A new age attitude

Southwest Florida abounds with New Age spirit through classes and more, but not everyone thinks it’s a positive move
Naples Daily News, Jan. 18, 2003

New Age spirituality has gone mainstream.

What once was thought of as out of the ordinary or even off the wall has become acceptable. It’s on bookshelves, mentioned on television, dissected in the media, touted on Web sites and supported as well as shunned in houses of worship.

Although not known for being on the cusp of trends, Southwest Florida seems to be riding on its own New Age wave. There are tarot cards for the buying, crystals, Reiki and astrology information, all available for Southwest Floridians wanting to know more. But there are also local courses in meditation and yoga as well as magazines and businesses that tout helping people in their quest for balance in mind, body and spirit.

New Age spirituality, also known as self-spirituality, is different from formal religions in that there is no Bible or other holy text, no specific membership or clergy. As the Web site religioustolerance.org puts it, it’s a “free-flowing spiritual movement” with practitioners who pick and choose a variety of beliefs.

Although they disagree on much, theologians and practitioners of New Age spirituality seem to agree on one thing: that it is nothing really new. The ideas and philosophies are taken from some Eastern philosophies and religions that have been around since the beginning of time. There was, however, quite a bit of New Age interest in the 1970s (during and after the Vietnam War) as a reaction against what some perceived as Christianity‘s failure to provide spiritual and ethical guidance for the future.

The reason for today’s New Age interest isn’t that simple. Here in Southwest Florida, it depends who you ask.

To Eleanor Baldwin, who opened her Naples business Gemini Moon Hair Emporium almost a year ago, “It’s an open thing … There’s no certain belief … The approach of this whole thing is freedom. They’re becoming independent and creative in their thoughts.”

“I think there’s an awakening that I’m noticing. They’re (interested New Agers) forming a group. It’s not a cult, but a group of sorts.”

That’s one reason Baldwin opened Gemini Moon in the first place. It’s not a typical salon. Oh, there are the numerous swivel chairs, mirrors along the wall and gobs of hair products. But the moment a customer walks in he is greeted by the aroma of fresh incense, an array of sun and moon decor and a smiling Baldwin who offers a firm handshake.

“This is a place to get information,” she says. She’s always had vast interests and she wanted to bring them all together in one place. “A hairdresser is someone you can talk to. A salon is a place to relax.” So adding after-hour programs, such as a course on miracles, seemed to fit right in with her plans.

Baldwin has lived in Naples since 1972 and seen the changes, good and bad. “People are searching for some realness,” she says. “People are trying to tap into each other. I think they’re looking for a center … I wanted to be a connection place here.”

The way she sees it, “Spirituality is finding your own way.” And she says too many people these days have a group mentality of set beliefs.

“A lot of it is family-induced,” she says. “It’s great seeing people honoring their family. But don’t stop your growth.” She says it’s important to keep searching. It doesn’t matter what you believe “as long as you’re into expanding the mind.”

That’s the way Albert Wingate, co-senior minister at Unity of Naples Church, sees it.

The church prides itself not only in teaching the universal principles and spiritual values of Jesus, its provides classes and groups that expand the mind, body and soul. The church offers such courses as yoga, a hands-on healing called Reiki healing, Buddhist meditation and a spiritual thought system called “A Course in Miracles.” There are also special programs, like a natural health series.

“We’re not just physical bodies. We’re not just spirits,” he says. “You don’t do yourself justice if you don’t think the two are linked. There has to be an awareness of mind, body and spirit.”

As Wingate sees it, “You need to have something you can believe in bigger than yourself.”

As for what has sparked the national new interest in New Age spirituality, Wingate isn’t sure. There are a variety of authors that come to mind, but the biggest name is Deepak Chopra, the author of “How to Know God” and 29 other books. Wingate’s church is planning to bring Chopra to Southwest Florida Feb. 22. The event will take place at Gulf Coast High School from 7:30-10:30 p.m.

“He’s been responsible for a lot of resurgence. He’s able to integrate some of the scientific stuff. He’s able to bring things together,” Wingate says.

Chopra’s fans have called him a “New Age” prophet and “America’s head cleric of the soul.” His cynics on Web sites and in print have called him a fake who spouts mumbo jumbo that doesn’t help anyone, but lines his pockets with cash.

To that, Wingate says, “There’s some glitz to him, but there’s been a lot of good.” He’s shown people they need to be centered.

As with anything, Wingate says those interested in New Age philosophies shouldn’t just believe anything and everything that they read or hear.

