New-Age Practices: Is there any reality to them?

Misbah Noorani, Kettle Mag, river,peaceful, serenity, relaxation, meditation
Written by Misbah Noorani

From Twins paradox to Relativity theory to the physics and phenomenology of Time and the possibility of time travel to Cartesian Matrix jazz to existentialism to Prana energy to double consciousness to epistemological duality and all the way down Dubois’ rabbithole on “being yourself”…

I still can’t tell whether Will Smith is the best father in the world or the worst. Regardless though, this article is a reaction to a recent interview with Will Smith’s children, and it’s the most clever thing I’ve read in the last insert-impressive-amount-of-time-here.  

The perfect model  for “my generation”

To be noted and returned to on a separate occasion: I’m into the idea of popularizing throwing pop culture claims at relevant professors and getting their opinions as a new form of entertainment. I think it could do a lot for the breaking down of barriers between social classes, as well as for more and more interdisciplinary study of some of our larger problems, which are being consistently under-attended to simply for lack of collaboration between smart people who are geeks about totally different things, and who aren’t given the conditions or space  or social “okay” to interact outside of their specific & narrowly assigned fields and paradigms.

But I digress; of course, the fact that I digress makes me the perfect model for “my generation”, what with our increasing and systematic adoption of  ADD and ADHD-like characteristics.  I could prove this if I could only find a way to express to you how difficult it actually is to focus my attention here, and to do so long enough to get this all down in one stream of thought without losing it. I tell you. Squirrel!


Kettlemag, squirrel, image: Flickr / Airwolfhound
Image: Flickr / Airwolfhound

Getting back to the point, Jaden and Willow provide for us a nice, comfortable entrance into this larger and much trickier-to-navigate world of discussion on altered states of consciousness.

This discussion of which I speak has a wide range. It currently finds itself emanating over a pretty disorganized spectrum, beginning from increasing Western focus on “Eastern philosophy” (as the unnamed professor in this Vice article calls it, whilst expressing that its something he doesn’t know much about). It includes spiritual traditions that move beyond the traditionally referenced  Abrahamic ones of Judaism, Islam and Christianity to include varieties of Daoist, Confucianist, Buddhist, Sufi, Shamanistic, Hindu, Abrahamic mystic and so on.

Meditation and mindfulness are becoming a part of daily life

Already because of this, we can see increasing presence of things like meditation and yoga and of mindfulness increasingly in daily life. It would be apt, at this point, to mention that I am involved in Contemplative Studies at Brown University, where it was officially declared a field of study for the first time anywhere, just this year. It’s got a great core of resources for humanists and scientists alike:

With all of it’s potential to breed compassion in a modern context, the field has its very prominent challenges to work out, however. It seems that formalizing a field of study from notions that have most recently in the West been enjoying such pop cultural fame takes a toll on the legitimacy of the academic field. This is an issue being worked through, but even just in it’s early states this seems like the breeding ground for a lot of overdue conversations about what is and is not considered true, or valid, or legitimate, what it is to have the “research” behind something , and just what is included under this umbrella of study regarding things like “altered states of consciousness”.

The field ends up being a space in which lines are allowed to be blurred just enough, where the larger questions that different individual disciplines are fundamentally trying to answer can be addressed more directly, and with the ideas that have been ruminating on what often ends up being the outskirts of “traditional” academia.

Skepticism of mind-altering substances

On this latter idea, there are a few items that appear, certainly at first glance, to be red flags. In particular, it’s things that, within the relatively normative Western worldview through which myself and nearly all of my counterparts understand what we see, somehow still manage to claim their space on the “taboo” pedestal.

In particular, one of these more controversial topics that falls within the scope of consciousness, but that threatens a damper on the legitimacy of the field if not approached with care, is that of entheogenic esoterism. This is the term used to refer to the study and practice of using psychedelic drugs. The tradition has been linked to Hermetic philosophy and shamanistic contemplative practice most prominently, and contains within it a wide variety of localized observance in more isolated societies, many of which allow psychoactive properties of drugs like Ahyuasca (DMT) and psilocybin mushrooms and LSD to find a place in ordinary life in ways that are difficult to imagine, for most of us who have been brought up in a society whose most widely accepted drugs include tobacco and alcohol.

Those who study it enjoy a particularly heavy dose of skepticism, to be sure.  It’s evolution has been described as such:

“The criminalization of entheogenic substances…did very much to harm the development of a genuine religious movement. As a result, the focus of consciousness expansion moved from drug-induced ecstatic states in the 1960s, toward more focused and drugless methods like meditation in the 1970s.”

Further, questions have been raised regarding the ethnocentric nature of prejudice about this topic:

“…Prohibition hasn’t been the only obstacle faced by entheogens. Deep-rooted prejudices in the Western intellectual tradition have created controversy for entheogens being accepted as a legitimate religious experience. Post-Enlightenment thinking has internalized Protestant dogmas to the point that they are accepted as the way of things, with little reflection on the cultural biases that produce these dogmas.”

More on this here.

One of the more prominent voices in this field of study, referenced in the above article, is Terence Mckenna:


Now, I have my skepticism about the use of mind-altering substances in service of religious inquiry, as I have been conditioned to have. 
What I unequivically believe, however, is that new considerations for what constitutes “acceptable” and “legitimate” are increasingly neccesary moving forward. If we let it, contemplative studies might be capable of filling in the gaps in pre-existing knowledge by allowing us space to tap into what we already know and feel intuitively. The emerging study of contemplation and awareness more widely and formally will require a genuine balance. That is, it will require a balance between being critical of the information we choose to accept, and open-minded enough to recognize when our own socially relativistic conditioning is hindering us from accepting that which may be be part of reality, and just outside of our current scope of consciousness.
Image: Flickr / Ian Sane