By Sam Abelow
I should have known better, when I spoke to the Columbia University professor and asked him if my girlfriend could be included as a guest, and he replied, “Is she pretty?”
I said harshly, “I don’t see why that is relevant.”
I excused the comment, hoping it was just an eccentric guy with other redeeming qualities. After all, he was a part of the Spiritual Mind Body Institute at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which focuses on the intersections between spirituality, psychology and science. But that was just the beginning of the professor’s unprofessionalism.
Among his seemingly random meanderings throughout the class, events that took place included: a girl crying to the class about the very personal death of her grandfather, a loose discussion on the concept of time and how we never “live in the moment,” several aggressive table pounds by the professor, and a couple of phrases that made shallow sense, like “life doesn’t go fast, we go fast”.
My direct experience in New Age folly has led me to be skeptical of interdisciplinary teachings that are supposed to properly educate and equip seekers to fully function in and contribute to the world.
New Age thought is largely based a happy, idealized form of spirituality, which assimilated and hence bastardized Jung’s deep and thoroughly articulated body of work. For this reason, when teaching or learning about Jung’s ideas, entanglement with myopic New Age thought is all too common.
Upon connecting with a professor within the Spiritual Mind Body Institute (SMBI) at the Columbia Teacher’s college, the last thing I expected was to witness Jung’s ideas being drastically misconstrued. It’s upsetting for me to see this happen within an institution like Columbia College.
Rejection of the New Age and the Role of the Shaman
Ever since I grew out of New Age beliefs, I’ve made a great effort to understand the underpinnings of the movement. I wanted an explanation as to why this watered-down spirituality was so attractive to me. Loosely speaking, those associated with the New Age tend towards hokey aphorisms that cherry-pick from various disciplines and schools of thought. Often referenced are the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung, the renowned psychologist who developed the theory of the Collective Unconscious.
What I have come to understand after much thought, is that there’s a missing position in the Western world for the type of person who most commonly takes on the stereotypical New Age personality. The weird guy with crystal wraps and Om tattoos offering to bless your aura is, in fact, attempting to embody the age-old role of the shaman. In primitive societies, the shaman was an accepted social role in which an unusual individual mediated the realms of mystery to advise, heal, and assist the community. This type, ever present today, is always intuitive, creative and interested in aesthetics. But, the lack of intellectual rigor and tradition within the modern-day New Age keeps those potential shaman-types from fully contributing to our collective understanding consciousness, mental health and art. These beliefs also tend to keep the individuals of this type restricted from personal integration and adaptation to the collective world.
It’s hopeful to see that contemporary psychology is attempting to integrate spiritual understanding of the human experience, and such beneficial practices as mindfulness. Only a firm set of approaches backed up by serious professionals will help spirituality and meaning re-enter an increasingly consumeristic and nihilistic culture diseased with mental illness and addiction.
Upon being invited to attend a class at the Columbia Teacher’s College graduate program, within the Spiritual Mind Body Institute, I was filled with excitement. This would prove to the disappointment, which provoked this essay.
My Failed Hero’s Journey at an Ivy League College Class
I made my way up to the extraordinary campus of Colombia, a wondrous, neoclassical haven within upper Manhattan, teeming with well-dressed and competent looking students. I signed in as a guest, with high hopes, but the class proved dismal. What then ensued within the four walls of the humble classroom was nothing less than a complete defacement of Jungian thought.
Keep in mind, if this had been a group meeting in a living room somewhere, I would not object so strongly. But, the class I attended had a dozen students each paying “$1,572 per credit.” A graduate student in the program whom I contacted over Facebook had joked with me when I explained my excitement: “Well if you feel like doing a year-long Master's in Clinical Psychology and Education, the SMBI program is just one year, $60,000 and a life changing curriculum away!”
Just before class began, another young woman I spoke with admitted, with a naive humor, that the proposed “one year program usually turns into two or at least three years.”
The professor who, despite being self-described Jungian with a Masters in Clinical Psychology, bobbed around aimlessly in complete unconsciousness. Overall, the class was one-part irresponsible group therapy session and another part deranged professor reciting confused Jungian ideas.
