April 9th, 2013 by Nicole Braun
Nicole Braun

I’m concerned about classism in the new age, self help and spiritual movements. Oprah Winfrey’s show and “lifeclass,” which many people study religiously, promote individualistic “create your own reality” ideas, including the philosophy of guru Eckhart Tolle. “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it,” Tolle writes. These ideas can be very harmful, in particular to people struggling with financial hardship.

As one example, I recently met a woman who lost her job. She could not find another job at the same pay rate, so she wound up losing her home.  She is currently homeless but finding “gratitude” in the moments which make up her life. “I am lucky to have friends I can stay with, and a couch to sleep on,” she says. “Many people are not as lucky.”

Her gratitude list continues; she is grateful she had a job for as long as she did. She does not blame her employer for moving the job overseas, as blame is “negative energy.“ Plus, she wants to “take personal responsibility for herself,” as “we are our thoughts.” “We all have choices, and today I am going to choose to let this experience make me into a better person,” she said. “The universe has something to teach me.”  If she stays “open,” makes the “right choices,” and thinks the “right thoughts,” while releasing her chakras, she should be good to go.

She was not frustrated that there are no comparable paying jobs in her field, as that would involve spending time in negativity. And, she wishes no one any harm, as she has “compassion” for her employer.”

She was not angry that affordable safe housing is obsolete as that is just more negative energy. “Anger is a waste of energy, a form of negativity, and it keeps me from transcending spiritually,” she said. Throughout our conversation she continued to inform me that her economic crisis was her fault, as she had not been thinking the “right thoughts.” Had she thought the right thoughts, she would not be where she is. 

But, she did not want to spend too much time on this thought as there are “lessons to be learned,” and the universe has something “better” in store for her, in the future, as long as she does everything “right” in the now. In addition, she theorized that she might be paying back a karmic debt from another lifetime, so in a way, she could deserve her poverty.  Plus, it is “important to pay back one’s debt; karmic or otherwise.” Besides, the universe will not give her “any more than she can handle.”

I am all for having a spiritual life, but these ideas create yet another layer of psychological damage to the poor and working class.  Most of us seek and need meaning and comfort, especially in hard times, but who ultimately benefits from these ideas? Oprah certainly does. “Live your best life,” she says, raking in the millions. Tolle is making millions off of his “spiritual” ideas as well. One thing is clear: these ideas sell.

New age thinkers might agree that the entire planet is in crisis, but radical change is going to take a lot more than thinking positive thoughts, unless the positive thoughts include collective action to eradicate classism. I wonder how much longer we as a society will continue to drown before we wake up to what is really going on in the US economically? 

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  1. Serena says:

    When I was a kid my mother went to Unity Chapel (this is not a Unitarian church, but they did a lot of ‘new-agey’ things back then), and she had all of these little positive affirmation thingies like little signs on suction cups or magnets, stuck around on mirrors and appliances where she would see them. And she used to talk about  how if you worried about something it was more likely to happen than if you just visualize everything being okay. I also noted how that is what she preached when someone else was worried about someone or something, but I still got lectured about how worried she was if I came in late, with a litany of all the things she imagined might have happened. It is a little obscure, but there is a bit of a message in this story, thirty odd years later my mother goes to the same church and preaches the same positive thinking message, but she is not a happy person, she is retired and scrapes by on a small pension, with a myriad of health problems, and she has driven a wedge between herself and the rest of the family with her words. 

    For a lot of years, many people have been promoting the merits of positive thoughts and positive intentions, some going so far as to say that you can realize your goals and live in prosperity by visualizing them and yourself in a positive light. The thing is after all the good intentioned gurus of the world have been spreading their message for decades, people like my mother now start to feel badly about themselves because if things do not go well and you worked really hard to ‘think positively’ then you must not be very good at it or you just didn’t try hard enough. It reinforces the message that if something bad happens to you it is your own fault, and I wonder if that has not contributed to the current state of the world allowing corporate giants to grow bigger and richer while more and more people all over the world grow poorer and poorer. Is it allowed to go on because corporate ethics have been bolstered and supported by the new age message that if you thought positively and worked with intent, then you wouldn’t be in dire straights (no matter what resources you had to work with). So therefore everyone gets exactly what they deserve, so we do not have to work towards equity, because no matter what happened or what circumstances you landed in it is your own fault.

