Benjamin Breen in Aeon:
Close your eyes, and envision a glowing crystal suspended in infinite space. Now breathe in slowly, counting backwards from 10. Energy pulses along the interstices of the crystal. Exhale, and imagine a second crystal, precisely like the first – then a dozen, a hundred, 100,000 crystals multiplying into an infinite void. And 100,000 dream catchers. And semiprecious stones inscribed with chakras. And ‘Coexist’ bumper stickers, Alex Grey posters, Tibetan prayer flags, wellness magnets, and ionising Himalayan salt lamps.
Now open your eyes and imagine how much they all cost.
It’s easy to scoff at the totemic kitsch of the New Age movement. But it’s impossible to deny its importance, both as an economic force and as a cultural template, a way of approaching the world. The New Age is a powerful mixture of mass-market mysticism and idealistic yearning. It’s also, arguably, our era’s most popular ex novo spiritual movement, winning adherents with a blend of ancient wisdom traditions, post-Enlightenment mysticism and contemporary globalisation that is as nebulous as it is heady.
It’s worth noting at the outset: New Age is not so much a discrete collection of beliefs as it is a Venn diagram (or a mandala, if you like) of intersecting interests, objectives and motifs. The New Age ‘movement’ is not a single movement at all. The term contains multitudes.
Arguably, the aspect of New Age that is easiest to pin down is also the most superficial: the look. The term conjures visions of chakra charts, indigo auras, psychedelic paintings of bodies radiating energy, crystals, candles, ambient music and dream catchers. One can guess with reasonable certainty that the crowd at a New Age gathering – a solstice ceremony in Golden Gate Park, say – will display a collective taste for dreadlocks, aromatherapy, South Asian or Andean textiles and accoutrements such as utility kilts, gnarled oaken staffs and coin pouches that wouldn’t look out of place at a Renaissance Fair. The aesthetic is one of unabashed pastiche.