In case you’re curious, I appeared on the Conspirituality podcast this week, talking about how the New Age and far right-wing conspiracy theories wound up in an awkward, racist, and dangerous marriage. (My interview is the last part of a 2 hr 15 min podcast. Listen here. Or you can watch the video of just me here.) After recording the podcast, I realized I had dozens of things I wished I said, which led me to write “10 New Age Beliefs We Need To Unpack If We Want To Be Social Justice Allies“. Then Facebook helped me crowdsource a dozen more that I missed in the first round.
While I could write at length about the benefits of some of these teachings, that is not the point of this post, so please resist the temptation to blend with defensive parts. Let’s focus on questioning these beliefs, rather than defending them. Let me also state again that, lest you think I’m sounding all smug and self-righteous, calling out these teachers or teachings without pointing those fingers back at myself, I am personally guilty of parroting some of these belief systems because of my own blindness and wounding. If I have ever hurt you or anyone you love with the destructive aspects of these teachings, I’m sincerely sorry. I didn’t know better. I’m learning now. And I’m sure I still have much to learn.
Let me also say to any recovering New Agers that I care about you; I’m sorry these times are so hard, and I can relate to any suffering you’re feeling on a personal level. One reader told me she felt like these beliefs have been a crutch for her and that, like a real wooden crutch might break, she just lost the thing that’s been helping her hobble around—and it’s hard. Please be gentle with yourself if you’ve just discovered that you have a spiritual bypassing part or a conspirituality part that’s been trying to protect you from something more tender and vulnerable that needs real trauma healing. I hope you feel like you can find a soft off-ramp from any teacher or teachings you have simply outgrown. The way I see it, spiritual development is like a second puberty. You’d never blame an eight year old for not having breasts yet, and some of these teachings are super helpful when we’re at one phase of our journey, and then we simply outgrow them as we heal our traumas, develop psychologically, and grow spiritually.
Okay—so let’s dive in.
1. Surrender your ego to Divine Will (or to a spiritual teacher serving as the embodiment of some sort of divinity who claims to have special access to Divine Will).
Spiritual surrender is a core teaching, not just in New Age belief systems but in many religions, and it can be a powerful way to let the Divine take the lead in our lives, rather than our wounded child or egoic parts. Yet, I’m learning that there is a nuance to this teaching relating to giving your power away that must be handled with care. Surrendering to the Divine WITHIN OURSELVES is different than giving yourself and your power over to a patriarchal God figure led by the church, a New Age leader, or a spiritual guru. Leesa Travis wrote, “Spiritually surrendering to Divine Will and allowing oneself to be used as a vessel has done a lot of damage to Black People and to me. Being able to connect to the Divine within is empowering and more spiritually aligned for me. Historically Black folks have been nothing but vessels for others’ agendas. Finding the Love within and the guidance within takes me to a much higher understanding. My spiritual core becomes strong, and I become one with the Divine. I don’t need to be ‘used’ because I’m aligned. Maybe the word ‘use’ just doesn’t sit with me.”
2. Spiritual surrender means giving up your discernment and just saying yes to whatever life offers you without boundaries.
I really appreciated Michael Singer’s An Untethered Soul when I was at that time in my journey, so I was excited to read The Surrender Experiment. After genuinely benefiting from the teachings on spiritual surrender from Tosha Silver, I called Tosha after reading the book, bewildered. After concluding that meditation had failed to quiet his “monkey mind,” Michael Singer examined the content of his thoughts and discovered that most of his busy thoughts were about trying to get what he wanted and avoid what he didn’t want. So he decided to try an experiment. He would just surrender to whatever life (or God or whatever you want to call it) offered him. His memoir details all of the wild things that happened when he did, everything from having people start building houses on the land he owned (without his consent) to becoming founder and CEO of a major tech company, Medical Manager.
Confused, I asked Tosha, “What about boundaries? Is it really a valid spiritual practice to just let people build houses on your land without your consent, or is that teaching just going to cause people to tolerate potentially criminal abuse?” I told her how I had recently said no to a big bucks prime time TV deal that would have cast me as the Simon Cowell of alternative medicine, but my intuition waved big red flags. Had I made a mistake? Should I have surrendered to this role that felt slimy to me because life picked it for me? Tosha laughed and told me a story about the crazy that would be happening in her life if she just said yes to life. Validating that my intuition was correct to spot the glitch in an otherwise helpful teaching, she made me feel better about throwing the book in the trash rather than sending it to the library like I normally do. She said, “Part of what Michael did not seem to see is that embodying surrender includes ‘viveka,’ which is inner discrimination. You know when to say yes and when to say ‘hell no’ as you listen to that intuition that unfolds through inviting in the inner Divine.”