“What I caution folks is giving power to any outside object. Don’t let this object tell you what to feel.” Like astrology or tarot cards. Wingate says both can be interesting, but “Don’t let it control your life. Control your own life.”

Teri Lynn Clark and her daughter, Christy Burkhead, believe that. The two started Life Design Institute, A Center for Well-being, to help people find their own way.

“We don’t give our spirit any time,” and that’s essential for growth as well as health, Clark says.

Life Design Institute, which is run out of their homes in Bonita Springs, provides workshops that combine body, mind and spirit. It’s all about finding your own life path.

Clark’s courses start with telling her own story of losing her way. Then they look at the participants’ beliefs, do lots of mental as well as physical exercises, treasure mapping and meditation. The goal is finding change.

“Change is all part of freedom,” Clark says. “Look at your life. It can be whatever you want. Think happy thoughts. Be happy. Don’t judge. It will all come back to you tenfold.”

If she sounds positive and upbeat, that’s because Clark says she’s come a long way on her own path of self discovery. “This has been a phenomenal growth experience,” she says. “The power is in the present moment. You can’t change until you accept.”

And that wasn’t easy even for her. After years in the corporate world and two failed marriages, she started looking at her life and not liking what she saw. “I wanted to believe what was inside of me,” she says.

Now after years of training as a life enrichment coach — as well as finding true love — she and her daughter want to help others find their own paths. It’s only a part-time job these days, but Clark sees it becoming more as word of what she and her daughter are trying to accomplish gets around and their Web site, www.lifedesigninstitute.net, is checked out. The next daylong workshop is set for February. No firm date has been set yet.

Her thoughts on New Age spirituality as a whole are positive. There are parts she doesn’t like, or necessarily believe, but “it’s like religion. There’s a piece of truth in every religion,” Clark says. “People are looking for truth.”

Truth is in the eye of the beholder, though, especially when discussing something like New Age spirituality.

“It’s a catchy thing. A lot of it is not new at all,” says the Rev. Timothy Navin, pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church, noting there is a lot of history to New Age philosophies that some people don’t seem to see.

Mostly, he says, interest in any type of spirituality is good. “These things can all help people open minds and heart.

“From my perspective as a Catholic priest, any spirituality has to lead us to the Lord. That isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, though.”

But he cautions that at the core of Western culture is community. “Without a sense that we’re a community of faith, there’s a great loss.” And some of the New Age thoughts of singleness or oneness before all else don’t jive with the thoughts of Western culture and thinking of others.

Navin also noted that people have to be cautious of superstition that pops up in New Age spirituality. Things such as tarot cards, fortune tellings and such are not in the best interest of people in search of true spirituality, he says.

These days, he says, churches should be open to diversity, but also united for the common good. Most importantly, Navin says, people should remember, “Life is a journey.” And it is part of that journey that we all learn things along the way that help us grow.

“People aren’t set in concrete,” he says. “We have to be ready for a surprising thing that nobody expected.”

The Rev. Kathleen Korb, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples, sees New Age spirituality a little differently. She doesn’t see any of it as positive or helpful.

“It’s a danger to us … That means you can believe anything you want to,” she says.

Korb’s not trying to be difficult or unfeeling. She says she’s very open minded and inclusionary in her religious views. In the Unitarian church she says, “Our job is to create an environment where people can be free but make valid choices for this universe we’re in.

“I don’t close my mind to the idea those things can be real; it’s whether or not it’s religious.”

For instance, Korb says holistic health is an idea with merit. But other New Age ideas have little redeeming value.

Korb says the bottom line is that people are very narcissistic these days, only thinking of themselves and their needs. “To say you’re a spiritual person is like saying ‘I’m wise.’ I think being spiritual is very important. To me, being spiritual is connecting to and being of service to that which is holy.” And New Age spirituality isn’t that way, she says.

New Age spirituality refuses to think critically, she says. Not to say it’s not interesting. She loves tarot cards. Not only are they beautiful, they represent an interesting tradition, she says. (Various Web sites say the tarot originated in northern Italy early in the 15th century. The earliest cards were lavish hand-painted decks from the courts of the nobility.)

But tradition isn’t reality. The world is going through a profound change in the way we see religion and spirituality, she says. “We have to find that middle ground.”

“People seem to think they can shape the universe to fit their needs,” and that’s just not the way it is, she says. “There’s a whole world outside themselves (over) which they have no control.” The bottom line, as Korb sees it, is: “It’s really juvenile. It’s time to grow up.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday January 18, 2003.
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