CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

The Summoning of Happiness:
on the tragic aspect of the New Age rituals of cure

by Leila Amaral [1]
A paper presented at the 2001 International Conference in London

The aim of this study is to show the relationship between New Age spirituality and cure. Through the interpretation of a number of rituals, known as workshops[2], I intend to develop the following argument: enjoyment and pain form part of this spirituality, because they appear as effective causal conditions of the required spiritual transformation. In short, I intend to draw attention to two groups of ethical elements which emerge from the rituals: a) those which indicate a refusal of the logic of power by which relationships of loss and gain, oppression and resistance work together, and b) those related to games and playing. Both groups are the result of volatile situations experienced by the participants. Situations which are creative/destructive because they offer ritual means of discerning, in suffering, in pain and in decadent situations of their lives, the opportunity of being able to summon happiness.

Suffering, Cure, New Age Spirituality.



From the interpretation of an ethnographic report - the healing circle - I intend to discuss the spiritual character of healing experiences in the New Age religious complex. I shall argue that, in this religious conception, the idea of "cure" constitutes the real meaning of self-discovery and presupposes, for its effectiveness, the experience of "suffering" and of "pain". The attempt in New Age experiences is to suppress not the "suffering" but the "illness", that which acts as the counter-metaphor of this discovery; that is, the situation in which the person loses himself or herself. Suffering is not to be suppressed; on the contrary, it should be sought for and experienced - made into life. To discover oneself in pain and suffering is the condition to guarantee the very expansion of existence or, in the religious terminology, "the eternity of existence".


1- The Workshops: the present as the representation of what is essential in time.

"Workshop" is the most widely-used term to designate spiritual experiences - whether magic, therapeutic or artistic - in the New Age universe. They are instruments offered to people or groups of people with the aim of aiding the liberation of the "full potential of life", setting it in movement and activating dynamics which are a feature of it, as "forces in circulation". I would say that the choice of the term "vivência" [workshop] is made in a clear allusion to the present moment of the experience as the representation of what is essential in time.

The aim of these experiences is to offer a ritual opportunity for the participant to assume control of the past in terms of the present, not only of the present currently being lived, but on behalf of the "dynamics of the present", that is, of the free and constant becoming of the "full potential". Not the past - the crystalized maintenance of an identity of the being - nor the future - the definitive conclusion of the identity of the being - nor the present - understood as the stagnation of an identity of the being - but the dynamics of the present, pointing toward a reality of the constant "becoming" (or, rather of the "being").

The "spirit" is not seen, from this point of view, as an entirety accomplished in a particular place or time, to be discovered in its origins or rediscovered at some future time, but as the "full potential of life". With this idea of time (the time of the experience) and of sacred as being "full potential", a notion of dispersion of the spirit is asserted and, as a result, of "unity" as "virtual totality", opposed to any type of "closed identity", whether collective or individual.

2- The Confrontation with pain or From the love of one’s fellow to the otherness of the Other

These "workshops" seek to change the ego into self; change an individual as a "closed or fixed identity" into an individual as an "open identity", in tune with the spiritual forces in operation, unleashed by the nature of the facilitator and by the communication which is established between the participants. The self is, then, something "beyond", felt in and by the individual, through the ego (the individual limited by culture or tradition), but like an extrapolation of the ego itself, experienced ritually by the revitalizing vibration of one’s body in communication with the "Other" and "without limits".

But the therapeutic nature of these "workshops", often full of suffering, weeping and affliction, does not take away from them the character of enjoyment, pleasure and happiness. The atmosphere of playfulness, cheerfulness, laughter and fun helps to free seriousness; to establish a place of enjoyment, where one can express frankly to oneself the problems of life, even with the right to weeping, convulsions and strong commotions, as part of these "workshops". The suffering is happy because it incorporates destruction and renovation, and encourages playing, as Schechner would say.

So, for example, in the Healing Circle - a ritual of suffering as I was led to interpret one of these "workshops" - the ritual process concentrates, from the beginning to its climax, on the dissolution of the ego, to finally celebrate the rediscovery of one’s spirit, the true self. This ritual effect is achieved through games, massage and creative visualization, especially experiences of "the discovery of the inner child", "return to past lives" and "shamanic journeys".

From the start, the games lead the individual to immerge into an atmosphere of excitement and frenzy unleashed by bodily sensations aroused by laughter, dances, shouts, strolls, long periods of silence, absence of sight, the use of caresses, massage, aromas, warm collisions and euphoric embraces. Games which arouse ardour and the receptive loosening of one’s facial expressions. Ritual gestures, without words or pictures, encourage participants to explore the atmosphere around them, encourage one participant to lead another and encourage them to give themselves up to the care that is offered them.

The aim of this type of experience is to feel the entire presence of the atmosphere and the other participants; the atmosphere where things and people are; the sensual element that can be explored by one’s perception. I would say, using an expression of Lingis, that through these games they try to reach what language cannot say or categorize, that is, the "nonthings" in which things are formed; "the sensual element which sensibility perceives and in which perception establishes some directions and positions things". They seek that which is perceived in the pure sense of depth, not through a movement motivated by need or will, nor through a movement which is searching for content, but through a movement of the immersion in completeness, by means of "a sensual pact designated by the word pleasure" (Lingis, 1994, p.122-125).

