The new age movement of the late 20th Century has been surprisingly marginalised, considering the wealth if its ideas. It has been the source-point of many new ideas now being applied in business, politics, agriculture, health, education and society. It is individualistic, flexible, organic and disorganised, following no single philosophy. It’s also at times rather floozy and flakey. Yet its central thrust is that the world needs to change.
There is an implicit commonality between millions of new age people yet there is no central organisation or single source-point or ideological line. Many people are privately involved without ‘coming out’ in public. The movement has parallels with the Renaissance-Reformation: it’s a profusion of spontaneously-arising, paradigm-shaking ideas, some brilliant, some crazy, throwing light on the inadequacy, obsolescence and danger of established mainstream beliefs, ways and institutions.
Its roots lie in late-Victorian Theosophy, Spiritualism, free thought and East-West contact. In the 1870s-90s, Madame Blavatsky, a psychic and oriental adventurer, joined with various others to establish Theosophy, to research esoteric philosophy, oriental religion and psychism.
They cultivated many seed-concepts – karma, reincarnation, transformation, subtle energy, inner growth. They affected Alice Bailey, Rudolf Steiner, Gurdjieff and many others throughout the earlier 20th Century, who in turn laid foundations and propagated further seed-ideas for the future.
New age ideas accumulate organically or syncretically from eclectic sources: ecology and libertarian politics, ethnic traditions and world religions, feminism and pacifism, ancient mathematics and cyberspace, folklore and fiction.
Over the decades, this hologram of insights gathered steam, erupting in the 1960s in a rush of spontaneously-arising innovations, events and visions – a counter-movement to the high-tech, war-torn modern world in which the destruction stakes were rising ever higher.
LSD catalysed a consciousness revolution, affecting many people who never even took it. Psychedelics became the new heresy, and the ensuing witch-hunt lasted decades. Their illegalisation didn’t stop the outpouring of music, festivals, books and new activities arising from its use.
Psychedelics gave an impetus which might well have happened anyway – the student political rumblings of 1968-72, for example, were not directly connected with ‘flower power’. However, it might not have arisen with such a starburst.
A major influence in this situation was the parlous, stressed and exciting state of the 1960s world: young people saw distressing contradictions and flagrant lies in their world, and they sought genuinely, if naively, to effect major world change. Throughout society many exciting developments were emerging and a spirit of adventure was in the air – we went to the Moon!
Vested interests, rattled, applied appropriate suppression techniques, and some people ‘went straight’ while others ‘went underground’. From then on, the movement was to be a marginalised minority, an undercurrent. Yet many of those who had ‘gone straight’ were to become influential in later life – and they had read the books and danced to the music.
The new age is a millennialist movement, founded on the perception that the world will meet a disastrous end if nothing is done to change it. This is not without factual foundation. Its ideas emanate from no single source or philosophy: it represents a confluence of souls individually reaching similar though varied viewpoints.
In the 1970s the movement was thrown back on itself: isolated individuals and groups explored specific interests and pursued personalised inner growth and soul-searching. By the late 1970s, healthfood stores, healing centres, therapy groups, festivals, books, experimental projects and communities proliferated against the odds.
This quiet growth continued during the materialistic 1980s until, by 1988, its ideas were adopted more widely throughout society – though perhaps diluted to more comfortable or do-able proportions.
Suddenly, ecological thinking, women’s and minority rights, interfaith and global thinking, reformed diets, stress-management and meaning-of-life questions became more acceptable. However, the emphasis was now on marketable self-improvement strategies, while more radical, socially-transformative issues were eased aside – left, as before, in the hands of dedicated, under-supported pioneers. However, men were by now permitted to ‘spend more time with the family’ and supermarkets started going ethical and organic.
The movement and its ideas are not exhausted – they await their time and a reawakening of humanity as a whole. It exists as a hidden undercurrent across society, embracing spiritual, social, environmental and technological issues, beavering away in backstreets and backwaters.
It also exists as a narrower, more cultish marketable item crowded with a continuous throughput of light-seeking, sometimes zealous new ‘believers’ in proud possession of crystal pendulums and packs of affirmation cards.
There are also dedicated, knowledgable and effective people worldwide, who are busy grounding their visions and walking their talk, preparing solutions for a future time. The movement’s ideas are surreptitiously being adopted, adapted and absorbed.
It remains a breeding-ground for important initiatives and ideas which will profoundly affect the 21st century. Like the Renaissance, its full effects will be visible within one hundred years. If, that is, humanity is still around to make use of them!
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