From an anti-racism perspective, suggesting that people should just let life decide would mean tolerating oppression, because clearly, life is not always right. I’m sure he means well and intends to help people with this book—and I’m sure it helped many, but some in this community also shared with me that Michael Singer is revealing his white male privilege here. If oppressed people just let life decide, we’d still have slaves, Black people wouldn’t be able to vote in this country, and police brutality would continue unchecked. Sometimes we have to stand up and say, “Life is messed up. Let’s make it better.”
3. Neo-shamanism as a culturally appropriated tool for White people to exploit and profit from Indigenous wisdom, spirituality, and healing practices.
While many Indigenous and Eastern healers are sincerely interested in sharing their wisdom and want it to be spread among the White world, the ways in which White folks share, treat others, and particularly profit from these healing methods is problematic, even while many benefit from it and some neo-shamans are caring, respectful, ethical people. When I was invited to live amongst the Q’eros in Peru, learning about their world view and healing methods for my book Sacred Medicine, and while I was given consent to share these teachings in a book they knew I would earn income from, they told me they are very angry at Alberto Villoldo, the American psychologist who they trained in their methods and initiated as a shaman after they claim he promised not to profit from what he learned. They claim he then appropriated these teachings and started the Four Winds Society, an expensive training program that certifies Americans to practice as neo-shamans. The Q’eros shamans are not happy about this and told me they do not endorse his teachings, although he claims they do. This is their word against his, but if they’re telling the truth (and I’m inclined to give the Q’eros the benefit of the doubt), then this is NOT okay. He’s certainly not the only one guilty of this, and I imagine he thinks he’s doing a huge service by spreading their beautiful animist, nature-loving teachings to a sick, nature-violating American culture. I’m sure many have benefitted from the treatments of White people he has trained. (I know I have.)
Still, now that we know better, we need to do better. We must make apologies and amends for this practice of cultural appropriation, especially when White people profit from it. While these teachings can benefit all races, and while it is part of my calling to educate health care practitioners and the general public about the benefits of Indigenous healing practices, we need to reckon with this. I am sure I am guilty of not getting this right, but we have to up our standards. In my company, we are trying to actively make our business an anti-racist business, but we’re not there yet. My current publisher also cares about this, although I know it’s still a work in progress. I was grateful Sounds True hired a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) reader to screen my Sacred Medicine manuscript, and I only got dinged for not capitalizing Indigenous, but I know I’ve made many mistakes in this area, and I’m sorry.
As one BIPOC person in our community said, “Let Indigenous medicine people practice shamanism, Chinese healers practice Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qigong healing, Indian people practice Ayurveda and teach yoga, and Tibetan people lead Tibetan Buddhist sanghas. White folks, stop stealing our stuff, profiting from it, and taking jobs from people who can legitimately make a living from these healing practices.” Now I don’t know how to reckon with this extreme critique. I know many very ethical and gifted White healers who work as acupuncturists, yoga teachers, and neo-shamans. Are we just supposed to fire them all and rob the world of their gifts? That seems extreme, but I get that we need to consider such critiques.
4. Sick people call in illness as a soul growth assignment so they can grow spiritually.
Oh gosh, I’ve parroted this one for sure. (I’m sorry.) Galen Williams said she was initially speechless and then infuriated when one friend who had been drinking the New Age Kool-Aid told her, “There are no victims, only volunteers.” In her book, White Hot Truth, Danielle LaPorte called an obviously disabled person a “strong soul” and felt respect when she considered this possible explanation for someone’s suffering. While I have personally found it helpful and healing to perceive my traumatic experiences as opportunities to grow, develop spiritually, expiate karma, and evolve as a soul, I can see that this may be a sign of my privilege and my health. I see now that this may be a painfully unempathic teaching for those who have been victimized more so than me. Like many of these teachings, it behooves us to take what serves us at various phases of our healing and leave what doesn’t. Do what you want with yourself, but what is NOT helpful is “silver-lining” or bullying someone else who feels legitimately victimized by illness, injury, or trauma by telling them that this adversity is a blessing (when it doesn’t feel at all like a blessing to someone in the acute throes of trauma).
The truth is that we do not know why bad things happen to good people and worse things happen to some. Some believe in karma. Others believe in soul assignments, but these are beliefs, not facts we can prove. Maybe it comforts the parts of us that are uncomfortable with uncertainty to pretend we have the answers, but the reality is that nobody knows for sure why one person gets cancer and another gets raped, and someone else gets murdered by police. What concerns me is that the story White “spiritual” folks tell ourselves about why marginalized people suffer may placate us and cause us to bypass the horror we should feel when we watch a video of a cop brutally murdering George Floyd. We should feel sick. We should not make ourselves feel better by telling ourselves George Floyd or others like him might get an upgrade in his next life because his soul grew from this murder.
