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Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures

Article

Karla McLaren

Volume 28.3, May / June 2004

A former leader in the New Age culture—author of nine titles on auras, chakras, “energy,” and so on—chronicles her difficult and painful transition to skepticism. She thanks the skeptical community and agonizes over how the messages of scientific and critical thinking could be made more effective in communicating with her former New Age colleagues.

I've been studying the conflict between the skeptical community and the metaphysical/new age community for a few decades now, and I think I've finally discovered the central issue that makes communication so difficult. It is not merely, as many surmise, a conflict between fact-based viewpoints and faith-based viewpoints. Nor is it simply a conflict between rationality and credulity. No, it’s a full-on clash of cultures that makes real communication improbable at best.

I know this firsthand, because as a former member of the New Age culture, I struggled for years to decipher the language, the rules, the attitudes, and the expectations of the skeptical culture. Yet for a great while, all I could hear from the skeptical culture was noise-and confusing noise at that.

I'm not really sure how to introduce myself, except perhaps with this paraphrase: “I have seen the enemy, and she is me.” I'm an author and healer (or I was, actually) in the metaphysical culture. I wrote about energy and chakras, auras, healing, the different kinds of psychic skills . . . the whole shebang. I've traveled throughout the states doing book tours, seminars, and workshops. I've appeared at all the top New Age venues, such as the Omega Institute, Naropa University, and the Whole Life Expo (which I call the Hell Life Expo, but that’s another story). My books have been translated into five languages, and I've even had a title in the One Spirit Book Club. Understanding the metaphysical/New Age community and culture has been a central focus of my life and my career.

I'm not just a member of the New Age community—I've also been a purveyor of the very things the skeptical community is so concerned about. I've been involved in metaphysics and the New Age for over thirty years, I've written four books and recorded five audio learning sets in the genre, and I was considered one of the leaders in the field.

I'm not in the field any longer, but it’s hard to truly disappear when so many of my books and tapes are already out there. It’s also hard to disappear when I don't really know what to say to the people in my culture. The cultural rift is so extreme that anything I say will prove that I have gone to the other side, the wrong side—the side of the enemy. In actual fact, however, I have just seen enough to know that the skeptics and the critical thinkers have some extremely pertinent and meaningful things to say. I've now studied enough skeptical and scientific information about paranormal abilities and events to question many of the precepts upon which my work was based. More important, I've seen enough to understand firsthand the real costs of the New Age.

I've also learned to understand the differences and similarities in the New Age and skeptical cultures, so that I no longer react in a stereotypically offended fashion when I or the people I know and love are referred to as frauds, shams, or dupes. I understand now that these terms are not meant disparagingly, for the most part. I understand now that these terms often mask a great deal of care and concern for people in the New Age culture. It’s sometimes hard to unearth that concern—it often requires an almost anthropological capacity to understand the cultural differences between us—but the concern is there.

Until I understood that concern, I couldn't find myself in the skeptical lexicon. I couldn't identify myself with the uncaring hucksters, the wildly miseducated snake-oil peddlers, the self-righteous psychics, the big-haired evangelists, or the megalomaniacal eastern fakirs. I couldn't identify my work or myself with the scam-based work or the unstable personalities so roundly trashed by the skeptical culture, because I was never in the field to scam anyone—and neither were any of my friends or colleagues. I worked in the field because I have a deep and abiding concern for people, and an honest wish to be helpful in my own culture. Access to clearheaded and carefully presented skeptical material would have helped me (and others like me) at every step of the way—but I couldn't access any of that information because I simply couldn't identify with it. Until now.

I'm writing this piece as a thank you letter to the skeptical community. I want to thank you for helping me to fully understand just how much bad training I've been exposed to in my metaphysical/New Age culture (actually, it’s not my culture any longer, but for simplicity’s sake, let me continue to claim it for the duration of this piece). But I'm also writing as an attempt to open a dialogue, and perhaps to begin bridging the precipitous chasm that exists between our two warring cultures, because at this point, the lion’s share of people from my culture can't really hear much (if anything) from the skeptical culture. And that’s a real shame.

This cultural divide is making it nearly impossible for me to be honest in my own culture about the changes I've made. Right now, my Web site says that I'm on sabbatical. I've cancelled all workshops, turned down numerous book contracts, and I'm slowly deconstructing my career. I've cleared out files, e-mails, and letters, thousands of letters, from people who considered me an expert. I'm turning down all requests for interviews and consultations, and I'm going back to school to get my degree in sociology and behavioral sciences. If I write another book about the New Age culture, I want to write it as a sociologist—not as a mystic or as a naysayer, because neither of those positions has been truly helpful to people in my culture.