In New Age language, what is ritualized with these sensations is a "spiritual meeting", a full meeting of the individual with extraordinary forces, the "nonthings" or "pure energy", in which each participant and his partners are formed. It is a meeting which takes place not through well-delineated individual identities or in the effort to be recognized or named, but through sensations that each person explores in himself and in the others, each participant discovering himself also as a nonthing - like a feature that does not fit in any category. These sensations that the games arouse lead people to perceive themselves and the others as "spirit", or rather, taking part in the very nature of the "spirit" - being more than a being who is simply a member or representative of a category, class, religion, sex or profession, to be felt and to feel oneself involved in the utterness of the "nonthing". The sensation is of an "acute strangeness", one of the participants told us. Through these games, when the participants experience situations of risk with their partners they exchange not messages but energy, apparent in the vitality of their faces, in the heat of their bodies and in the tone of their voices.

But the luminosity and vitality which radiates in their faces with these initial games gives way to melancholic faces, moist eyes, restrained voices, wavering respiration, trembling hands and tight lips. This change is brought about by techniques aimed at unleashing in the participants memories of degrading and decadent situations in their daily life, in the near or distant past, affecting their physical bodies and their relationships.

So, on the first day one of the participants might comment: "I started the day in a positive and very happy state of mind, feeling full of love and good thoughts". As the workshop went on his comments would gradually change to show an ambivalent state: happiness which allows itself to be affected by the suffering around.

In the first visualizations this participant might perceive his body as "a safe roomy place" - like a cocoon. In subsequent ones he might comment that the sobs, the cries of anguish, suffering and anger which came from the atmosphere around made him discover himself "wanting to absorb the suffering that came from the others".

This is the case because the high point of the great majority of healing workshops, such as the Healing Circle, consist of creating a situation where the person is exposed to the fragility, susceptibility and vulnerability of each of the people involved, in a face to face relationship of mutual assistance. The suffering and pain of each of them is shared intensely when all the identities are shaken, relativized or minimized; when the exposure to suffering breaks down excessive confidence in the individual person and makes him feel a "feature" that does not fit in any category, to feel and be felt in the utterness of the encounter, I would say, using an expression of Levinas, with the "face" of the other person as an imperative.

The encounter, then, is not to do with the assertion of the capacity, identity or power of each of the participants over the others. Nor is it to do with the demand for answers in terms of ideas, meanings or shared codes. It is not their convictions, judgements or doctrines which require replies, but their disarmed fragility, the susceptibility and mortality of each of them as they are exposed to loss and sacrifice. Apart from pain, experienced to the point of fatigue and exhaustion, the people have nothing in common. It is only "compassion" which enables each of them to take part in the other’s suffering.

The following experiences, also carried out in pairs, made this participant feel sadder and sadder, but "not about any particular event or person, just totally wretched" (...) "in an ocean of sorrows" (p.159). When the facilitator asked him to share his experience, he comments on his state of melancholy "a pain which was not entirely without beauty".

" (...) was a suffering that I often felt in my heart and that was not entirely without beauty; it had to do with the love I felt and with the suffering I had absorbed both from what had happened with the group and from what I was learning about myself" (SR, p.259).

Coming out of the "cocoon" is, therefore, to come out of the "past safe space" of oneself; to put oneself in risk in and for ones emotions and relationships, in order to subsequently turn oneself into an empty space.

I would say that the experiences in the Healing Circle propitiate, in the sequence of the ritual, the dissolution, the death, the annihilation of the ego as a condition for the reencounter with the self - the recovery of the spirit, that is, the "cure".

The reencounter with the self comes about, in the ritual process, through neo-shamanic techniques, and it is a moment which is consecrated to the celebration of each participant’s inner power, in direct contact with the supernatural. This encounter provides the shaman - in the case of New Age, all the participants of the workshop - with the ability to impose alternative ways of ordering the chaos that is placed before their eyes, in those borderline situations in which the sense is not clear.

If the inner space is now an empty space, filling it would be the act which would lead to the cure. It remains for us to inquire as to the nature of the material used in this act. One of the participants expresses himself using metaphors like that of the "egg" and of the "seed", in a clear allusion to the virtual state of constant becoming. The rediscovery of the spirit therefore does not indicate the passage from one definitive state to another.

Confirming this idea, the fifth day of the workshop - the final celebration with a strong spiritual connotation - takes place in a circle formed by the participants, the centre of which is symbolically represented as an empty place: "part of every existence which is full of nothing; the Centre which links the four points of the compass and which is considered the position of the most complete awareness."


Final Considerations:

In the first place it must be stressed that in the Healing Circle, the genuine cure - understood as the "recovery of the lost spirit" - is represented by the creation of an encounter which happens together with the dilution of the ego, with the ritual death of strong rigid identities; of the sentimental apprehension of the relativity of identities and of one’s incomplete fragile being.