    • Nicole Braun Nicole Braun says:

      Hi Serena,

      I really appreciated this response and your profound insights. :) I agree: It is important to think about who benefits from this message, and corporate giants also absolutely benefit from the positive thinking mantra as do Tolle and Oprah. You are exactly right–as long as people believe that they are solely responsible for their plight, and that they can change their economic reality through positive thoughts alone, no real change will ever happen. It is as if the culture is in a deep collective denial. In addition: I have seen many people internalize self-hatred and self-blame because the visualization techniques, or the positive thinking mantra, did not work, similar to the example you gave with your mother. Tragic.

      Recently, I heard a couple spiritual “guides” suggest that if one cannot visualize with clarity and purity of intention per finding a home, as one example, then, it is their own fault. Apparently, one needs to be very specific when requesting wishes and dreams to the universe. This visualization technique might work for someone who has the resources to make the dream happen–i.e. if I have enough money in the bank, most certainly I can start being very specific about what kind of house I would like and where I would like to live, however, with few to no economic resources/assets, this is impossible via material reality. I worry about the damage that these ideas do to people who are drowning economically or basically barely maintaining/surviving, which is the reality for many of us. New age leaders are promoting a form of classism, by dismissing the economic reality of a large group in this country, and making assumptions that we can basically have anything we want if we just follow a specific formula and way of seeing the world.
      One question I have for you: have you noticed a correlation between the economic decline and an increase in the positive thinking ideas/statements? The social problems of the day are structural: student loan debt, housing foreclosures, homelessness, medical debt and/or an inability to find healthcare, joblessness and/or jobs that do not pay a living wage, and other kinds of economic crisis situations, etc.. And clearly, those who are the bottom of the ship are going to experience the crisis in more severe ways. Yet, at the same time, there seems to be an almost frantic increase in followers of Oprah and Tolle, as two examples. What is that about, do you think?

      Ironically, just bringing these ideas and issues up seems to anger people; my post upset some people; and the points that I was making or trying to make were sometimes very misunderstood and/or resisted. I do believe that is it important to have hope–but collective hope, and hope in the form of action, together.

      Finally, this is a bit off the main point, but I have also noted that the new age movements blame people not only for their economic plights, but also, for sickness. For example, so and so would not have passed from cancer had she/he been more hopeful or positive during the cancer experience. These statements only reinforce shame and self-blame and are beyond ignorant–they are cruel, unhelpful, unkind, and unnecessary.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I am interested to hear more from you!

      Nicole

      • Lydia Howell says:

        THANK YOU for a great essay! I’ve had this antipathy towards “New Age” philosphies that you descrie so well in both our esay & reply above (& also noticed the INCREASE in this “your thoughts create your reality” bs. But, had not been able to articulate it as you have. ad enough that people have to deal w/internalized oppressions of race & gender but the DEMONIZATION OF POOR PEOPLE & blame for circumstances we have NOT created–but, have been put on us by the 1% is such a heavy weight. I think this New Age nonsense is DESIGNED to keep people from becoming POLITICALLY ENGAGED. Thank you expsong it!

  2. I really appreciate this post. “New Age Classism” and the comments from Serena both reinforce how these ideas can become a replacement for “old age” classism, with the same ends.

    The question that arise for me is this:
    What if we allow that there is truth on both sides? The truth that there is a larger system that creates and supports the current class/power structure because they benefit from it. The truth that we do create our own reality through our thoughts/inner orientation.

    The truth that we are BOTH individual AND collective.

    I agree that the commonplace view in pop-Spiritual circles is very individualistic and can be blind to the larger systems that create our current situation.

    But I’m not ready to neglect the power I have as an individual to dramatically shape my reality. To do that will manage only to prove that the larger system has a greater influence over me than I do, it will prove that true power is outside of me, and it will keep me in a perpetual struggle.

    Nor can I use my stance to ignore the influence of the larger social systems. To be blind is to be blind. Lack of awareness does not create change. Transformation requires awareness.

