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A Psychological Perspective

 

New Age, New Thought, and Process Thought:
A Psychological Perspective

Deb Whitehouse, Ed.D.

Presented at the Center for Process Studies Silver Anniversary International Whitehead Conference
Claremont, California, August 6, 1998

Other presentations have given the essence of New Age and New Thought, so I will simply say that New Age is a broadly-based social movement of the last few decades, involving occult as well as mystical theory and practice, in addition to an interest in new developments in science and other disciplines. New Thought is a century-old, often mystically oriented movement that teaches the practice of the presence of God for practical purposes. Another way to describe New Thought is habitual God-aligned mental self-discipline. It involves a deliberate and sustained shift of attention from what one does not want: illness, poverty, disharmony; to what one does want: wellness, prosperity, harmony. One obtains these things by working with God to cocreate them.

New Age could be said to include the whole of transpersonal psychology, and perhaps all of Jungian psychology. Both of these are influential in New Thought, but since these are dealt with elsewhere in this conference, I won't concentrate on them here. What I will emphasize is that New Thought is applied psychology firmly ensconced in a spiritual framework of belief in a benign Higher Power immanent in a friendly universe. As these psychological principles have been validated and passed into common acceptance, credit has not been given to either P. P. Quimby, the father of New Thought, nor to New Thought as their source.

New Thought has ancient roots, by far the most important being the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, arguably the greatest psychiatrist that ever lived. Traditional Christianity has emphasized beliefs about Jesus rather than attempts to emulate him, despite his saying "He who believes in me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do" (John 14:12). He was not asking to be worshipped, but to be emulated, modeled, as the NLP people say (NLP stands for neuro-linguistic programming). Jesus did his works by being God-aligned: "The Father who dwells in me does the works" (John 14:10). If transpersonal psychology is the interface of psychology and spiritual experience, then Quimby can be said to be the father of transpersonal psychology as well as of New Thought.

A history of psychology frequently begins with the work of Franz Anton Mesmer. Quimby began as a mesmerist and eventually evolved his own methods of healing. He believed he had rediscovered the lost healing methods of Jesus, and he may have been correct. In his words, "I do not throw the Bible away, but throw the explanation away, and apply Jesus' own words as He did and as He intended they should be applied, and let my works speak for themselves. My religion, like Jesus', is in my acts, not in my belief" (Clark, 1982, p. 89).

Quimby, despite lack of formal training, approached his research into mesmerism scientifically, using such controls as were available to him. In this way, he determined that what was happening did not involve mesmeric fluid, but rather mind acting upon mind. One example: a physician had prescribed an herb tea for a patient, but the tea was ineffective. When Quimby's assistant Lucius Burkmar, in a trance, prescribed the same tea, the patient was cured. Quimby then realized that the curative power was not in the tea, but in the mind of the patient, who believed in the tea's efficacy when it was prescribed by Lucius instead of the physician. In the words of Jesus, "Thy faith has made thee whole" (Mark 10:52).

Faith that leads to healing in conjunction with some apparent means or method of healing is known as the placebo response. Harvard-trained physician Andrew Weil has written at length about the placebo response, which most physicians dismiss as an annoyance to be controlled for in research. But, as Weil points out,

It is the unconscious mind that controls the placebo response. Belief is of no consequence at the verbal intellectual level unless it also penetrates the deeper strata of mind, often below conscious awareness, which connect to the physical nerves. . . . The best treatments are those with safe and valuable intrinsic effects that focus the belief of both doctor and patient and so function well as active placebos, unblocking innate healing by a mind-mediated mechanism while also working directly on the body. This is psychosomatic medicine at its best and good medicine by any standard of judgment (1983, pp. 217-18).

Weil goes on to explain that most medical treatments are active placebos, one of the commonest examples being the use of an antibiotic to treat a virus, as viruses are unaffected by antibiotics. He notes that this works well even with sophisticated patients such as physicians!

