It seems reasonably common for people to be quite sceptical of what they perceive as ‘new age’ practices. I certainly was the same as a teenager, considering activities like meditation, yoga, vegetarianism and spiritual development as mainly for kind of crazy people. A few years ago, anything to do with ‘spirituality’ was generally rather negatively portrayed in the media, and associated with rather unflattering stereotypes like ‘hippies’ and ‘spiritualists’.
If you watch old TV programmes like Jonathan Creek now, it becomes even more clear just how negatively these kinds of quasi-religious people used to be seen in society – ranging from morally bankrupt fraudsters to complete idiots. And yet, well into the twenty-first century, perhaps what would have formerly been called ‘new age’ practices (at least they were when we studied them in sociology) display an even more diverse and rich variety.
Whereas once I saw no distinction between extreme religious cults – whose members believed in the supernatural, and the second coming of the prophet (actually, perhaps not so extreme) – I am now able to recognise a whole subculture of spiritual activities.
I’ve attended a meditation class at a centre called Inner Space, which is located near my work in Covent Garden, literally in the centre of London, and run by the Brahma Kumaris. It’s incredibly popular, and attendees are overwhelmingly composed of white female professionals in their twenties and thirties, apparently all interested in attaining peace of mind and inner calm. There are a few men, too.
I was shocked at the popularity of something that, I feel just a few short years ago, one would have been too embarrassed to go to, for fear of being thought rather eccentric. Indeed, religion is currently getting an extremely bad rap – at least, in the form of Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Islam.
I’d be interested to know the cause of this shift against religion, which has nevertheless revealed a persistent need for ‘something more’. As is typically opined, could it be that the rise of digital technology – and the consequent acceleration of the pace of life – may have caused people to seek some way of releasing the pressure? Perhaps our exposure to alternative cultures through television and the web, particularly ones in Asia (where meditation originated), makes us more tolerant of and open to these kinds of practices.
Vegetarianism also seems to be on the rise, with lots of my friends already foregoing meat, or intending to try going veggie, and is probably partly to do with concern for environmental issues, health consciousness and the availability of different types of food. Yoga classes abound in every gym in London, and most other people would know the meaning of the phrase ‘downward dog’. Books on the topic of spiritual healing and self-exploration (not just traditionally ‘religious’ texts like the Bible or the Qu’ran) are taking up quite a bit of space in most bookshops/on internet shopping pages.
I could spend a lot of time exploring particular factors that have caused these trends, but is there some kind of over-arching shift that has taken place? With a lack of any kind of empirical research, I’d guess that perhaps the recession, and our hangover from the eighties, has made people disillusioned with purely material satisfaction.
So, all things considered, I definitely think we need a new word for this kind of lifestyle – what I would define as an interest in pursuing something off the beaten track, in activities formerly the preserve of both hippies, and actresses living in LA. New Age? Spiritual? Self-development, maybe.
Perhaps I’m just late coming to the party, but it seems to me that where religion once served the purpose of nourishing our inner lives, its mighty influence has now mostly receded, at least in Britain. Those who openly confess to being religious are deemed rather unusual (am I wrong?), and, in consequence, something else had to evolve to take its place.
I’m now a staunch believer that, if you neglect your inner life, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether it results in something definable like depression, anxiety, or generally feeling unfulfilled, the undesirability of these states of mind means it pays to spend more time on yourself.
Perhaps it’s maturity (I’d like to think!), but I feel a lot happier since I worked out that we not only have to develop our outer selves, but the inner self is just as important, and alternative practices can really help with that goal. Now, just what to call it?
Catherine Julianne is a writer and digital communications professional obsessed with the field of personality systems theory. She also likes visual art, Eastern practices, adventures and being in nature.