Angels, yoga, tarot cards & crystals characterize the great packaging, but Ken Wilber believes that the appealing surface of the new age movement conceals both narcissism and magical thinking. Are there any dangers in the metaphysical funfairs?
Magical Thinking: Ken Wilber’s Cautions about the New Age Movement
It’s like jumping inside a living fairy tale–metaphysical fairs, ear candling, crystal healings, the pretty, Medieval inspired costumes and the many faces of the Tarot deck. There is a harmless, innocent regression in the service of the ego when enjoying some of the pastimes of the New Age Movement. These are fantastically appealing methods of both entertainment and in some cases, personal healing. However, the philosopher Ken Wilber sees past the pretty packaging and identifies the dangers that lurk in magical thinking and the presumption that our thoughts can create reality.
Magical thinking in a psychoanalytic sense is of course the belief that one is the center of the Universe. It is desirable in children while they are being raised up and nurtured but profoundly dangerous in adults. It is a derangement of normal narcissism that is transitory in most people when they are at their happiest and their saddest. It is the same narcissism that marks the “King Baby” notion of Bill Williams, originator of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is the essence of selfishness and can, when held to absolutely, cause psychotic states. It is the keynote of Borderline Personality Disorder, the foundation of that disorder’s ability to be at times grandiose and at times utterly contrite for actions good and bad that reach well beyond that individual’s capacities.(1)
Wilber is concerned by a trend in magical thinking in New Age culture since it derails true meditation and true enlightenment by devolving into narcissistic thinking. The notion that the Universe starts with me and ends with me can be comforting, but the loss of perspective and narcissistic encapsulation blinds one to the gloriously complex matrix we are a part of. Magical thinking induces a loss of humility because it fails to recognize hierarchy. Wilber issues strong cautions against this relativity, its lack of scientific rigor as well as its lack of moral compass.
I believe that the hyper-individualistic culture in America, which reached its zenith in the “me decade”, fostered regression to magical and narcissistic levels. I believe…that the breakdown of more socially cohesive structures turned individuals back on their own resources, and this also helped reactivate narcissistic tendencies. And I believe, with clinical psychologists, that lurking right beneath the surface of narcissism is rage, particularly but not solely expressed in the belief: “I don’t want to hurt you, I love you; but disagree with me and you will get an illness that will kill you. Agree with me, agree that you can create your own reality, and you will get better, you will live.” This has no basis in the world’s great mystical traditions; it has it basis in narcissistic and borderline pathology….”(2)
This is the dark side of what Wilber calls “boomeritis”—that which ails those of us who are part of the proverbial Baby Boomer Generation.(3) This egocentrism, narcissistic encapsulation– whatever words one uses to describe the focus on the importance of self–this is the common cold of us Boomers. Because of its childishness, it can certainly be comical in adults and one is reminded of the character Stuart Smalley, a 12-Step devotee (and professional victim) with a fictional talk show, featured on the American television program, Saturday Night Live.(3) Wilber’s book is replete with the many character manifestations of this sensibility and he presents one such, a professor giving a lecture attended by the book’s protagonist. This professor is issuing a clarion call that now is the time for the greatest level of understanding ever, the greatest synthesis, and that true enlightenment is about to happen due to the spiritual readiness of the current generation. And he bottom-lines this amazing moment of opportunity—
“…many eggs were broken to make this extraordinary world omelet.”(4)
Some have criticized Wilber’s book, a radical departure from his previous work, as an uneasy pastiche of rollicking satire interspersed with his more characteristic hierarchical theorizing. Irrespective of the concern for its fictional merit, it could certainly be argued that Wilber chose to use humor and fictionalized case examples to drive his point home in this case—as his work has, by his own admission, become highly abstract, complex and is easily misunderstood.
In one way, Wilber proposes that an understanding and appreciation of hierarchy is the antidote to boomeritis. Rather than everything being equal in value and reducible along a flat continuum, there is an inherent hierarchy along which all building blocks of matter and consciousness are arrayed. Also, Wilber maintains that all the wisdom traditions of humankind have in common a “perennial philosophy” which recognizes this hierarchy.
Central to the perennial philosophy isthe notion of the Great Chain of Being. …reality is composed of several different but continuous dimensions. Manifest reality, that is, consists of different grades or levels, reaching from the lowest and most dense and least conscious to the highest and most subtle and most conscious. At one end of this continuum of being or spectrum of consciousness is what we in the West would call “matter” or the insentient and the nonconscious, and at the other end is “spirit” or “godhead” or the “superconscious” (which is also said to be the all-pervading ground of the entire sequence, as we will see).
The central claim of the perennial philosophy is that men and women can grow and develop (or evolve) all the way up the hierarchy to Spirit itself, therein torealize a “supreme identity” with Godhead--the ens perfectissimum toward which all growth and evolution yearns.(5)
Thus, Wilber’s argument against the New Age could be stated this way: it seeks tolerance through an abdication from dialectic. Everything is “okay” because everything is relative. Let’s face it–dialectic is tiring, argument is confrontational and appraisal is inherently an act of judging. Rather than run these risks, it is easier to think magically—but far more dangerous.
Franken, A. (1992, Bantam Doubleday Dell) I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People like Me! Daily Affirmations by Stuart Smalley.(3)
Gunderson, J. G., Links, P. S. (2008, American Psychiatric Publishing) Borderline Personality Disorder: A Clinical Guide, Second Edition.(1)
Rajiva, Lila (Blog post, 12/13/08) Ken Wilber on the Dangers of Magical Thinking (The Mind-Body Politic: Individuals Not Ideologies) (2)
Wilber, K. (2002, Shambhala) Boomeritis: A Novel That Will Set You Free.(4)
Wilber, K. (1996, Shambhala) The Eye of the Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad.(5)