I am not sure if having access to everything new age on the internet is helping or hurting our efforts. There are some gems to be found that give true enlightenment but there is also a lot that is false, poorly offered or misleading. So I found this article that talks about this situation.
Here is an excerpt of a very dense article:
Close your eyes, and envision a glowing crystal suspended in infinite space. Now breathe in slowly, counting backwards from 10. Energy pulses along the interstices of the crystal. Exhale, and imagine a second crystal, precisely like the first – then a dozen, a hundred, 100,000 crystals multiplying into an infinite void. And 100,000 dream catchers. And semiprecious stones inscribed with chakras. And ‘Coexist’ bumper stickers, Alex Grey posters, Tibetan prayer flags, wellness magnets, and ionising Himalayan salt lamps.
Now open your eyes and imagine how much they all cost.
It’s easy to scoff at the totemic kitsch of the New Age movement. But it’s impossible to deny its importance, both as an economic force and as a cultural template, a way of approaching the world. The New Age is a powerful mixture of mass-market mysticism and idealistic yearning. It’s also, arguably, our era’s most popular ex novo spiritual movement, winning adherents with a blend of ancient wisdom traditions, post-Enlightenment mysticism and contemporary globalisation that is as nebulous as it is heady.
Even scholars who have spent years studying the New Age movement disagree about what precisely it is. I would argue that if there is one thread that binds together the various New Age movements, it is that they represent a resurgence of magical beliefs in a modern world supposedly stripped of them.
A solemn Englishman wearing a faux silver circlet, a green cape and a white knight’s doublet beats out a martial rhythm on bongo drums. He stands in a circle alongside a dreadlocked youth with a guitar and an older woman leaning on a wooden staff. At the center of the circle, a regal, snowy-haired environmental activist and former biker named Arthur Uther Pendragon anoints a kneeling man wearing face paint. The members of the circle welcome the newest druid of 2014.
It’s the summer solstice at Stonehenge, one of the epicentres of the Neo-Druid movement. The robed crowds that gravitate to Stonehenge on important dates in the lunar calendar see themselves as upholding ancient, pre-Christian rites. Despite a falling out with the leaders of the Druid Council, Arthur Pendragon remains one of the movement’s most charismatic leaders. (Not long ago, he anointed Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols as a bard of his breakaway order, the Loyal Arthurian Warband.)
In Pendragon’s earlier life, he was a working-class lad called John Timothy Rothwell from Yorkshire. After stints in the British Army and as the leader of an outlaw biker gang known as the Gravediggers, he experienced a spiritual awakening in the early 1980s and changed his name by deed poll in 1986. Pendragon began to regard himself as the reincarnation of King Arthur, even going so far as to buy the sword used as a prop in the film Excalibur (1981). A self-declared ‘English eccentric’, he and his former colleagues in the Druid Council proudly lay claim to a tradition of pagan practice that stretches back five millennia.
Folklorists and anthropologists have long sought to reconstruct pre‑modern magical practices – Gaelic charms, prayers to mother goddesses, bacchanalian rites – that resonate on an emotional and spiritual level, even if many of their details remain contested. Perhaps the value of these claims to unbroken tradition lies not in their factual accuracy, but in their ability to instill a sense of empathy with the deep past.
As the historian Paul Kléber Monod has pointed out in his book Solomon’s Secret Arts (2013), the Enlightenment was obsessed with the occult. From Isaac Newton (whom the British economist John Maynard Keynes called ‘not the first of the age of reason’ but ‘the last of the magicians’) to the secret societies of the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati, we find a culture simultaneously obsessed with attaining a perfect mastery over nature and the universal patterns pervading all spiritual traditions. Monod told me that he believes there is a ‘direct link’ between these occult movements of the late Enlightenment and the New Age movements of the present day.
But tracing that link takes us into shadowy territory: the vast metropolis of Victorian London, a hub of empires that pulled a variety of spiritual seekers into its fog-shrouded orbit. The figures involved in the creation of a more formalised New Age movement – people such as Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky and George Gurdjieff – rarely saw eye to eye. But one thing they had in common was a mystical conviction that the world on the cusp of the 20th century was about to undergo an epochal change. They were right.
The members of the Theosophical Society that Blavatsky co-founded in New York in 1875 regarded their work as another manifestation of the march of scientific and technological progress, but they also believed they were tapping into supernatural realms of experience. ‘There is a hidden side to life,’ wrote Annie Besant and C W Leadbeater, both members of the Society, in their book Thought-Forms (1901). ‘Each act and word and thought has its consequence in the unseen world which is always so near to us, and that usually these unseen results are of infinitely greater importance than those which are visible to all upon the physical plane.’ Although they were writing here of invisible auras produced by music or emotional states, the authors could just as easily have meant Sigmund Freud’s notion of the subconscious, or a young PhD student named Albert Einstein’s work investigating the invisible medium of the ‘luminiferous aether’.
