The Co-opting of “Eastern Traditions” in the New Age Movement
“New Age” spirituality has popularized in recent years. As the western world moves away from traditional understandings of religion, New Ageism has offered up a new way to approach life and fulfill the urge to interact with something greater. It is no secret that social media platforms such as Tiktok and Instagram have sensationalized and even aestheticized the New Age movement. While it is unfair to broadly stroke the New Age movement as an amalgamation of Eastern traditions, it is substantial to say that a large part of New Age traditions have adapted beliefs from Dharmic, Traditional African, and Indegenous practices.
While much of this can be seen as a sign of respect for each tradition, the conversation around these respective traditions being closed and only to be practiced by adherents who are born onto or initiated is important to the greater scope of the new age movement.
As the interest in crystals, transcendental meditation, and other practices popularize, there has been an influx of responses to folks cherry picking traditional ideals. It is no secret that the West has marketed new ageism and eastern traditions as a way to find some sort of peace/fulfillment. The integration of Hindu and Buddhist ideologies into the western market’s thirst for more is arguably deeply rooted in orientalist ideas about all things eastern. The use of the Om symbol, Nag Champa incense, and Buddha icons by white social media influencers have fed into this very specific narrative that the East is a place for self discovery and open to all. While these traditions are not all technically “closed practices” it can be seen as quite careless and even disrespectful to take aspects of a specific faith tradition while not fully understanding the history and tenets.
Tying this to orientalism suggests that much of this interest is driven by spectatorship rather than genuine integration into a new faith tradition. This can be justified by the effort to aestheticize symbols that have origins in Hinduism, Buddhism, and countless other traditions that are deemed as “eastern spirituality”. Orientalism propagates the idea that the East (being home to the “Orient”) is a place of mystery, stagnation, and less modern. While at first glance, coining non-western society as a place where people can find spiritual fulfillment seems like a positive thing, however it further pushes the notion that the existence of “The Orient” exists solely to appease the needs of white folks in the west. New ageism often capitalizes on this notion by aestheticizing these traditions, so much so that they become nothing more than concepts to dabble in.
The long culture of American (and western) capitalism has taken new ageism and turned it into a business. Not only has it put a price on ancient tradition but it has also taken numerous practices and turned them into something that is available to upper middle class white folks who have enough disposable income to cling to the spiritual materialism that has come out of this movement. In a study done on “Members of the New Age movement” by Pew Research Center, it was found that 85% of adherents were white.
The Racial composition in this study tells us that the majority of the adherents to the New Age movement are white, linking it to the narrative that the various traditions that have been borrowed from to formulate the belief system as a whole are interwoven into the issue of appropriation.
It is well known that many practices that have origins in Vedic, African Traditional, and Indigenous Religions have gone through systemic White-washing. We see this with the marketing of Yoga, practices rooted in Voodoo, and the use of White Sage. While these practices are actively used by White folks in the United States and beyond-- the communities that originated these practices face systemic oppression in America and the greater western world. Black, Indegenous, and communities of color are expected to assimilate and do away with parts of our traditions that do not fit into white-dominated spaces, yet our traditions are cherry picked and made virtually inaccessible to us in the west.
While the solution is not simple, a good start to resolving this is through informing ourselves and others about practices that are often pushed in the New Age Movement. Before engaging in anything that is not a part of your tradition, be sure to ask, “Do I know the history and meaning behind this?”, “Is this a closed tradition?”, and finally “Is there something that comes from my own upbringing and experience that I can supplement in place of this practice?” Overall, the road toward doing better is educating yourself and being sure to analytically approach everything from a stance of cautious respect.