Friday, October 26, 2007

New Age or More Old Age; underpinning Market Values

I do not like to be negative. To put people down who are trying to make sense of life. And in our present society anyone who advocates a balanced and integrated lifestyle has to be lauded. But that said I cannot help but hear that old cynical whisper when confronted with the New Age – Complementary movement. Now many New Agers would, no doubt, attribute this to my bad karma. Past lives of disbelief and scepticism. And fundamentalists of all persuasions would probably say the same voice was the devil whispering in my ear. But there is cynicism and there is healthy scepticism.

If any one figure of the New Age movement gets the cynical whispers going in me it is that of Deepak Chopra. Mr Chopra is a qualified medical doctor – a graduate from no less than the All India Institute of Medical Sciences; a prestigious institution by all accounts. However Mr Chopra does not actually practice medicine. No! he heads up the Chopra Institute for Well-Being. Their mission statement, to paraphrase, focuses on ‘enhancing health and the spirit’. It does this by ‘bringing together the talents of a number of professionals in the conventional, complementary, and alternative medicine fields’ It also offers, ‘health workshops, meditation instruction, hospital program development, and corporate training courses’.

I have nothing personal against Dr Chopra. In fact perhaps he gets the cynical whispers going because I cannot so quickly dismiss him. He does not, for example, wave tarot cards in your face, advocate the properties of certain crystals, or claim to go into a trance from which he drags up vague bits of mumbo-jumbo that could mean anything.

My first encounter with Deepak came through a friend. Might I say a good friend and genuinely well meaning person. ‘You must read this,’ she said. So I suspended my ‘oh yeah’ attitude and took the book she offered and promised to read. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Pocketbook Guide to Fulfilling Your Dreams (One Hour of Wisdom). It did not take me long. I think I hoped it would take longer. I managed to go through it in a lunch break. In between sandwiches and Moroccan-Spice soup. The result of which was, well, I waited for the wisdom.

It appeared to me, in his book, Deepak mixed a gentle dash of Indian mysticism into a generous soup of libertarianism and good business sense. As far as I could understand he claimed that health and wealth depend very much on our attitudes, our openness to the Universal life-force. If we thought positive thoughts positive things would come to us. If we were open to abundance then abundance would find us. Ill health and poverty were of our own making. Not to say influenced by karma.

Some of this is not new. The concept of a positive attitude and thinking still lingers in many of our cherished values. In fact elements of this belief can be traced through Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to the Victorian concept of deserved wealth and self-help. It remains today embedded in the dialogue between left and right; at least in Europe. (except of course for the karma bit). But whereas most Victorian capitalists believed that the wretched and poor were wretched and poor because they did not work hard enough, drank too much, fornicated too much, none of them, as far as I can see, had the temerity to suggest that their condition was based on as intangible a concept as karma and past lives. Neither did they suggest anything to do with the Universal Life-Force. God was evoked, but generally as punishment for not trying. The belief in hard work did allow one an attempt at remedying one’s lot. Work harder man! With drink or fornication one could make an effort to desist. Self-discipline young fellow, self-discipline! (I mention males as females generally only officially begin to exist around the beginning of the 20th century). Established religion’s efforts were often aimed at supporting the above. However misguided.
No! I found Dr Chopra’s ideas rather flimsy. A bit too easy. All very well for these who apparently were making a tidy bundle from this ‘philosophy’. Comfortable justification for their success and material abundance?

Let us take the question of health for instance. The idea that good health has nothing to do with access to adequate and quality health care seems to fly in the face of post-enlightenment reason. It also contradicts sound science. Despite notions of karma and past lives antibiotics work on any body to which they are administered. Surgery removes tumours regardless of any alleged shenanigans in a patient’s previous life. Good sanitation and timely inoculation prevent the spread of disease whether karma determines people are deserving or not. Prompt admission to hospital in the case of sudden illness and access to quality care can make the difference between life and death; the difference between grieving loved ones and relived loved ones. Even if you were the biggest rogue in your last life those close to you love you in this one. My point being human intervention and effort make a difference.

What is really worrying is that elements of this type of ‘philosophy’ casually vindicate the driving market values that underpin so many 21st century approaches to social policy making. They tie in neatly with the downsizing of funding for health services, the increasing privatising of health care access and the belief (albeit unexamined) that only those with the wealth and power are deserving of what some consider to be at least one of a person’s inalienable rights; the right to health.
They also justify the increasing gap between those who have and those who have not. They suggest that if you are doing well it has been ordained by some un-interrogatable and unseen power. So you need not worry about how others live. Or what the long-term consequences of a dissatisfied and disenfranchised underclass would be. Or of the values being instilled into your children and grandchildren and what that might mean for the future.
Education is subject to the same pressures. Gone is the idea of a Universal system. Private academies and faith-based institutions are the shout of the day.

Where one can argue coherently that society should not be expected to provide the luxuries of life, the consumer perks etc without asking we make our contribution, that we show some initiative, that we work for them, health and in a wider sense well-being are all our right.

The New Age movement makes much of its belief in or a sense of a Universal Good. Yet it has proved itself skilled at positioning itself as arbiter of that good and then getting others to pay for it. It caters perfectly to those who already have all the basics. Now that you have the two cars, the luxury home, the twice yearly holidays why not add a little spirituality?
The Chopra Institute for Well-Being for example, currently offers ‘The Secret of Enlightenment’, a three day course for a throwaway $4575 – that is if you register early; otherwise it will cost a mere snippet at $4775. Or what about the five day ‘Perfect Health Program’ starting at $2875 and rising to $3475. Though rest assured an Ayurvedic spa treatment and two Ayurvedic lunches are thrown in.

Now it would be very cynical to suggest that in the case of Deepak Chopra, had he practised what he trained for, he would probably be just another doctor wrestling daily with people’s illnesses and misfortunes; that the lure of minor celebrity was just too much to resist. He would certainly have missed out on the poetry recordings with Madonna, Demi Moore, Sinead O’Connor, Angelica Huston plus the chance to author countless ‘mystical style’ books. He would also have passed up the opportunity to make many TV appearances, go into business with Richard Branson and co-write the script of a yet to be seen film entitled Buddha. But that perhaps is his karma.

I do not want to suggest that Dr Chopra is a charlatan, let alone accuse. (though I cannot be so sure about others who fall under the New Age – Complementary banner). But in our age of fascination with celebrity, with wealth, with luxury, in our consumer society of countless facile choices I do not think it is wild to say that the self-delusional, like the poor, are still with us. Dr Chopra and some of his fellow travellers have fallen headlong into a ready-made market. Justifying wealth without responsibility, health without conscience and a spirituality that condones our excesses and assures us we are basically fine as we are. What they prescribe is a little meditation, a workshop or two and some ‘complementary’ products from the shop. All with the patronage of those who can afford to indulge such illusions. And some who have a vested interest in keeping such illusions alive.

Hence the cynical whispers. Hence the past life scepticism. Hence the devil whispering in my ear.

I, for one, still believe, fairness and equality in society are things we must work and strive for. In my way I do believe in karma – that is, cause and effect. The society we get is the society we are prepared to believe in, the society we are prepared to take responsibility for.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Oct 2007