Let’s Get Spiritual : Is the New Age only for rich people? : WHAT REALLY MATTERS: Searching for Wisdom in America, <i> By Tony Schwartz (Bantam Books: $23.95; 448 pp.)</i>
What’s thought-provoking in New York is old news in California.
When a high-profile New York journalist tackles a subject that’s part of the air Californians breathe, we tend to expect a classically defensive New York put-down. It’s surprising to find, instead, an earnest re-examination of what for us is old ground--with (surprise, surprise!) the same blind-spots that usually show up when Californians do the job.
In “What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America,” Tony Schwartz has attempted to survey, analyze and proselytize three decades of . . . whatever you want to call it: New Age thought, the higher consciousness movement, the search for values beyond traditional Western modes. Schwartz calls it wisdom.
Schwartz is a contributing editor to New York magazine, a journalist whose last book-length effort was to ghost-write Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” Thus in tackling the subject of wisdom, especially of the New Age variety, he’s straying far from his normal haunts and risking the ridicule of his milieu. This, in itself, is an act worthy of respect. Schwartz approaches his subject non-judgmentally, with a clear if not especially graceful style, and on his own terms. The problem is that his terms are so limited.
In an off-handed way, and without the analysis such an admission demands, he expresses his limits right off: “How was it possible to balance my desire to grow and evolve with an equally powerful instinct to protect and defend the status quo, however imperfect and painful it may be?” It is incredible, not to mention intellectually evasive, that Schwartz can ask this question in his introduction and then just let it hang. For it is in the throes of this question that both his book and much of the New Age movement flounder.
For there are many who want to “grow and evolve,” but only if they can keep their toys. They long for new values so long as it doesn’t threaten their property values. So are they seeking evolution and wisdom, or only another form of comfort? Again, Schwartz’s “status quo” admission begs this question, but never answers it.
There are other, perhaps larger issues that he never even considers. Schwartz summarizes the thought and experience of many thinkers and experimenters, without dissecting or even noticing the social context in which they work and thrive. Ram Dass is given an affectionate behind-the-rhetoric portrait. Timothy Leary is firmly slapped on the wrist for conduct unbecoming a professor. The Esalen Mafia--Michael Murphy, Abraham Maslow, George Leonard, William Schutz and Fritz Perls--are praised to the point of lionization. The biofeedback of Elmer and Alyce Green, the right-brain drawing of Betty Edwards, the mind-body theories of John Sarno and the meditation teachings of Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, among many others, are given thorough attention. Their views and projects are intelligently and evenhandedly condensed, in the style of a glossy magazine cover-story. To his credit, Schwartz tackles the sticky subject of ego-tripping and even sexual abuse among some charismatic New Age teachers. But never once is it mentioned that most of their workshops and lectures are luxuries of the affluent, costing what most working folk would think of as a lot of money; nor that the expense of the way New Age thought is marketed confines its influence and benefits to a small enclave.
In fact, never in “What Really Matters” is the social stratification of “higher consciousness” even observed. This is apparently part of the status quo that Tony Schwartz feels a “powerful instinct to protect and defend.” As with the New Age movement in general, a kind of Reaganesque trickle-down enlightenment is assumed. The fact that self-described “New Agers” voted for the GOP last November in even larger percentages than self-described “Christian fundamentalists” is lost on Tony Schwartz. Whether this political phenomenon pleases or displeases any given reader is beside the point. Tony Schwartz recognizes no interplay between belief and the social fabric, so essentially he has to take the New Age at its word.
Schwartz is fond of paraphrasing Elmer Green’s statement: “If you feel that you know a truth, you must be able to demonstrate it to some degree. Otherwise you don’t really know it. You are only talking.” Schwartz also makes much of Stanislov Grof’s insight that “when you fall into separateness and take that seriously, you lose wisdom.” But Schwartz confines the meaning of these insights to the individual. He never examines the separateness of the New Age movement itself, how it’s served and what it loses by its (essentially economic) isolation.
In this survey, with its ambitions of summarizing an entire wave of thought, Schwartz doesn’t mention that the phenomenon he speaks of is almost exclusively white. To borrow the phrase of his title, this issue apparently doesn’t “really matter.”
On Page 100 he gives part of a paragraph to an interracial Esalen encounter group led by “George Leonard, along with a black psychiatrist named Price Cobbs” that “blew up . . . in the wake of a racially charged incident,” but Schwartz doesn’t delve into how or why. He praises the African-American tennis-teacher Jerry Alleyne. And in describing the dream-work of Jeremy Taylor, he gives a page or two to the problems that whites in the Civil Rights Movement had with suspicious blacks. But in looking at modes of thought that were inspired largely by Asia, Schwartz (like the movement he proselytizes) seems to adopt the Asian complacency as to caste: the acceptance of social misery on an immense scale. He never considers what this acceptance does to personal growth.
