The Gypset. Neo-hippies. The Vibe Tribe.
Whatever you call them, they are gathering across the world: Tulum, Ubud, Puna, Crestone, Amherst, Ashville, Goa, Cortez, Orcas Island… They are building eco-villages in Portugal, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. They are building pagan temples in the Hudson Valley, and hosting fire circles in Minnesota and Maine. They are of mixed race, mixed nationalities, mixed age. Influenced by decades-long movements of self-optimization, collective healing, yoga, meditation, ecstatic dance and psychedelic therapy; they are the modern inheritors of the Chautauqua movement, transcendentalism, the Summer of Love, Burning Man and festival culture…and, yet, they are completely unique in their current (and growing) incarnation. Enabled by easy travel between these global hotspots and digital social networks, the ideas and norms of this movement transit rapidly around the earth, gridding the planet with a set of transglobal myths, stories and rituals. For the purpose of this inquiry, I will call this movement the NGU, or the Neo-Gaian Underground.
I believe the NGU is growing because it works: its norms and rituals meet human neurobiological needs for connection, transcendance, meaning and organization, with none of the top-down dogma and control of 20th-century religions. Simultaneously, it addresses many of the existential, grief-inducing challenges of our time, and offers a reconnection to nature in place of world denial, and to the sacred feminine on the heels of 2,000 years of killing the goddess.
“Ritual is a form of practice that is broader than religion.” “Practice is prior to belief.” “Rituals create worlds.”
-All from Robert Bellah
There is a human longing for peak experience: to be, as scholar Robert Bellah puts it in Religion in Human Evolution, “above the fray of daily life” and to experience “non-ordinary reality.” There are many reasons for ritual. They include the personal or tribal marking of birth and death, and acknowledgement of important milestones in a human life. They may include a petition for health and wellbeing, or simple gratitude. Collective rituals keep the community focused on the right (or agreed upon) path, mark the day and help make meaning of seasonal changes. Some rituals are at the cosmological level (what Bellah calls “Cosmic Maintenance”): rituals imagined to keep natural systems working smoothly.
The pervasiveness of ritual across all cultures may reflect a neurobiological urge to a transcendent experience. When people who are experiencing transcendent or spiritual states are put into brain imaging machines, there is a decreased activity in the right parietal lobe, which correlates to a diminished sense of a separate self and greater feelings of wellbeing, and love and forgiveness towards others2. Through inspiration, or trial and error, all of the modalities of ritual described by Bellah positively impact a sense of wellbeing, and there is now neuroscientific support for all of these ritual components.
As Bellah writes,“ritual is always significantly embodied”. This can mean a lot of things: eating and drinking, feasting and fasting, ritual intoxication. It can mean using the wordless expression of the body such as ritual breathing, sitting in stillness, rhythmic movement, dancing, embodied trance (eg spinning Sufis), bodily abnegations, mutilations and penance (eg, the Sundance with its pierced nipples, or self-flagellation), or postures of submission, supplication and strength (eg the positions of the Catholic mass, or the morning Surya Namaskar practice in yoga).
Beyond the body’s movements, there are the decorations and costumes to summon altered states of being, inhabiting real animal qualities or invoking the superpowers of fantastical beasts through dress or paint. There may be an acting out of old stories, such as symbolic warriors engaged in ritualized play and aggression.
Ritual then adds sound: humming, chanting, singing, drumming, crying or wailing. It then adds in language, which also comes through the body: mantra, affirmation, creed, prayer, speaking in tongues, light language and all forms of ritualized narrative.
As Bellah writes, all of these ritual acts are included in human evolution and in “earlier stages are not lost, but only reorganized under new conditions.”
Some Neuroscience and Endocrine Impacts of Ritual
As mentioned above, the neurobiology of peak experience and transcendence is increasingly documented through neuroscience research. The availability of all prior access points to “non-ordinary states” of human consciousness is wired into our biology.
Here are some snippets on each of these ritual elements in the mind-body, which together suggest we have evolved alongside these practices:
● Singing: “…singing releases endorphins and oxytocin – which in turn relieve anxiety and stress and which are linked to feelings of trust and bonding.”
● Meditation: Meditating alone or in a group decreases stress and improves resilience, compassion, caring and generosity.
