The Difference Between New-Age Spirituality & Authentic Spirituality in 3 Paragraphs.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Sep 15, 2011
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New-Age vs. Non-New Agey.

Both, readers and writers alike, often inquire as to why elephant journal labels its spirituality section “non-new agey spirituality.” Well, obviously the answer is that we try not to endorse new-age spirituality, which begs the question, “What is the difference between new-age spirituality and non-new agey spirituality? Here is my answer:

Simply put, spirituality is not about changing yourself or creating a newer-better you. It is not a rejection of yourself, but a getting to know yourself in the most intimate way possible. Authentic spirituality is about mindful participation in your own life. While, new-age spirituality is concerned with carving out a new, more exotic role for the ego to play.

The tendency to “change ourselves” manifest in varying degrees, from the subtle to the extreme, but regardless of the severity this business of changing ourselves is always violent. In order to change ourselves, we must divide ourselves and reject the less desirable half. Then, we must force the “bad half” to conform to the dictates of the “good half.” This process of “divide, reject, and change” transforms life into a struggle and carries on indefinitely, leaving in its wake a reservoir of pain, fear, and aggression.

True spirituality is the subtlest expression of non-violence. It is learning to Love, which is difficult. We must be willing to move into the darkest areas of our life and Love ourselves out of the darkness through mindfulness and patience. We have to see our naked body, with all of its perfections and imperfections, and patiently resist the violent urge to reject it. This takes an immense amount of courage. We are terrified of seeing ourselves without any clothes on. We insist upon avoiding ourselves by thinking about ourselves; rather than being our Self. True spirituality is about rediscovering the indestructible dignity of being through the practice of Love.

True spirituality is not limited to religious traditions, and fake spirituality can emerge under a religious guise… Here are a couple of bonuses from a couple of pretty well-known guys that convey the same message:

“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.

That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ—all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ.

But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself—that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness—that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us “Raca,” and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.” ~Carl Jung

“But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?” ~ Mark Twain’s Autobiography, via Waylon Lewis



Elephant Spirituality is an example of Elephant Journal’s commitment to the Mindful Life. We look to provide a fresh and practical perspective on traditional spirituality. If you would like to follow Elephant Spirituality on FaceBook click here and become a fan of Elephant Spirituality by clicking the “Like” tab at the top of the page.




About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist & Christian spirituality for Elephant Journal, and The Web of Enlightenment. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter. He also teaches at Explore Yoga. Click here to listen to my podcast.


106 Responses to “The Difference Between New-Age Spirituality & Authentic Spirituality in 3 Paragraphs.”

  1. Priscilla says:

    Excellent, I've been looking for these answers for a while.

  2. YogaSteve says:

    Cool. I can be a raging angry alcoholic leaving a path of destruction wherever I go as long as do it mindfully and with total acceptance. I like it!

    That said, I mostly agree.

  3. Ben, Ben.

    To me this is an utterly absurd notion–that true spirituality is defined by a rejection of all self-improvement. It's such an absurd notion that I have trouble even taking it seriously.

    It doesn't even work on pure logic basis. Aren't you trying to improve yourself by accepting yourself more? If so, why is accepting yourself more the only acceptable kind of self-improvement?

    What if the true me is highly competitive by nature and has wanted to be the best at whatever I do from the time I was a little kid. Do I have to reject that side of me? If I accept that side of me, am I not embracing self-improvement?

    What if the Bhagavad Gita has helped me change and grow and improve myself? Does that mean that my spirituality is, by your definition, inauthentic?

    You see, it's a logical nightmare to say that spirituality cannot embrace self-improvement.

    Everyone wants to improve and develop themselves, even if what they want to improve is accepting themselves more. That natural impulse for growth is as spiritual as anything else.

    And I guess self-improvement could be confused with self-rejection for some, but, good God, Ben, speak for yourself!

    For some of us spiritual self improvement is an exciting life-affirming process. It makes us feel vibrant and alive.

    Ben, I love you. But you struck out with me on this one.



  4. Stig Edwardson says:

    I think I agree with the concept of this piece, but the wording leaves some confusion in my mind. I see true spirituality as acceptance of one's "self" (lower case), while recognizing that the true Self is unchanging, and is not identified with the ego. Any work invested on the ego-identified self is ultimately futile, and not of the realm of spirituality.

  5. I think the spiritual search is about genuine happiness, and the new-age or self-help search is about feeling better. There's a huge difference, in that what we often think will make us feel better ends up being opposed to real happiness. Feeling better is the goal of the ego; happiness lies in the recognition that we are not egos. And in one way or another, every spiritual discipline is about learning to release the ego — not to destroy, demean, or subjugate it, but simply to recognize that it isn't there, despite all delusory evidence to the contrary!

