Mitch Horowitz, Author of the Month for August 2009
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (cont.)
By Mitch Horowitz
As thought movements often do, New Thought began with the experience of one individual. A stolid New England clockmaker named Phineas Quimby noticed that his tuberculosis seemed to ease whenever he took a refreshing carriage ride in the Maine countryside. Quimby discovered that as his spirits lifted, so did his illness. Eventually, he was completely cured. Quimby began to study the practice of Mesmerism - in which a subject could be placed into a suggestive trance - and grew fascinated with the health effects of the mind. By 1859, he had devised a philosophy of "mental healing" and began using it to treat the ill. While Quimby focused primarily on the mind's power over disease, he increasingly came to view the subconscious as an extension of the Divine, through which a person could, with the proper training and understanding, construct outer circumstance. His ideas quickly found influence: Quimby treated a patient named Mary Baker Eddy, who went on to establish one of the nation's most significant new religions, Christian Science.
But it was not within any single religion that Quimby's ideas took flight. Indeed, the taciturn Mrs. Eddy (as followers called her) soon denounced her old mentor as little more than a carnival Mesmerist. Nonetheless, his "mental healing" philosophy seemed to ride the winds all across America, winning far-flung adherents and evangelizers who in turn brought their own novel twists to it. It was these inheritors who morphed into the loosely bound psycho-spiritual school known by the late nineteenth century as New Thought. In later decades, this belief system attained mass popularity in the form of Norman Vincent Peale's "power of positive thinking." As such, it reached into nearly every church, living room, and bookstore in America.
Ironically, few Americans today have heard the term or of the movement called New Thought. Its ideas have been so widely adopted that the movement itself - which persists in metaphysical churches throughout America, sometimes under the names of Unity or Religious Science - has become almost unseen. Americans like ideas, but not necessarily movements, which they discard like outer wrapping once an idea has been embraced. Moreover, secularized elements of the New Thought philosophy had already appeared by the last decade of the nineteenth century and successfully vied for influence with the more religiously inspired variants. By the mid-twentieth century, non-religious figures like Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich) rode the wings of New Thought to worldwide fame. Today, every life coach, motivational speaker, and self-help program uses the concept of an attitudinal approach to success, of mind over circumstance, and so on. It is easy to forget that this now-familiar concept was very much a mystical philosophy at its birth.
The New Age and Beyond
Amid the material boom of post-War America, the occult seemed sidelined for a time. But by the 1960s, its rumblings were heard again. The early uses of psychedelics appeared to promise the existence of another world just beyond the periphery of our ordinary vision. The concurrent thought revolution brought on by youth culture - with its distrust of staid belief systems - created a resurgence of interest in Eastern spirituality and occultism. By the late 1960s, two factors - the drive toward self-actualization and the acceleration of communication - shook up all aspects of America's religious geography, feeding alternative religious systems from witchcraft to Zen Buddhism to Taoism. In short order, the vast, sprawling term "New Age" entered the popular lexicon, with a meaning malleable to every acolyte and critic.
A core tenet of the New Age was a belief in the fateful convergence of all religious systems, resulting in an era of limitless human potential. Above all, however, the religious opening of the late sixties and early seventies demanded that spiritual teachings be personally useful. The growth in "transpersonal" or meaning-based psychology signaled a bridging of the rupture declared by Freud between the psychological and the religious. Psychology could no longer limit the aims of life to love and work; rather, the questions of purposeful existence had entered the therapist's office - and were there to stay. Likewise, religion was no longer expected to prepare followers for the afterworld, but had to satisfy the flock's needs in the present. First at the margins and increasingly within the mainstream, religion was compelled to address the psychological needs and aspirations of the individual seeker. Even evangelical movements in the early twenty-first century embraced this role. Christian ministers and writers routinely counseled readers and congregants on everything from debt relief to relationship woes to the mental laws of success.
In the public mind, psycho-spiritual philosophies and therapies blended one into another. By the seventies and eighties, there could be no easily discerned "occult" or "Eastern" or "yogic" movement; but rather America experienced the rise of a vast metaphysical culture that appeared ever-expanding, ever-accommodating, and perpetually ready to adapt to any foreign or homegrown influence that met the needs of those who yearned for self-discovery.
Even tough-skinned skeptics who dismissed the New Age as flimflam turned to "woo- woo" methods, often unknowingly. When faced with chronic illness, addiction, or stress, rationalists from every reach of life used alternative approaches in medicine and relaxation-ranging from meditation to hypnotherapy to positive thinking to practices in yoga, herbs, and acupuncture that had entered America through the channel created by arcane subcultures.
The encounter between America and occultism reconciled itself in the creation of a vast spiritual culture that extolled religious egalitarianism and that responded, perhaps more than any other movement in history, to the inner needs and search of the individual. At work and at church, on television and in bookstores, there was no avoiding it: occult America had prevailed.