Science and technology went hand in hand with the dawning of the New Age. It’s no coincidence that beliefs about alternate worlds and invisible forces coalesced at the same time that telegraph cables and radio waves began to encircle the globe. Late Victorian London was the centre of this global technological network, but it was also the home to an emerging group of bohemians who tapped into these new technologies even as they reacted against them.
Is the New Age a mere cultural fad, a set of aesthetic signifiers and intellectual fashions that will fade as a societal force? Certainly, one breed of New Age aficionado seems destined to age out of 21st-century society. These are the types that the English novelist Edward St Aubyn assembled for his satire On the Edge (1998), which narrates the adventures of 12 spiritual seekers on the road to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, with a blend of bemused horror and empathy. The hapless protagonists – Crystal, Krater, Stash, Jean-Paul, and the rest – are undoubtedly modelled in part on St Aubyn’s mother Lorna, an Anglo-American heiress who retreated from family tragedy by converting her French château into a New Age institute. But if the crystals-and-auras guise of the New Age has begun to take on a distinctly vintage character, this does not tell the whole story.
Take Silicon Valley in California, which began with the skinny-tie IBM engineer aesthetics of the 1950s but began to acquire its contemporary contours thanks to the LSD-inflected eclecticism of the 1970s. From Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog to the holistic take on computing promulgated by an India-roaming psychedelic enthusiast named Steve Jobs, elements of the New Age counterculture have been encoded in the DNA of Silicon Valley almost from the beginning.
Already in 1941, when T S Eliot versified in Four Quartets about Londoners who try ‘To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits/ To report the behaviour of the sea monster/ Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry… fiddle with pentagrams/ Or barbituric acids’, the line was blurring. The esoteric fringes of modern science were becoming entanged with ancient traditions such as astrology and the Tarot. For Eliot, a former dabbler in Blavatsky’s Theosophism who by this time associated true religious profundity with the Catholic tradition, these magical practices were all manifestations of a superficial spirituality, the ‘usual/ Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press’.
Eliot was on to something in that final phrase. Technologies of mass communication allowed the various beliefs that coalesced under the New Age banner to establish themselves as popular alternatives to traditional religion. With such metrics of allegiance to organised religion as churchgoing and tithing in decline, New Age eclecticism (amplified by radio, newspapers and eventually the internet) emerged as a kind of modern magic. Weber might have been right that the rise of modernity required the death of the enchanted world. But in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?
Central to this effort is The Big Quiet, which “allows New Yorkers to partake in a 20-minute group meditation,” followed by “a rollicking afterparty” featuring live music. “This is for city people who want to take a break and re-charge,” says Jesse Israel, the event’s organizer. It is also for those who want to quiet their minds without any particular religion attached. Jesse says he sees a need for “a new dictionary” that might make meditation and other spiritual experiences “more socially acceptable.”
Jesse’s expanded view of spirituality was sparked while biking through Tanzania in 2014 and noticing “that children faced miles-long commutes to school on foot.” So he began raising funds through his cycling group, the Cyclones, and, through Globalbike, a non-profit, will soon “break ground on a bike-and-rental shop in Tanzania owned and operated by women.” He later formed the Medi Club, “a collective of several hundred young New Yorkers, predominantly entrepreneurs and creatives in fashion, entertainment and technology.” They meet once a month “to meditate” and talk about various “facets of modern life.”
“Millennials are hungry for personal growth,” Jesse says. “They’re hipsters, let’s face it,” says Ian Noble, an attendee. Ian is executive director of SummerStage, which is hosting The Big Quiet and explains that the music tie-in is essential. “We want a reason for people to come and a reason for people to stay.” Jesse sees a potential ripple effect from The Big Quiet, eventually potentially reaching millions. Ganden Thurman of Tibet House US, which hosts weekly meditation classes, likes the idea, suggesting that “maybe life in general is spiritual. Getting in touch with yourself is probably inherently spiritual.”
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:
Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?
Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.
The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.
I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.
At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc.
Q: How did you do the research?
Lazar: The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.
We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.
It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.
We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program.
Q: What did you find?
Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:
1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain?
Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks.
In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.
Q: So, 40 minutes a day?
Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week.
In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day.
There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit.
Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out.
We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.
Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do?
Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.
But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.
It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.
Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest?
Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless
Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher?
Lazar: Yes and yes.
Q: What difference has it made in your life?
Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.
Q: What’s your own practice?
Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too. I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.
Participants taking part in an 8-week program of mindfulness meditation showed results that astonished even the most experienced neuroscientists at Harvard University. The study was led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the team’s MRI scans documented for the very first time in medical history how meditation produced massive changes inside the brain’s gray matter.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Sue McGreevey of MGH writes: “Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.” Until now, that is. The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. McGreevey adds: “Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. You can read more about the remarkable study by visiting Harvard.edu. If this is up your alley then you need to read this: “Listen As Sam Harris Explains How To Tame Your Mind (No Religion Required)”