If you’ve been paying even the slightest attention to her hundreds of reviews and Editor’s Notes for Foreword Reviews, you know that our Editor-in-Chief Michelle Anne Schingler writes with a thunderstick for a pen—especially when she’s put off by an author’s faulty reasoning in matters of religion, spiritualism, and the sprawling genre of body, mind, and spirit.
It’s not that she believes she has all the answers—though she is a grad of Harvard Divinity School—it’s simply her belief that weighty subjects deserve careful research, original ideas, and nuanced writing. Unfortunately, a significant number of BMS books don’t measure up to these exacting standards.
So, when Michelle assigned herself Amal Awad’s In My Past Life I Was Cleopatra, we expected the review to come back with all the politesse of a pissed off wolverine. Instead, she calls the book, “surprising and delightful,” and credits Amal for detailing how “the New Age is rooted in ancient traditions, but also how it is exploratory and daring.”
This was all too good to be true for our reviewer-author interview purposes, so we quickly reached out to Murdoch Books to help make it come true.
I consider myself to be a strong New Age skeptic, but was surprised to discover, while reading your book, that there are several places where I actually do align with what you call “woo woo.” What would you say to those whose initial responses to mentions of New Age practice are reticent, to help them get over the hump of knee-jerk disbelief?
It’s funny you should say that: I hear this a lot from readers. And it seems to confirm what I’ve long felt about spiritual pursuit or practice—there is a lot of discomfort around it, as well as confusion. It might be because we don’t like to be attached to things other people judge, or we don’t want to label ourselves, or we see it as weakness or vulnerability to have a practice.
But the beauty of any kind of spiritual longing or understanding is that it’s personal to you. You chart the course of your own explorations. And moreover, I think we are inherently seekers of some kind, or at least want to feel comfortable with a way of seeing life and the world around us, even if we are rational or a sceptic.
Certainly, at least in some areas of life, it serves us well to have these traits. But consider the emotional extremes of belief—a non-believer exerting so much effort to disprove others, for example, is still a belief system. Humans are inherently in need of anchors; we have personal belief systems, and communal ones that affect society more broadly. Spiritual belief impacts communities, but the non-spiritual subscribers can be as vocal, if not more, about how they see the world.
Kudos to you: after reading your book, though I’ve resisted doing so for five years, I made a visit to my local New Age bookstore, browsed their rock/crystal selection, and earnestly looked for a stone that “spoke” to me. (I left with a sunstone, for calm.) You really helped to open me up to the benefits of this kind of, if not belief, exploration—and I think part of that is that you make it clear that you don’t have to accept everything to accept some of it, and that you can even do so in concert with other belief systems. For you, it was self-help titles initially; for me, perhaps it’s pagan lore. Is it okay, or even beneficial, to pick-and-choose from those elements that speak to you?
That’s wonderful! This is exactly the kind of outcome I would hope for with readers of the book—to feel comfortable and safe to explore, to find things that speak to you whether they are physical objects or mythos and so on. I think picking and choosing is beneficial if you are truly evolving in the process. We need tools less than props; what I mean by that is, you selected a crystal with great consideration, you had an intention and a preferred outcome (calm). That’s thoughtful and useful because you were the engineer of that process. You will use that crystal in your own way but because of how you approached it, it will most likely work for you.
But using things as props is arguably more performative—displaying the idea of something rather than actually experiencing it, which does not benefit you in the long term. This is where pick-and-mix gets tricky; are you really exploring or just taste-testing things without genuine or long-lasting transformation? Is it a photo for social media you want or to sit with an experience and keep it for yourself?
Exploring is essential to finding what speaks to you. And as I discuss in the book, doing so with respect and appreciation for where some of these traditions have come from is also something to consider.
Would other New Age practitioners agree with you on that answer?
I think so. I know a few and while I don’t subscribe to the same ideas and beliefs as them, I’ve never felt they held this against me or needed me to accept everything they believed about life and the universe. However, I think when you get into more of a “group” setting with very particular modalities or approaches, it would be strange to expect ease if you don’t share in their belief system and ideas. And sometimes you deal with people who are pushy—they tell you things as fact because it’s what they believe, not necessarily what you need to hear.
The worst I’ve seen from people in New Age spaces is someone taking offence if you express skepticism, or being judgmental if you don’t agree—which is simply a human thing to do. But these spaces are generally open and the people who meet in them are usually in alignment with each other. The ones who are secure in themselves don’t worry about how others see them.
At times, what really stands out to me is how easily people who are woo-literate or woo-curious will find each other. Usually we have differing ideas, but there is an undercurrent of understanding we share that there is something more to all of this and we seek experiences that not only allow us to peer into the unseen and unknown, but to transform ourselves in the process.