● Dancing: “…dance helps reduce stress, increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, and helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition.” Dancing with others has the additional benefit of “inter-brain synchrony…[involving] neurobehavioral processes in seven distinct areas including sensory, motor, cognitive, social, emotional, rhythmic, and creative.”4
● Physical Proximity: Wired magazine quotes Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, saying, “When you touch the skin, it stimulates pressure sensors under the skin that send messages to the vagus [a nerve in the brain]. As vagal activity increases, the nervous system slows down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your brain waves show relaxation. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are also decreased.”5
● Rhythm: Musicologist Layne Redmond says,”One of the most powerful aspects of drumming and the reason people have done it since the beginning of being human is that it changes people’s consciousness. Through rhythmic repetition of ritual sounds, the body, the brain and the nervous system are energized and transformed. When a group of people play a rhythm for an extended period of time, their brain waves become entrained to the rhythm and they have a shared brain wave state. The longer the drumming goes on, the more powerful the entrainment becomes. It’s really the oldest holy communion.”
Even sitting in a circle has positive neurobiological impacts on participants versus having a single leader at the head of the room, as is common in many pew-like situations: “Circular seating arrangements can help instill a sense of belonging within … communities with overall positive effects on learning, emotions, and wellbeing.”7
Why Mainstream Religious Ritual is Falling Short
From the Greeks to Advaita Vedanta, from some schools of Buddhism to global Christian Evangelists, the denial of the body flies in the face of the first hand lived experience of many people: a beautiful earth, full of life and joy, and deeply worthy of care. It may be that the very basis of Abrahamic religious thought is so dualist (god is outside of me) and individualist (the soul is isolated and personal) that it can no longer conceive of itself as being the same as rock or tree or creature. It may also be that the Abrahamic orientation towards reward and punishment in an afterlife renders this stream of religious thought world-negating.
The religious tendency to world-denial enables the ignoring of ecological injustice and social injustice, woman-rejection, earth-extraction, body-shaming and sex-shaming. These share a common ideological source: the concept of soul evangelism. Soul evangelists believe that the only thing worth doing is saving people’s souls for eternity. Thousands of Christian songs have lyrics that are typical of this ideology, such as “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through, my treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue” or “One of these days and it won’t be long, I’ll rejoin them in a song, I’m gonna join the family circle at the throne” are the lyrics to two such songs.
When the afterlife matters more than the current reality, there is no need to be with the environmental crisis. Scholar Kenneth Ross writes that Christian evangelism “has been preoccupied almost exclusively with God’s interaction with humanity. Concern for the natural environment has been secondary or absent.”
For soul evangelists, faith is the only thing. Researcher Bryan Stone concluded that this consensus theology of evangelism “fits in so well with the maintenance of patterns of domination and subordination, racism and segregation, sexism and oppression in our society, not to mention the destruction of our planet’s natural biosphere.”9 He writes, “The practice of soul evangelism also allows white middle and upper classes to retain their social privileges and comfort and still consider themselves Christian” and at the same time “allows minorities and the poor in our society to adjust psychologically to their exclusion and dehumanization, to put up with it.”
While there are eco-theological movements inside of all mainline religions, which offer hope, they fall short in their intended impact. (See Celia Deane-Drummond’s Eco-Theology, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin’s Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet and Martin D. Yaffe’s Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader.)
In short, the existing religious frameworks failed to meet the challenges of the era ecologically.. In addition, for more than 40 years, the extensive abuses by religions and clergy (sexual, financial and psychological) have been increasingly exposed. Membership is declining in every formal church, and the religious recovery movement is growing. In the absence of religion, where in the civil culture do people turn for the things that religion provides….Sports? Nature? Entertainment? The cult of money? Religious failure and political insufficiency left many people with gaping holes of meaning, connection and collectivism.
Recontextualizing “The New Age” as a Necessary Response
Two of the initial responses to the gap left by religion were the New Age movement and the New Atheism.
At this point in the narrative of the “new age”, or new agers or hippies, we should recontextualize this 60 year old movement, see past its comedic parody potential, and pay homage to its instincts and intelligence. Religious historian Weber belittles “the cultural elite of his day for “decorating their souls with antiques drawn from all the world’s religions.” Bellah writes, dismissively, “I am not thinking here primarily of “new age” consciousness, which proclaimed that “all religions are different paths to the same God”. In dismissing this as foolishness, these authors miss the point. A new consciousness was indeed dawning and people were feeling their way into a new expression. Religious, cultural and intellectual snobbery overlooked the essence of the thing: religions no longer provided sufficient answers, and people began to summon and invoke things that did work, based on their personal experience. At the same time, non-religious morality, of the “I don’t need an ancient book to not be an asshole” mentality, began to be broadcast, from Christopher Hitchens to Dan Dennett to Sam Harris: we could have transcendent experiences without a god in the sky, they told us, and we could be ethical without an overseer.
