I am not fond of much of the New Age movement. Sometimes my thoughts about mysticism may seem like the New Age, but I think that is because the New Age has adopted a lot of mystical language and concepts, not that classical mysticism inherently belongs to the New Age. They are two different fields, which have some overlap. The New Age developed just in the 1970s. Mysticism has been around for millennia, indeed, for all of human history, in every part of the world.
I think the New Age is often too far irreconcilable or incompatible with science. It seems to often use methods which are unsupported by scientific study, and often veers into pseudoscience. Practices which are entirely unsupported or even shown to be erroneous by science seem to often be embraced by the New Age. And I think this can be dangerous, because it can make it seem that practices are spiritually, mentally, or physically effective when they may not be, and these can be marketed and commercially exploited.
Some New Age interests which I think are problematic are:
- channeling, mediumship, afterlife communication
- astrology, horoscopes
- out-of-body practices
- homeopathy, alternative medicine
- past life regression
- paranormal and psychic phenomena
It’s not that I think these are entirely false, fake, or ineffective, but I think that what the New Age thinks about them is often mistaken, and people can be easily misused and abused into thinking these practices are doing things that they are not.
Take crystals, for example. I don’t think crystals have a hidden energy within them that we can tap into to heal people. Nothing like that has been substantiated by science. Not that everything has to be substantiated by science for us to take it seriously or for it to have effect, but things like this are not only unsubstantiated but have often been invalidated by scientific studies. Crystals simply don’t have a hidden energy inside them.
The effects that some people feel with special crystals or stones I think should be attributed to other means, such as the placebo effect or cognitive bias. If we think crystals will be healing, then they will be (but it is actually our belief that is healing). I think it could also have something to do with the way our consciousness is dazzled by the light that reflects off of crystals. The beauty, reflections, and refraction of light within a crystal may have an effect on our conscious state, perhaps even leading to an alternate state of consciousness. But these are optical effects, the way our vision is deeply interconnected to our experience of consciousness, that causes these changes, not because there is a hidden energy that is being absorbed or transferred.
I have noted before how I think seer stones may work, not that they have a hidden energy inside them, or magical powers of some kind in and of themselves, but because they may be an aid to us altering our consciousness, a focus of attention, like many other kinds of meditation objects (a flame, flower, dish of water, mirror, rosary, mala, mantra, breath), fostering one-pointed concentration and bringing about a different state of thinking and perceiving which allows deeper access into the unconscious or subconscious mind, not unlike hypnosis.
I don’t think the truth of God is irreconcilable with nature. Many of our spiritual experiences and mystical intuitions may go beyond the limits of what the rational logical mind can comprehend, but that doesn’t mean that they are contrary to nature. Science has not investigated all of nature, is far from it, and there are some areas where science has difficulty exploring, such as the human psyche. But science can tell us much about the natural world, and I think it is unwise for us to disregard the insights of science, medicine, rationality, or academia. That won’t bring us closer to the Divine, and may actually lead us away from it. God is truth, all truth, from whatever source it comes. As I recently read from religious scholar Karen Armstrong, if spiritual interpretations “contradict current scientific discoveries, the [seeker] must interpret it differently” (The Case for God). Going directly against science should never be the solution in our spiritual journey.
Much of the New Age is likely harmless, and inspires many to be better people, loving others and doing good in the world. Many of its general ideas and philosophy I may agree with. But I think we should remain cautious and careful in accepting things just because they may seem good, or are part of a larger system that seems good.
To me, mysticism means experientially coming into full union with the Real, with reality, with nature, with the truth of being, with what actually is, coming to realize what we really are as human beings, and this will not conflict in any great degree with the findings of science, but is often complementary and mutually supportive. Mysticism is not about realizing a supernatural state beyond the natural world, going to a different spiritual plane or dimension, leaving the physical body, communicating with disembodied spirit beings (whether divine or post-mortal), entering a vague state of irrationality, occult phenomena, etc. Mysticism may be regarded as such because of the New Age, but classical mysticism reaches far back beyond the beginnings of the New Age as it developed in the 1970s, and relates how humans have experienced intimate encounters with ultimate reality, even finding themselves merging with that reality in oneness or nonduality. And these mystical traditions can be found in all religions, and I think mysticism may be the source of those religions.
Genuine mysticism is about changing the mind, having a shift of consciousness in which one may perceive things as they really are, the world as it really is, our own being in truth. Our egoic “self” consciousness which is often at the forefront, thinking of all things in terms of “me” and “mine” takes a back seat or falls away, and one becomes conscious of a unity which underlies all reality, an interconnectedness which pervades all the universe and ties all things together into a comprehensive Whole. Instead of seeing things in a dualistic mode of subject/object, with “me” here and everything else “out there,” all things become One or nondual, as one single process of becoming and experience. We realize that we are not fundamentally separate from the world or nature, but are one with it at a deep level, as we are one with all other beings in the world and nature. We realize we are a manifestation of nature, of the world, of the Cosmos, but this manifestation does not leave the Cosmos or God, but remains part of it, within it.
Our identity which before was in the ego changes to be with the ground of Being itself, with that deepest essence of Life within us. We realize we are not our ego, but something much greater, more universal, more eternal. The mystics, prophets, sages, and saints have called this realization salvation, exaltation, awakening, enlightenment, nirvana, moksha, liberation, resurrection. We are no longer debilitated by our egos, ashamed of our past, or overly worried or concerned about the future (or our death), but we live peacefully in the present, where life always and only happens. We seek the well-being of all people, seeing our Self in them, alleviating suffering wherever possible, because when we are One, where any suffers, we suffer. Where others rejoice, we rejoice. This is Love. We accept reality as it is in the present, so we can work towards a better future for all.