This belies his subtitle, “Searching for Wisdom in America.” To use the word America is to invoke all of America; it is to take upon oneself the relationship between American thought and American life. The failure to do this leaves large holes in any search for wisdom.
Within this limitation, Tony Schwartz’s “What Really Matters” presents lucid accounts of what several original thinkers have contributed over the last 30 years. Having been sometimes described as a “New Age writer” myself (though I never agreed with the description), I would be the last to deny the value of this vein of thought, and Schwartz brings a clear and supportive analysis to a skeptical audience. He quotes everybody from the Buddha to Pat Riley, and gives several pages to rarely mentioned thinkers and researchers such as Lawrence LeShan (whose book “The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist” is the best work on healing I know). The chapter on writer Ken Wilber is a gem, both thoughtful and, for once in this book, truly moving.
But even within Schwartz’s own context there is a severe limitation. Like the glossy-magazine writer he is, Schwartz carefully steers clear of anything that would seriously discomfort the average suburban. What could be called a “New Age underground” is never mentioned. Though they fit Schwartz’s criteria, he avoids the growing practices of witchcraft, Santeria, Yoruba, gay spirituality, sex therapy, American Indian religion and those psychologists who now regularly employ ancient forms of ritual in their therapies. For Schwartz, this isn’t “wisdom in America.” If he mentioned these aspects of the New Age movement even to disapprove, that would be something. Certainly there is much to critique. Instead, either out of ignorance or fear of compromising his credibility, he consigns anything not safely middle-class to invisibility. (Tony Schwartz’s next project will be more like his first, the Trump book: He’ll co-author the autobiography of Disney chariman Michael Esner. So it’s possible that, to Schwartz, anything not affluent is invisible.)
He would have been better off calling his book “What Really Matters to Me.” Schwartz justifies his choice of subjects by framing “What Really Matters” as a personal search, but in terms of the title, the subtitle, and the way the book is being promoted, this is a dodge. The book’s form, style and presentation are that of a survey, an overview, even a guidebook. Thus when Schwartz fails to mention, much less include, New Age stars such as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra or Anthony Robbins, you can’t shake the feeling that you’re in the hands of an ambitious novice working on a deadline. What counts is what he has time for.
Avoiding the breadth of this body of thought, Schwartz also avoids the implications of dealing with it as a movement. It’s clear from his narration that most of these thinkers pay attention to each other. They certainly play to the same public of workshop attendees and readers, and show up at the same conferences. It has all the trappings of a movement, and a name (which Schwartz also tries to avoid): New Age. It even has a locality. For, though Schwartz is careful not to emphasize this, most of his subjects (as well as those he excludes) live and work in the West, many in California. Again, there’s an intellectual evasiveness here. If Schwartz avoids the concept of a movement, he doesn’t have to deal with its impact on American traditions, much less on Pat Buchanan’s and Pat Robertson’s “culture war.” (Robertson identifies many of the practices in Schwartz’s book as anti-Christian, no matter how New Agers vote.)
There is one subject that Schwartz handles with insight, subtlety, and from enough points of view to give readers an excellent perspective: meditation, which many consider the building block of any path to inner growth. Nearly every thinker Schwartz discusses has something cogent to say about meditation, and by the book’s end the cumulative effect is an excellent primer for the reader.
But like everything else in “What Really Matters,” meditation, Schwartz’s strong suit, is presented without a social context. Does Tony Schwartz know, for instance, that many teachers in Texas are required by their school boards to attend workshops in which they are taught to spot telltale signs of “Satanism” in their students? And does he know that one of these “signs” is the practice of meditation, with the rather innocuous TM (Transcendental Meditation) movement singled out? What does this bode for “wisdom in America”?
Given Schwartz’s severe limits, he’s done an honest job. And he is careful to emphasize that there are no short cuts to inner development. He agrees with Ken Wilber, who told him, “It’s a fundamental error to assume that moving into the higher states of spiritual development is easy--something you can do in a weekend workshop, or by reading a book, or by taking LSD. Only through long-term disciplines can you make these experiences stable, permanent structures of consciousness. It’s very hard work. The truth is that transforming oneself is (a) long, laborious, painful process.”
But always another truth waits in the shadows: that to transform oneself while protecting and defending the status quo may be a contradiction in terms, at worst self-defeating and at best dooming the originality of New Age thought to a marginal diversion among the privileged few.