    So I must do both: I must find my ground, see and align myself with the future I want, feel myself supported in the vision I have for a world where the earth is honored and we live sustainably, and where resources are shared equitably and we live with greater sense of connection and support, and live in alignment with that vision (which is much more involved than just “magical thinking”); AND I hold that vision even as I face down the current power structure.

    • Nicole Braun Nicole Braun says:

      Hi Alison! I absolutely appreciate your thoughts and thank you for taking the time to read the post and to respond.

      I do agree that we are co-creators of the world, our world, and we also need to be aware of the role that the larger structural forces play in our material/external realities. I agree: it is both. Both are true! I think we all can play a positive role in shaping a different future by deconstructing classist views in the here and now, as one example, which is one way I can make change on an individual level and re-claim my power.

      We absolutely can become more aware of the ways in which structures impact our consciousness, ways of seeing, realities, and any self-hate/and or oppression we might feel as a consequence. We can do what we need to do to address the issues, internally, and externally, as we move about in the world. We can deconstruct classist ways of seeing, inside of ourselves, and in our treatment of others, while addressing larger structural economic injustices, too. However, I am also aware of larger constraints that I may not have control over, especially by myself as an individual. This might seem like an extreme example, but I am thinking specifically of prisoners in Nazi, Germany. Choices were constrained by the larger realities, and being aware of reality did not change the reality, although it might change the way you viewed the situation, or how you responded to the situation. But your ability to have power over the situation, if you were a prisoner, was, as we all know, very limited. One could tow the line and follow orders, one could try and escape physically, and/or one could try and escape mentally and/or transcend the reality by holding out hope at least in one’s mind. Sometimes, people got lucky. Many people were not lucky, at all, as we know. Collectively, we have more power to address issues of economic injustice and classism if we face down the current power structure together, while deconstructing our own learned ways of seeing about class, poverty, economic injustice, etc. Does this make sense? I would love to hear your thoughts. I am sorry it took me so long to respond, too. :)

      Nicole

  3. Lita Kurth L.A. Kurth says:

    Here’s a memory of two churches: one, which my student attended, raised money to send their young people to community college and held classes for congregants to become familiar with how to take a civil service exam and how to prepare. This congregation knew its members were poor and worked actively and practically to help them besides offering comfort, hope, and celebration. It was an African-American church, incidentally.

    Another, which I attended for a while, offered comfort and hope, but never addressed practical need–although the church was part of the peace movement. Perhaps that non-discussion of need occurred because most members were well off, but a discussion of need seemed to be considered in poor taste. There was talk about outreach, but expensive fund raisers were held, classes usually cost something, and it was hard to see where a poor person would fit in. Prosperity was something that would just happen if we were spiritually aligned. I did appreciate the comfort and hope and wisdom i received there. those helped me be in the best psychological state to address my problems (but I did have to address them alone, not with support) and not become my own enemy, but eventually I left because I thought I could find a place that didn’t ignore practical problems. I do think that some new age faiths are highly individualist and implicitly blame people for poverty or suffering. its also true that highly political organizations that bring up injustice continually too often don’t do anything practical on the local and personal level.

    • Nicole Braun Nicole Braun says:

      Hi Lita,

      I really appreciated this response, and I also enjoyed reading your recent blog entry about affordable housing (or lack thereof.) Well, perhaps enjoyed is not the best word to use–reading about Tent City, the lack of affordable housing, and abuses by the police angered me, but gave me a sense of relief, another person is out there and sees what is going on. It does not surprise me at all that the Tent City included people with college degrees. I felt inspired by your words about the importance and power of truth. There is often such internalized shame around telling one’s truth, especially as it relates to economic struggles, as you know.

