The New Age
I feel no particular urge to post an apologia pro vita sua for Carlos Castaneda against his detractors any longer. Let them fulminate all they want. But what I will object to vehemently is the mantle that has been placed around Castaneda’s shoulders as being “father of the New Age Movement”, an “honour” which he never wanted and never sought, and which is, in any case, false. If anyone deserves to be called “progenitor” of a New Age it is William Blake, who announced the impending onset of a New Age in his own lifetime and was subsequently seconded by Nietzsche, too.
The confidence that we are, indeed, entering a “New Age” has only grown in intensity since. The competition to define and control the meaning of this New Age has become rather fierce. But if New Age is to have any meaning at all (and hopefully neither as the “end of history” nor as the Anthropocene) we’ld best give it some determinate and desirable meaning because, in one way or another, it has become an inevitability.
Birth. The birth of anything is never a pleasant experience. Our notions of Hell are probably a residual bodily memory of our passage through the birth canal and into the “blooming, buzzing confusion”, as William James once described it. James might have added “booming”, too. “Blooming, booming, buzzing confusion”. I think James’ memory was grown a bit faulty with the distance of time from his birth, because he omitted to mention the shock and trauma, the terror and anguish, of this event and the indelible scar it leaves on the psychic structure of the newborn infant. Birth, says Seth, is a far more terrifying process and event than death. In fact, Jill Bolte-Taylor’s recollection of her stroke, when light burned her brain like wildfire and sound overwhelmed her like a suffocating flood — sensory overload, fear and pain — so that she felt the need to escape all sensation — that’s probably a better description of the “blooming, buzzing confusion”. Grief and pain accompany the birth process.
What we’re calling “chaotic transition” or “havoc” or “paradigm shift” and so on and so forth is birth process, too. Certainly William Blake didn’t think it would be a gradual or peaceful transition, but the titanic clash of his “Zoas” for hegemony, the revolt against, and overthrow, of “Urizen”, Ancient of Days. Blake’s description of the struggle is horrific, volcanic, earthshaking, apocalyptic — a description that resembles the Norse legend of Ragnarök, and certainly nothing about going gently into that good night or day. When ever has the birth of any New Age in the past been anything but an affair of blood, sweat and tears? In contrast to the tragedy of birth, death is almost comedic.
All higher civilisation, observed Nietzsche, was born of a crime. He might have said better, a tragedy. This reflects Goethe’s insistence that “Im Anfang war die Tat” — “in the beginning was the deed“. Die Tat, the deed, has a terrible ring to it. But then Cain slew his brother and became the founder of cities. It’s just another one of Nietzsche’s ironies that he finds so much of the material for his “transvaluation of values” in Scripture, or simply a reflection of the fact that the “Little Pastor” as he was called in his pious Lutheran youth, could never shake the formative influence of Scripture on his mind and personality. Or, as Rosenstock-Huessy once charged, Nietzsche’s chief fault was his envy of Jesus as the Christ. (And I think that there is indeed some evidence in Nietzsche’s life for “psychic inflation” which often accompanies the irruption of “transcendental energy” — the Dionysian in Nietzsche’s case. Hubris, self-aggrandisement and narcissism are but other terms for psychic inflation. These things also seem to accompany the “irruption” of transcendental energy).
If the term “New Age” is to have any meaning at all, it must mean a radical change in our mode of being and our mode of perception brought about by some such irruption of energy powerful enough to alter these. In The Master and his Emissary, on the divided brain, McGilchrist uses the terms “mode of being” and “mode of attention” interchangeably. The mode of attention (or mode of perception) is the mode of being (or way of life), and the mode of being (or way of life) is the mode of attention (or mode of perception). So any talk of a New Age, in order to have any intelligibility at all, must mean both a radical departure from the habitual mode of attention and “normal” mode of being in a new restructuration of these modalities. In other words, what Jean Gebser refers to as a “mutation” of the consciousness structure in The Ever-Present Origin.
And that is what Iain McGilchrist’s book on neurodynamics suggests, too. The Master and his Emissary is not just a description, it is also a performance and an enactment. To even perceive and conceive of the process of neurodynamics in the way McGilchrist did requires a shift in awareness. Even to appreciate the argument in the book requires a shift in awareness also, otherwise it remains unintelligible — “stuff and nonsense”. But it is anything but that.
If “New Age” means anything, then, it means this shift in awareness which brings about a mutation in the mode of attention and therefore also in the mode of being. This is what Seth describes as the present eruption of “unconscious knowledge” into the ego consciousness, and radically transforming this ego consciousness in the process. The “unconscious knowledge” or “ancient force” is only what others are calling “transcendental energy”. And, of course, the instance of that was Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “stroke of insight” as described in her TED talk which is, I’ve come to believe, in all its particulars and aspects a true instance of “chaotic transition”. Bolte-Taylor’s one advantage in the whole thing was her knowledge as a neuroanatomist. She knew what was happening to her, and I think that was what prevented her from completely losing her marbles or panicking. In fact, she thought her predicament was “cool”.
So, in a sense, during the chaotic transition we have to be like Jill Bolte-Taylor, and not loose our marbles. Her TED talk is so rich, so suggestive, that I really can’t say enough about it. It’s a paradigm in itself, a microcosm and a holon in its own right.
Of course, a lot of such competing “New Age” formations are either completely confused about themselves or are false fronts — no significant departure from the mode of being/mode of attention except in those deficient ways described by Seth — superstition, new ideologies, cultishness, narcissism or psychic inflation, and so on and so forth — more of the same only this time moreso. So, I do credit Mr. McGilchrist for his book and for providing an empirical framework for understanding the changes and the “chaotic transition” that can be related to Peter Pogany’s economic concerns and others. Whatever shortcomings The Master and his Emissary might have are adequately compensated for in the other integral or “apocalyptic thinkers” I’ve mentioned in The Chrysalis — Jean Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, and Thomas Berry chief amongst them. As mentioned in a recent comment, McGilchrist, Gebser, Rosenstock, and Berry have become my “Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John” for understanding the real potential and meaning of the “New Age” aborning.
And, of course, William Blake, whose prophet voice and the meaning of that voice they all help illuminate.
This shift or “mutation” in the mode of being/mode of attention is already happening, of course. The “anomalous”. The discovery of very surprising relationships between things that were never hitherto perceived or were overlooked. Those relationships could not have been perceived at all within the focus and parameters of the older structure of consciousness and its mode of attention/mode of being. We might take heart in don Juan’s words to Castaneda, that knowledge comes to the seeker “bit by bit at first then in big chunks”. But don Juan’s assurance to Castaneda also comes with a caveat, and I reproduce the quote below in its full context,
When a man starts to learn, he is never clear about his objectives. His purpose is faulty; his intent is vague. He hopes for rewards that will never materialize for he knows nothing of the hardships of learning.
He slowly begins to learn–bit by bit at first, then in big chunks. And his thoughts soon clash. What he learns is never what he pictured, or imagined, and so he begins to be afraid. Learning is never what one expects. Every step of learning is a new task, and the fear the man is experiencing begins to mount mercilessly, unyieldingly. His purpose becomes a battlefield.
And thus he has stumbled upon the first of his natural enemies: fear! A terrible enemy–treacherous, and difficult to overcome. It remains concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting. And if the man, terrified in its presence, runs away, his enemy will have put an end to his quest and he will never learn. He will never become a man of knowledge. He will perhaps be a bully, or a harmless, scared man; at any rate, he will be a defeated man. His first enemy will have put an end to his cravings.
Life lessons from don Juan for the “chaotic transition”.