He spoke in fractured, incomplete phrases, starting ideas and never finishing them. There were convoluted rants about “the system” (the vague “they” which keeps us “down”), our shadow and the need to understand our emotions.
At one point he stammered and smacked his hands on the desk for the umpteenth time with the vigor of a dictator, yelling, “You must understand the Anima and Animus, you must understand the Shadow!” — as if his emphatic use of Jungian terms, which remained unexplained by him, would somehow jolt insight into the student’s veiled sub-personalities.
Next, the professor recalled a homework assignment where students had to define “who they were.”
He called on a young woman who briefly revealed conflicted feelings about her identity, as she had grown up in Puerto Rico, but now lived in New York City. She briefly described herself as a “set of contradictions.”
This much was expressed before she was interrupted by the teacher, who approached her desk, leaned over and yelled, “No, that is ego-level stuff. Who are you really?”
“I feel the contradictions,” she replied.
“No. No. Who are you,” he yelled louder. Then again: “Who are you!?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
He walked away triumphantly. “Yes, that is right; you don’t know.”
The worst part was when this supposed Jungian told a bride-to-be that marriage is a mistake and limits one’s capacity for individuation. He advocated going into a “dark room” several times. This sort of solipsistic and narcissistic view of Jung’s individuation process was clearly tainted by his own divorce, which he harped on and couldn’t help but project, toxically, onto his impressionable and abiding students.
At this point, I was compelled to speak up and mention the classic example of Carl Jung himself, who did not embark on the process of discovering his own Shadow, or Anima until his mid-thirties. Jung often referred to this work as that of the “second half of life,” all of which he did while married.
The class concluded when a sudden idea for the next homework assignment popped into the professor's head: “Google Anima and Animus, do some snooping around, find a Youtube video.”
The fact that the students continue to attend this class seemingly without question is an implicit acceptance of this disturbingly low-quality professorship. It was personally insulting, and worrying for me to see such useful and important ideas being completely misconstrued.
New Age Beliefs and Analytic Psychology
Nevertheless, I am not enrolled in the program, and this was just one experience, albeit a deeply unpleasant one. Later, I read up on the other professors, as well as the head of SMBI, Lisa Miller, needing to know it was just that one professor, and that one class.
In some interviews, Lisa Miller speaks cogently of the biological foundations of spiritual-psychological emergence and the need for a connection to the transcendent as the healing mechanism for depression. Other times she employs New Age lingo in the middle of speaking about such profound ideas. For example, in a Ted Talk, Miller said that “by being here we are present to the universe, which is made of love.” This is the sort of borrowing of unsubstantiated tropes that causes scientists to scoff at Deepak Chopra and keeps her valuable messages from being accepted and integrated into a wide array of institutions.
The dichotomy between her scientific background and the New Age spiritualism appears to be reflected in her hiring practices. The roster of professors and guest lecturers range from serious neuropsychologists and established Jungians to the standard junket of YouTube New Age personalities.
Bridging the gap between science and spirituality is vitally important, but the buzz words and airy-fairy philosophies of the New Age must be shed for that dialogue to function. To be fair, the inflexible framework of scientific materialism will have to open up, in order to accommodate the phenomena of psyche and the importance of spirituality.
When working in the fields of spirituality and the psychology of C.G. Jung, there is always the danger of entering into New Age claptrap. On an individual level, the New Age approach limits the full integration of an individual by softening the seriousness of deep work and inner transformation. Further, the role of the “shaman,” when associated with non-academic thinking, will continue to be rejected by the established forms of psychotherapeutic practices, where the influence is most needed.
After President Trump was elected, I wrote an article about the archetypal Feminine in which I explain the need for integration of the positive Feminine both individually and in society. Values embedded within the un-integrated feminine includes community, inclusivity and a complete understanding of depression, psycho-spiritual emergence and the mystery of the psyche.
I was so thrilled when I first discovered that the Spiritual Mind Body Institute existed because I understand how much the world needs such institutions, and saw it as a way to establish the positive Feminine in our culture.
I wish the best for this program and those attending, and I hope to point out what I see as a recurring problem within the interdisciplinary approach to psychology, spirituality and artistic expression, while also acknowledging that programs like these are extremely exciting and promising to see in a world in such dire need.