      At any rate, your two church memories are thought-provoking. It sounds like the first church understood and acknowledged economic issues, poverty, and class, and responded accordingly, from a justice perspective. I imagine that was healing, not only because help was available in some concrete form, but the church members lived realities were also acknowledged as real, too. I think this makes a big difference. It is hard enough to struggle economically, but then to be in the midst of people who do not get it/understand class, etc., makes life even harder. Since churches often function as a powerful agent of socialization and even as another form of family, this lack of class consciousness can be incredibly lonely and alienating for those who are on the real end of economic hardship. I have seen a number of people retreat from society altogether, in a sea of hard core depression as a coping mechanism–because of internalized shame and classism, economic oppression, and support systems not getting it. It is great the first church “got it.” It sounds like the second church reproduced an upper middle class reality with a focus on expensive fund raisers, no focus on need, and no real awareness of an economic reality other than their own. The way I see it, those kinds of fundraisers are usually more about status and prestige than anything real and are less than appealing for someone who is on the “other end” of the fundraiser. It is a way of “othering” their congregation, in my mind.

      If the second church was serious about economic justice, they might have started to examine their own ways of seeing, worldview, process and practices within the church in attempt to resist reproducing class inequality. On the other hand, a more cynical view might be that the culture of the church was the point–because poor people would not feel welcome or invited in that environment, thus, they most likely would not be a part of the church in the first place. Therefore, the church can continue as is, with its expensive classes and fundraisers, all in the name of “peace.” What do you think?

  4. Cari Gulbrandsen Cari Gulbrandsen says:

    Your post reminded me of the widespread “pop spirituality” messages that I see posted everywhere and that seem to be so pervasive that they have become part of the media landscape. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of these messages are copyrighted. It seems that in Western culture we are addicted to sugary messages the way we are addicted to sugary food.

    I agree with your comment that nothing can replace the value of gathering together within communities to work through and solve problems together. Granted, this process is often “messy” and time consuming. Not to mention, the process will involve challenging each other on our assumptions. That means there is the possibility of personal risk and discomfort, which will apply whether you have more or less material privilege coming in to these conversations.

    Many of us were raised familiar with the saying “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” I have had to un-socialize myself by discarding these phrases. Willingness to be with our fellow human beings during times of adversity will inevitably involve hearing some not so nice truths and realities.

    I do some work in a shelter and a basic needs service organization and I often get comments about how “depressing” the work must be. While there are definitely conversations to work through some very unfortunate or tragic life experiences or interpersonal conflict to deal with, it always amazes me that in the midst of dealing with these issues, there is also compassion, consciousness raising, truth, love and even laughter. In my experience, if there is a real spirituality, it consists of personal interpretations, happens in glimpses and nuances in the personal/private realm and is accessible to all regardless of their social location. In other words, I don’t think humanism is really present in the mega doses of “spirituality” aggressively served to us by mass media and by some organized religions.

    Thank you for bringing up such a controversial topic in a thoughtful, critically reflexive way.

    • Nicole Braun Nicole Braun says:

      Hi Cari!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I loved the way you used words in the post–i.e. western culture’s addiction to “sugary messages.” I never thought about it that way before, and now your ideas will be with me forever! :) I do know that western culture loves happy endings, happy moments, and we are addicted to sugar, and yes, sugary messages and sugary realities, too! I also liked the phrase, “aggressive spirituality.” That sums it up.

      I know just what you mean per the cultures resistance to “tragic situations” and people whom they perceive to be in “too much pain.” No one wants to be around when times are tough. In addition, we are socialized to believe that the safest place to fall and receive comfort from is one’s family. From working in the shelter, I am sure you saw/see that the family can be a very violent, unsafe, and unsupportive institution at its worst. In short, if you are struggling, it is part of your journey to figure it out–alone, and you should not bother others with your troubles. If you are in a shelter, you must have done something wrong, and this is your chance to “get it right.” Many people are perhaps ill-equipped to handle the tragic situations of others, thus, they turn away and let the person fend for themselves even if they have the economic resources to help. Since social class ideas are internalized and learned there are assumptions made about the “choices” someone else made which resulted in their poverty or domestic violence situation. The focus is rarely on the larger structure, but on what the individual did or did not do to get to where she/he is, which is a judgment, not helpful, and really, not very enlightened. Sadly, the wider the gap per social distance, the more harm done and there seems to be a script for what to say to someone who struggles rather than being and listening.

