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Wasted Opportunities: Mislabeling Ancient Wisdom as New Age

We can stop reinventing the wheel if we are receptive to learning from the past


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Dr. Mirei Takashima Claremon

3 years ago | 7 min read

Have you ever wondered why ancient practices that are tied to well-being — such as yoga and meditation, holistic medicine and holistic healing methods like acupuncture — are part of what’s called New Age in the West?

Yoga and meditation are believed to have been born and practiced since the dawn of civilization in ancient India. Holistic medicine and healing have origins in both ancient India and China in the forms of Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, respectively.

So why do we call such practices, New Age? And what do we lose from having an insular perspective?

1. Association with the Occult and the Metaphysical

Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels
Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels

During the 1970s, the New Age movement — which encompassed virtually any act or practice that was separate from mainstream Christianity — rapidly spread in the West.

Though what can be thrown under the umbrella of New Age has been widely debated, the general understanding is that the movement was associated with a confused amalgam of religious, spiritual, and pseudoscientific beliefs and practices including mysticism, occultism, astrology, tarot card reading, and even bits and pieces of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

It’s interesting to note that New Ageism was a form of escapism — a reaction against mainstream Christianity as well as against post-Enlightenment Western rationality and science, especially among disenfranchised groups.

To this day, the term, “New Age,” continues to be associated with all things mystical, strange, otherworldly, fringe — and simply crazy — from the Western, rational perspective. That being said, it is rather unfortunate that we still haven’t been able to properly separate the legitimate and valuable ancient practices — such as yoga, acupuncture, and holistic health — from those that are questionable at best, and sinister and dangerous at worst.

Though some progressive groups and individuals have been openly embracing the nourishing power of mindfulness and meditation, most are still skeptical of anything that is not considered mainstream in the West. Unless we can stop “Other-ing” everything that is unfamiliar or non-Occidental and putting them into one New Age-y bucket, we will never cultivate the ability to distinguish what’s actually valuable from what’s junk.

2. Skepticism of Ancient Wisdom

Photo by Iulian Patrascu from Pexels
Photo by Iulian Patrascu from Pexels

Relatedly, more often than not, ancient practices, especially those that originate in non-Western cultures, are euphemistically framed as an “alternative” to modern, objective Western science.

The not-so-subtle insinuation here is that since such “alternative” practices aren’t rooted in the Western scientific method, they lack legitimacy. Their positive effects and benefits tend to be difficult to measure or quantify — because of their inherently preventive nature — and are therefore considered unproven, questionable, or all together nonexistent. In fact, here’s how Wikipedia defines alternative medicine:

Alternative medicine is any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective.”

And since — not surprisingly — institutions and organizations are typically only interested in funding research that will financially benefit them, such holistic practices that can prevent or mitigate health issues without medical intervention do not attract their interest.

As a result, such practices are often not the subject of rigorous research that utilizes randomized control trials and therefore don’t appear in prestigious peer-reviewed (Western) academic publications. What’s more, given the way that the U.S. healthcare system is set up, a healthy population is bad for business — doctors and hospitals don’t make any money if people stay healthy and don’t need medical treatment.

As a result, skepticism about the validity of non-Western wisdom remains.

3. Belief in the Separateness of Mind and Body

Photo by Maksim Goncharenok from Pexels
Photo by Maksim Goncharenok from Pexels

In Japanese, there is a saying: yamai wa ki kara, which can be translated as, sickness is caused by our psyche (what the Chinese call qi, or inner energy). The fundamental idea in Eastern medicine is that our mind and body are connected, and therefore influence each other. Acupuncture, for example, is rooted in the idea that overall health comes from energy flowing properly through the body.

Based on a more analytic worldview, Western medical practitioners traditionally separate and examine specific parts of the body as opposed to the whole. If a patient has a liver condition, she is sent to a liver specialist. If she has a heart condition, she is sent to a cardiologist. It is still rare that a doctor asks the patient about her lifestyle and about any psychological stressors that may be impacting her physical health.

