Some of you are asking me to clarify how seemingly benign “love and light” New Age belief systems could possibly be damaging, especially to BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled folks. So let’s unpack a few common New Age teachings (that I tried on years ago like a new sundress and discarded them after I realized how damaging and unempathic they could be). Forgive the length. I have a lot to say about this. Lest you think I have not also been guilty of drinking the Kool-Aid with these New Age beliefs and perpetrating some of the unempathic behaviors that tend to go along with them, I have been both traumatized by these teachings and probably have traumatized others as well. When I was still under the hypnotic trance of some of these charismatic New Age teachers, I was quite helped by many of these teachings, and I thought I was helping others by parroting them. I now see that this was my whiteness, my privilege, my ableism, my heteronormative blindness showing, and for this, I’m truly sorry. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I hope that those in the New Age community can question these beliefs without black and white thinking. If we unpack these beliefs with nuance, we can be gentle with ourselves, appreciate how such teachings have helped us, examine how such beliefs might harm others, and grow into more compassionate, empathic beings at a time when we really need to be able to embody and practice our spiritual values through our sacred activism and respect for social justice.
1. Be here now.
While there is great benefit in spiritual practices that allow us to be more present, not everyone has an equally easy time being here now. Consider the utopian idea that “enlightenment” means you live only in the present moment and don’t get lost in ruminations about the past or anxieties about the future. First, that assumes that you’re safe in the present moment. Because if a cop is pulling you over for a traffic stop and you’re a young Black man, no amount of being here now is going to stop you from being legitimately scared about the reality of the dangers of such a moment, which is informed by the knowledge that so many innocent Black men pulled over by cops wind up abused, imprisoned, or dead. Add to this that if you have Complex PTSD from lifelong trauma, including the trauma of being BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ in America, you’re likely to have frequent emotional flashbacks, even if you don’t have visual ones. Unless you get treatment for all that lifelong trauma, you will not be able to meditate yourself into focusing only on the present moment without dissociating, which is a trauma symptom, not enlightenment. Even if it’s safe in that particular moment, it wasn’t safe in the past, and it may not be safe again in the future. While these teachings may be very helpful for some, Eckhart Tolle and Ram Dass reveal their privilege through such teachings. Not all sentient beings on the planet have the luxury of basking in detached, peaceful, dispassionate equanimity right now. Until all beings have equal access to this bliss state of true presence, we are not all free. I appreciate Thomas Hubl’s trauma-informed attempt at nuance around his presence teachings. After years of spiritual teaching in post-holocaust Germany, he realized you cannot ethically or successfully teach presence without first unpacking and healing generational wounding and collective trauma. Check out his new book with Sounds True Healing Collective Trauma.
2. Your negative thoughts are not real and need to be fixed.
Sure, it can be helpful to question your thinking when you’re looping negative thoughts. But some teachers take this valid teaching to an abusive extreme. I once attended an event with Byron Katie, where the marketing logo promised that after a weekend of learning “The Work,” we would never suffer again. So I watched Byron Katie do “The Work,” which is really a kind of distorted cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) performed by someone who is not a therapist. She demoed The Work on a Latinx woman whose husband had just died unexpectedly the day before. The widow was shocked and grieving, yet Katie told her she was only suffering because she had the false belief that her husband should still be alive and that arguing with reality works 0% of the time. The abusive gaslighting and victim shaming I witnessed aimed at a legitimately suffering and appropriately grieving widow in the name of some spirituality and enlightenment teaching left me so sick to my stomach that I had to leave the room (and offer the woman a hug, an “I’m sorry,” and a referral to a good trauma therapist later).
In “The Work,” if you ever find yourself in a “victim story” that leaves you angry at someone who hurt you, you’re supposed to challenge your thinking and fill out the “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet. Which basically means you’re supposed to find out how you are the very thing you are judging in the other. And then what, you’re supposed to ignore the boundary violation of what the other person did to hurt you? What a convenient and racist way for a white woman to say that BIPOC people do not have a right to be angry at white supremacists. Teachings like The Work are anger-phobic, spiritual bypassing, boundary-wounding, and abusive to traumatized, suffering individuals who actually need real trauma healing. The Work and other teachings like it can cause people to passively tolerate abusive behavior in the name of “I’m so compassionate and spiritual.”
3. Reality is an illusion. Only love is real.
This common Advaita Vedanta teaching is an easy way to promote bypassing social justice activism. If I am not my body, I am not my thoughts, this reality is only “maya,” and only God/Love/[fill in your name for it] is real, then marginalized people can be easily dismissed for getting legitimately lit up about social injustices.
