I’m reading a very interesting book right now: The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen. Its not directly about the New Age, but covers similar territory and mentions the New Age in a couple of places. The author explains the socio-cultural dynamics of the paranormal within non-mainstream groups, scientific research, debunker organizations, and our society in general. He uses concepts such as communitas, liminal, anti-structure, reflexivity, and totemism. Here are some quotes that are relevant:
In our culture, psychic phenomena are hospitably received in Spiritualism, the New Age movement, and modern-day witchcraft. The three movements share common elements, and in a variety of fashions, they are at odds with the establishment. None of them have institutionalized in the manner of government, industry, academe, or mainline religion. few of the groups within these movements have buildings or permanent paid staffs, and if they do manage to instituiionalize, it is usually only briefly. None of the movements acknowledge any central authority; control is local. The movements are marginal and anti-structural in many ways, but it is within them that one can find discussion of, training in, and use of psychic abilities.
Marilyn Ferguson, one of the most articulate persons expressing the ideas of the New Age, noted that there is no central authority defining the movement. In her book The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), she emphasized its informal, fluid networks, decentralization of power, and lack of structured hierarchies. New Age concerns typically include feminism, the environment, and alternative healing, and women play major roles. In addition, it is open to astrology and other forms of divination. All of this is a bit subersive to the establishment. Overall, its properties define it as anti-structural.
All three of these movements have loose boundaries. It is often difficult to tell if someone is part of them or not. Many who attend Spiritualist services are also members of established religions; New Age followers are drawn from all faiths. Witchcraft and neo-pagan groups are perhaps more distinct, but ambiguity reigns there as well with vast differences among them. Within covens, beliefs and rituals can change with the whim of the high priestess or priest. There is no higher ecclesiastical authority or common text that solidifies dogma or mandates what, how, or when rituals must be performed.
These three movements have striking similarities. In all alltered (i.e., estructured) states of consciousness play a major role. Women are prominent, as are the issues of feminism, the environment and healing. None recognize a central authority for their movement, and they engage in virtually no instituion bulding. All of the movements are considered subversive by the establishment; they court direct involvement with paranormal and supernatural phenomena, and all display elements of the trickster constellation.
The most vocal opposition to these movements come from two sources: establishment scientists (exemplified by CSICOP) and conservative and fundamentalist religious groups. Both of these antagonists are typified by large, male-dominated, status conscious, hierarchical institutions—the antithesis of the targets of their scorn. Both have produced massive amounts of literature denouncing the New Age proponents and modern pagans and similar attacks were directed at the Spiritualists of the nineteenth century. While some of the political and social goals advocated by the”deviants” have been partially incoporated into science and mainstream churches (e.g., feminism, ecology, alternative healing), the establishments’ most vehement attacks remain directed at paranormal and supernatural practices.
Hansen has a section about psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann who wrote the book Boundaries in the Mind:
Thick-boundary people strike one as solid, well organized, well defended, and even rigid and armored. Thin-boundary types tend to be open, unguarded, and undefended in several psychological senses. Women tend to have thinner boundaries than men, and children thinner than adults. People with thin boundaries tend to have higher hypnotic ability, greater dream recall, and are more lkely to have lucid dreams. People with thick boundaries stay with one thought until its completion; whereas those with thin boundaries show greater fluidity, and their thoughts branch from one to another. People with very thin boundaries report more symptoms of illness; however, compared with thick-boundary types, they are able to exert more control over the autonomic nervous system and can produe greater changes in skin temperature when thinking of hot or cold situations. Thin-boundary persons are more prone to synesthesia, blending of the senses (e.g., seeing colors when certain sounds are heard). Differences are found in occupations as well. Middle managers in large corporations tend to have thick boundaries, and artists, writers and musicians tend to have thinner ones. People with thick boundaries tend to be in stable , long-term marriages; whereas thin types are more likely to be, or have been, divorced or separated.
The author goes on to say that thin-boundary types tend to report more unusual experiences including psychic experiences. He then lists the correlations between thin-boundary types and the traits of the Trickster archetype (as described in Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book Gods in Everyman).
Obviously, many New Agers are thin-boundary types. The beliefs of the New Ager make no sense to the more skeptically-minded because skeptics are probably most often thick-boundary types. Skeptics don’t realize that its not just an issue of belief vs rationality but an issue of experience. Both the skeptic and the new ager trust their experience, but they simply have different kinds of experience.