The fight between our cultures has often been an ugly and confusing one, and in all honesty, that fight can't be won the way we're fighting it. I'm tired of seeing so many people get hurt when so little good comes of that hurt. So I'm going to try something new, and I'm going to try to find a way to expiate the damage I feel I've done. But first I need to find the words to tell people in my culture what I'm doing and why.

On one level, my story is not a typical one, because I'm not simply a New Age follower who finally woke up. However, even though it is unusual and perhaps even unheard of for someone in my position to make a complete turnaround, I think the process I followed is fairly typical. I started out in my youth, knowing (through direct experience) that the things I learned in the New Age and metaphysics were true, and that naysayers were just that. After a time, though, I began to question the things I saw that didn't fit-the anomalies, the cures that didn't work, the ideas that fell apart when you really looked at them, and so forth. I wrote passionately about the trouble I saw in my culture, and I even became a voice of reason. Sadly, though, every time I tried to research the things that disturbed or troubled me, I hit a wall.

That wall, built of deep cultural differences and decades (or centuries) of distrust, meant that I could find nothing within my culture that could help me think critically. Critical thinking and skepticism live in another world from mine-they live across a chasm where no bridge and no safe passages exist. It wasn't until I became a citizen of the Web that I was able to undertake the harrowing journey across that chasm and land, finally, on solid ground.

How did a card-carrying, aura-wearing, chakra-toting leader of the New Age become able to understand and eventually embrace the skeptical culture? Well, it took quite a while, so let me start at the beginning.

I first encountered the New Age in 1971, when I was ten years old. My mother had been experiencing numerous arthritic symptoms that just weren't responding to medical care, and she was headed for a wheelchair. Somehow, she found a yoga class, and slowly, she became well again. She also became a vegetarian (which was very avant garde at the time) and we began frequenting health food stores in search of unusual things like whole grain cookies, cod-liver oil, and bean sprouts. Our lives changed very swiftly, especially after Mom became a yoga teacher herself and entered more fully into the metaphysical/New Age culture. Yoga has been jokingly called the “gateway drug” to the New Age. That was certainly true for us.

Our family fell apart over this massive change (though my parents’ marriage was rocky anyway), as my father was and still is a skeptic with a strong intellect and good native training in scientific and critical thought processes. One of my brothers, who is now a mathematics professor, joined with my father, while the rest of us kids (four total) went along in our own ways with my mother’s interest in metaphysics, spirituality, and the New Age.

We switched from conventional medicine to homeopathic care, learned to meditate, and joined groups that listened to supposedly “channeled” beings-we became a part of the “in” crowd. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and went to high school in Marin County (the epicenter of the New Age explosion of the seventies and eighties), so I was surrounded at all times by unusual people and experiences. It was a fun and often exciting time, and though I much preferred the magical world my mother showed us to the mundane world my father defended, I was always a very bright and skeptical person. Even in my early teens, I was able to see right through questionable things like est, Scientology, breatharianism, urine drinking, and the really dangerous cults-yet that same skepticism and intelligence actually helped me validate other unusual experiences (of which I had many). I knew many psychics and alternative healers who seemed to be very good at what they did, and I directly experienced healings and psychic readings that I couldn't logically refute.

In that period, it would have been wonderful to come upon skeptical and critical thinking techniques, but alas, critical thinking wasn't taught in my high school. I didn't even know the category existed! When I went to junior college, I took geometry and logic for my critical thinking courses and thus I missed out on the subject once again. In my education, I didn't gain the skills I needed to help me understand what was occurring when New Age and metaphysical ideas and techniques seemed to work. My empirical experience “proved” the validity of things like psychic skills, auras, chakras, contact with the dead, astrology, and the like—and I had very little in my intellectual arsenal at that time to help me understand what was truly occurring.

For instance, an understanding of cold reading would have helped me a great deal. I never knew what cold reading was, and until I saw professional magician and debunker Mark Edward use cold reading on an ABC News special last year, I didn't understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone—I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis.