  6. To this, I say RIGHT ON!

    "Authentic spirituality is about mindful participation in your own life. While, new-age spirituality is concerned with carving out a new, more exotic role for the ego to play."

    I've never thought of it in that way before, but as I read it, I thought, simply, yes.

    Accepting ourselves as ourselves and not the perfect (and therefore non-attainable) version of ourselves is the only way to cut the dangling carrot from the string and finally eat the damn thing.

    At least that's how it feels to me. Well written article, and very much appreciated.


  7. A couple of other thoughts, Ben.

    I dislike attempts to narrow spirituality into "only this or that" in general. I think they do a disservice to spirituality's awesome diversity and scope. Different strokes for different folks.

    The other huge problem I have is that I know some truly wonderful, highly spiritual people who got to be that way by following the teachings of Norman Vincent Peale or Eckhart Tolle or Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra or…–what the heck does "New-Age" really mean anyway?

    To make matters even fuzzier, much of the New Age philosophy I am familiar with is about exactly what you say it is not–radical self acceptance.

    "New Age" is way too deep and diverse and effective for millions to be dismissed so unceremoniously as you do here. It means so many things to so many different people that it's an almost meaningless term without identifying the specific teachers and teachings you are talking about.

    Why do we have to stoop to the level of gross stereo-typing here? I would say there is deep and meaningful New Age philosophy and there is fatuous New Age philosophy, same as any other religion, even Buddhism.


  8. Eblue says:

    It is the difference in Christianity of grace versus legalism.

    Grace means that the sacrifice God made for us, moves through us and because of what God did, we are moved to do good, walk meakly, love our enemy.

    Legalism, it is what we do for God that saves us, thus giving us a good platform for judging and condeming.

    I wish there was a quote by Ken Wilber that breaks down the definition of new age narcissism which is mostly self serving, not something that catches on in the name of ending suffering for all beings.

    I like you Ben.

  9. Emmablue says:

    Also the absolute basis of Spirituality is first agreeing we have a Spirit, which most people don't agree with.

    The Latin word for Spiritus means of breath. And life is open as and passes like the breath.

  10. Rebecca says:

    "Love ourselves out of the darkness." That is beautiful, and so scary hard.

  11. yogijulian says:

    i feel that the distinction between new age nonsense and authentic spirituality is a very important and much needed one – this article does not live up to it's title!

    new age spirituality is to my mind defined by magical beliefs, literalized mythology, superficial narcissism, cultural appropriation, denial of emotions, suffering, trauma, and injustice, addiction to delusions of grandeur and superstitious nonsense, a complete lack of critical thinking, anti-intellect, anti-science but pro pseudoscience and it's inflated magical thinking, pretentiousness etc…

    authentic spirituality on the other hand is about nuanced metaphorical interpretation of mythology, engaged, intelligent and compassionate spiritual practice that uncovers the shadow, acknowledges suffering and seeks to be more honest about the nature of reality, eschews childish magical thinking and superstition, is in touch with science and psychology, and looks at every spiritual claim through the healthy lens of critical thinking, common sense and a desire not to just buy into another coping mechanism, system of denial or pretentious, culturally appropriated in-group clique.

    not sure about the emphasis on whether or not anything needs to change – spirituality is about change or transformation, or process, but of course yes also about embrace and acceptance.

  12. yogijulian says:

    many are mentioning how we define "new age"

    new age spirituality is a postmodern phenomenon that arises out of the 60's counterculture in the west. shot through with well intentioned white liberal notions of a multicultural embrace of ancient and exotic wisdom, it is a smorgasbord of astrology, psychics, channeling, angels, crystals, aliens etc served up as if on the same level as buddhism, yoga and various pseudoscience attempts to validate magical thinking and narcissistic grandiosity.

    the new age gets it's name from the core belief that we are entering the age of aquarius and the song of that name from the musical "hair" is as good a theme tune as any for the movement. central to this new age zeitgeist are feelings that we are in a special time, that time/evolution is speeding up, that children being born right now are somehow magical and enlightened, that aliens are about to make contact, that everyone will one day be psychic and in touch with ascended masters etc….. this gets put in the blender with mangled quantum physics and fantasies about magical powers of manifestation, redeeming otherworldly gurus who have paranormal abilities and a secret synchronicity to the universe that borders on a kind of OCD/paranoid schizophrenic pre-occupation with hidden signs and meaningful coincidences..

    the new age worldview tends to deny anything unpleasant, rationalize any injustice and turn any situation into some patty-cake expression of karma, mind-manifested illusion or lessons that the universe is teaching us so as to help us ascend to the realm of pure light and love.

    in short it is a wild and wooly postmodern tapestry of fanciful nonsense that stunts real spiritual growth, defends against authentic psychological maturity, confuses more than it illuminates and spreads the BS on so thick there is hardly any way to find the well-meaning and perhaps even profound treasures buried within the stench. :)

  13. matt says:

    damn sure is a lot of ego investment in this argument…….