A large part of Quimby's success as a healer lay in what he called his clairvoyance, his ability to prehend his patient without giving the patient any opportunity to talk about the ailment, so that Quimby could tell the patient what the problem was. This gave Quimby great credibility in the mind of the patient. Today we would call Quimby in this respect a medical intuitive.

All illness is psychosomatic in that it has both physical and mental components. We can no longer say with any definiteness where mind ends and body begins, and some physicians have begun to refer to the mindbody. If an illness is emotionally induced, it is said to be psychogenic. Neither of these terms in any way implies that the illness is imaginary: the patient is really ill, often with something that shows up on x-rays or in tests, and it really hurts. Estimates vary, but perhaps more than 90 percent of all illnesses are psychogenic. Some scholars have attempted to discredit Quimby's work by implying that he healed only cases of hysteria or a few other ailments traditionally regarded as psychogenic. This is inaccurate: Quimby's successful cases included a wide range of ailments. But Quimby did not claim to be able to cure every affliction. He declared, "If any person is nearly gone with consumption, I should advise him to stay at home unless it is to be relieved of the distress, so it is with a great many kinds of disease" (Clark, 1982, p. 121). Clinical hypnotists today are frequently called to assist in pain control. With anaesthesia in its infancy, Quimby was often asked to assist surgeons by controlling pain with his methods.

In studying the work of psychiatrist Milton Erickson, whose research made clinical hypnosis into a respectable medical discipline, I am frequently struck with the similarity to Quimby's work. For example, here is a brief Quimby transcription that foreshadows Erickson's famous teaching tales:

I once visited a sick man, it was about eight o'clock in the evening when I visited his room. Immediately upon entering, the atmosphere of the room produced such an effect on me that I felt as though my hair stood on end, and it seemed as though the room was full of spirits. As I approached the bed, he seemed frightened. "You are frightened to death," I said. "Why do you lie here?" He said he couldn't get up. I said, "You are afraid of these devils. They scare you and when I came in they left and are now standing out among the apple trees." "They scared you a little," he said. This was a fact. He then said, "These devils have taken me by the nape of my neck and seat of my pants and laid me here, but I never told of it before." I told him to get up and I would keep them away. He did so and got well (Clark, 1982, p. 60).

Erickson frequently began by getting into a patient's fantasies and working from there into more useful behaviors, as Quimby does here. Transcripts of treatments by the two men show numerous similarities, including the use of surprise and confusion techniques, pattern interrupts, and a technique also used by psychologist Albert Ellis, known as disputation, in which the therapist argues with the patient's logic about the illness. Myrtle Fillmore, co-founder of the branch of New Thought known as Unity, used disputation--learned from a student of a student of Quimby--to heal herself of hereditary tuberculosis. The affirmation with which she began was, "I am a child of God and therefore I do not inherit sickness" (Witherspoon, 1984, p. 38).

Closely related to disputation is Quimby's statement, "my explanation is the cure." This is still being practiced today outside of New Thought. Physician John Sarno, a professor of clinical rehabilitation medicine, cures 95% of his chronic back pain patients in three weeks or less by having them give up all their remedies and simply attend two lectures explaining details about back pain. These are people whom surgery, drugs, exercises, and therapeutic devices have failed to help. The explanation is indeed the cure. Sarno is familiar with the recent work of Weil, Candace Pert, Herbert Benson, Deepak Chopra, Lawrence LeShan, and Ericksonian Ernest Rossi, all of whom can be loosely classified as New Age, but he makes no mention of Quimby.

Without faith in the remedy used, healing does not take place. Mere intellectual assent is not enough, because the emotions are not involved. One cannot simply parrot an affirmation such as Myrtle Fillmore's and expect results, because unless the words have an emotional charge, the unconscious mind is not engaged. Quimby discovered the unconscious mind, but without academic training, lacked the words to describe it. New Thought minister Ervin Seale, in his introduction to The Quimby Manuscripts, notes,

Dr. Quimby has found that opinions and adverse mental pictures take such hold upon the mind that they produce what we would now call subconscious after-effects. He has found that these disturbing mental states, believed in and increasing in power through fear and other disturbing emotions, bring about changes in the nervous system, in the circulation, and in other ways. But he lacks the common term, subconsciousness, and so is compelled to speak now as if the mind were constituted of thoughts simply, again as if it were the mere nervous activities and the circulation of the blood (Dresser, 1961, p. 69).

