Spirit of the Age: Give your liver a great big smile

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The Independent Culture
"DRESS LOOSE. Bring a blanket," it said on the form. I had dressed loose, but I realised, as I sat on the train speeding towards Glastonbury, that I had forgotten the blanket. I thought about worrying, but decided against the idea since I was off to get my inner self centred.

If there was a note of scepticism in my approach, there was also a genuine sense of inquiry. For my tutor was to be Dr William Bloom, the man who had just persuaded the United Nations Conference on Religion and Belief to give the New Age equal status alongside established faiths. It is a coming of age for a movement which has, over the last 30 years, become a significant, if controversial, feature of the Western world's spiritual life.

I was met at the station by his American wife Sabrina who gave me a swift tour of Glastonbury and its principal legends - Neolithic priestesses, followed by Druids, the adolescent Christ, then the Holy Grail, the figures of Arthurian fable, the medieval monks, and finally, the modern hippies and travellers who have arrived to sup from this mythic soup. "It is like a website," said Sabrina. "You can choose what you like."

"She's been giving you the mystic gossip," said Dr Bloom, a lithe and lanky character - a former LSE academic and special-needs social worker - as he bounded up the hill behind his home. At the top was the thorn tree which, folklore has it, sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he arrived in Glastonbury not long after the Crucifixion, bearing the Grail. It is a meagre, windswept, scrubby little object, not much more than a bush. Someone had attached a couple of bundles of feathers to its lower branches.

The clump of nettles moving in the wind nearby was inhabited by dancing fairies, Dr Bloom told me. I regarded him quizzically. "Religion is not about belief systems," he said. "It is about our natural instinct to connect with beauty. It is there in us all. The established religions try to make out that mystical experiences were the province of a select few. But they are for everyone."

And the fairies? There is life in everything - people, animals, plants, rocks. "I'm an animist. I had to make a conscious decision not to be embarrassed about it years ago. These nettles have a field of energy around them, the energy is linked to the plants but exists independently of them. If people want to project a personality onto that energy, and give it wings and a little tutu, that's OK by me."

Lots of things are OK by him. That is the essence of New Agery. "Religion is being reinvented to suit the times," he said. There can be no doubting the pull of the idea. There are now some 20,000 New Age books in print. Advocates claim that 25 per cent of the adult population have explored the ideas.

In his soundproofed study we began on the Body-Soul Harmonics. "From childhood, bad experiences - shouting, not being fed when you want it, anger - force us to erect shields against our sensitivity to the goodness and the wonder of the world. By the time we are adults we are fully armoured. Certain activities melt those shields and open you to the harmonics of the world. These activities - gateways through the armour - vary: it may be caring for a person in need, it may be sex or a beautiful landscape."

So we set out to find my gateways, making lists of the people, places, activities and things which gave me pleasure. That was easy enough. Then we began to meditate on them, which is where the problems began. I was prepared to suspend disbelief when I was told: "take their consciousness into your whole body". I continued when told to: "allow the inner smile to spread through your whole body". But it was when I was told to look into my chest and abdomen and "smile at your heart, lungs, liver and kidneys" that things went wrong. My innards began to seem like objects on a butcher's block.

Dr Bloom got slightly exasperated: "If you can't start by loving your own body, how are you going to be able to love the whole universe?"

Still, by persisting with the breathing exercises, I did get a glimpse of the stillness and relaxation which Dr Bloom's courses take two days to teach properly. It seemed a useful tool - whether for harassed humanists looking for a bit of peace among the harsh rhythms of modern life or for followers of any mainstream faith as a preparation for serious prayer. But was it enough?

Certainly, there was a ripple of dissent around the UN conference when Dr Bloom told it last month that religion was not about obedience to a supreme being but about an attitude to nature and consciousness. Buddhists might not demur, but many Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus would; indeed the Pope is engaged on writing a denunciation of the New Age. "The new approach threatens established religions. It challenges their authority as exclusive validators of what is spiritual." There is a bit more to it than that, I said as we climbed Glastonbury Tor when the session was over. The New Age pick-and-mix buffet runs the risk of a being a spirituality which is self-indulgent.

"It can just make you a smug bastard," he agreed with engaging frankness. "But done properly, it brings people to a sense of their interdependence with one another and with the earth." And yet, beyond the pious hope that it will be "done properly", it creates no common mechanism to discriminate to those who float around in its relativist universe.

Below, the hazy plains of Avalon stretched in all directions; it is not hard to see why men and women have, for millennia, held this to be a sacred place. William Bloom fell silent. He realises he has some thinking to do. But then, so have the rest of us.