New Age Healing Mythology
I am a psychotherapist, Reiki master teacher, and body/mind/soul-oriented healer. I have been involved in the modern spirituality and healing movement — often referred to as the New Age movement — for practically all of my adult life. Like many of my contemporaries, however, I have mixed feelings about calling myself a New Ager. As much as I appreciate the fresh, innovative, radical, and in some ways empowering ideas of the New Age movement, there have always been certain beliefs and tenets it promotes that make me uncomfortable.
I consider myself to be a bridge person — one with a foot in the alternative world and a foot in the more established traditional world — trying to integrate the two. I often feel torn presenting alternative healing methods and spiritual ways of looking at the world to my more mainstream friends and associates, while also affirming some of the healthy skepticism that the mainstream world has of my alternative healing world. There has certainly been a plentitude of this skepticism, criticism and even outright scorn hurled at the modern spirituality and healing movement by the proponents of allopathic medicine and traditional religion. This article is an attempt to examine some of our New Age movement’s most fundamental and cherished tenets with love, discernment, and also, hopefully with a little bit of humor, recognizing that I am as much a participant as anyone else in this field. My intention is not to offend, but to catalyze thought and discussion, possibly controversy, and the possibility for change.
Like all new movements, the New Age movement is going through its own developmental process of thinking about and explaining the world, which like its adherents, matures over time. The core belief that I challenge most strongly which appears consistently throughout New Age literature, teachings and treatment conceptualizations is that “you create your own reality.” Oh, blasphemy! Yes, it is this sacred cow I want to challenge, and its off shoots and consequences that develop as a result of this assumption, which have gone largely unchallenged from within.
To be fair, Ken Wilbur’s book, Grace and Grit, does address this most vexing issue, and inspired my writing and thinking on this subject. In the book, Wilbur describes his deceased wife’s spiritual healing process and eventual death in the early 80’s from very virulent breast cancer. Steven Levine’s books on death and dying also present an honest discussion of this topic which lean much more towards compassionate acceptance, differentiating between healing and cure. Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses this question in the mainstream bestseller When Bad Things Happen To Good People. However, the core belief that all of our experiences and conditions are caused by our thoughts, intentions and actions is by far the more prevalent view presented in New Age literature. Ultimately, it suggests that everything we encounter in life is a reflection of our internal world and process and that the purpose of our spiritual development is to be able to refine our awareness and reshape our imperfections so that we are able to command our life situations. From Carolyn Myss’s Why People Don’t Heal, which proposes that “biography is biology,” to the very popular Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsch, to countless channelers and even my own training as a Reiki master, the belief that illness and traumatic experiences are caused by the person undergoing them remains a core New Age belief.
Locus of Control
As a psychotherapist, I have been very influenced and involved in trauma therapy work, which emerged in the early 80’s in response to the recovery movement, feminism and a growing awareness of the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on Vietnam vets. Founded largely on the works of Boston-based therapeutic, psychiatric and neurological research, the trauma movement is not a proponent of the philosophy that we create our own reality, although it does embrace tenets of holistic healing, empowerment and personal responsibility. Trauma theory proposes a concept known as the locus of control which states that as a defense mechanism to protect the psyche from the devastation of traumatic abuse or attack, “victims” — (and I use this word consciously) — often take inappropriate responsibility for events that they have little or no control over, because it gives them a feeling that they can still have some power over the events in their lives. By believing that they somehow created the traumatic event, abuse, attack, catastrophe or illness, then, conversely, they can “un-create” it, protect themselves from a feeling of loss of control, and/or prevent it from ever happening again.
Those of you who are in the New Age world know that saying the word “victim” in a New Age context is something akin to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Sit back and watch the reactions fly. (I recall a friend of mine once screaming, “There are no victims, Judy!”, pulling on her hair and becoming somewhat apoplectic.) Why is calling someone a victim, or labeling abuse and catastrophe victimization, such a mortal sin in our community? The answer I usually get, and used to give myself, is that the word implies a lack of taking responsibility, and therefore, a tendency to stay stuck in negative beliefs and situations.