Eventually Quimby began to use the term "spiritual matter" to refer to what would later be called the subconscious (Dresser, 1919, p. 59; Dresser, 1961, p. 69; Anderson, 1993, p. 288).

Quimby sums up his approach thus:

I make war with what comes in contact with wealth and happiness, believing that GOD MADE EVERYTHING GOOD, and if there is anything wrong it is the effect of ourselves. Man is responsible for his acts and even his thoughts, therefore it is necessary that man should know himself so that he shall not communicate sin or error. This is my theory: to put man in possession of a Science that will destroy the ideas of the sick and teach man one living progression of his own identity, with life free from error and disease (Clark, 1982, p. 20).

In addition to God-centeredness, the most important teachings and practices in New Thought used not just for healing, but for prosperity and harmonious relationships as well, involve mental attitudes based on well-established psychological principles. William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, referred to New Thought favorably as "the religion of healthy mindedness" (Lectures IV and V). James was a second father to his student and early New Thought theoretician Horatio W. Dresser, according to Dresser's widow (Anderson, 1993, p. 110).

The most notable New Thought teaching is, as Religious Science founder Ernest Holmes put it, "Change your thinking, change your life," meaning that all change must begin in mind, with what you give your attention to and what you expect. But here is where the mental discipline comes in, because you must change your mind and keep it changed, not go back to old habits or old worries. Another highly notable principle is optimism. New Thoughters are optimistic to a fault. Recent research by psychologist Martin Seligman has shown that optimists do better on just about any measure you may care to name: they live longer, earn more, are healthier, do better in school, and are more likely to win elections. New Thought makes much of what it calls the Law of Mind Action: "Thoughts held in mind produce after their kind." Extensive psychological research on attention has shown that indeed, what you give your attention to grows. A related concept is that of expectancy: New Thought teaches people to expect the best. Julian Rotter's extensive research on expectancy shows that people generally get about what they expect. Other New Thought techniques that have been supported by research in psychology include visualization: "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18), and affirmation: "Let your speech be yea, yea, and nay, nay" (Matthew 5:37). New Thought minister Emmet Fox explains,

Yea, yea and nay, nay, stand for what are called in scientific prayer the Affirmation and the Denial, respectively. These are the Affirmation of Truth and Harmony and the Omnipresence of God in Reality; and the denial of any power in error and limitation (1934, p. 78).

Meditation: "Come ye yourselves apart and rest awhile" (Mark 6:31) is another technique used frequently in New Thought that has been shown by psychiatrist Herbert Benson and others to have great psychological and physiological benefit. New Thought also makes great use of symbolic interpretation of the Bible, a tradition that goes back to early Christianity and even before. Unity co-founder Charles Fillmore compiled a Metaphysical Bible Dictionary consisting mainly of translations of proper names. Emmet Fox, Ernest Holmes, and Unity minister Catherine Ponder have written extensively about symbolic interpretation.

The best-known New Thought technique is various forms of mental treatment. Religious Science has a specific formula known as Spiritual Mind Treatment, in which one focuses one's attention on God, aligns oneself with God, states one's desire, not to change God, but to get one's own thinking clear, gives thanks in advance, as Jesus did, and then releases any concern about the outcome. The New Thought minister who is perhaps the best known outside of New Thought is the late Emmet Fox, whose writings are still widely distributed, and who is especially well known in Alcoholics Anonymous, which has made widespread use of his writings. Fox used a technique he called the Golden Key, which is simply to think of God in place of one's problem, getting one's attention fully onto God and off of the problem, which somehow manages to resolve itself, sometimes remarkably quickly. Unity uses a technique of going into the silence and simply listening for God's guidance, which may not come in the silence at all, but unexpectedly later on in some unanticipated form. All of these techniques can be seen to be more psychological than typically religious in nature.