To be fair, a skeptical movement did arise during my early teens, but it unfortunately created a deep cultural rift that continues to this day. In the seventies, Uri Geller became popular. My first real contact with someone in the skeptical culture was watching James Randi on television, just tearing Geller to bits. I didn't understand what was happening. Uri Geller appeared on the Mike Douglas show and on the Merv Griffin show, and you could clearly see him perform his paranormal feats right there on television. Surely Mike and Merv wouldn't be involved in lying to the public? I really didn't understand what Randi’s problem was with Geller, and my friends and I thought Randi was very vitriolic. I didn't learn about critical thinking from Randi—what I learned was that some people just had it in for healers and people with paranormal gifts. I know he would not like to hear this, but it’s still true: James Randi’s behavior and demeanor were so culturally insensitive that he actually created a gigantic backlash against skepticism, and a gigantic surge toward the New Age that still rages unabated.

I certainly understand and support James Randi’s anger, frustration, and even vitriol now (especially after having lived through the New Age for so many decades), but all I could see then was a very sarcastic man who seemed to attack Geller personally. Now, after having been a regular visitor to Randi’s Web site (www.randi.org), I can see him as a deeply caring man who works tirelessly for an important cause. I also see that he is very concerned about some of the unbalanced New Agers who write to him in barely legible missives. I empathize with Randi, because people like that write to me, too (though I take on the role of hero in their fevered fantasy lives, while Randi is treated as a villain). Now that I can see him as an individual and understand his culture, I can see James Randi as the excellent (and intense) man he is-but it took me a while. Had Randi understood the New Age culture back when Uri Geller was becoming popular, he could have easily spoken in a way that might have been heard—or at least in a way that wouldn't have caused such a violent backlash. Or perhaps I'm being too idealistic.

You see, I've been speaking to people in this New Age culture in their own language, and though I certainly was heard, I don't think that, in the end, I really did any good. Growing up as I did in nutty, kooky Marin County, I was able to see some of the most egregious examples of New Age chicanery—and as I matured into a writer and healer, I always warned against them. The problem is this: In my culture, you can't openly attack anyone or their character, and you can't use truly focused skepticism. In my culture, personal attacks are considered an example of emotional imbalance (where your emotions control you), while deep skepticism is considered a form of mental imbalance (where your intellect controls you). Both behaviors are serious cultural no-nos, because both the emotions and the intellect are considered troublesome areas of the psyche that do very little but keep one away from the (supposedly) true and meaningful realm of spirit. When I wrote my books and recorded my audio programs, I had to write and speak so carefully that it took most people two or three readings to figure out that I was directly challenging many of the foundations upon which the New Age is built. Actually, my culturally sensitive capacity to attack without attacking and criticize without criticizing was so effective that some avid readers still don't know what I was saying.

From a vantage point outside the New Age culture, my culture’s disavowal of emotions and the intellect may seem very strange and nearly inexplicable. Nevertheless, it is a very real cultural component that must be understood and considered if any useful communication is going to occur. If we want to successfully communicate with someone, we've got to understand not just their language, but the cultural context from which their language springs. From what I've seen in both the New Age and the skeptical cultures, this understanding is absent. I certainly didn't understand the skeptical culture until I spent real time considering it as a culture—and I know from my reading that most people in the skeptical culture don't understand the New Age culture at all. As a result, the yelling between our cultures just becomes louder while the real communication falls into the chasm that divides us. In all the din, people in my culture hear what they deem to be hyper-intellectual and emotionally charged attacks upon their cherished beliefs, while people in your culture hear what they deem to be wishful thinking, scientific illiteracy, and emotionally charged salvos in defense of mere delusions.

This is of course a tragedy, but after reading through the skeptical literature for the last three years, I feel that this tragedy may be avoidable. I understand your culture now, and I understand the concern, care, and interest you have for the people in my culture. I'm now able to read past text I once considered inflammatory and see the dedication behind it-not just your dedication to competent research and information-gathering, but your dedication to clear communication. I see your faith in human intelligence, your anger about swindlers and charlatans, your open-minded ability to question authority and accepted wisdom, and your willingness to fight to further a cause close to your heart. My favorite people in the New Age culture share these same qualities. I feel that people in your culture are capable of reaching out to my culture in sensitive ways that will have a chance of being heard—because it’s vital that you are heard.