But the totality of victimization goes much deeper that that. Victim implies powerlessness and extreme vulnerability. It implies that sometimes, no matter how well we live and think and act, how protected we might think we are, terrible things can happen to us and sometimes there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Whether we who have undergone traumatic events call ourselves survivors or victims, the fact remains that without acceptance of the totality of the event, including, but not limited to our powerlessness and helplessness, we cannot completely grieve, and without grieving, we cannot completely heal.
As a result of twenty years of assuming the bridging position between alternative and traditional healing, I have acquired a strong liking for integrating and synthesizing polarities. From my perspective, the answer is not to swing over to the other polarity and state that we are always victims, and that we have no influence over our destinies. The answer is the ability to discriminate, or as people involved in the Twelve Steps have embraced for a long time: the ability to change what we can change, accept what we can’t and have the wisdom to know the difference. Today, when someone comes into my office and wants to work on why I created this cancer or why I created getting raped or why I keep getting into abusive relationships, we discuss and explore together what aspects of their experience they really did have an influence over and which ones they did not. Many clients are shocked (and relieved) that I do not assume that whatever is going on in their lives is automatically their own creation. As discussion unfolds, almost invariably the locus of control emerges, and in some cases, actually becomes the first problem we explore.
For example, an older woman came in for therapy stating, “I want to work on why I got raped twice and why I always get into relationships with men who don’t love me.” The latter part of the statement did yield some very good exploration, expression, healing and change for her, but with former, we hit a wall. She was convinced that even though she walked down a crowded street in a safe neighborhood in broad daylight, that she created the event of being grabbed, hit and raped.
“How?” I asked.
She answered, “I must have. My spiritual teachings and everything I’ve learned about for the last twenty years say that you create everything that happens to you.”
“But,” I stubbornly persisted, “how could you have done that?”
“I don’t know….maybe on a soul level or in a past life? It’s got to be my choice. I must have wanted it to happen or needed it to happen for my soul growth.”
In Friendship with God, Neale Donald Walsch writes about the concept of choosing things on a soul level with more depth and insight than other writings I have been exposed to. However, in light of the questions I am posing now, these concepts still remain unsettled and problematic. Walsh writes about three levels of experience — superconscious, conscious and subconscious — in which God describes three decreasing levels of awareness from which we intend and create our experiences, explaining how most people are not aware of what they are creating most of the time. The book describes “mastery” as a state of being which leads to wholeness, health, balance and wisdom, (i.e. one we would all like to have), implying that each individual is fully responsible for every event that happens to them (even if it involves others).
In dialoguing with God, Walsch asks: “And so, for a person of elevated consciousness, outcomes and results are always intended and never unanticipated?”
God answers, “Indeed, this is true.”
Walsch continues, “And the degree to which the event appears unanticipated is a direct indication of the level of consciousness at which an experience is being perceived.”
Again, God answers, “That is exactly correct.”
This exchange ends with Mr. Walsch concluding, “Therefore, the Master always agrees with results even if they do not appear favorable, because he knows that at some level, he must have created them.”
Bingo! Locus of control. What exactly does he means by “agreeing with results?” Is he talking about acceptance or denial of any painful feelings? To me, this exchange reveals more of a distortion about the need for control through denial, and as the psychologist Marsha Linehan would say “inhibited grieving,” than a truly expanded view born of compassionate acceptance of the broad vision of all possibilities. Do we need to believe that we control everything in order to accept it?
Among other misconceived conclusions that a literal understanding of this belief leads to is the confusion in common usage between the soul level and the conscious level of experience. Failing to distinguish between a soul level of choosing or intending, and a conscious ego choice in the body, in three-dimensional time and space, leads people to assume that they are responsible even for catastrophic, harmful and painful events. It feeds guilt and shame, inhibits healing grief, and on the other end of the spectrum, spikes illusions of grandiosity.
Losing the ability to discern between learning something valuable from a traumatic event through the process of acceptance, and taking responsibility for creating the event, muddies the waters for the potential of whatever healing experience might arise from the trauma. What often gets created instead is inappropriate blame and self-hatred for the person suffering, which may actually create the stuckness and blockages to healing that it is trying to clear.