New Age is also interested in alternative medicine and in applied psychology, which it all too often seeks to employ without the accompanying spiritual discipline that New Thought advocates, but its central emphasis often seems to be on the kookier forms of occultism. Most New Thought denominations discourage shallow dabbling in occultism but remain open to truth wherever it is to be found. They see the presence of God in the medicine or in the hands of the surgeon as well as in the power of the mind, although they encourage the use of mental treatment before or in addition to medical interventions, which as often as not then prove to be unnecessary. Many New Thoughters are mystics, and many more are interested in the work of well-known ancient and medieval mystics. New Thoughters also view with interest new developments in science or other disciplines.

With its unique and remarkable blend of science and spirituality, one might expect New Thought to be at the center of the New Age, leading it to higher spirituality with its God-centered approach, along with its emphasis on putting the teachings of Jesus to practical use for health, wealth, and happiness, making use of the most powerful psychological techniques to do so. But New Thought is at risk of being swallowed up and disappearing into the rudderless wanderings of New Age. There are four reasons for this:

1. Name problems. Although nearly everyone is familiar with New Thought principles such as positive thinking, the name New Thought is virtually unknown today, and consequently New Thought is not credited as the source of these concepts. New Thought has been erroneously labeled a sect of Christian Science--when the opposite is nearer the truth--and hence, avoided or ignored. New Thought is constantly being confused with New Age, mainly because people are unfamiliar with New Thought. This is exacerbated by the fact that New Thought is a do-it-yourself religion with enormous individual differences, and people want to put their own label on their own version of it. Consequently, some prominent New Thoughters deny being part of New Thought. One well-known example is New Thought minister Della Reese, who was ordained by Unity-trained minister Johnnie Colemon and who has spoken at congresses of the International New Thought Alliance, which is an umbrella organization that since 1914 has maintained communication and information exchange among the various branches of New Thought. Yet Reese has denied being a New Thoughter in print and on television. Unity, which is New Thought, Fillmore-style, has traditionally resisted being labeled as part of New Thought. The various branches of Religious Science freely acknowledge their debt to New Thought but seek their own "brand name" recognition.

2. Anti-intellectualism. Because of its experiential nature--for in New Thought one uses the power of the mind to focus one's attention on God instead of one's problem and a solely intellectual approach will not work--New Thoughters tend to be anti-intellectual. Emmet Fox, who was an electrical engineer before going into the ministry, has made a clear distinction between studying and treating:

When you are studying--reading a metaphysical book, listening to a lecture, or thinking over the Truth that you know--you should be open-minded, wisely critical, taking nothing for granted, but weighing and considering, being as analytical as you please. . . . When you are treating, the exact opposite policy is the right one. Then you must be dogmatic, insistent, arbitrary, cocksure, and mentally closed to anything but the Truth about the problem (1942, p. 185).

But most New Thoughters ignore this distinction. The founders abandoned traditional approaches to religion and started their own schools, placing their emphasis on personal transformation rather than formal education. Although most of the New Thought founders were well read, they largely lacked college educations and consequently ignored the critical thinking of philosophy and other academic disciplines. Their ignorance, coupled with the public's lack of familiarity with New Thought, has earned even "major brand" New Thoughters the disdain of mainstream clergy. Some New Thought ministers have encountered difficulties in being accepted into chaplaincy programs. The INTA founded an Educational Standards and Accreditation Committee to address this problem, but to date very little improvement has come about. However, there appears to be a new interest in academic development among some of the current leadership in INTA.

3. Loss of the character ethic. In 1971, historian Richard M. Huber published The American Idea of Success, a review of 200 years of American success literature from Benjamin Franklin onward. He discovered the underlying New Thought principles and devoted several chapters to New Thought, of which he was severely critical because he discovered that in the past fifty years (thirty at the time he wrote), something has been missing from success literature that was there before, especially in the writings of Benjamin Franklin. That something is the character ethic, which, Huber found, has been replaced by the personality ethic, involving the psychology of making oneself pleasing to others. Character, on the other hand, involves qualities such as integrity, fairness, loyalty, honesty, perseverance, and service to others. Huber's point is valid, not just for success literature but in our society, in which public schools are forbidden to teach such character builders as the Ten Commandments, children are taught to esteem themselves complacently even when they are behaving irresponsibly and incompetently, and the discipline of spirituality is never discussed. But Huber offers no remedy.

