By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Art by Loretta Weeks
“The world is growing more complex, everything is changing fast, so to perceive the true nature of things with our judgment and to assimilate them quickly is essential.” —Myong Ji Sumim (Buddhist monk), Dharma Zen Center
There’s a moment in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fearwhen psycho-stalker Robert De Niro tells a terrified Nick Nolte with a smirk that he’s spent years in jail getting in touch with his "soft, nurturing . . . feminine side" — a perversion, no doubt, of the simpering Sensitive New Age Guy lingo of the time. While De Niro’s character was light-years removed from New Age thought, its influence had penetrated Hollywood’s prison walls and beyond, and is currently manifest in mainstream pop culture, with market-driven self-help gurus and celebrity dilettantes like Madonna and Courtney Love espousing a kind of empty, consumer New Agey–ness. With out-of-context cut-and-paste fragments from sacred traditions and various religions, they project the appearance of having something deep happening, something other than tedious self-worship. Renowned religious/literary critic Harold Bloom muses that nowadays the New Age is a naive goof: "An endlessly entertaining saturnalia of ill-defined yearnings . . . whose origins are an old mixture of occultism and American Harmonial faith suspended about halfway between feeling good and good feeling."
As we draw minute by minute toward century’s and millennium’s end, Bloom isn’t the only major spiritual philosopher to think this way. Theosophist-writer-lecturer Dr. Stephan Hoeller, retired professor of comparative religions and current director of the Gnostic Society of L.A., warns those who are sincerely attempting to cultivate a spiritual life to be "wary of anything that charges exorbitant fees, since the objective of offering transcendence is not about marketing coups, but simply making information available for people to choose their own paths."
I first encountered Hoeller after a disastrous attempt at romance, when a stranger said she thought I needed professional counseling. I was led not to a therapist, but to a teacher-mystic who laid out the skinny on various ancient spiritual thoughts and practices, some of which form the basis of modern psychology, despite their rejection by some schools of scientific academia. For $5 a week, well within my meager mental-health budget, Hoeller’s lectures ran down the Occult, Jung, Gnosticism, esoterica, dream analysis, modern and ancient alchemy, kabbalah, the tarot and various aspects of theosophy. There were no chants, no name changes, no white robes, no cutting off of repressive friends, as Hoeller simply handed out clues and road maps on where to go. This is how he helped me, blubbering wreck that I was.
So it is after 10 years that I sit with Hoeller, swigging tea and talking about the best and worst of contemporary spirituality.Dr. Stephan Hoeller: There is a troublesome type of guilt in this New Age culture, that if something bad happens it must be your own fault. You’re a victim because of your behavior or because of your karma or because you didn’t think it through right. It’s another way of expressing the same old thing as mainstream religious orthodoxy . . . that you erred, you sinned, and now you’re being punished for your immorality . . . The compulsive doing of good things sometimes creates buildup to a greater fall in many of today’s popular feel-good philosophies. There is the thinking that only good people jog and that good people don’t eat any heavier meat than chicken, that good people do everything they’re supposed to do . . . yet awful things can still happen to them. So people frequently find themselves in hot water when they think, "I did all the chants. I took all the right herbs and drank the right bottled water, I did the yogic exercises, all the right aura work. I attended the right seminars. I bought all the right self-help books. I ate the perfect diet and jogged every day. So when something goes wrong, it must mean I should chant even more, because I mustn’t have given it enough positive thought!" Brendan Mullen:There’s also a sinister underlying sentiment that terrible things shouldn’t happen to me . . . only to somebody else . . . so why do bad things sometimes still happen anyway?
It’s a Gnostic idea that God the True Creator is too far away from our cosmos at present time to be effectively all-powerful, and that the unhappy, the sick, the bizarre and evil are all part of the nature of the imperfect world created by God at the beginning, and that none of these bad things are a test of faith or a punishment by a vengeful God.How much of evil can be blamed on an absent God, and how much do you think we have to take responsibility for man-made horror?
Of course there are many things we do to ourselves, and there are many things we must take reponsibility for, but some things are done to us, not because of anything we invited but because our world is flawed, which is not to say its flaws are all necessarily bad. This perspective, of course, flies in the face of most mainstream religious orthodoxies, which maintain the world is perfectly wonderful if only people would just buckle down to enforced morality as decreed by a self-serving ecclesiastical hierarchy.So where is goodness at . . . have we made any spiritual advancements this century? Is there any hope?
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