New Age Beliefs and Narcissism

I read an interesting article in the Summer 1989 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer dealing with the new age's connection with the consumer culture. In short, author Jay Rosen makes a thorough analysis between the claims of the consumer market and the claims of the new age.

According to Rosen, narcissists are the primary recruits and promoters of the new age. Contrary to popular belief, narcissists are not people who are over-confident and have excessive ego, but are people who have a weak sense of self, a thin attatchment to tradition or community, and inability to form lasting relationships or take comfort in their past. The narcissist is a person who is desperately searching for their "true" or stable self; they want to find some reason to their life, for they usually feel that their past has been insignificant.

Narcissists traditionally have been the cheif targets of all consumer movements thoughout the 20th century -- the message from most commercial advertisements say "buy this product and change your life!" "Buy the right shampoo, zit-medication, soap or aftershave lotion and you will transform your life into something wonderful" is the message of consumerism, usually typified by the unattractive, stringy-haired blonde using a new shampoo and is, in the course of seconds, transformed into a beautiful wavy-haired knock-out with a handsome hunk holding her hand. Indeed, popular new age promotions echo this, but are more grandiose; they say "find the right guru, technique, beliefs, therapy or enlightened outlook, and transform THE WORLD!"

Marilyn Furguson's book "The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and social transformation in the 80's" would best be re-subtitled "personal transformation AS social transformation", for that is the message inherent in her and other new age books. For the narcissist, who is in need of distinguishing themselves from "average" people, this is a clarion call. New age cliches such as "You have unlimited potential", "You are unique", "you have untapped creative power", and "You are a divine being" seem to confirm the narcissist's deepest thoughts, that they are the special person in the crowd, that they deserve to be the center of attention, or that they are above average people.

Indeed, sociologist Christopher Lasch, author of "The Culture of Narcissism" and "The Minimal Self", confirms this by arguing that Narcissism is not only a clinical condition, but a cultural one as well. Many popular personalities in our modern culture actually encourage narcissism by their lifestyles. For young people, rock-and-roll teen-idols become people to emmulate, even worship. We've all seen the way some teens dress like and adorn their rooms with memorabilia of their favorite rock groups.

other forces that promote narcissism include:

(1) the uprooting power of modern capitalism, which continually weakens and destroys inherited ways of life (the devaluation of the past in a culture where mobility and change are valued)
(2) the emphasis placed on manipulative charm and charisma in business, politics, and social life
(3) the cult of celebrity encouraged by mass media
(4) The consumer culture with it's seductive images of abundance and instant pleasure
All working together, these social forces constitute a culture-wide attack on a secure sense of self, making those with weak egos and overheated fantasies almost too familiar to the American scene.

I can see the connection -- people in need of finding their "self", proving their worth to society, or just being satisfied with life often turn to the new age because it promises that everyone is a special person, capable of godly admiration. Maybe people like myself who are repulsed by the new age because many people who are involved in it seem to have many of the same social problems that the new age claims to solve. In any case, I think Rosen's argument is a very good one. Most of the guru-followers and armchair-shamans that you will meet are kooky individuals, who are a few nickels short of a dollar.