Indeed, though you’ve found a spiritual home among New Age beliefs, you admit to being still resistant to some facets of it. Your book includes fair criticisms of the commercialization, overwhelming whiteness, and occasional misdirections of New Age practices. (For example: it’s clear you’re not a fan of Goop, or of readers who invent/guess at answers.) Is the kind of practice and discernment you engage in typical among New Age practitioners? Is it encouraged? Or: does New Age perhaps lend itself to a kind of cafeteria practice in a way that more rigid belief systems do not?
The New Age is not one single idea so it’s hard to say that it’s prescriptive though it can certainly push ways of thinking onto people looking answers (for example, positive thinking, manifestation, and law of attraction—though various older traditions already have ideas on these things, too).
Is it encouraged to be discerning? It depends on who you’re dealing with. I’ve met very pushy readers or practitioners who don’t hesitate to force blame onto me for whatever happens in my life. But then I’ve dealt with amazing people, who to me are very healing and compassionate, no matter the differences in our beliefs. Others are simply unapologetic and don’t see it as their task to convince people. When it comes to belief, you’re dealing with the same sensitivities across any system or practice. There are fiercely passionate people and those who are quieter and less focused on outside approval.
The New Age is so broad, and has so many groups within it, I do think you can take a discerning approach. Ultimately, the New Age is a smorgasbord of opportunities to transcend the ordinary through ritual, retreats, and a multitude of tools. This is both its strength and its weakness.
To be clear, I don’t think I am a “New Ager;” I am a curious person interested in how I can evolve in this life, and this requires both a grounded approach and an expansive mentality, one that taps into divinity and something greater than us. The New Age takes liberally from the old, which is why I say it’s not that new and it’s why, as you say, I am not completely resistant to it.
I think anyone who is truly into the New Age accepts general ideas of what is truthful or possible about life, our journeys as humans, and our links to what is unseen or not provable. But the New Age is heavily a modern interpretation of existing traditions, tapping into ideas of “oneness,” the quantum field, transcendence, spirit guides, oracular knowledge, star systems, and more.
Islam has the shahadah; Judaism has the shema; Christianity has the Our Father. Understanding that New Age practice is diffuse: if you had to articulate a creed for it, or even just for your practice of it, how would it read?
This is a great question. A popular thought is that we are not humans having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience (i.e., we incarnate, we’re energetic beings). But this isn’t new. At the heart of New Age are existing traditions that talk about something similar in their discussions of oneness, of a field of energy of which we are a part. Rumi talked about the field, as do other spiritual traditions and religions. The oneness idea is common, and the idea of incarnating is not a New Age invention.
As mentioned earlier, the New Age is too broad to be definitive, but it certainly has an undercurrent of central ideas that sit high on the woo spectrum. While it delves into existing ideas, it also suggests we’re descended from star families, for example. We’re celestials on earth. A popular idea for people who feel like outsiders is that they are “starseeds.” This type of mythology isn’t necessarily harmful, but is it helpful? Or does it make a person feel less “human” and therefore does not lead to personal transformation? You’d have to ask someone who believes in this idea.
You write about how you did not initially consider your husband as a potential romantic partner, in part, because there would be interfaith challenges. Do you consider your relationship now to be interfaith, and if so, how do you and he navigate those complications?
My husband converted to the religion as I could not have married him Islamically otherwise. In terms of our everyday lives though, I don’t think either of us are “religious.” However, he is not a seeker like I am; he is very grounded in that sense, but also open-minded. He does see some things similarly to me—that many ideas can be true, that humans need various interpretations of life and how to navigate it, and that we are not here to suffer. I often find that things he says align very clearly with teachings from spiritual people I interact with. So while I don’t think we are the same, it’s not an issue, which is a good thing because it means we don’t look to each other to affirm our ideas of life.
If you could immediately dispel one common misunderstanding about the New Age, what would it be, and how would you do so?
If I may, three things: that the New Age is a single, new belief system; that all New Age practitioners are scam artists; and anyone interested in New Age practices can’t apply logic or be skeptical. These are liberally-applied judgments that really lack any depth of understanding or nuance, and create tension for those who are born into spiritual traditions and religions.
We should always be assessing things, asking questions and doing the research. If a cynic wants to tear someone down for being curious and wanting to find a way into their spirituality or even just mental wellbeing, it says more about the cynic than the person finding practices that work for them.
Having had more time to think about it, do you think it WAS a fairy who nudged you down Merlin’s hill?
This made me laugh! I still don’t know. This is the tricky thing about being a sceptic—you can ask a lot of questions, but you don’t always get the answers. But I won’t be going back to the Tor in a hurry!
Michelle Anne Schingler