  14. Naomi Levine says:

    I think this debate is really relevant but I have often thought that the term spirituality doesn't have any meaning for me anymore. I understand why it is used but I cannot relate to it as a word. It seems to be tied up with notions of good and mystical and metaphysical. Everything we put into words to describe the state of being free from ego becomes a concept, so I prefer to think of it as Thatness or Suchness, or As It Isness and leave the original nature completely free.

  15. Padma Kadag says:

    Generalizations are not constructive ..ever. First of all any spiritual path should remain private. Should be practiced privately. If you are constantly defending Buddhism, the Gita, Yogas, or any other "Path" then you have stepped off of the path either temporarily or permanently or you never set foot on the path to begin with. Some debate is good, but only on specific points of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. The inner journey without your advertizing your inner journey can be more authentic. Just practice…no one needs to know.

    Now Ben…Please provide two lists…ONe which is Legitimate Spiritual Paths and the other New Age paths

  16. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  17. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    "True spirituality is the subtlest expression of non-violence. It is learning to Love, which is difficult. We must be willing to move into the darkest areas of our life and Love ourselves out of the darkness through mindfulness and patience. We have to see our naked body, with all of its perfections and imperfections, and patiently resist the violent urge to reject it. This takes an immense amount of courage. We are terrified of seeing ourselves without any clothes on. We insist upon avoiding ourselves by thinking about ourselves; rather than being our Self. True spirituality is about rediscovering the indestructible dignity of being through the practice of Love."

    Ben, this is so beautiful. Thank you so much.

  18. Well, a lot has been said, and I could agree with much of it and take issue with some of it. But the only thing I can really address with any authority is my own experience.

    After a lifetime of religious practice, I first became really serious about my spirituality when I finally stopped trying to improve myself because all I really wanted was to be happy and at peace. So in a Chödrön-esque, “Start Where You Are” sort of way, I decided to accept myself for what I was and where I was at, and go forward from there. Like the old revival hymn says, “If you tarry till you’re better, / You will never come at all.” And I began practicing in earnest.

    Of course, it didn’t take long before, judging by what other people have told me, noticeable change for the better did begin to occur in me–but not because I was trying to “improve” myself. As Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.”

    One more thing: one of the hallmarks of New Agery, for me, is fundamentalism–by which I mean the literalizing of language and concepts that are meant metaphorically. For instance, when my wife is teaching sailing, she says things like “OK, the boat is thinking about jibing now.” Ridiculous on a literal level, but a great way of succinctly communicating what is happening and what needs to be done. Likewise, when I hear people say things like “Let the negative energy flow out of yourself into the ground,” I know that that is gibberish from the point of view of physics and biology, but a useful way of efficiently describing a way to dispose oneself mentally/spiritually. Genuine spirituality knows that; New Age fundamentalism, like any other religious fundamentalism, flies in the face of the facts and insists on a literal interpretation.

  19. Padma Kadag says:

    Bob…I wrote this originally as a reply but I placed it here for you to see so you wouldnt miss it.
    "highly ambivalent about striving for goals"….This could not be further from the truth for Buddhism. Yes the term "goal" is not used. The similar term which has been translated into english is "aspiration". I think you would agree that even though we as westerners set goals for ourselves they are rarely achieved exactly how we had envisioned them and usually when we do set them our resolve to reach them is rarely 100%. In Buddhism there are many many "Aspiration Prayers" to aspire to "be" with the deity, to be always with the Lama, to progress on the path, to bring all mother sentient beings to the realization of dharmakaya. These aspiration prayers are essential for the practitioner to progress beyond our subject/object concepts. We read the Biographies of previous masters for inspiration and make the aspiration or goal to follow in their footsteps. These are goals to which we are always committed and each sadhana will carry Aspiration Prayers. So on some level in order for Buddhist teaching and enlightenment to be achieved we must act out dualistically with aspiration and motivation.

  20. Andy says:

    So many ideas, concepts, views – most of which simply add to the problem. ( in my view ) Pun Intended

  21. Andy says:

    Ken Wilber has an article you might enjoy – A spirituality that transforms. I would love to get some opinions on the article.
    Just google: Wilber – Spirituality that transforms.