The NGU and the New Ritual
The cohort I’m calling the NGU has been birthed in this uniquely divisive age, facing eco-catastrophe, rising housing costs, and decreasing support even in first world countries for life-affirming policies such as healthcare, housing and education. Why, they rhetorically ask themselves, should we play a no-win game of working our lives away, sequestered from family, on the teat of consumerism, with no ability to buy a home or afford a family in sight? Facing ecological disaster and the deep wounds of imperialism, capitalism and dogmatic religions, especially evangelical christianity, the NGU is attempting to find meaning and purpose in a mad world. It would be easy to suggest that a non-spiritual response to these political or structural challenges would be sufficient, but it isn’t actually enough. For people to activate they have to care. A full and sustainable response capacity requires an embodied feeling-tone of the world as sacred, as well as a path to a cure for deep separation.
The Neo Gaian Underground, and Commonalities
The NGU feeds all of the neurobiological needs of the human being for connection, transcendance, ritual and meaning, with none of the top-down dogma, while emphasizing values that include permaculture, food sovereignty, clean power, physical health, clean communication, trauma healing and walking in the beauty way.
Whether its Shamans in Suburbia, Goddesses in God’s Country, the NGU- they share these common beliefs:
A. Nature is Holy
B. The Feminine is Deified (The Magdalene, Lilith…As women become
educated, travel, work and make money….the models of divinity as primarily masculine begin to be questioned more publicly More balanced belief systems that respect the equal participation of masculine and feminine in making life, often articulated as Father Sun and Mother Earth).
C. Spirituality is in the Body, not Above it: Biology is Ideology
D. Heal the soil, heal the people, heal the waters, heal the women: H/T to @Lizzy Jeff
E. Upliftment or Amplification of Indigenous Wisdom
F. Heaven is Earth, Earth is Heaven
G. Plant Medicines and Neo-Shamanic Traditions
H. Movement and Embodiment, Singing and Making Music Are Integral
I. Diversity as beautiful and necessary
In addition, there are some common characteristics of these communities:
Communal and Networked (The circle and the spiral and the tauroid not
the dais or pew or cross or square or grid)
Recovering Seekers: assemblies often include many people in Religious Recovery
movement, religious abuse movements.
Technology-enabled, even tech embracing (alt power, crypto currencies,
barter systems, etc.)
Trusting the Mycelial Model of Change
“In ecosystems, mycelium infiltrates a tree as it grows. As the tree begins to die, the mycelium hastens the dying of the tree, and digests what is breaking apart to make nutrients, and to create new life. A cultural mycelial transition behaves in a similar fashion. The dominant systems of power, in religion and elsewhere, are too entrenched to change them using the existing tools: rather than going out and trying to change the thing outside of ourselves, we simply submit ourselves to building something that is deeply aligned with our own values, in small pockets of coherence that are committed to the good of the whole, and then we wait.”- Joshua Hathaway. from a first person interview
The old world is dying while this one is rising. While it may not be obvious on the surface, it’s already happening.
The Persistence of the Ensouled World
There seems to be a pervasive undercurrent of animism, nature religions and transcendentalist spiritualities which never fully went away, even in the heyday of the Abrahamic religions. Seeing everything as alive invited deep reverence and respect to the diversity of all of life. Scholars such as Graham Harvey (Animism: Respecting the Living World), Catherine L. Albanese (Reconsidering Nature Religions) and Carl von Essen (Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual Guide) all speak to some aspect of this Neo-Gaian ethic.
The Old Ways Live in Us
All of human evolution, all of my ancestral line lives in and as me. I am curious as to how the old ways of relating to “nature” in the pre-scientific mind still live in us, in our collective genetic or cultural memory of inspirited ecologies. The practices, rituals, music, and sacraments described in Bellah, and reintroduced in the NGU, all supporting a revived relationship of humans as part of nature, and may set the stage for the emergence of a global Gaian religion.
—CMM, San Francisco, May 2022
I write about the search for new ways of living together in my 2016 book, Indivisible: Coming Home to True Connection.