroom, where I generally included books by Castaneda on the reading lists for my courses.
I found that my students' narrow attitudes about the nature of religion needed a dose of Castaneda's "mind-blowing" experience to open them up to a feel for the life-changing potential of a religious worldview I emphasized the subjective nature of an encounter with the Wholly Other and the effects it could have upon one's everyday existence. The only students who objected to Castaneda's central position on the reading list were a few from the Third World. They told me that nobody believed this stuff any more, only the old people—the same reaction most of my Christian students had to Christianity. But they also whispered, "This stuff is dangerous, you ought to stay away from it."
Castaneda was the bridge between the tie-dyed, psychedelic 60s and the human consciousness movement that, in its proliferation of psychic techniques for healing, life-management, and general amazement, has come to be called the "New Age." The view taught in New Age workshops shares a common perspective with Castaneda's novels: the conviction, based on personal experience, that the world is not as it appears. As a people, we have limited our thinking, accepting a narrow, materialistic view of ourselves as flesh-and-blood bodies, but the evidence is all around us that we are much more.
According to Don Juan, Carlos' mentor, when we really see another human being—that is with shamanic eyes—we do not contemplate the limbs, trunk, and head of a fleshly body, but rather apprehend an egg-shaped bundle of luminous fibers. This vision seems impossible, even fantastic, because our everyday consciousness has been confined by a public "agreement" into which we have all been socialized as children. We learn to see the world in material terms by attending to only one of those luminous fibers and ignoring the rest. If we can learn to pay attention to the "gaps" in our everyday stream of consciousness, we are in for a "monumental shock." We will find ourselves in a world of "unimaginable power." This view is not so different from that of New Age aura readers. They, too, view the human body as an egg-shaped luminosity with powerful implications unheard of in biology or mainstream medicine.
I was introduced to Castaneda's books by a friend in the editorial department of Encyclopaedia Britannica—my first "real job" after leaving the religious order. I was famous at Britannica for having been lucky enough to prepare the prospectus for an article on psychedelic experience. This prompted Brad to leave a copy of The Teachings of Don Juan (1968) on my desk as his parting gift. He had decided to "drop out" of the "Establishment" and join the "Movement." I never heard from him again. In fact, most people who served as major landmarks in my life have similarly disappeared. Had I not seen them eating lunch in the company cafeteria or buying Earth Shoes downtown, I might think they themselves represented "gaps" in my own stream of consciousness.
Castaneda's second volume was given to me as a 30th-birthday present from a friend in graduate school. She too has disappeared—although her prize-winning book on Haitian Voodoo has turned up on bookstore shelves in recent years. Once I had read Castaneda's second novel, A Separate Reality (1971), I was hooked and began buying hardcover editions as soon as they were published. A passage in the third volume, Journey to Ixtlan (1972, pp. 125-126), provided me with a useful perspective on the so-called New Age. Don Juan tells Carlos that "power" takes on different shapes, depending on our relationship to it. At first, we merely hear about power. We find the reports interesting, but we cannot see that it has anything to do with us. Then, at the second stage, power begins to manifest itself "uncontrollably" in our lives, so that we have to take it seriously, even though we do not understand what it is all about. Finally, we find that power lives within us and controls our actions, although it also obeys our command.
I found an identity somewhere between the first and second of these stages. I thought of myself as a bemused onlooker of New Age phenomena, but evidently I underestimated. At a recent meeting of professors and alumni of my graduate school, I discovered that I am one of the "disappeared." Although I have not ceased to produce academic papers and books, or even to teach, I did "drop out" of my university position. In the eyes of some of them, I have compromised my academic neutrality by getting too involved. Apparently my biggest mistake is that, in the late 70s, I went to Zurich and trained to be a Jungian analyst, so I could spend my life paying attention to the gaps in people's awareness. I am not sufficiently "mainstream" anymore.
I find myself occupying a kind of "middle position": taking "power" seriously, but not so enthusiastically as to set sail for Haiti or Australia in hopes of myself becoming an initiate. This makes me an "armchair philosopher" in the view of those who have done these things. Because I have not dived into some non-Western river of alternative experience, I seem to have set up my desk and file cabinets beside the "mainstream" after all. Do I lack the requisite courage, or sufficient foolishness? From where I sit, my position seems quite reasonable. I figure that, if the gaps are right here in my consciousness, I already have everything I need to expand my awareness. I do not have to become a Native American wannabe. My potential to expand into the world of "monumental shock" will manifest itself as I need it. I expect to "evolve" in my own manner, so that I do not become a stranger to either the ordinary world or to the world of power.