4. Fear is the opposite of love. The only virus is the pandemic of fear. A miracle is when we choose love over fear.
A Course in Miracles and many of its teachers (Marianne Williamson, Gabrielle Bernstein, etc.) teach the primacy of the belief that fear and love cannot coexist, which is fundamentally untrue. I can love my biracial sister and be afraid for her safety in an increasingly fascist country BECAUSE I love her. That fear is legitimate. It’s red-blooded, open-hearted fear rooted in love, care, compassion, empathy, and desire for social justice. I’ve written a lot about this topic during back to back legitimate disasters that are worthy of real survival-based fear meant to save your life or help you save others you love, so I won’t expand on it here. But since many of you are asking me why I’m not a fan of A Course In Miracles, I just wanted to give you the Cliff Notes. (There’s WAY more reasons why I’m not a fan.)
5. “Get out of your victim story.”
Sure, it’s not helpful to loop your disempowered, helpless victim narrative for decades. But it horrifies me that people like psychiatrist and COVID denier Kelly Brogan MD apparently requires as a prerequisite to joining her mental health community a clause that promises that you will get out of your victim story or risk termination from the group. With all due respect, as a doctor and psychiatrist working with traumatized people who are trying to get off their psychiatric drugs, you should know better, Dr. Brogan. Where is your empathy? While this is a convenient way to suppress legitimate anger and make sure nobody challenges you for your unempathic treatment of their vulnerability, it’s cruel and lacks both safety and integrity.
There is a time during trauma healing treatment when you need to have your victim story heard, validated, witnessed, and healed in order to transform your story into a more empowering, meaningful, soul growth-oriented narrative. This happens naturally as healing progresses over time. It doesn’t happen because someone blended with a narcissist part who wants to control and dominate you shames and silences you.
Telling someone who is hurting to “get out of your victim story” not only lacks empathy; it’s abusive. People CAN’T get out of their victim story until they’ve had adequate healing, and such healing is often expensive, painful, time consuming, and not accessible to many financially disadvantaged or marginalized communities. The kinds of treatments that actually transform people’s victim narratives are often pricey and not covered by insurance, like Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS). I’m working to change that with my non-profit work HealAtLast.org, but that’s still in the works. In our philanthropic work, we will NOT be telling you to get out of your victim story; we’ll be empowering you to feel safe enough in community to alchemize your pain into purpose, healing, growth, and real spiritual awakening.
6. Your ego is a pig. You need to kill it.
Your ego is not an enemy you need to kill or a demon you need to slay, or even an annoying series of thoughts you need to let pass by like clouds in your meditation sky. Your ego is a kid. You need to love it. Countless New Age spiritual teachings lack this basic understanding of trauma-informed psychology. The ego does not get excised from a human. With trauma treatment, those child parts get healed, retrieved from exile, and integrated into your wholeness.
Traumatized people drawn to the New Age tend to have weak or damaged egos in the first place, so in trauma treatment, the first step towards mental and physical health is ego strengthening. This is not the same as being egotistical. A strong ego simply means you have a sense of your self as separate from others, that you’re not fused with others, dominated by others, or dominating others, that you can be assertive and stand up for yourself, that you can make your own decisions and have agency, and that you can protect your boundaries and the boundaries of others.
Teaching someone to cut out the ego before they even have healthy ego strength puts them at risk of cultic abuse. You have to have a strong ego before you can let it relax into the Divine Self that lies at the core of all of us when our ego parts get healing, relax, learn to trust the Divine Self, and get integrated.
7. The law of attraction/manifestation teachings.
Yes, you have spiritual power, and yes, you can practice playing with it. But most law of attraction teachings are grandiose, self-righteous, superior, narcissistic, and racist. While it’s true that we participate in the co-creation of our reality with our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, and while it’s true that we can participate with the flow of life in ways that can feel magical and synchronistic, it’s not a blanket truth that we create good things with our positive thoughts and bad things with our negative ones. If this were true (it’s not), then White people must think more positive thoughts than BIPOC folks, because obviously, more good things happen to them statistically in colonized countries where White people run the show. This destructive teaching would imply that Black people manifested slavery with their negative thoughts and Indigenous folks manifested land theft and genocide with theirs. It would imply that George Floyd manifested his murder and that Breonna Taylor should have been thinking happier thoughts.
Not only is this patently untrue, it’s a cruel, twisted way to blame the victim instead of taking a strong stand for restorative justice, ending police brutality and wrongful imprisonment of BIPOC people, truth and reconciliation, and making reparations for criminal wrongdoing in the United States. As one BIPOC woman said to me, “Did you manifest it, or is it your privilege?” Word. (Notice that almost all law of attraction teachers are…um…rich and White. Because most BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks have grounded proof that this is nonsense. )
8. All mental and physical illnesses will go away with a healthy diet.
As a physician, I’m all for nutrition as medicine. I drink my organic green juice, shop at farmer’s markets, and make veggie stir fries from Whole Foods. But I am revealing my privilege. My green juice materials are expensive, I live in Marin County, where you can swing your Fendi bag and hit a Whole Foods, and I can afford to pay a premium for organic produce at a farmer’s market. Financially disadvantaged people who live in food deserts do not have this privilege, so to suggest that all health problems can be solved by cleansing, a raw food vegan diet, or other expensive nutritional or supplement medicines is culturally insensitive and lacks empathy. If you’re getting your food from food banks and using food stamps right now, you may either not have access to good nutrition, not be able to afford it, or may not have been educated about the importance of good nutrition. To insult or judge those who don’t have access to healthy food is not compassionate.
