I’m sitting on a cushion on the floor of the Body Actualized Center, a yoga studio and event space in Bushwick, with my eyes closed and my hands on my knees, surrounded by a bunch of other kids around my age. On a chair in front of us is an older woman, draped in beads and a gauzy blue outfit, leading us in song: “I am opening up, I am ooo-ooo-opening up, to the luminous love-light of the One.” Her name is Judith Pennington, a self-proclaimed “awakened-mind practitioner,” and she’s here to tell us about the “brainwaves of our consciousness,” and how we can improve them through songs and chants like this one.
Judith is the sort of woman one of my loopy aunts from Maine might recommend I “get into,” the type who might advertise her services in a Vermont food co-op circular. But here she is, leading a spiritual workshop in post-industrial north Brooklyn. What Judith is teaching is a perfect example of New Age thinking: some pseudo-science here, a bit of Eastern-style meditative practices there, and some holistic healing methods to top it all off. New Age spirituality is by definition amorphous and creative, encompassing everything from yoga to Egyptology to attempts to contact extra-terrestrials. Experimenting with witchcraft, crystal healing and meditation are popular, along with any and all combinations of the above. Basically whatever the practitioner deems enlightening or spiritually productive goes.
If you live in Brooklyn, you’ve probably noticed some of these motifs becoming increasingly common. Boutiques are crowded with anything and everything outer-space themed, pentagrams are suddenly really cool, and Beacon’s Closet sells tarot-card ashtrays and giant geodes. It’s not just the aesthetic that’s caught on; our borough is now home to an ever-multiplying array of yoga studios and health food stores and each, more often than not, features a bulletin board advertising the services of healers, palm-readers and holistic nutritionists.
I’ve always been mostly distrustful and vaguely annoyed with these kinds of things. I almost giggle during my class when Judith describes having “a peak experience enjoying the texture of a plant.” When she congratulates the late-comers on their “free-spiritedness,” I’m appalled. But when I listen to the group of eight or nine other twenty-somethings pepper Judith with thoughtful comments and questions, I get the impression that I’m the only cynic in the room.
The increasing influence of New Age-y thinking among our demographic becomes obvious when you look closer at the some of the music and images we create and consume. “Sea-punk,” the dreamy, watery web aesthetic popular enough to inspire Rihanna’s last performance on SNL, was coined when DJ Lil’ Internet tweeted a dream he had about a punk jacket covered in barnacles instead of metal studs, an act he later described as “divinely-inspired” on MTV’s Weird Vibes. Further evidence that this flurry of Tumblrs and their accompanying musical sub-genre has metaphysical roots can be found in sea-punk poster-boy Ultrademon’s interview with French Vice. After stating that he believes in magic and the apocalypse he asserts “the whole aesthetic that I created was just a way to hide code for invoking things.”
That said, just because Ultrademon attributes magical meaning to his music doesn’t mean that his fans necessarily agree, or even care. “I think a lot of it is purely aesthetic,” says Travis Egedy, a popular electronic musician who works under the name Pictureplane. “It’s just a visual interest in occult symbols or themes, without much knowledge or awareness of what [people] are looking at. I would like to think that a lot of people are waking up though.” Travis’s music, along with the graphics that accompany his releases, are full of occult imagery, and he’s credited with having invented the term “witch house” to describe a brooding and intense style of electronic music that cropped up a few years ago. Music played a central role in guiding him toward his spiritual interests: “I think my gateway into the occult realms was through discovering noise music and the American noise underground around 2004. Ideas of freedom, rebellion, anarchy and chaos were being explored within that realm. And that led me to discovering Throbbing Gristle and Genesis P. Orridge, who has been a huge influence on my art.” Though skeptical about the public’s deeper interest in spiritual matters, he takes his own engagement with them very seriously: “Occult ideas play a large part in the conceptual aspect of my work. I am trying to help the evolution of human consciousness, and also the deconditioning of the self from aspects of [societal] control.”
Popular Brooklyn-based two-piece Prince Rama are equally sincere in their belief in music’s capacity to expand consciousness. I’ve seen them live a couple of times and recall psychedelic and tribal sets that memorably included breathing exercises led by the duo, sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson. On Taraka’s Now-Age.org website, which sometimes reads like a horoscope and at others a dissertation, she states, “The concert utilizes many ancient religious strategies of icon worship, call and response chanting, group mentality, martyrdom, out-of-body experiences, and transformation of the physical environment to create a metaphysical liminal space filled with shock and awe.” When I saw Prince Rama a few summers ago in Detroit they distributed hand-made percussion instruments to the audience and led the crowd in chanting and banging. Although I remained firmly planted in my body, I’ll concede they created an environment of awe.
There’s no question that mystical music has always been part of youth counterculture. From Fleetwood Mac to Black Sabbath, we all grew up around music that dealt in the dark, the transcendent or the magical. In this age of supposed irony it’s easy to write off our more pronounced recent fascination with spookiness as just another tongue-in-cheek nod to the corniness of the past. When I asked Prince Rama’s Taraka about sincerity and kitsch, she observed, “Kitsch is the shiny shell that forms on top once something enters into the realm of un-nameable. It doesn’t necessarily have to be at odds with transcendence and sincerity, because sometimes the un-nameable is too soft and sacred to be seen by the garish media gaze.” So even if part of what’s going on at places like Body Actualized is meant to poke fun at our respective hippie aunts, maybe that mocking is the “shell” we use to protect our “soft and sacred” desire to believe that there really could be something to it.
Similar thoughts run through my mind as I near the end of my session at the Body Actualized Center, where Judith Pennington is leading us in a breathing exercise meant to improve the frequency of our brainwaves. The more we do this kind of thing, she tells us, the more attuned we will be to the supernatural around us. I inhale and exhale with the group and the result is undoubtedly calming. I don’t feel myself gazing into the beyond, but I do feel the centering effect of the exercise and consider incorporating it into my daily routine. In the same way that references to magic and ritual lend an air of mystery and grandeur to music, I can imagine these New Age-y breathing exercises adding an otherworldly element to my otherwise ordinary schedule.
I’m not ready to dive head-first into mediating my brainwaves, but I am more and more open to giving it a try. My guess is that a lot of young Brooklynites are approaching it in the same way. We’re buying star charts because they look cool. We’re not sure astrology really makes sense. But I’m also pretty sure we all have at least one friend in our social circle wondering if we’re Geminis – because, of course, that would explain the cynicism.