Don Juan has an encouraging word to say about this, too. He reports that most individuals who learn shamanism forsake the world of public reality to live exclusively in the other world. In doing so, they gain nothing. They just give up one world for another and become as much trapped and limited in the world of power as they formerly were in the material world. This, too, has been a guiding notion for me. I like to think of myself as one who is learning from and yet critical of the New Age, intrigued by its mystical potential, yet put off by all the bunk that has become associated with it.
One "magnificent (albeit flaky) being" who has not disappeared from my life, has the dubious distinction of being the last manager of my favorite Earth Shoe store in Boston. The Earth Shoe fad was already waning when I stopped in to buy several pairs of "negative-heel" foot apparel to sustain me over the four years I planned to spend in Zurich. The store was empty of customers as I swung open the door. Kathy, with her red curly hair and form-fitting pink-and-purple garb, stepped out from behind the counter and held up both hands imperiously: "Stop right where you are! Don't move! I want to read your aura." This was my introduction to a New Ager of the first water.
Complying, perhaps as much out of astonishment as curiosity, I watched her glazed, impenetrable face as she scanned me for a few moments and then returned to consensus reality. She announced that I had a good healthy aura, rather clearer than most, but one disturbed by an area of smokiness that she guessed was due to my indulging in too much bacon. She immediately withdrew the comment about the bacon, however, saying she might well be wrong about anything so specific. The flamboyance of her self-presentation surely merited the greatest skepticism, and I cannot vouch for the reported clarity of the aura, as no one else has ventured to read it. But she was right about the bacon. I have a great love of bacon and avocado sandwiches. For me, the comment about bacon was the most salient remark she made, although I have found her to be right again and again in other matters as well.
That remark has caused me a good deal of thought. How could she see bacon in my aura? Is this something that belongs to my "luminous egg"? Should I imagine that one of its bright fibers corresponds to a man standing at a kitchen counter slathering toast with mayonnaise and ripe, mushy avocado before carefully laying in crisp slices of freshly fried bacon and ravenously biting into it? A man with a bacon addiction? What gaps in my awareness could account for this? Especially since I know I like bacon. There is nothing "monumentally shocking" about it. The information is trivial, but the fact that she came up with it on our first meeting is rather intriguing. A small-scale, but classic, problem was posed for me: Where is the dividing line between mysticism and bunk?
Eventually, I asked Kathy how she did it, whether she saw auras all the time or "switched on" some latent skill most of us do not know we have. She said she normally has to "shift her consciousness" from the view of the ordinary physical world to that of the aura. But, at other times, she may catch a glimpse of an aura out of the corner of her eye. She mentioned an incident in which she visited a friend at his house and glimpsed, at the periphery of her vision, his infant son crawling into the hallway from the kitchen. What she saw was not a distinct image of the infant, but the gigantic golden flare of his aura. She said she had never seen so huge an aura and concluded the boy was destined for great things.
Excluding the unverifiable (but possibly accurate) conclusion that the boy was possessed of extraordinary powers, I find that this kind of report makes a good deal of sense. Kathy apprehends auras, not with the ordinary sense capabilities of her eyes—reflected light particles (photons) impinging on her retina—but by attending to something that cannot be "seen" in any ordinary sensory manner. In fact, she has to shut out the ordinary world by "shifting her consciousness" or catching a glimpse out of the corner of her eye. This corresponds very well to the teachings of Don Juan, who calls twilight a "time of power." It is precisely when our eyes are hindered in their everyday work by faint lighting (dusk) or by a failure to focus (corner of the eye), that we are best able to attend to the "gaps" in our visual field. In such moments, the visual field may be filled with something other, something not available to our retinas. The English language has only one word for "seeing" things that are not "there" according to the rods and cones of our retinas: imagination. Although Kathy imagined the bacon in my aura, it was nevertheless really there. Imagination has given her visionary access to an invisible reality.
