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New Age Wake-up Call

Politics makes a splash at Omega Institute's latest conference
by Ross Robertson

“Terrorism. Environmental catastrophe. Social degradation. At a time when the forces we're up against seem so insurmountable, we have to discover a kind of fearlessness that is unprecedented.”

With those words—words more sober and more bracing than one might have expected—Omega Institute CEO Stephan Rechtschaffen welcomed 2,500 people to New York City for a recent New Age conference. Representing just a fraction of the more than 20,000 who attend Omega's personal growth seminars each year, the audience came from all over the country to spend a weekend with some of the biggest names in the holistic education business. As one woman from Washington, DC, told me enthusiastically, “Twenty-five hundred people is a lot of us looking for the same thing!” But for those who came looking for peace of mind or a rejuvenating retreat from the challenges of a complex and troubling world, Rechtschaffen's introductory dose of realism would be only the first in a series of surprises, signs of an uneven crosswind buffeting the world of contemporary New Age spirituality.

First, there was environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose opening keynote address deviated abruptly from the faint synthesizer music, calling forth all the fiery dignity of the greatest statesmen of the past. “We're living now in a science fiction nightmare,” Kennedy said, and proceeded, with exceptional passion and compelling intelligence, to fold together a lesson in environmental history, a searing denunciation of the Bush White House, and an uncompromising vision for a sustainable future.* As the thunderous applause was dying down, mind/body physician Jon Kabat-Zinn came out to lead a closing meditation. But he, like the rest of us, had been stunned into speechlessness. “If we didn't know it before,” he said after several minutes, wiping away tears, “we can deny it no longer. We are in a crisis, and the only way to come through it is to come to our senses.”

Then there was the daringly straightforward Caroline Myss, bestselling author and former medical intuitive, who shared a recent shift in her point of view: “I used to think we create our own reality, that our illness is only the result of our negativity,” she began. “But we cannot control the whims of God. Now I believe that real negativity is the need to think in such private, personal, ridiculous terms. As if my pleasure and my pain are the most important things!” Although some in the audience—including the woman from DC—got up and walked out, many remained, stretching into unfamiliar territory. “New Agers are convinced that life is a therapy experience, that you have to be fully healed before you can be courageous,” Myss went on. “Develop some cynicism, will you? Become spiritually shrewd! Most people don't want to be fully healed or fully courageous. We're afraid of our own lives and resentful of others' lives. Don't tell yourself you're wounded—get over it! You have to develop a backbone, not a wishbone.”

Finally, there was Don Jose Luis, son of Toltec shaman and famed Four Agreements author Don Miguel Ruiz. Like a cross between a Christian minister, a Vedantic sage, and a soap opera heartthrob, Don Jose somehow managed to belong to many established categories while at the same time defying them altogether. “How long are you going to play the same game?” he asked. “Faith is a simplicity the mind cannot understand. Faith in one's intention and will—and 'Thy will be done.' You can go beyond fear, beyond knowledge, into the authenticity of love, but you must get out of your own way to serve God. Heaven on earth is free. It's right in front of us.” Transmitting a palpable depth of self-surrender into the room, he simultaneously roamed the very same personal territory Myss had criticized: “This life is a vacation. And how am I going to plan my vacation? Enjoying it, loving it! And nobody's going to spoil my vacation because it's my vacation, it's my time.”

Of course, the New Age has always been defined by the primacy of the personal path, of relative truth—indeed, people walked out on Myss because she trampled on that sacred ground where no one person's view is considered higher than any other. And when it came to perspectives on the personal self, all the usual suspects were part of the Omega program. Be yourself, Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen encouraged: “Lockstep is the basis for all that's wrong in the world.” If you don't like who you are, invent a new self, suggested personal transformation expert Debbie Ford: “Change yourself every year, and your life will be exciting and passionate!” Afflicted with an especially stubborn symptom? Discover a past-life self and it might permanently disappear, according to regression therapy pioneer Brian Weiss (your shoulder ache could be related to the fact that you were mauled by a lion in ancient Rome). Fed up with the powers that be? Do yourself a favor and stick it to the jerks along with obstreperous lefty rabble-rouser Michael Moore. And if all else fails, lose yourself in dirty sex, just like tantric agitator David Deida.

Nevertheless, the surprise of the weekend was just how much that traditionally personal ground seemed to be shifting, destabilized, cracks and fissures spreading across its surface. By the end, it had become clear that another very different worldview was trying hard to emerge: a bigger picture, in which the importance of the personal journey pales in comparison to the pressing urgency of a planetary ecological and social crisis, demanding a higher, more absolute accountability on the part of each individual. This was the perspective into which Kennedy and Myss were leaning. When they spoke, I felt a deep, natural receptivity increase in myself and in others, a buoyant inclination to leave behind trivial concerns about “my pleasure and my pain,” as Myss had put it. I felt sharper. And I began to see the mood of defeated self-pity that I also experienced throughout the conference, both within and around me, as an equally natural emotional reaction to a familiar but stifling emphasis on the isolated self.

While the gap between these two perspectives was wide, it was filled with a sense of fertile promise. And though many attendees complained to cofounder and organizer Elizabeth Lesser about the conference's brass-tacks political edge—so much so that she all but issued an apology Sunday afternoon and implied that Omega would back off next time around—others responded intuitively to the thrilling, if insecure, consideration of their own role in shaping an unknown future. “If you recognized how much you already know, how clearly you can already see,” Myss said, “you'd have to make different choices. It's more of a risk to be powerful than it is to be vulnerable. The real risk is not to sabotage yourself.” Here's hoping Omega stands their ground, because that's a message that will never go out of date . . .

* Click here for an excerpt of Kennedy's speech.


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This article is from
Our War vs Peace Issue