What we do know is that all suffering deserves our empathy and compassionate action to help ease suffering of all beings. If someone finds meaning and comfort in perceiving their traumas as a soul growth assignment, it seems kind to let them figure that out for themselves rather than projecting your discomfort with uncertainty onto them.
5. Non-attachment and non-judgment are a sign of enlightenment.
The reality is that healthy humans without trauma around intimacy have parts that attach to people and things they love. We should worry about people if they can’t attach in healthy ways, not if they can. (Psychologists call emotional detachment and the inability to attach intimately an “attachment disorder,” which is the result of trauma.) Yes, these common Buddhist teachings can be helpful to loosen our grip on anything we consider “ours,” like our kids, our money, our power, or our privilege. But it’s human to cling to what we love, and none of us are superhuman, no matter what a teacher might tell you. Sarah Blick said that non-attachment is “typically used to justify infidelity. Osho comes to mind… and I’ve met a number of self-acclaimed gurus who are just charismatic serial womanizers.” I’m all for sex-positivity and sacred sexuality, but I would also add that spiritual justifications for polyamory, and the California flavor of Tantra often seem to be a cover for sex addiction, boundary confusion, and intimacy bypassing as well, which are also trauma reactions.
So what about judgment? How do we handle our judgmental parts? The way I see it, it’s normal to have moral and ethical parts that DO judge abusive or boundary violating behavior in others as wrong. We’re supposed to feel angry when we feel ourselves or someone we care about getting hurt. Only people blended with sociopath parts feel nothing when others get hurt. Our healthy, heart-centered anger will naturally fuel the restoration of boundaries and the fierceness of our compassion for ourselves and others. There’s a difference between the healthy discernment that comes from judging something as right or wrong and the black and white polarization (which tends to come from developmental trauma and the personality disorders they cause) that causes us to categorically label someone who does something harmful, unethical, or illegal as a monster not worthy of love or compassion.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model offers a solution for this divisive polarization (inside ourselves and against others). Our hearts can stay open (with clear and when needed, fierce boundaries) when we understand that parts that do “bad” things—in ourselves and in others—think they’re protecting us. As IFS founder Dick Schwartz, PhD said while talking about clients with sexual abuser parts and murderer parts, “I’ve never met a part I couldn’t love once I understood why it thought it was helping.” We can offer ourselves the same generosity when we’re guilty of doing harmful things while still holding ourselves and others accountable for the harm we do.
6. Guilt is good, but shame is always a toxic emotion we should avoid at all costs.
This may be semantics, but I appreciate the way empathy researcher and author Karla McLaren differentiates guilt and shame and approaches both as valid, important, and valuable emotions. She teaches that ethical beings MUST feel shame; otherwise, they are shameless, and they violate the boundaries of others without feeling bad. She teaches us that anger arises when you or someone you care about are getting your boundaries violated. Anger helps you restore your boundaries. Shame, on the other hand, arises when you violate the boundaries of someone else, helping you restore your moral compass so you can stop doing the harmful thing, make apologies, and make amends. (Read more from Karla about shame here.)
7. Everything is energy, and therefore if you raise your vibration enough, and your energy is aligned with the energy of light, then your physical and mental ailments will always magically disappear (and you’ll never get COVID).
As someone who just completed a manuscript compiling ten years of my research on energy healing into my Sacred Medicine book, I’ve seen spiritual healing lead to seemingly miraculous radical remissions. I’ve also seen it fail to cure people permanently more often than I’ve seen it work. So it’s not black and white, just like conventional medicine isn’t black and white. I’ve seen conventional oncology fail as much as I’ve seen it cure people too. One reader expressed the nuance. “Yes, everything IS energy. No, energy doesn’t heal everything. Telling others that energy can heal everything is damaging, belittling, and disempowering.”
8. The attainment of spiritual perfection (enlightenment) also means you will attain a perfect and thin body.
Natalie Baack said, “Once I was told by a coach that the outside matches the inside, that with enlightenment comes a fit, healthy body (connects with ableism). Implying that if I was fat, I was “less than” is a rampant toxic belief.”
9. “It’s a benevolent Universe, so we should have ‘pronoia’ rather than paranoia.”