  22. Andy says:

    This is a topic I spent my last six years thinking ( or non thinking about .) I have concluded ( for my life ) that Master Dogen hit the nail on the head:

    Zen is the study of self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to enter the vast endless universe . – Master Dogen.

    Your thoughts?

  23. BenRiggs says:

    I am not so close-minded as to think that self-improvement is not some how a part of EVERY individual's journey…Why else would we have come to spirituality in the first place? Persisting in this endeavor often leads to renunciation or repentance (change in direction). As the saying goes, "The fool who persist in his folly will become wise." Once we realize the futility of our attempts to create enlightenment, salvation, or genuine happiness we submit to natural order and wisdom dawns.

    I do not deny that change takes place, but only once I stop trying to control the process.

    Scott Robinson hit the nail on the head when he quoted:
    "As Jesus said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.""

  24. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  25. Letswalk23 says:

    Is writing…such as this article…not just another way to feed the ego? To justify what is and is not true/real for the self? To ascribe a label to that which the ego determines need be? We enter into the territory of the hypocrite when we attempt to explain what cannot be explained. I am guilty…for here I write.
    Lest we forget that we are entering into the age of Aquarius…indeed, it is a "new age". It is said that ALL must shed the old age. Do not forget that it was Moses who ushered in the age of Aries, the Ram. It was his return from receiving the Ten Commandments that he found his followers worshipping the Golden Calf (Taurus, the Bull). The Rams horn is still blown by Orthodox Jews to this day. And for Pisces, the Fish we have the "Fisher of Men". I believe it would be foolhardy to allow the ego to decide what is and is not acceptable under the label of "spirituality" for the coming age. You speak truths in your article, but the truths are negated by a willful manifestation of the ego to label and divide what is and what is not. Peace my brothers and sisters.

  26. Ben Ralston says:

    Argh. It’s a wonderful discussion – thank you for inviting me Bob – and I tried to comment but my comment was lost in cyberspace. I’m still by the seaside, and my mobile connection is somewhat unreliable. For what it’s worth – I love the debate, and I agree with both sides: probably more with Ben, because I am averse to the whole ‘New Age’ movement which is often more about materialism than it is about spirituality IMO. And many people use it to satisfy a certain need, like an addiction (whilst many others are making a lot of money out of the first group). That said, it’s a better addiction than most, and probably leads to a deeper introspection, which in itself is a part of the process of evolution towards a higher awareness.

    (copied from Facebook in the hope that it sticks this time!)

  27. trapsas1 says:

    The labels new age and non-new agey spiritualty are really, really open for interpretation. As Bob W. points out, where do people like Deepak Chopra or Wayne Dyer fall? I think many would label them as leaders of the current new age movement, yet they actually have some very wise things to say, the origins of which are often rooted in classical religious and spiritual traditions. (See Dyer's "Learning the Wisdom of the Tao" as one example.)

    When it comes to spirituality, as "Brian" alluded to in a previous comment, we really should be inclusive and not exclusive. It just seems to me that setting up an "us versus them" scenario, or saying that some methods of spirituality are better than others, seems contrary to the message "God is love" found in all spiritual traditions.

    For me the bottom line is this: does the teaching bring you closer to God, Buddha, the divine source or whatever you call the great force that is present in your life. if "The Secret" works for you and puts you on the path to that destination, then that's a wonderful thing.

  28. Brian Sullivan says:

    So, I've read the article and all the comments. Several people have asked, "what spiritual teachers fall under the category of new agey", with no response from the author. I sense a reluctance to label anyone as new agey. My question is, if you don't want to put anyone in the box of new agey, why create the box?
    Many Blessings!

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  30. …spirituality is not about changing yourself or creating a newer-better you…this business of changing ourselves is always violent. In order to change ourselves, we must divide ourselves and reject the less desirable half….True spirituality is the subtlest expression of non-violence

    I'd like to propose a middle way. We can change ourselves through accepting all parts of our being. This is non-violence in action.

    There are many methods for achieving this: Internal Family Systems Therapy, Core Transformation, Hakomi, Gestalt Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Non-Violent Communication, Metta Bhavana, etc.

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  37. Skylar Starks says:

    "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths."

    "Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first."

    "But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds"

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  41. Bill says:

    Too cool. I've often said that I think the Good Book doesn't show us how we should live, instead it informs us of how we do indeed live. I think the stories are way more metaphorical than literal with meanings deeper than what has been explained. Perhaps we are the Creator, Jesus and Satan all in one.

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