      The other day, I happened to be sitting in a coffee shop. An older woman was telling a younger woman the script. Everything that came out of the “older” woman’s mouth was a cliché, as if she was reading from a self-help book. She was lecturing to the younger woman, and apparently serving in some mentoring role for recovery, from what I could gather. The younger woman had to start her life over again—she was looking for an apartment, for work, and had made some “poor choices,” from the mentor’s position. The mentor (sponsor?) did not listen at all, but just spun advice, telling the younger woman how to view reality, which sounded straight out of a twelve step or self-help book. Sentence after sentence, she spoke in clichés. These are the sugary messages that permeate the culture. No critical thinking involved. No compassion, no space for authenticity. She might as well have been a robot, that is how little human connection was there. The younger woman thanked her when they finished their conversation, and I wondered if she felt as alienated from the dynamic as I did, listening to it.

      These are some of the topics I imagine you would like to see tackled in consciousness-raising groups?
      Thank you again for your post. As you can see, I also had a good time with the concept of “sugary.”

  5. Lyn Adamson says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. I have definitely come across this problem and it is a two-sided phenomenon. The challenge comes in thinking positively about the REALITY we face, and finding the courage to change it. We need vision and we need action. Self-affirmation can help us to bring our most positive self to each day, however without acknowledging the real pain and suffering that the SYSTEMS are creating we can end up blaming ourselves when our positive thoughts do not change our reality – and our life still gets harder. Working together we CAN change the reality around us, so let’s do so with open eyes. We don’t need to get stuck in anger, but we can use anger as positive energy for change!

    • Nicole Braun Nicole Braun says:

      Hi Lyn!

      Thank you for your response and for your insights! Yes, I agree–vision and action are needed–both! How do you think we can move the world to open their eyes more to classism and economic realities? I agree with you about anger, too. I think it can be a motivating force, as long as it is not turned inward. Depression can kill the human spirit and anger can be an energizer, as long as the anger does not spiral out of control or cause self-harm. What do you think we can do more specifically to work together to change classism and economic injustice? I know, just some simple questions on a Sunday! :)

  6. Nan Jorgensen says:

    So well thought out and written! Two words in affirmation: Barbara Ehrenreich! Love her, seen her lecture! She’s got your back. ( As in she has covered a bit of this concept…)

    • Nicole Braun Nicole Braun says:

      Hi Nan!

      Thank you very much!! Yes, I love Barbara, too. It is funny, I have been exploring these ideas with my students for a long time, and a few years ago, some of my introduction students said, “You sound like that other woman.” I wanted to know who I sounded like, so one of the students who worked at the bookstore said he would get the “author’s name.”

      He came back the next class and said, “Her name is Barbara Ehrenreich!”

      I have used her other books in my classes but had not heard of Bright-Sided, until this moment. It was liberating to read her book–she put into words what I was trying to say!

  7. Lena Rothman Lena Rothman says:

    Wow! I have wanted to have this conversation for a long time. I find that not only is there class divisiveness in the New Age movement but also ethnic and race oppression.And specifically what I am addressing is that our specific cultural modes of expression, analysis and actions are also not acceptable to the mainstream of the New Age culture.I guess it is a “culture” in and of itself. It is a culture of denial,lack of responsibility for anyone else’s plight because the ne’er do wells are just thinking the wrong things, and a justification to keep things as they are.Not far from “the lord helps those who help themselves.”In a way, it’s not even different than one pulling oneself up by their bootstraps except said with “compassion”(my snide comment)

    What I find especially upsetting is that although the New Age has crossed and includes different races,ethnicities and classes, in my experience, it is largely white (as in white anglo-saxon and middle to upper middle class and people are not allowed to feel their emotions or think “negatively”. Like the thought comes up for me, I just lost my job.Fuck!!!! If I only hadn’t thought or noticed my boss acting weird because he was getting ready to let us go, it wouldn’t have happened.I need to feel my anger, my sadness and my grief over losing an income I’ve had for the past 7 years that kept me out of poverty.

    I do want to acknowledge,however, that I have used some of the tools of the NA mindset and quite frankly, I can’t deny that they’ve been helpful.I believe that there is some validity to the concepts but when used inappropriately can cause damage.I try to take what I can use and leave the rest.

    Does anyone remember or had the experience of receiving an email that asked that people pray for Bush when he was in office in the hopes of him doing something right? I have to say, I struggled with that one.That was pretty hard because I would have preferred to spit in his eye!