The possibility of recovering the "spirit of being", identified with the "spirit", starts to become reality, in the sequence of the "workshop", after intense experiences which create an atmosphere of "full encounter", beyond substantive classifications and definitions, in the something beyond of the Other and of oneself. An encounter with the "face" of the other person as a singularity, like a feature that doesn’t belong to any category. Participants experience the same in relation to themselves, which is interpreted in the context of the "workshop" as the recovery of the spirit.

The condition for entering into the something beyond of the Other person and of oneself, in New Age language, is to allow oneself to be absorbed by the pain of the Other and get lost in that pain. This is done through the ego to reach the self - the true I - which in turn is the acknowledgement of the "spirit" which inhabits man.

I would say, then, that in this spirituality, to encounter the spirit is to enter into the something beyond outside the ego, it is to encounter the otherness of the Other and of oneself. By this means, it is possible to compare the notion of something beyond of the other, and therefore one’s own, too, with the notion of transcendency. In this spirituality there would not be a distant God whose likeness and image is inherited by men. What there is, in the most fundamenting "truth" of things, is an emptiness of substance common to everyone, which comes about with the absence of immobility of the experience. What attracted our attention in the development of this Healing Circle is this idea of acknowledging the otherness of the Other and not of oneself in the next person or of another person similar to oneself. What the ritual causes to emerge is this notion of recognizing "oneself" in the absence of a "oneself".

The climax of these rituals is reached, then, when you discover that you are not you, by identifying with "another" that is not the ego - that is, with a nature not yet defined by the codes of culture and society. It is at this time that the person tries to live "realistically" this morality of constant "becoming", or the "passage" as a value, with no resistance to one’s own otherness and to the "face" of the Other as a "presence". It is the confrontation with pain which appears, in this case, as the experience which can offer the participants a curve to the uninterrupted advance in one direction.

Secondly, there is an outstanding conception which spreads out through this religious imagination: that of a perpetual unfinishing of life, which is expressed, on the personal level, by a type of mood which I would tend to characterize as melancholic optimism, an emotional reaction which is necessary for the perennial recreation of the spirit.

Therefore, I would stress that there is no redeeming effect in the New Age rituals. The performance of suffering is the way by which people experience an epistemology of imperfection and impermanence, doing justice to that conception of the present as the representation of what is essential in time.

I would say that in this case the "redemption", rather than the "glorious dénouement" is not to get anywhere. "Disease", as a metaphor of "evil" - the situation in which the person loses himself — is precisely setting statically in some place or state (it is being) whereas "good", "what is beautiful" or "what is real" is to perceive the movement in oneself and by oneself and to set oneself in movement (it is a continual becoming).

Thirdly, I would tend to conclude that the New Age spiritual universe conceals a tragic dimension of the human condition and which is expressed through a type of indecisive stuttering between the search for tranquility and for turmoil , for stability and for transgression.

Happiness, so widely proclaimed in the optimistic facet of New Age discourse, would not come, then, from the belief in being able to find a way or discover a meaning for life. Happiness would come from the awareness of the absurdity of life. It is not so much the "meaning of life" but rather the "absurdity of life" that is asserted in New Age performances, through the insistent harping on crisis, the constant need to run risks, to give oneself up without fear to borderline experiences and relive the decadent and degrading situations of one’s personal life. It is because "everything can be turned round" that "change is always there".

Finally, I draw attention to the performance of melancholy: an enormous sadness that is not entirely without beauty.

The hidden beauty of melancholy seems to come from the tragic nature of this experience of the intrinsically imperfect nature of life, whose general principle, expressed in spiritual healing experiences, is the intentional introduction of instability into systems which are apparently stable, forcing the search for a new stability as a result of finding the world strange and by the demand for self-improvement.

So to jump out of the ring of unhappiness does not mean to reach a state of self-contained happiness, but to attain happiness which allows itself to be affected by the "angel of fragility", that state which nurtures the imagination of the participants towards a continual inner change.

Bibliographical References

AFONSO, C. A. O Aparicional. Departamento de Antropologia / Universidade de Coimbra, (dat.), 1999.

BAKHTIN, M. A cultura popular na Idade Média e no renascimento - o contexto de François Rabelais. São Paulo, Hucitec, 1993.

GADAMER, H-G. A atualidade do Belo: A arte como jogo, símbolo e festa. Rio de Janeiro, Tempo Brasileiro, 1985.

LINGIS, A. The community of those who have nothing in common. Indianopolis, Indiana University Press, 1994.

NEEDHAM, N. Percussion and transition. Man: The journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 2(4), p.606-614, 1967.

SCHECHNER, R. The future of ritual: writings on culture and performance. London, Routledge, 1993.

VELHO, O. O Ensaio herético sobre a atualidade da gnose. Horizontes Antropológicos, ano 4, n.8, p.34-52, 1998

[1]  Doctorate in Social Anthropology, lecturer at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, MG, Brazil

[2] "Vivência"  expresses the concept of living an experience; "workshop"  is the term normally used in English, but although it has the idea of a practical, hands-on experience, it doesn't give quite the same idea.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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