Science, mysticism and enlightenment, Or, the use and abuse of language

Will the real new age please stand up?

“Castaneda’s popularity made him the subject of a TIME magazine cover story, published on 5th March 1973 (Vol. 101 No. 10). In her article “Don Juan and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, TIME correspondent Sandra Burton described Castaneda as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in tortilla.”” – Tsem Rinpoche on Casteneda as godfather of the new age

New Age in the positive sense, is what is clearly meant here. Which leads us to interesting discussions and reflections.

There are at least two broad meanings of the term New Age. One is: a body of work, thought or cultural current which is concerned with broadening and deepening human awareness and fulfilling human potential to a greater degree, and which truly aids in that path. The other, more derogatory, is a work, thought or cultural current which is largely superficial puffery and fluff, which offers little value, and much distraction. Opinion varies on what is what and which is which. The latter is far more common. The work of people such as scientists David Bohm, Joanna Macy and Allan Wallace, philosophers Aldous Huxley, Ken Wilber and Alan Watts (the three best in the West in the 20th century, following Emerson and Thoreau, the greatest of the 19th – and it is not surprising that academia greatly underestimated their contributions, given how generally obsessed it has become with wordy, pretentious and largely hollow, nihilistic psychobabble posing as philosophy), or anthropologists Wade Davis, Ronald Wright, Rianne Eisler, Holgar Kalweit and Carlos Castaneda, belong to the former, more rarified group.

Then, of course, there are the words of sages, such as Jesus and the Buddha, Patanjali, Shankara, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Padmasambava, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen, which are on a whole other level. There is nothing new age about wisdom. It is simply wisdom. And wisdom means one thing only, which is to see reality as it truly is; which means, to experientially and non-cenceptually realize the true nature of being is non-duality. That is called enlightenment.

Actually it can be a glimpse, which is real satori, true enlightenment, but which is not sustained, in which case, it is called little satori, or a taste. Then there is full enlightenment, or big satori, which is what happens when the realization of non-duality is complete, and does not fade.

Science is now catching up with the mystics and sages. Science is the slow man in the race. And there is nothing new age about it. It is simply waking up – and in a radical sense.

Plato was right. We are dwellers in a cave of shadows. And as the Sufis say, echoing the ancient Greeks, you are alive for one reason only, and that is to realize who you truly are.

Know thyself.

Personally, I avoid all use of the term new age, because it has become derogatory, and because it is too vague, too little of value, too much an embodiment of exactly the derogatory connotation of that which it supposedly demarcates: vague and somewhat meaningless, fuzzy-headed fluff. The term mysticism has been similarly corrupted. I use it only in personal conversation, generally, with people who I know to be aware enough to not be pejorative or small-minded about it.

(Drugs are an entirely different conversation. In short, I would say, strictly use only with a qualified shamanic guide, if at all. Even that is fraught with risk. It is consciousness which is to be explored, not recreation, not highs, not drugs.)

As for descriptive labels or categories, maybe we should simply stick with broader terms such as, “philosophical”, or simply describe things in more detail rather than pigeon hole them with a label. Yes, it reduces room for the shorthand notes of intellectual laziness, and intellectual sloppiness, and that is both the cost and also the entire point.

That is why I generally avoid labels, and instead talk about what I am talking about, without use of intellectual shortcuts. It means you have to clarify your thoughts, and avoid the generally obscuring and often meaningless use of jingo, jargon and slang, which, rather than clarify thought, preclude it. I know, academics and journalists, pundits and politicians all shudder at such an idea, because they secretly know they don’t really know what they are talking about. The use of jingo, jargon and slang hide the fact that their thinking is as dull and opaque as mud.

“It is a philosophical book which explores the nature of being and consciousness, while exploring Toltec shamanic spirituality”, would describe Carlos Castaneda’s, Tales of Power, far better than “New Age”.

“New Age”? What the hell does “New Age” mean, exactly? It means exactly nothing. Like most of our “conversations”, both “academic” and popular, it is mainly empty wind, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


September 13, 2020


Lesser concerns:

A. Was Don Juan a real person, a composite of shamanic figures, or a fictional character transmitting authentic shamanic teachings? Or none of the above?

B. Was Casteneda’s work fiction or non-fiction?

C. Whether it was non-fiction or whether it was fiction, in either case, does it have philosophical merit?

To me, A and B are meaningless questions. Who knows. Who cares. C is all that matters. And the answer, to anyone who has studied philosophy, science or world religions in any real depth, is a definitive, yes.

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