This begins to sound like bunk. We have a terminology problem. The word, imagination, has come to mean that which is private, arbitrary, and supremely "unreal." This is why aura readers generally go out of their way to insist they are not "imagining" what they claim to see. Don Juan and Kathy are in agreement that there is nothing arbitrary or unreal about the luminous egg. Yet they also insist they have to go into an altered state of consciousness in order to see it. Thus, we are presented with two meanings of the word see and two meanings for imagination.
Castaneda solves this problem for his readers by calling the ordinary sensory function of the eyes "seeing" (spelled in ordinary type). To this he contrasts the shamanic (altered state) visionary capacity, which he calls "seeing" (spelled in italics). I shall use his simple convention throughout this book in order to make clear the distinction between sensory seeing and visionary seeing.
The French scholar of Islamic mysticism, Henry Corbin (1969, 1978), has run into an analogous difficulty with the words imagination, imaginal, and the like. The Sufis claim to enter an "Imaginal Realm," a seen world not available to the physical senses, although there is nothing arbitrary or private about it. It is an objective reality, they say, verifiable by anyone who is able to enter it. They thus claim that imagination possesses a reality function unknown to ordinary consciousness. What they imagine is what Don Juan and Kathy see. Corbin solved his terminology problem by distinguishing between "imagination" (not capitalized), referring to the everyday meaning of the word, and "Imagination" (capitalized) to refer to objective, reliable access to invisible realities. I am making the same distinction, but will italicize imagination to refer to the objective reality of what is seen and leave "imagination" in ordinary type when the word refers to what is subjective and arbitrary.
Having clarified terminology, we can now restate the problem. Kathy claims to see an aura with her imagination, not to see it with the retinas of her eyes. Our problem arises insofar as her sight has access to what really exists, although invisibly. What could be filling the space between Kathy and the bacon in my aura? Years ago, when I asked her, she told me it was "energy." She sees energy. I was fairly sure this explanation was bunk, having learned in high school physics that "energy" is not a thing at all, but a hypothetical construct invented to describe changes in movement. A white cue ball manifests energy by moving in a straight line across green felt until it collides with a striped ball. It moves more slowly after the collision, because it has transferred some of its energy to the striped ball. The latter, no longer at rest, now has sufficient energy to roll into the corner pocket. There is no "energy," either to be seen with the eyes or to be seen with the imagination. There are only balls rolling with greater or lesser speed.
The energy theory took me nowhere. I thought I had surely uncovered one of the most common manifestations of bunk in New Age thinking. But it hardly denied the truth of what Kathy had seen. So, for some months, off and on, I tried to pay attention when people entered the periphery of my vision. I also attempted, when I found myself in dimly lit rooms or subway stations, to see if I could detect any luminosity above the head or around the shoulders of the people in my vicinity. All to no avail. It was some years later—long after having traded in my Earth Shoes for Birkenstocks—that some experiences of imaginative sight led me to think that perhaps I have a latent and fragmentary ability to see auras after all.
In the first incident, a patient came in for her weekly session, seemingly aglow with a silvery light. I asked what had happened in the past week. She spoke of a telephone encounter with her intrusive mother in which she, for the first time, managed to assert her need to have a life of her own. Such a victory ought to make anyone glow. But the glow I saw was not the pink rosiness of healthy cheeks. What I saw was impossible. Human skin does not glow with a silvery light. I looked more closely, trying to determine how this silvery illusion might have been created. I could find nothing in her flesh-and-blood face to justify my vision. She seemed silvery only when I did not look too closely. I had to conclude that this must be an imaginal perception—something that did not present itself to the sensory field of my bodily eyes. Imagination must have taken over to fill me in on the state of her psychological being, for what I saw was accurate to her experience of herself.
Excerpted from PERILS OF THE SOUL by John Haule. Copyright © 1999 John Ryan Haule. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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Chapter 1 Mysticism and Bunk in the New Age
Chapter 2 Four Ages of Human Evolution
Chapter 3 Sojourns in Cosmic Consciousness
Chapter 4 The Search for a Cosmic Compass
Chapter 5 Hints of Cosmic Oneness
Chapter 6 The Cosmos: Universe or Multiverse?
Chapter 7 Little Gray Men and the Technologizing of the Spirit
Chapter 8 Out Beyond the Quasars
Chapter 9 Channels of Alien Wisdom
Chapter 10 Mutterings in the Global Village
Chapter 11 The Rainbow Bridge to the Promised Age
About the Author