Saturday 23 November 2013

The Spirit of the Sixties Or How New Age Started

The popularity of yoga in the West is a good example that the sixties have left strong legacy in the mass culture. But how it all started?

The counter-cultural movement of the 1960s in the United States can be treated as an expression of mere conflict of generations, inflamed by school and family problems, or an idealistic rebellion against authorities and mass-media - 'the tentacles of the corporate state'. It seems, however, that it was a part of something larger, namely mass contestation that swept Western civilization starting from the fifties of the twentieth century. The opposition related to all aspects of social life, as well as politics and economics. 

In the spring of 1969, as much as 50% of American college students declared to be at least 'reformists', and a further 37% wanted moderate changes [1]. The memory of those days is still alive, but what is it that we call the 'spirit of the sixties'.

The intellectual origins

One of the top leaders of the intellectual movement announcing an inevitable ‘paradigm shift’, i.e. deep transubstantiation of the way of thinking and values was an American physicist and thinker of Austrian origin Fritjof Capra [2]:

" The paradigm that is now shifting has dominated our culture for several hundred years, during which it has shaped our modern Western society (...) comprises  values that have been associated with various streams of Western culture, among them the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. They include the belief in the scientific method as the only valid approach to knowledge; the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of elementary material building blocks; the view of life in society as a competitive struggle for existence; and the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth. During the past decades all these ideas and values have been found severely limited and in need of radical revision. ".

In his further analysis of the values and attitudes of the culture he draws from the book of I-Ching (Book of Changes) - the foundation of the Chinese thought. Namely,

 the sources of the basic rhythm of the universe originate from two poles: Yin and Yang. The Yin is "feminine" and it can be described as passionate, protecting, sensitive, interacting, intuitive, and unifying. On the contrary Yang is masculine, possessive, demanding, aggressive, competing, rational and analytical. 

In a homeostatic state, they should be in balance. But not surprisingly, in the current reality one had to deal with an unhealthy domination of Yang over Yin. This is manifested in all aspects of functioning of the culture. Here's how Capra commented then on The Cold War [2]:
"The psychological background to this nuclear madness is an overemphasis on self-assertion, control and power, excessive competition, and an obsession with "winning"-the typical traits of patriarchal culture.”

He created similar analyses for almost all phenomena from the schooling system to healthcare, physics, psychology, and manifestations of the cultural life. ‘Systems thinking’, built on the achievements of ecology, was supposed to counterweight the dominant Cartesian reductionism. 

It expressed itself through disciplines such as holistic medicine, environmental protection, renewable sources of energy and so called "soft technologies"- environment-friendly and through this aspect also people-friendly. Further, instead of serving corporations, the economy was to give priority to local activities in order to help individuals develop and promote a sense of community, free from lust for money.  

Involved in the movement of ‘new awareness’ feminists (who had according to Capra a great role to play in the process of change) commented that the passion of the time to build the highest skyscrapers, space rockets (of phallic otherwise shapes) and generally "hard technology" was an all-encompassing manifestation of patriarchal dominance. So was the ‘nuclear power’. [3]

Feeding spiritual hunger

In the realm of spirituality emerged a belief of a mystic unity of all living beings. The so-called deep ecology perceived humans not as dominant life forms, but at par with any other beings [2]:

"When the concept of the human spirit is understood (...) as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is truly spiritual."

In his 2002 article "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" [4] Capra recalled:

The 1960s were the period of my life during which I experienced the most profound and most radical personal transformation. For those of us who identify with the cultural and political movements of the sixties, that period represents not so much a decade as a state of consciousness, characterized by "transpersonal" expansion, the questioning of authority, a sense of empowerment, and the experience of sensuous beauty and community.”

He explains that the ‘transpersonal expansion’ was created as a response to progressive secularisation and materialism in the West. It was inclined to experiences such as the altered states of consciousness (super-sensual perception) occurring during meditation, but also as a result of taking LSD or listening to psychedelic music. This was expressed in the slogan: 

"Get out of your head and into your senses!"

The ordinary reality was gradually being replaced by a psychedelic one and rationalism by intuition, giving a bizarre sense of magic, mysticism and experiencing miracles. A new spirituality emerged.
An English writer Aldous Huxley was the author of an unofficial Bible of the followers of this new religion. In his book The Perennial Philosophy (1945) he popularized an older idea of philosophia parennis which states that spirituality is an unchangeable and eternal element in the history of humanity [5]. Whereas all areas of science and philosophy are experiencing constant evolution, the universal truth that is at the core of all developed religions, regardless of the time and place of their creation, is shared and common. 

Such eclectic approach considers that it doesn’t matter what religion you profess-what is authentic and deep in each of them is the same. One can therefore use the term "trans-religion" as an indication of the mutual penetration without borders and focusing on what is common. As far as personal experience goes, this is similar [5]: 

"(...) man's obsessive consciousness of, and insistence on being, a separate self is the final and most formidable obstacle to the unitive knowledge of God. To be a self is, for them [proponents of the Perennial Philosophy], the original sin, and to die to self, in feeling, will and intellect, is the final and all-inclusive virtue."
A clear fascination with such spirituality can be found in the works of many writers from the beginning of the century such as the Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf, Demian, The Glass Bead Game)). In Demian we read:

" There is, so I believe, in the essence of everything, (...) only a knowledge — that is everywhere, that is Atman, that is in me and you and in every creature.(...)

(We) consist of everything the world consists of, each of us, and just as our body contains the genealogical table of evolution as far back as the fish and even much further, so we bear everything in our soul that once was alive in the soul of men. (...)

The things we see are the same things that are within us. There is no reality except the one contained within us.”

