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In the beginning, spiritual awakening seems revolutionary; but as the process is routinized, a new religious normal takes shape, and it happens once novel practices are thereby transformed into disciplines, backed by institutions and community norms.
In the beginning, refining the senses seems like a rebellion from bourgeoisie conformity; but as the refinement develops, the craving for subtler experiences fosters a new aesthetic, serving a subtler and more pervasive consumerism.
In the beginning, throwing off bourgeoisie constraints seems like radical liberation; but as more and more constraints are thrown off, basic decency and tolerance are undermined, opening a panoply of new constraints, imposed by bullies and autocrats.
Spiritual awakening, refining the senses, and throwing off constraints are not the same thing. But they have tended to be mutually reinforcing in the post-60s, spiritual counterculture. They support a post-conventional development rooted in a greater awareness and new range of experiences.
And they foster a set of capacities that have come to be associated with a new spiritual elite.
It is an awakening that was pursued by tens of millions of Americans over the course of the last couple of generations in what is perhaps best seen as a new religion. But few recognized it as such because it had neither a teacher, nor doctrine, nor established community of adherents.
However, its believers were unique in their faith in the interrelated nature of mental and physical experiences; in the emphasis they placed on physical over mental experiences; in their belief that what feels good is right, and that we should follow our deepest feelings—because those are the best of all.
It was a hedonistic creed because it put so much faith in doing what feels good, but it was also a disciplined creed, renouncing surface cravings in favor of the deeper feelings that mattered most. Hence, it was a humanistic creed, whose faith lay in the belief that if we looked deeply enough, the things that felt good would magically turn out to be the things that were right.
Since subtler experiences could better guide us, the new religionists pursued a set of contemplative practices, recently imported from India and East Asia. These were sustained by a multitude of “entrepregurus,” who propagated their teachings in expensive retreats and an avalanche of writings, endlessly repeating the same set of messages.
Spirituality without religion was always a dubious proposition. Spiritual awakening may literally take place in the void, but it cannot be fostered in an institutional vacuum. It must be sustained by teachers, whose words are transmitted via books and talks, which must be published and held someplace, and organized by someone.
And while their adherents liked to think of themselves as above the corruptions of more traditional religious practices, virtually none of them could do without places of worship, overseen by boards of directors and meditation center managers, hierarchies of the enlightened and spiritual insiders, making their positions known through a thousand subtle reminders.
And they were plagued by a constant string of money and sex scandals that easily rivaled their evangelical adversaries, which looked positively craven from within the mainline Protestant traditions most of their adherents had grown up with and later denounced.
New religions are usually radical, for they open up new horizons of experience and weave together new communities of believers. Their adherents believe the sky is the limit, and the belief is translated into political aspirations, which call on governments to improve the human condition in radical new ways.
But new religions are usually also dangerous and cultish. Their teachers create their own realities, and their adherents lack many of the protections of more established religions. Cast adrift from family and community, they are prone to investing everything in marginal sects, out of the public eye, where scandals tend to flourish.
It feels like rebellion because new smells and sensations are indicative of novel experiences, but when mass markets are established to meet the needs of mass tastes, it is astonishing how easy it can be to package and sell this rebellion. And all too often, in the quest to earn a living, the radical youths package themselves as teachers or consultants with new goods to proffer.
Old religions are sometimes quite liberal, mirroring in their political outlook the kind of big tent inclusiveness that allows them to win diverse adherents. But they are rarely radical, and they are often quite conservative and bound up by the dead letter of religious law.
And it is just this shift from radical youth to mature middle age that seems to be confronting this new religion, which refuses to call itself a religion. And it all seems to be coming to a head amid the social tensions of a divided country.
A strange force broke into the open this last election season when meditators and yogis, long associated with the soft spiritual left, began arguing in support of Trump on social media. It was a small but vocal minority, and it was often hard to decipher their relation to the practices with which they were being associated.
But their social media comments tended to betray an evident Islamophobia, frustrations over political correctness, and an effort to equate the abuses of Democrats and Republicans. They were done with hypocrites propagating half-baked ideals, but they also seemed done with the empathy and tolerance, goodness and compassion.
The influence of Jordan Peterson could be sensed in many of their comments. A Jungian psychologist known for his insightful yet hyperbolic criticisms of the left, Peterson is arguably the most popular intellectual of the day. He has attracted quite a few spiritual seekers but also a major alt-right following, and he suggests that were he American, he probably would have voted for Trump.
It was a long road from the anti-war and environmental roots of these communities to the man of the fascist moment, advocating a return to patriarchy and an end to political correctness. But it should not have been so surprising given the nature of those roots.
As my friend, Glenn Strathy, suggests, personal developers and conservatives both value individualism over collective action. This may lead many to relate more with the narcissism of Trump than the public service of career liberals. But it can sometimes seem, as my friend, Genelle Chaconas, suggests that a lot of people turn to spirituality because they cannot handle injustice and their own role in it. Hence, they find themselves uncomfortable with the very people at whom Trump is lashing out—in spite of the fact that their spiritual work has made them genuinely more sensitive and empathetic.
Another variant of this new spiritual conservatism can be seen in the presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu woman to be elected to congress, and an economic and environmental progressive. Gabbard grew up in a breakaway sect of the Hare Krishnas, under a cultish authoritarian and homophobe leader named Chris Butler, whom she has referred to as her spiritual master as late as 2015.
The authoritarianism she experienced as a child would later mark her strange comfort with foreign war criminals. And she has come under heavy fire recently for her defense of and arguable support for Syria’s leader, Bashar Al-Assad. But she has also taken flack for her praise of India’s extreme right leader, Narendra Modi, and Egypt’s authoritarian leader, Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi, who came to power in a coup.
Each of them shares the same authoritarianism with which Gabbard grew up, as well as an intense antipathy to political Islam in its most peaceful and democratic forms. What is most unusual about her support the way their right wing extremism appears to clash with her more spiritual and progressive beliefs.
And it is precisely the shift to authoritarianism we are seeing in many spiritual communities.
It is difficult to tell how many of these spiritual reactionaries are out there and where their true hearts lie. What is far more certain is that the east has now become west, and the new boss of this faithless religion is exhibiting all too many traits of the old boss.
The new spiritual reactionaries may just be testing the waters of a new critique, or they may be hardening into a nastier conservatism born of privilege. But whatever they are doing, and wherever it is leading, they are the harbingers of a middle age, which bears the all the shadow of that old-time religion.
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the change so we might weather the transition more gracefully.
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