EAST AND WEST
New Age Thought attempts to recover the remnants of Western spirituality and revitalize them with Eastern thinking. The birth of New Age thought has been attributed to a number of figures, all of whom contributed a mystery element to attract adherents and the curious, such as Swedenborg, Blavatsky, and Gurdjieff. The most direct influence in the United States, which is the grand receptor and disseminator of modern ideas, may have been the appearance of Vivekananda at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. Quoting the Shiva mahimna stotram, he announced:
As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee! … Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.
Vivekananda bridged East and West in an articulate way not seen in the West, retaining the element of mystery lost by the West in the Enlightenment and in the turn to pragmatism in Christianity, while at the same time providing a simple but universal structure for the cross-over from West to East. This structure is basically perennial philosophy, which can, however, deviate quickly into relativism and the dismissal of those core beliefs of many religions. The result can be a skepticism, a syncretism, or an entirely new but tenuous ideology of life. Yet this is the inevitable status of what is called today called New Age, somewhere between respecting, borrowing, co-opting, and relativizing. Those of good heart willingly receive the best of all cultures without distorting or imposing. On the one hand, the process can be seen as fruitful and enlightening, the only course for a complex modern world, but at the same time it can be seen as the chaotic result of Western imperial legacy in East Asia, wresting away ancient traditions for its own use while corrupting those whom it encountered with its Western wiles.
The idea of a hermit who steals for a living confirms the worse stereotype of the “eremite as parasite” in the minds of those who believe that disengaging from society is anathema. No historical hermit, especially those motivated by a spiritual sense but also wilderness hermits, has ever had the slightest motive to encroach upon anybody’s belongings — be that body, mind, time, space, or goods. Indeed, the hallmark of eremitism is disengagement from that which is Other, whether it be a person or a person’s extensions into society. How many Western and Eastern hermits voluntarily renounced the world for the forests and mountains and deserts in order to be alone with God, Nature, the Tao, or whatever equivalent?
The recluse, on the other hand, is a different subject. The recluse actively avoids people, as do hermits (though many in religious traditions such as Orthodoxy are active counselors). The motive of the recluse differs from that of the hermit, springing from misanthropy — springing not from social criticism like Diogenes but from the ego. Such a person, whether reclusive or not, is less motivated to craft a life of self-sufficiency. To them God, Nature, the Tao, or whatever equivalent, revolves around themselves. To steal is universally condemned because it lies at the heart of the undisciplined self, of the absence of empathy, and is a menace to society as much as to self.
The search for metaphysical meaning has always a charged pursuit in Western thinking. Meaning must be intrinsic to a context and, if not forthcoming, must be assigned to it. That mode of thought has dominated Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks to the modern era. Science, on the other hand, and logical positivism as its philosophical adjunct, has, on the surface, attempted to demolish meaning, reducing it to a figment of the mind or culture. In neither case, however, is the idea of meaning allowed to express itself through nature and the universe. In neither case is the possibility of human observation outside the subjective allowed.
This failure to see meaning not teleologically but simply as a phenomenon based on universal patterns is a signal feature of modern technological civilization. Twentieth-century thought,, especially existentialism, recognized the unconscious motives behind the dismissal of meaning and what the absence of meaning could create in society and institutions. The absence of meaning coupled with an exclusivist use of logic, science, and technology, plus an acceleration of material control in circles of wealth and power, has created an artificial system of culture that is self-destructive, while yielding satisfaction to those in positions of wealth and power. Such a phenomenon is both familiar (in that history offers many examples of societies collapsing into these conditions) while at the same time unique (in that science and technology has accelerated events and environmental conditions to an irretrievable pitch).
Science and technology serve powerful circles in attacking cultural meanings once rooted in natural environments and patterns of life. These patterns were the last vestiges of social cohesion for average people. The masses of people, disillusioned and rootless, now skip on to new meanings assigned from the manufacturers of popular culture, losing touch with the earth, with living beings, and with the patterns of the universe. They have nowhere to go but back into the dependent arms of a ruthless, if collapsing, system devoid of meaning.
Off on retreat for several weeks …