Café Gratitude, which I recently discovered online, is an L.A.-based vegan eatery frequented by Hollywood celebrities. The dishes have “positive affirmations” rather than names: I Am Transformed, I Am Whole, I Am Magical, I Am Awakening, I Am Terrific, etc. The wait staff reportedly sets down your plate while cheerily repeating the affirmation to you: “You are Grateful” or whatever.
You won’t find “I Am Ironic” on the menu, however. Like track shoes and textiles, irony is no longer produced in the USA, as indicated by the “Consciousness Award” bestowed on Café Gratitude by some outfit called Nowism “in acknowledgement of awesomeness.”
I’m sure the meals are healthy and delicious, but I would feel like a four-star nitwit announcing to some actress/model/waitress that “I Am Awesome” (Herb-cornmeal crusted eggplant Parmesan on grilled Panini bread with marinara sauce, cashew ricotta, sliced heirloom tomatoes, arugula and basil). The eatery seems inevitable in retrospect: a pitch-perfect blend of foodie culture, new age spirituality and mass-marketed narcissism.
Southern California has long been the vector for most American lifestyle memes, which invariably hop up the west coast and into British Columbian brainpans. It makes sense considering the state’s paradisiacal geography of sun, sand and surf. From the late ’30s to the early ’60s, a clutch of gurus and gadflies blew into the Bay area with the foundational texts of the human potential movement. The most notable included the “British mystical expatriates:” novelist Aldous Huxley, playwright Christopher Isherwood and thinker Gerald Heard. The three wise men would have nodded in agreement with the words of American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “The misconception which has haunted philosophical literature throughout the centuries is the notion of ‘independent existence.’ There is no such mode of existence; every entity is to only be understood in terms of the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.”
Whitehead’s pre-hippie homily doesn’t sit well with today’s culture of ego-targeted marketing, however. Over decades, the best minds in consumer psychology have helped engineer a background buzz of dissatisfaction and disconnection, in service of marketers. And the heavily commodified New Age scene, a subsidiary of the self-help industry, offers a solution of its own: even deeper exploration of the “me” meme. This probably isn’t the best approach to get people out of toxic patterns of self-absorption, yet it’s fully in keeping with the American cult of individualism, which began as one part Protestant work ethic and two parts frontier mentality.
When a polyglot spirituality emerged on the postwar U.S. west coast, with a vibrant mix of eastern and western beliefs, the ego was never far from the picture. The “self-as-source spirituality” of early 20th century America “dovetailed ever so neatly with the individualism promoted by corporate marketers and their psychology departments,” observes author Douglas Rushkoff in his 2009 book, Life Inc.
“Throughout the 20th century, personal freedom would become the rallying cry of one counterculture or another, only serving to reinforce the very same individualism being promoted by central authorities and their propagandists…. While you might expect the marriage of progressive sociopolitical goals and the culture of spirituality to ground activism in ethics, it turns out the opposite is true. That’s because what we think of spirituality today is not at all a departure from the narcissistic culture of consumption, but its truest expression,” the author observes.
Rushkoff may lay it on a bit thick — he fails to acknowledge the scientific evidence of health benefits from meditation and other spiritual practices — but I get where he’s coming from. I grit my teeth when I hear someone go on about the so-called “Law of Attraction,” which contends that if you think enough about something, good or bad, you will draw it toward you. This reminds me of former First Lady Barbara Bush’s response when asked on Good Morning America if the impending showdown with Iraq was putting a strain on her son in the Oval Office. “But why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it’s gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” she offered in 2003.
More on this topic later.
A while back I attended a music festival on a warm summer night in Vancouver. A young guy in flowing garb introduced the show. He told the crowd how a few days earlier he discovered a stone walkway on his way to the beach. The universe in its benevolence had blessed him with this footpath at precisely the right moment he needed it, he said.
The music was great, and the fellow was undoubtedly sincere and well meaning. But there are a few obvious problems with his intro, starting with the prosaic fact that this walkway was built for people in general, rather than one humble being to serendipitously discover in the future. And what of the builders themselves? Were they paid civic workers, or unpaid community volunteers? If the “universe” as whole is responsible for infrastructure, it seems gauche to bring up mundane matters of budgetary economics.
You could say these two mindsets — one metaphysical, one pragmatic — aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But the first mindset highlights one of the most problematic aspects of the contemporary New Age scene. The focus on “me” often undercuts a collective “we.” The focus on my “now” diminishes your “thou.”
In the 2005 book Pronoia is the antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You With Blessings, author Rob Brezsny takes a similar approach. “On this day, like almost every other, you have awoken inside a temperature-controlled shelter. You have a home! Your bed and pillow are soft and you’re covered by comfortable blankets. The electricity is turned on, as usual. Somehow, in ways you’re barely aware of, a massive power plant at an unknown distance from your home is transforming fuel into currents of electricity that reach you through mostly hidden conduits in the exact amounts you need, and all you have to do to control the flow is flick small switches with your fingers.”
The author continues on about the magic of flushing toilets and reliable bathroom products. (“You trust that unidentified scientists somehow tested them to be sure they’re safe to use.”)
There’s a big piece missing in Brezsny’s shout-out to First World lifestyles, which are enjoyed by only a fraction of the planet’s population. The main reason most North Americans live in relative abundance involves straightforward geography. We live in a continental fortress bracketed by two oceans, smack dab in the temperate zone, with plenty of fresh water and arable land. There’s also the fact that the economies of postwar industrialized democracies have long drawn upon cheap labour and resources from underdeveloped nations, with compliant dictators frequently installed through bloody coups backed by western intelligence agencies.
Thanks for the cheap track shoes, universe!
Greg Barker, former director of the Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales St. David, argues for the importance of spiritual experience while cautioning against the slippery slope of solipsism. During a conversation at the university, I suggested there is at least one major point on which New Age thinkers and contemporary scientists are in agreement: all things are interconnected in patterns of mutual dependence. “This is mirrored in very popular new age films like The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know,” he replied. “But there is a polarization as soon as you say we’re interconnected and therefore the power of my thinking can alter my life.
That kind of talking gets unscientific very quickly.”
“The whole idea that our thoughts determine our attitudes is pretty sound. I think most people would agree with that. But where we get a lot of the wacko stuff is when people promise you a package of well, if you think these thoughts, than you can actually make money,” he added.
Much of today’s heavily commodified spirituality feeds that bottomless excavation pit of western consumerism: me, me, me. To each their own. (It’s no accident that executives from a Vancouver-based yogawear outfift have publicly touted the me-first philosophy of Ayn Rand, who conceptually divided the world into “producers” and “parasites.”) But as Barker suggests, as soon as someone on a lecture circuit starts talking about psychically manifesting money, it’s likely there’s a spiritual Ponzi scheme at work.
As with anything with a dollar attached, it’s buyer beware. Or as the American philosopher Robert Anton Wilson once observed, “there’s a seeker born every minute.’
The Vancouver Courier, Sept. 5 and Sept. 19