I go to the games, but haven’t bought the season ticket – that’s how I’d describe my new age hippy status. Almost four years ago now, a friend recommended I go to a yoga class and since then there has been no looking back. Conversations with strangers about being more open in one hip than another, cold water swimming in pond full of carp and healing via a pendulum have all happened.
In many ways it’s a natural fit – I love jasmine green tea, stretching and opening my mind to the simplicity and exploration that spirituality brings. But amidst the teachings and awakenings and transformations, the new age is a heterotopia of purification, where participants are initiated through performing ritualised acts. Yoga, meditation, dietary awareness and mantras are all rituals that grant people access to the privileged community of increased consciousness. Unlike a utopia, which hovers in an idealised, non-space; heterotopias exist in real space. Wholefoods, the yoga studio and my beloved bathing pond are all heterotopias, where customers engage in aspects of utopian living.
I’ve always been sceptical of utopias – and heterotopias of purification too – for that matter. They can be overly controlling, devoid of fun and never far, lurks the shadow of their opposite, the dystopia, where rule-making becomes totalitarian. The way that some devotees swallow spiritual teachings or lifestyle prescriptions without questioning them, testing them to see if they stretch with the contours of their learned experience, makes me deeply uncomfortable. The privileging of another’s wisdom over one’s own; rules and restrictions over openness to the chaos of life, can have cultish consequences.
But, it can also produce incredibly comic scenarios: where ritualism, prejudice against the unenlightened and just plain diva-ism reach hysterical levels. I find myself searching for a word that describes a utopia that’s become an anxious caricature of itself; perhaps more satirical than Orwellian? Consider the following…
Top 5 Craics* in Utopia
1. The Dietary Despot
Location: A sugar-free bakery
I have to say, this is not a risqué place: people who don’t think they will die today, i.e. the overly cautious, go here, with one notable exception… The long-necked, dancery guy who is so ecstatic to be in a haven of virtuous treats that he’s coating his companion’s arms and neck in a flutter of kisses. Then he stares intently at the waitress from across the counter and says, ‘Look, I’ve been sugar free for five years. If I find there’s any added sugar, I’ll come back and burn the place down!’ My Greek-dar suddenly goes off. I blink, not being able to square how you’d get my aunt’s temperament in this gazelle’s physique.
2. The Citizen of the Universe
Location: Nowhere near a polling station
I hear of an occasion where one lovely, enlightened person decided not to vote in the June election because she believes that life on earth is controlled by extra terrestrial activity; therefore, politicians have no power. While the past year’s politics don’t leave me unconvinced that aliens have been interfering, you simply gotta vote for the people making the laws which affect you everyday. Even if someone else is ruling them…
3. The Utopian Enterprise: Stage I
Location: Soon to be your local high-street
You heard it here first, but there are plans to open a vegan dog cafe, with rescue dogs trailing around its delicate punters (and Simon Cowell somehow being involved). A few questions here: What would the dogs, hungry and not biologically vegan, eat? In the absence of corned beef, might they tuck into the vegans, or is Simon Cowell offering himself as bait?
4. The Utopian Enterprise: Stage II
Location: Hunched over a Mac on a rainy day
A Joan Baez look-alike is giving dictation to a typist, while she mooches listlessly on a sofa. I mean dictation, like you see bosses giving their secretaries in 1940s film noir. This is a phenomenon I’ve never seen in real space and I’m fascinated. ‘Those of you who know me, know I like a real transformation… you will ascend the mountain of your consciousness…. the largest Shiva temple complex in the world’ she drawls out flatly, plugging her retreat, as her assistant faithfully types. Power lingo. Hierarchies. This is when yoga enters the marketplace and you have to persuade persuade persuade to get those followers to your gig; tell them this is practice, but not as you know it.
5. The Damned
Location: Thursday, just before rush hour.
A yoga teacher not exactly keen to commute across town to teach a group of city women: ‘It’s not yin yoga they need, it’s Jesus!’ Some (corporate) folks are so beyond guidance, they need an actual Saviour.
I haven’t written this piece to expose new age spirituality or mindful living as fraud – they aren’t – but because I’m genuinely intrigued at how the new age and human nature coexist. The new age’s purifying heterotopia has features of other institutions: egos (some ginormous, some just right); prejudice against those who don’t abide by its rules and a desperate search for something beyond the mundane. I think these craics, clumsy lapses from grace, show the humanity of new age seeking; the value of questioning and even doubt within a spiritual practice. Maybe it’s okay to chose which games you go to, not buy the season ticket wholesale.
*Craic, which I’ve bastardised in a plural form, punning on the English ‘crack’, is an untranslatable Irish word for fun/ gossip/ debauchery