9. All disease is the result of a weak immune system and can be reversed with diet, supplements, and integrative and functional medicine.
While I wrote a whole book (Mind Over Medicine) about how to be proactive about activating the natural self-healing responses of the body and shoring up the immune system by reducing stress responses and activating relaxation responses, marginalized people have a ton of stress responses—for good reason—and may not be able to get out of them without hard core trauma treatment. To suggest that someone who gets sick or dies of COVID just isn’t taking enough supplements is a very elitest and ableist assertion.
Now don’t get me wrong. It triggers the shit out of me that the CDC is not listing the known herbal, natural, and nutritional health recommendations that reduce COVID death risk. But I also know that some of the most vulnerable do not have access to these interventions. I also know that some diseases occur because of toxic mold exposure from living in tenement housing or from being poisoned by toxic waste. Marginalized people are more likely to live in areas where environmental toxicity is a real cause of chronic disease, and they can’t afford to pay cash to a functional medicine doctor to get them tested for rare exposures conventional medicine doesn’t usually screen for (if those folks even have insurance).
I’m all for teaching about how we can make our bodies ripe for miracles by employing self-healing practices, interventions, nutrition, and supplements. But wellness influencers (and I include myself—I’m learning)—we have to be careful to make sure that the advice we’re giving is accessible to diverse populations if we really want to create a healthy population.
10. We’re in the midst of a Great Awakening, 5D shift, transition to a new utopia, and all the unenlightened, non-“woke” “Muggles” (note the smug superiority—aka white privilege‚of this belief) will stay in this 3D hell hole while the others ascend.
Um, no, we’re not. We’re in a dystopian horror of environmental disaster, ecocide, the threat of extinction of homo sapiens and many other species, systemic racism, the destructive results of out of control capitalism and greed, the devastation of colonization, a life-threatening pandemic, and a fascist wave of white supremacy. These are not good times, and a million people meditating is not going to make such disasters go away.
Yes, things are getting shaken up, so we could be on the verge of a mass awakening- and that’s potentially hopeful news. But it ain’t gonna just magically happen because a bunch of white folks send positive energy to the California wildfires or the protestors. We need activism, compassion with feet on the ground, messy policy changes, and people with power and privilege to make some sacrifices so we can equalize our power and privilege. We need everyone who can possibly vote to VOTE from your heart and your values and your moral compass, not your pocketbook.
While aspects of these New Age beliefs can be genuinely helpful, they can also cause harm, so we need to apply them with sensitivity, empathy, and an awareness of the needs of marginalized people. Wielded without nuance, New Age beliefs like these impose a tyranny of behaviors on others and can feel cruel. If you’ve been a New Ager for decades, you’ve benefitted from it, and now you’re feeling bewildered to have your cherished beliefs challenged, I get how hard that is. If this is all new to you and you’re feeling stunned or scared or ashamed, I’m sincerely sorry if this is hard to have your belief system shattered. It’s not your fault; New Age spirituality is very cultic, and nobody joins a cult on purpose. You may need help and healing and a safe place to find more empathic beliefs that align more with your evolving values. While it’s not your fault, it is your responsibility to shift once you know better. There are places you can be safe to grow out of these beliefs and be gentle with yourself as you do.
Breaking out of New Age cultic beliefs can be as hard as peeling yourself away from an abusive relationship. You know how intoxicating those abusive relationships can be, how yummy it feels for a while, how tempting it is to go back once you realize you’re being abused, how hard it is to get out. But if you or anyone you know is ready to actually grow spiritually and heal psychologically, we welcome you to off-ramp into safer spiritual communities. Our next healing gathering in this community will start November 2, when we meet for a month in Alchemizing Uncertain Times Through Writing, where we do healing work via Internal Family Systems, but we soften it with creativity, getting in touch with the muse, meditations, dance parties, a polarization-free community committed to emotional safety, and virtual “cuddle puddles.”
I’m compiling a list of BIPOC leaders we crowd sourced together. I’ll be posting that soon. You’re also welcome here, where I’m happy to be respectfully challenged about how I can continue to work on my own mistakes, apologize for times when I’ve gotten it wrong, and we can learn from each other and grow psychologically, spiritually, and physically together.
While I understand the value of the emotional work behind asking for your feedback, I also don’t want to exclude you from the inquiry, so BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled folks, what other racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, unempathic, harmful New Age beliefs did I miss? Of course, I trust you will only contribute if it feels nourishing to do so.