Swans Commentary » swans.com November 5, 2012  



Old New Age


by Gilles d'Aymery





(Swans - November 5, 2012)   New Age, what? That thing is as old as antiquity, an effort to combine or reconcile the religions of the day with the sciences of the times. Wikipedia can tell you much more than I'd be able to do, if I had any interest in the matter, regarding New Age. But that thing has impacted, affected, or influenced all of us. Throw a bit of mysticism and science in the blender. Mix them for a few minutes and you end up with George Gurdjieff's "Fourth Way" and Meetings with Remarkable Men. In the Age of Aquarius, the blend grew thicker. Joy, love, art, simpler life (known now as voluntary simplicity, anti-consumerism), environmentalism, and sustainability were added to the mix. On the scene came Buckminster Fuller of Black Mountain College fame, with his geodesic dome, Dymaxion car, Dymaxion house, and the like. Ruth Asawa sculpted the decor. Keith Jarrett, a follower of Gurdjieff, played the piano (he still does). The Mamas and the Papas sang McKenzie's big hit, "Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair." The Esalen Institute in Big Sur began to bloom, offering seminars about personal growth, spirituality, and alternative education. That strand of thoughts has impacted us all. Even Tiziano Terzani, whose Letters Against the War we published on Swans in 2008, was a New Ager, mixing mysticism, antiwar, and simplicity. After WWII, with wealth accumulating, white middle- and upper-middle-class people began to search for the meaning of life. After all, it could not be just about shitting in the morning after a cup of coffee, then taking a shower, driving the car out of the garage, bringing the kids to school, then rushing off to the rat race, and going back in the evening to watch TV and eat. There was to be something bigger than that. There was to be a New Age.

In the 1990s, I had the opportunity to be associated with these friendly people. I worked for a now-defunct organization called the Foundation for Global Community in Palo Alto, California, that personified New Age. That non-profit, a family business started in the late 1940s and early '50s, was created by one Harry Rathbun, a law professor at Stanford University, and his wife Emilia, a charismatic figure issued from a wealthy Mexican family. Their fate met that of a chemistry professor, Henry Burton Sherman, who in 1890 had published the Teaching of Jesus and eventually gave 6-week seminars in Canada for what he thought would become the future leaders of the world. (Most of the following is written from notes I have taken watching a video celebrating the end of the organization in December 2011 -- a video worth watching. There is also an excellent 1990 book about the early history of the organization, Saving the Earth: The history of a middle-class millenarian movement, by Steven Gelber and Martin Cook, which can be read in full on line.)

Harry and Emilia decided to hold their own seminars in the redwoods near Santa Cruz, California, all about the quest for meaning and the Teaching of Jesus, the religious insight with contemporary psychological studies. They wanted to create a religion of the Third Age. It had to do with human evolutionary change and a profound understanding that all is one. (Again, note that I am using words from the video.) The newly-formed organization became known as Sequoia Seminar, which in time turned into a 233-acre property in Ben Lomond with multiple lodges and cabins, all built by volunteers. As the community grew, the name was changed to New Sphere, then National Initiative, then Creative Initiative, then Beyond War (in the early 1980s), and finally to Foundation for Global Community after the end of the Cold War.

As much as they desired to show a little window of secularism, they never succeeded. The organization was to its core religious. As the video tells, the guiding purpose was the education of the individual...all is one...the realization that there is a power greater than the self...humans have the capacity and responsibility to discover how to love. They were strong promoters of the Enneagram to define personality types in order to reach a "higher state of being," which was inspired by the teaching of Gurdjieff.

In 1962, they pledged to devote their lives to work for the cooperation of the nations, the cooperation of the races, the cooperation of the religions. They launched so many initiatives that it is hard to count: Woman-to-woman building the earth for children's sake; the challenge to change; a new way of thinking; project survival; the Beyond War awards; uniting Israelis and Palestinians, the Walk Through Time; and on and on and on.

Politically, they were neither left nor right. New Agers have always been searching for a third, fourth, or even fifth way. But they always followed the policies of the United States with careful moderation, in a non-partisan way. Locally, they were conscious of not rocking the boat. Most of them had beautiful homes, which they eagerly tended. One creative member became the mayor of Palo Alto. Others were pillars of the community, all advocating New Age, but desperately wanting Same Age.

A bunch of friendly white people who did much but accomplished little, got old, faded, and eventually dissolved...like the proverbial grain of salt.

Don't talk to me about New Age. I'd rather be humored in my old age.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art18/ga314.html
Published November 5, 2012