It’s vital that a way be found to help people in my culture question, think about, and critically interpret the barrage of information and misinformation they receive on a daily basis. However, it’s also vital that the information be culturally sensitive. For instance, the first time I visited the skeptical health care Web site called Quackwatch, it felt as if I were walking into enemy territory. “Quack” is a very loaded word-it’s a fighting word! Though site owner Dr. Stephen Barrett has every right to call his excellent Web site anything he likes, I wonder why it couldn't have been called, for instance, HealthWatch, HealingInfo, DocFacts, or something equally nonthreatening. Why do I have to type the word “quack” when I want a skeptical review of the choices I make in medical care? And why do I have to spend so much time translating on the skeptical sites I visit-or just skipping over words like scam, sham, quack, fraud, dupe, and fool? Why do I (the sort of person who actually needs skeptical information) have to see myself described in offensive terms and bow my head in shame before I can truly access the information available in your culture?

I have a selfish reason for asking these questions, because one of my first ideas was to make my own Web site a culturally sensitive portal to the skeptical sites—yet I cannot find a way to do so. I've got a Web page mock-up brewing in my files—a page that I've rewritten maybe fifty times or more-that tries to introduce the concept of skepticism in an open and nonthreatening way. I'd like to include links to the brilliant urban legends site (snopes.com), to Bob Carroll’s online Skeptic’s Dictionary (skepdic.com), to CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer (csicop.org), and to The Skeptic (skeptic.com). I also really wanted to include Quackwatch (quackwatch.org) and James Randi’s site (randi.org)—but I just can't find the words. Sure, I can use my site to prepare people for the journey, but I know from experience that they would be in for quite a shock once they clicked on the links. I mean, it’s one thing to find out that much of my culture and belief system was based on gossamer and hearsay, but it’s another thing altogether to see people like myself being denigrated and pitied.

I found your culture and persevered through the (perhaps unintentionally?) insulting text and the demeaning attitudes because I had a serious need. I had a need to understand the avalanche of New Age ideas, gadgets, meditation techniques, and personalities I encountered as my career gathered momentum. I saw so much as I traveled and spoke to people in my culture, and so much of it worried me that I began to use the Internet to organize this avalanche and acquaint myself fully with information in my field. It was a harrowing journey, to say the very least. I waded into your culture for much-needed information, and ended up losing my own culture in the process. During the most difficult throes, I joked that I would have had to cheer up to be merely despairing—and that I would have had to calm down to be merely enraged. I'm still working through this.

What I see in the tragic clash between the New Age and skeptical cultures is that, for the most part, the skeptics have not yet been able to speak in a way that can be heard. Certainly, neither have people in my culture been able to perform that same feat. I see some scientific types working in the New Age culture, trying to prove that chi exists or prayer works (or whatever it is they're doing this week). There’s an awful lot of scientific jargon all over the New Age now, and while it’s sad to see science being bent and mangled by my culture, I have to say that it shows we're listening to you. It shows that we're trying to get it right-to say things in a way you can hear. I know that my culture’s sloppy and disrespectful use of science is something that angers and confuses many people in the skeptical community, but can we look at it in a different light?

People in my culture have heard you and we're trying to answer—but we don't understand you. Our cultural training about the dangers of the intellect makes it nearly impossible for us to utilize science properly—or to identify your intellectual rigor as anything but an unhealthy overuse of the mind. I know that sounds silly, but think of the way you view our capacity to dive deeply into matters of spiritual or religious study. You don't often treat our rigor as scholarship, per se (though it takes quite an intellect to understand and organize the often screamingly inconsistent sacred canon)—instead you tend to treat our work as an overabundance of credulity or perhaps even a stubborn refusal to listen to sense.

It is possible that our two warring cultures will never build a bridge across the deep rift that divides us. I know that in my own case, the transition from my culture to yours was long, arduous, and deeply painful. It was not an easy traipse across a well-constructed bridge. In essence, I had to throw myself off a cliff. I had to leave behind my career, my income, my culture, my family, my friends, my health care practitioners, most of my business contacts, my past, and my future. I say this not to garner sympathy but to show what the leap truly entails. The New Age is a complete culture with its own rules, ideals, infrastructure, and social life. When I finally realized that my cultural training had me teetering on a foundation of candyfloss and dreams—and worse, that my work had encouraged others to teeter alongside me, I was inconsolable, yet I had absolutely no one to turn to.