The New Thought founders all postulated good character. They took it for granted. The personality ethic, which business consultant Stephen Covey describes as "quick-fix influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills, and positive attitudes" (1989, p. 19), oils the wheels of social interaction and is indeed important, but it must rest on a foundation of good character. Happily, a second scholar followed in Huber's footsteps, and offered a remedy for the loss of the character ethic: put it back. This second scholar was Covey, whose book based largely on New Thought principles, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, continues to be a bestseller, and has proven to have a positive effect on the bottom line of numerous businesses that have begun to operate according to the principles Covey outlines. Covey, who lists Huber's book in the bibliography of his doctoral dissertation (p. 139), emphasizes personal responsibility for one's life in Habit One (Be proactive), the importance of vision in Habit Two (Begin with the end in mind), walking one's talk in Habit Three (Put first things first) and the importance of balance in Habit Seven (Sharpen the saw), along with belief in an abundant universe that allows one to be generous to others without depriving oneself in Habits Four, Five, and Six (Think win-win, Seek first to understand, then to be understood, and Synergize). Once again, the name New Thought is never mentioned, although Covey, a Mormon, does acknowledge that he personally believes that the source of the principles on which the Seven Habits are based is God.

Huber's criticism--implicitly of New Thought--is valid. When people try to have "the fruits without the roots," as Covey puts it, fail to do the necessary mental work to change their minds and keep them changed, fail to follow through with actions in their daily lives, in short, fail to walk their talk, New Thought or anything else becomes shallow and effete. The practice of the presence of God for practical purposes is indeed simple, but it is anything but easy. Too many people are looking for quick fixes, instant solutions, instead of making the necessary changes in their lives. Even a seemingly miraculous instantaneous healing does not last without a concomitant change in consciousness. Jesus warned the former paralytic he healed at Bethesda, "Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee" (John 5:14).

4. Unrealistic worldview. Owing largely to the influence of Eddy, much of New Thought is pantheistic, holding that "God is all there is," "There is only one mind," "There is nothing but God," etc. This is not the case with the strain that goes back directly to Quimby, but its position is somewhat unclear. New Thought badly needs clarity in its underlying metaphysics, which brings us to the heart of the problem. The power of New Thought comes in a more or less altered state, a frequently self-induced light trance. Quimby may have formally abandoned mesmerism, but the basic principles of hypnosis established by psychiatrist Milton Erickson and others have demonstrated the efficacy of what Erickson referred to as an "everyday trance" state of response attentiveness" (Erickson et al., 1976, p. 303) for facilitating healing and learning of all sorts. Light hypnosis is natural to us all, as we get lost in a book, succumb to highway hypnosis, or fall under the spell of an interesting speaker. Great communicators invariably use some hypnotic techniques, whether or not they know they are using them. To concentrate one's thoughts fully on God, shutting out the rest of the world, is to create an excellent and useful light trance. This horrifies some people: I remember encountering a woman at a seminar I was leading who was indignant at the idea of using relaxation leading to light trance in church as part of a meditation. That just didn't fit into her idea of religion! Yet one frequently sees entire congregations in light trance, swaying to the sound of a familiar hymn. For this reason, Erickson frequently avoided using the term hypnosis or indicating to patients that they may have been in trance. The conscious mind gets in the way much of the time and delays healing.

But all too many New Thoughters confuse the psychology of the altered state with their worldview. In their altered state, they may well experience "nothing but God." Psychiatrist William Glasser (1981) and physicist William Powers in their psychocybernetic model of the mind indicate that the highest order of perception (perceptual filter) is universal oneness. Mystics and others in altered states frequently report a sense of oneness with all that is, a universal interconnectedness. This makes for great psychology, but "we are all one" is lousy metaphysics unless it has extensive reinterpretation to explain that the one is made up of many, or better still, that as Whitehead put it, "the many become one, and are increased by one" (1929, p. 32, 1978, p. 21).