    So, I don’t know if I contributed to this conversation but just some random thoughts.Thanks so much for writing about this.

  8. Nicole Braun Nicole Braun says:

    Hi Lena,

    I feel badly that I am so slow to respond because I really loved reading your thoughts. I like your idea about taking what is useful and leaving the rest behind. I also agree that it is vital to experience and express one’s feelings even if the reality is painful and sometimes too painful–keeping the pain inside just does more damage. I see this new age movement silencing people; so they no longer feel they have the right to their own thoughts and feelings, including ones that are not “positive” or “happy.” It is a culture of denial and almost feels cult-like. I hear people repeat the same ideas over and over again without any deeper critical thought about what they are saying.

    I am not always sure if I know what is most useful to leave behind, too. As one example, some people believe that the new age mindset is useful even if it is delusional in the face of the myriad of injustices you mention because the reality of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and the injustices around those forms of oppression (and others) can cause one to feel rage, which can turn into self-destruction, self-hatred, despair, depression, etc. In other words, if the new age movement keeps people in happy denial, maybe that is OK? I do think rage can be a forceful place to make change, within ourselves and society but often, we are socialized to turn it inward and then take it out on ourselves. And too much of rage and oppression kills us. I often wonder if twelve step programs–for all of their usefulness–might also focus more on societal oppression which can contribute to addiction? If you have experienced oppression and/or discrimination on a daily basis, without a structural understanding of what is going on, you typically turn it into yourself, which can turn into addiction. There is some interesting research out there per what happens to people when they experience, as one example, racial discrimination in their lives. Youth who experience discrimination and poverty wind up in more “trouble” on a number of levels, and the discrimination is the root, at least part of the root. So, why not address that piece in NA–or maybe it is addressed? Sometimes, I see us on this sinking ship, and we are all going down but pretending everything is OK, and by staying positive, we are ignoring the economic realities of our lives collectively and thus, we are complicit in our own demise. Do you know what I mean? To know that so many people believe that our thoughts dictate our economic reality is quite frightening indeed. My random thoughts back to you! 

  9. I agree with what you say .AA wonderful article .
    Peace

  10. Focault says:

    Hi Nicole,

    reading your interesting thought made me realize that critical thinking is still alive. I’m happy to notice that I’m not alone. Congratulation for your well written post.

    I believe that New Age movement is just a kind of classism, which is based on solipsism. Solipsism has always been a tool used by rich people for affirming and consolidating their power. One of the tools used by New Agers to brainwash the middle class is the “Law of Attraction”.

    What does science tell about the Law of Attraction? It tells that LoA doesn’t work. Do you need a proof by scientific evidence? Read this:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vanessa-van-edwards/law-of-attraction_b_2082921.html
    http://www.heatherkappes.com/?page_id=68
    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/06/23/confirmation-bias/
    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/19/mathematics-of-happiness-debunked-nick-brown

    Nicole, I will always save my emotions. i’ll never force myself to think positive. I don’t need it. I’ve always earnt from my mistakes and sometimes even sufference was a useful tool for improving my life. I’ll never set aside someone because of negative thinking. I won’t fear to be contaminated by negative thinking, but I’ll listen people and I’ll try to offer my help. I don’t program my brain like a robot, I just use my heart, in a natural manner. How dare can we struggle for discovering the right way to use LoA, while so many people are starving? Don’t be selfish. If we think that LoA is useful, then let’s try to use it for knowing ourselves instead of wishing a new car. My life is wonderful, my wishes are normal. I don’t need LoA at all.

    I read a blog where a girl blamed her grandmother affected by cancer because she didn’t think positive (that’s the reason why such woman got cancer in that girl’s opinion). It was so sad. It means that human worths ​​have been reversed.

    Jerry Hicks passed away because of cancer. Although he believed in LoA he used the mainstream medicine for trying to heal himself. Why? Perhaps because several people used LoA and died faster then the ones who used the mainstream medicine (eg. Kim Tinkham)?

    If LoA was effective, then the presidents of the many nations would have used it to throw bombs one against another. LoA is just a tool for selling illusions to the shallow and lazy middle class.

    Best Regards

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