I've made it, I think, through my rage and horror at my own complicity in helping people remain susceptible—and perhaps through my grief and despair (though that’s more cyclical) about my own miseducation. Now I'm considering what to do from here. I've discovered in just the few (less than ten) conversations I've had with faith-based people that skeptical information is absolutely threatening and unwanted. What I didn't understand until recently is that when you start questioning these beliefs, there’s a domino effect that eventually smacks into your whole house of cards—and nothing remains standing. Opening the questioning process is a very dangerous thing, and people in my culture seem to understand that on a subconscious level. In response to their extreme discomfort, I've become completely silent around believers—which is hard, because they make up most of my friends, family, and correspondents.

If I were in this business for the money, I would have never seriously questioned what I was doing. I would have turned back as soon as my research challenged or threatened me. But I wasn't in it for the money. I was there to help people, often very disturbed people who were trammeling after this cure, that device, these gurus, or those miracle supplements. I tried to help people in my culture make sense of all the ideas and gadgets that were coming at them with such rapidity, but I was unable to make even a dent. When I understood fully that, no matter how good my intentions, the mere mention of things like auras, chakras, and “energy” brought with them a host of truly unsafe and untested assumptions—and that I was leading people into an arena where skepticism and critical thinking were forbidden—I knew that it was time to stop, and stop completely. It was a wrenching, isolating, and despair-filled decision, but since my focus is to help others, it was the only ethical or moral shift for me to make.

I respectfully ask that you in the skeptical community consider making a similar (though hopefully not so jarring) shift in your behavior and approach to us. I understand now, after years of reading and research, that the skeptical culture exists because of a very real concern for the welfare and well being of others. Of the two cultures, I can honestly say I now vastly prefer the skeptical one. However, I know firsthand that the skeptical viewpoint cannot be heard or assimilated in the New Age and metaphysical community; it is anathema, and that’s a shame for every single one of us. It is a shame because the search for the truth, the concern for the welfare of others, the need to be treated with respect, and the need to be welcomed in a culture—are all things my people share with yours. We have a different language and different references, but we share these basic human needs. I would ask you to respect our humanity, and approach us not as if you are reformers or redeemers. I would ask you to approach us as fellow humans who share your concern and interest in the welfare of others. I would ask you to be as culturally intelligent as you are scientifically intelligent, and to work to understand our culture as clearly as you understand the techniques, ideas, and modalities that have sprung from it. We are a people, not a problem.

I think I have found a way to speak across the chasm, to you. I am now learning to perform that same feat in reverse—to talk to people in my culture about your culture, but that’s a lot harder. I first need a rest, and I need to be in a real school, studying real science and getting a real degree (people in my culture tend to pursue offbeat degrees in offbeat subjects at offbeat schools). Watching people in the New Age has been as hard on me as it has been on you. Underneath all the magic, the wise ghosts, and the never-ending remedies lies a well of pain and loneliness that is immense and overwhelming. I always saw it—I always saw the excruciating truth of my culture, and I thought I could help. That I didn't help—not truly—is possibly the greatest devastation of my life. I need to heal from being a healer.

My voice was an important one in my culture; therefore, I've got to take responsibility for what I've done. I need to educate myself and come back into the fray in a healthy and respectful way. Maybe by the time I've organized my thoughts, a bridging culture will already exist. Maybe I'll find a way to be heard—or to translate the skeptical lexicon in such a way that people in my culture can access it without being insulted or shamed. One thing I'll be sure to stress is the fact that there is actually more beauty, wonder, brilliance, and mystery in science than there is in the mystical world.

One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery—not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.

Maybe I'll find a way to capitalize on my culture’s thirst for answers, and my people’s capacity to work with conflicting information (metaphysical ideas change every six months or so and therefore people in my culture are very accustomed to switching mental gears). I have faith now that I didn't have before: faith in your culture’s concern and integrity, and faith in my culture’s curiosity and capacity to learn new things. I've also learned firsthand that bad training, though damaging, is not a life sentence.

I have a lot of work and research to do, but I do see a possibility now that I didn't see before. I want to thank you for your work and your efforts to protect people like me from harm. You make a difference. I hope one day to be able to do the same.

Karla McLaren

Karla McLaren has been a member of the metaphysical/New Age culture for thirty-two years. She has authored nine titles in the genre, including Emotional Genius, Energetic Boundaries, and Your Aura & Your Chakras: The Owner’s Manual. She is now deconstructing her career, and is returning to (real) college to get her (real) Master’s in Sociology and Behavioral Sciences. She is currently co-writing a book on bridging the skeptical and New Age cultures.