First Do No Harm
Most proponents of the create your own reality theory really do mean to empower and heal, and not to cause harm. But there are many unintended harmful consequences that I have observed as a result of this philosophy. Most trauma survivors already have a belief system and a mental template that leans towards shame and a feeling of responsibility for everything that has gone wrong in their lives, and the lives of the people they love. Frequently their abusers actively blame them, most often as children, when they are most vulnerable and unable to define the truth of their experience.
The well-meaning belief that you create your own reality often results in what trauma therapists call “blaming the victim.” As stated earlier, the word victim is so negatively charged in the alternative healing world that I have taken to calling this syndrome “blaming the sufferer,” but the idea is the same. Consciously, New Agers are attempting to empower those who are traumatized; unconsciously, I believe that denying victimhood is an attempt to ward off our own fears of vulnerability. By implying that the trauma such as being raped or attacked, or receiving a diagnoses of a serious or terminal illness is someone’s choice, it naturally follows that it’s their “fault.” And even if we are careful not to imply that it is their fault, it is often taken that way.
Ken Wilbur writes very eloquently about this, and how it affected his and his wife’s experiences. In Grace and Grit, Treya Wilbur describes numerous encounters with well meaning therapists and healers who gave her — often uninvited — advice and analyses of how she had either created or maintained her illness. She writes about how painful and often devastating the effect of this was for her, and how little help it was. Almost humorously, she describes developing a “psychic immune system,” where her intuition would act like a healthy T-cell in a healthy immune system, rejecting “toxic” suggestions that demoralized her or attacked her sense of her healthy self.
A friend of mine with a fairly strong sense of self relayed a similar example from his own life. He is a warm and spiritually fulfilled man who loves his wife and child. Seeking out help from a nutritionist after he received a diagnosis of cancer, the first words out of the nutritionist’s mouth were: “Lets examine your lifestyle so we can figure out how you created this cancer.” My friend was healthy enough to get up and walk right out. But many people, especially when dealing with the considerable shock of receiving news like this, are more vulnerable and not as clear. I have heard stories about people who have been told to get off their antidepressant medication because it muddies up your auric field or that they are not taking responsibility for their thoughts. Sometimes people who do not respond to treatment are told that they must not want to heal or be ready to heal, or that they are choosing illness.
Why is it so attractive to the New Age community to embrace this belief? Why have we been so uncritical of it? It is like the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where the pressure of consensus is so strong that we’re afraid to say, “The king is naked” or more to the point, “The king is vulnerable.” Perhaps we have been afraid of our own vulnerability to harmful events that we cannot control the pain and grief that sometimes accompanies events in life. I must admit that when hearing about a contemporary who has just been diagnosed with a serious illness, I have caught myself thinking, “That won’t happen to me. I take care of myself.”
Like all cultures, the New Age culture has spawned its own mythologies, however, it would be wise for us to use the highest discernment in sorting out fact from myth, parable and metaphor when stepping into the delicate realm of peoples’ hearts and souls and trauma. Although there are many events in our lives that we may not create, we can have a healing influence on them. We must walk our talk of compassion, acceptance and unconditional love by acknowledging that experiences of trauma, disease and even death do not imply spiritual failure and that healing occurs through the acceptance of vulnerability to pain as well as strength and triumph. All events in our lives have the potential to be healing and develop our faith. My mentor, Dawna Memont, says that the way we create our own reality is through the way we respond to events, not how we control them. This belief opens the door for us to consider positive alternative healing possibilities such as prayer, vibrational healing energy and spiritual practice as a healing modality. Through compassion and common sense combined with honest examination of alternative and new ideas we can explore even higher grounds of personal and planetary healing to “change what we can, accept what we can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference.”
Judith Prebluda, M.A., L.M.H.C, is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in Arlington, MA. She is trained in trauma therapy, cognitive therapy and Jungian archetypal therapy. She is also an advanced dance/movement therapist, a Reiki master and a mindfulness meditation teacher. She can be reached at 781-643-2313 or Prebludaj@aol.com.