Fast-tracking illumination

Such perception of spirituality and the human psyche was later named as trans-personal. It became a leitmotiv of the "New Psychology" which emerged at the end of the 1960s and also broke away from the current paradigm. A leading activist there was a representative of the Old Continent - Stanislav Grof from Czechoslovakia, whereas Carl Gustav Jung was considered a protoplast of his ideas. 

The study of ‘altered states of consciousnesses’ was related to this wave of thought. This "higher self" is far removed from the usual daily routine. However, the mystics: Saints and sages experienced it in their life. Whereas the mainstream psychology described such religious experiences as psychopathology, the New Psychology showed keen interest in the possibility of spreading them to the common man. Transpersonal psychologists were therefore not interested in mediocrity and the norm, but in improving the quality of life, the exploration of new sensations and "higher" skills.

Such states of mind could be elicited through long fasting, asceticism, or the practices of yoga and Zen. However, a substance was discovered that could bring them immediately. Lysergic acid amide (LSD), present naturally in ergot, was first synthesized in 1938 by a Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman. 

The fame of this substance had certainly exceeded the expectations of the chemist. Initially used in psychiatry in the so-called psycholytic therapy, it was named the ‘mind expander’ in the 1956 book of Huxley Doors of Perception. Huxley argued that the divine can be experience via chemical stimulation of the brain. 

Because thereligious’ experience was elicited almost immediately and in everyone who took LSD, this concept was called ‘an instant spirituality’, and as such it penetrated quickly into the counter-culture. Other LSD propellers became his friend Humphrey Osmond, and famous Harvard University researchers Timothy Leary and Richard Alpertem. A 1980 horror movie Altered States is a juicy take on how such research might have looked like. 

An American sociologist who studied the New Age movement Marilyn Ferguson, in her book "The Aquarian Conspiracy" states that "LSD gave the entire generation a religious experience". This phenomenon resonates in the abovementioned article by Capra. Huxley ordered to give him LSD on his deathbed.

The psychology of self-realization and wellbeing

Returning for a moment to the psychology it is worth mentioning that these "higher states of consciousness" achieved through relaxation techniques were also used to enhance the quality of life, including learning (memory, fast reading), health, social and emotional skills. 

This was at odds with the pessimistic Freudian concept of deterministic childhood, after which any ‘change for the better’ was impossible. In contrast, the Jung's spiritual approach to psychotherapy experienced further expansion.

An important branch of psychotherapy which grew out of the ideas of the New Age was also Family therapy. It was based in its assumptions on a systemic understanding of mental disorders: important are not so much the individual characteristics of a person but his/her interactions with family members. Abnormalities in these relationships manifest themselves as disease, which could be reversed by uncovering and fixing the relationships. This idea grew out of "the ecological or systemic way of thinking" described by Capra.

Another important current in psychotherapy these days, the Mindfulness approach, is also rooted in Eastern thought. It has been applied to improve the quality of life in a variety of health conditions from stress and pain management to depression.

The all-inclusive society

The black people were exposed as a symbol of life in exile, cultural diversity and allies in the struggle for a better world. "Long hair is our black skin" proclaimed one of the ideologues of the counter-culture Jerry Rubin [6]. 

When we compare the manifests of the Black Panther Party (1970) and those made by students during the riots in Berkeley throughout the 1960s’ we easily notice many similarities. Both of course speak of equal right for the people of color, putting the power in the hands of the protesters, but also in favor of:
·    full liberation of women,
·    end to the rule of abusive capitalists
·    establishment of a new, own culture,
·    supra-national unification of all people ('spiritual socialism').

Further demands of the contesting students were:
·   contemplative and caring attitude towards nature, the end of the 'civilization of plastic and concrete',
·   organizing social life around communities, inspired by communes,
·   protection and promotion of the ‘cultural use of drugs’  ("to liberate the mind and body").

Almost all these points present precisely the New Age ideology. Noteworthy, many of these, as well as fascination with Eastern spirituality had been expressed a bit earlier in the works of a group of American writers known as the Beat Generation. These were also the values which Capra had in mind when writing about the "new paradigm".

American counter-culture movement of the sixties which included scientists, hippies, feminists and black-rights activists seemed to be fairly uniform in its values. The ideas of gender equality, trans-personality, all-inclusive society, friendly economics and ecology, and all the other arising from the need to restore the balance between Yin and Yang, interwove each other taking a variety of forms. Inspired by philosophy sourced from the East, they ignited an inevitable revolution in the West.

How much of the spirit of the sixties have migrated permanently to our contemporary reality? Well, the 'corporate state' has certainly not been overturned in any Western nation, but various anti-globalization movements continue to be active. Also, the impact of New Age is certainly visible in the mass culture. 

The popularity of yoga in the West is a strong example and there are many more, such as the respect for authenticity in music and other arts. Rock and Indie music bands are budding in garages all over the world and are a major legacy of that time. 

A growing interest in ecology and renewable energy sources, as well as fair trade and organic products are signs that consumerism has become more mindful these days. 

Finally, the spiritual hunger remains to be unsatisfied by major Western religions and is manifested by the popularity of self-improvement books such as those of Paulo Coelho or the genre of fantasy in general. 

While the world has changed a lot since the sixties, I hope this piece has helped you realize to what extent our lives are still influenced by this period. Please share your thoughts as comments to this post.

1. Drogi kontrkultury (The paths of counter-culture), Jawłowska, W., Warsaw, PIW, 1975
2. The Turning Point, Capra, F., New York, Bantam Books, 1982,
3. Syllabus of the course "New Age Psychology", Dobroczyński, B., Kraków, Jagiellonian University, 2003
5. The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley A., London, Chatto And Windus, 1945
6. Do It!, Rubin J., 1970

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