Field theorist Ken Wilber, in Eye to Eye (1990) explains that people have at least three modes of knowing--the mystics called them the three eyes: the eye of flesh, or empirical knowing, the eye of reason, and the eye of contemplation. Similar notions are held in numerous disciplines. Scientists use primarily the eye of flesh, philosophers the eye of reason, and mystics and other spiritual figures the eye of contemplation. The eye of contemplation is higher because it sees farther, and the eye of reason's job is to mediate between the input from the other two eyes. All three eyes are important and necessary, and difficulties arise when one eye attempts to usurp the function of another. As Wilber puts it, "Anytime one eye tries to see for another eye, blurred vision results" (1990, p. 10). For example, this has happened in modernity as science, using the eye of flesh, has usurped the function of the eye of contemplation, leaving us with what Wilber calls flatland (scientific materialism).

Philosophy, using the eye of reason, must reconcile the "nothing but God" of the mystical vision with the discoveries of contemporary science and Griffin's "hard-core commonsense" view that we have some degree of freedom (1997, p. 103). From the findings of the Gestalt psychologists at the turn of the century we know that we cannot believe our eyes and ears, let alone our mystical visions. At the same time, there is much more to the world than what scientists can measure. Enter Whitehead and the system of metaphysics known as process thought. It is not necessary to resort to the pantheism of the so-called perennial philosophy to explain the mystical vision, even for New Thought. Its treatment, consisting of dwelling on God, turning one's attention toward what is desired and away from what isn't, works even better on a foundation of panentheism. And the substance metaphors that New Thoughters use as part of their legacy of Newtonian physics can turn into broken myths or be replaced by new process images. Instead of molding divine substance, we can build up the pattern of the past by saying yes to God, moment by moment. I like to illustrate this with the image of a net full of colored balls for children to play in, such as you see at fast food places. Imagine yourself standing in front of a huge pile of such multicolored balls. If you want to be standing in front of a red background, you consistently select red balls and toss them one at a time over your shoulder. If you persist, you will eventually have your red background. In this way, we build up the pattern of the past with our momentary choices. It is worth noting that our unconscious minds are part of the past, and can be similarly modified, thought by thought, moment by moment.

New Thought needs to shore up its metaphysical underpinnings in such a way that its ministers can converse as peers with ministers from other disciplines. Despite its creedal freedom, it needs a centrist position that can reconcile science and religion, theism and pantheism. Emmet Fox once observed that when you come to church, you shouldn't check your common sense with your hat at the door. Too many New Thoughters still abandon common sense in their metaphysical musings.

And so New Thought needs process thought. With its added impetus, the New Thought message can continue to revitalize traditional churches as to some extent it already has--for example, the Emmanuel movement begun in the Episcopal church in 1906 was squarely modeled on New Thought healing practices. New Thought, following Quimby, recovers much of the freshness and power of primitive Christianity that has been lost by the traditional church, by incorporating the powerful psychological principles that Jesus taught along with his basic message of love and trust in God. As Quimby put it, "What truth did Jesus come to bring to the world? One simple fact that man is a progressive being, that his happiness and misery are of his own make" (Dresser, 1961, p. 338). Until Quimby came along, miraculous healings in the church were few and far between, scarcely ever expected, and the sacrament of unction for the sick had become reserved for the dying.

New Thoughters already believe that the universe is God's body and that all creation is cocreation. They teach that we create our own world with our thoughts. Now they can learn that we are doing it moment by moment in the great creative advance into novelty.

I will let Quimby have the last word. He wrote, "These ideas are in your mind like little leaven. They will work till the whole mind is changed" (Clark, 1982, p. 114).

References

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Witherspoon, Thomas E. (1984). Myrtle Fillmore: Mother of Unity (2nd ed.). Unity Village, MO: Unity Books.

Deb Whitehouse