However, in recent years, more and more Western medical studies (that utilize the scientific method) have demonstrated that the mind and body are, in fact, intimately interconnected.

There have been many cases in which placebos in the form of sugar pills and saline injections have “miraculously” alleviated or eliminated patients’ conditions. A meta-analysis on knee osteoarthritis shows that the placebo — simply injecting an inactive (saline) liquid in the treatment area —was highly effective in the majority of cases. Specifically, the placebo injections not only provided significant, long-lasting pain relief, but also meaningfully reduced stiffness and improved functioning of the knee.

Given that our body and mind do not exist in separate vacuums, it should come as no surprise that they interact and create effects that cannot be explained away as purely physical or mental. Just as we are not the product of nature or nurture, but both nature and nurture, we are the product of both body and mind.

4. Lingering Western Exceptionalism

Photo by Amaury Fernando from Pexels
Photo by Amaury Fernando from Pexels

In a past article, I wrote about how the vast majority of psychological research that has been conducted and shared as generalizable knowledge originates from the West, particularly the U.S. This trend holds true for other areas of research as well, including medical research.

This hegemony is problematic because it creates a kind of hierarchy in which both the West and the rest of the world perceive Western thinking and knowledge to be the most enlightened and advanced. That in turn creates an implicit assumption that non-Western cultures do not have much to offer in terms of insights and wisdom, and therefore should strive to learn from and emulate the West.

Though it seems that we are finally starting to see some more media coverage on the value of non-Western perspectives, particularly as it relates to sustainable living practices, this shift is still barely perceptible at a large scale.

Learning From the Past

Photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels
Photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels

The truth is, many valuable, ancient concepts and methodologies are being “discovered” again today. For instance, seemingly new and trendy ideas like the circular economy model and regenerative agriculture are not new at all and existed centuries ago, though as colonization and industrialization took place, they were eradicated and have been largely forgotten.

Even not so ancient ideas like experiential retail that have been around for decades in other parts of the world are often considered new in the U.S. — simply because it’s new to the U.S.

Before we reach for shiny, new technology and invest valuable time and resources to develop high-tech solutions, the first step should be to look to our collective past and ask ourselves:

  1. Is the problem we are currently facing new?
  2. What can we learn from the past?
  3. How can we adapt what we already know so that we don’t have to start from scratch?
  4. How do we combine ancient wisdom and historical knowledge with findings from modern scientific research?

Though some countries like the U.S. may be more eager to look to the future rather than to the past, it’s worth remembering that we humans are one of the youngest species on the planet. And that there are cultures that have been around for much longer that have accumulated valuable knowledge over centuries.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer explains in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, ancient wisdom and traditional knowledge are not incompatible with modern science. Rather, they approach and describe the wonders of our world in different ways.

It’s also important to understand that just because ideas and practices haven’t been scientifically tested in a controlled environment doesn’t automatically render them illegitimate or pseudoscientific. In fact, couldn’t we argue that what nature has been offering us for millennia — whether in the form of clean water, air, foods, or herbs — is the most robust evidence for what keeps us and our planet healthy?

Photo by Nita from Pexels

After all, evolution is all about trial and error — an eternal scientific experimentation that proves to us what works and doesn’t work, what can and can’t survive. And what’s been proven — both by ancient wisdom and scientific methods — is that less is more. Reducing the agricultural use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is better for us and for the planet. Eating organic, natural foods that have not been processed is better for us and for the planet.

It may be well worth the time and money to learn from history, from other cultures, and from nature so that we don’t waste our valuable resources reinventing the wheel and can instead channel our energy to make real, meaningful progress that benefits us all

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Dr. Mirei Takashima Claremon

Global Citizen. Sustainability Advocate. Behavioral Scientist. Expert on Sustainability, Marketing, Consumer Insights, and Cross-Cultural Differences.


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