One reader said, “My people are paranoid for a good reason, and the universe has not always been benevolent to us. While I get how seductive it is to believe that everything happens because the Universe loves us, this makes no sense to BIPOC people, Holocaust survivors, LGBTQIA+ folks, or people born with congenital diseases who have been oppressed, abused, murdered, colonized, and suffered painful physical disability. Sure, I get that trauma forces me to become more resilient and find meaning in my suffering so I can become a kinder, more compassionate person. I get that there are blessings in suffering, that suffering can initiate us into maturation and grow us spiritually. But it’s definitely not a kind thing to say to someone who feels truly victimized. Seems to me like an easy aphorism that ableist, privileged, heteronormative White folks say to feel better about the privilege they enjoy. If I am able to find benevolence in my suffering, let me find it myself. Don’t light wash my pain with your ‘spiritual teachings’ to make yourself feel better about my suffering and absolve you of responsibility to heal systemic racism.”
10. Changing your wording and refusing to buy into a story will make your painful condition go away.
Heather Hope Harmony said, “Here’s an extremely toxic one I get CONSTANTLY, as someone who deals with mental disorders, “You only have your mental disorder(s) because you believe in the label. Stop calling yourself Schizoaffective (or whatever), and it will go away.” Stupidest damn sh*t I’ve ever heard.”
11. Empaths who penetrate the psychic boundaries of others and do a “reading” without consent are helping you by revealing your blind spots as a direct gift from God.
One reader said, “With all due respect, if one more alleged ’empath’ cuts straight to my core wound without my permission because he (or usually a she) thinks it’s going to wake me up and heal me, I’m going to f*cking kill myself. Empaths, yes, I’ve been hurt. I’m working on it. But please protect my psychic privacy. If you violate my psychic space, own up to it. If you can’t help yourself, admit you have a problem. Your boundary violations are your work to be done. I’ll do my own work with my therapist; thank you very much.”
12. All channeled information comes straight from God.
Just because some being doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to. Beings don’t automatically become enlightened just because they die. You can’t know if that channeled being is even a real disincarnate spirit, much less a helpful, wise, trauma-informed, illuminated voice. It could be a dissociated part of the person allegedly channeling, which would mean you’re taking advice from a person who may be expressing a trauma-induced dissociation. To use IFS language, they may be blended with a dissociative part or an attention-seeking narcissist part that needs to feel special. All trauma responses deserve our compassion, and all parts are trying to protect us, including dissociative parts and parts that need to feel special because other parts don’t feel good enough underneath. All protector parts are trying to protect exiles who are hurt and vulnerable and tender and deserving of love, healing, unburdening, and retrieval from times in the past where they’re stuck. Once those parts get unburdened, their natural valuable gifts can express more fully and be integrated into present time in beautiful ways. That said, are you really sure you can trust the “wisdom” of such a part?
One thing to watch for: if the person channeling this “being” cannot control it and it pops in whenever it likes, that’s not an enlightened channel; that’s a possession. The trauma healing method Internal Family Systems (IFS) includes a way to perform “exorcisms,” so this kind of possession is treatable. But we need to be careful not to over-value messages coming from hurt people who may be blended with a protector part. Discernment is one of the primary spiritual lessons anyone on the spiritual path will have to learn, often the hard way.
Let’s Not Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater
Let me reiterate that many of these teachings and practices have real value and have benefited many people when used at the right times, with the right patients/ clients, in an empathic, sensitive, trauma-informed, skillful way, so I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t use and learn from these teachings, I’m just inviting us to examine and question them.
We certainly have the right to be angry, disappointed, disillusioned, and disgusted when people have harmed us with spiritual teachings, but let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. (I wrote a whole post on Facebook about the dangers of binary thinking and why we need nuance when we criticize industries like conventional medicine or New Age spirituality, so we don’t make the cognitive mistake of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and polarizing into camps. Read it here.)
Yes, we need to call some of these implicitly racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic teachings out and hold those who teach them accountable so we can practice restorative justice. But let’s try not to go on a witch hunt and demonize ourselves or anyone else for teaching such things. We need not approach these teachings with black and white thinking or apply polarizing “all good” or “all bad” extremism to them, but we do need to examine how otherwise well-meaning teachings might harm some when misused.
Recovering New Agers, if it’s hard to read this and you have parts that feel heavy, sad, angry, betrayed, disillusioned, or lost, I get that. It makes sense. If you can, hold these parts very gently, and if you have a therapist, make an appointment. These are unsettling times, but you’re REALLY growing now—in a good way. You might need professional help though. If you’re privileged enough to have good health insurance or be able to afford a therapist, I recommend finding an Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist to help you deal gently and empathically with the parts that are having hard feelings right now so you can get the real trauma healing that leads to genuine spiritual awakening. If you can’t afford that, we’re going to be doing some group healing using IFS, writing, singing, dance, and open-hearted community starting on November 2 in Alchemizing Uncertain Times Through Writing. Sign up here.