Universal Light Expo: The Newest of a New Age
-Michael J Dangler
When it comes right down to it, of course, the Universal Light Expo (ULE) isn't really the newest thing out there. It's been around for 16 years, and many of the people seen walking the halls of Veterans' Memorial are well past the age that they can be called "new". Despite this, there's a kind of feeling about it that makes it seem new and different.
Perhaps that's a good way of looking at new religious communities: they're different. They really aren't that new at all when you stop to think about it. The groups represented at this event, from Wiccans to Reki healers and UFO cultists, have all been around for at least fifty years, if not a lot longer. Some of the techniques, including crystal healing and mesmerism have been around much longer. It is the fact that we find them different that seems to really make them new. The very word "New Age" seems to point to something different than before, and often we use it to say, "They're different from us because we aren't cuckoo like they are."
To the people who attend these events, though, there's nothing different about these things. A lot of the time, to a person who is interested in these things considers them normal, every day things that other people just haven't caught onto yet. To them, it's not new because it isn't different. It's just something that works.
I was not at the ULE for very long. In the end, I was probably there for about an hour. Still, events like this are common for me, actually, and I knew a lot of the people who were attending, as well as several of the presenters and shopkeepers. Walking through the door, in fact, I saw two people I've known for a long time, and rounding the first corner I saw a rather famous author that I stopped to chat with for a bit.
We started down the first row of shops and booths, taking in some of the stranger things offered. There were people selling copper wands with crystals on them for three hundred dollars, promising to help you harness the power of air or the vibrations of the earth in order to become more in tune with the world around you, as well as yourself.
Down the next row, we came to a booth selling crystals, the staple diet of any wild New Ager. It's easy to see how people have associated the New Age with several large dollar amounts when you look at the costs of crystals. To most people, they look like large rocks, and the thought of paying eight thousand dollars for a chunk of quartz is more than a little strange to someone who could use that same amount of money to buy a small car.
I talked to the shop owner a bit, though, and he informed me that the hot sellers are not $8,000 crystals, but small fifty-cent crystals, with the highest monetary value floating around the $10 range for fast-moving items. When I asked him why anyone would want an $8,000 crystal, he shrugged, saying, "I don't know. I just have it on the off chance that someone will want it, and will have the money, and I'll retire a year earlier." In the end, I don't think that he was trying to fleece anyone, but I think he had adjusted to his clientele.
Most of the people walking through the booths were dressed as I was: tee-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Of course, while I was wearing an old, beat-up College Republicans tee-shirt, they were mostly shirts with dragons, leftist slogans, and various Pagan symbols. I admit, they dressed more colourfully than I did.
A few women were in saris or muumuus, and a couple of men wore sarongs. At the time, this didn't really stand out to me because a lot of the people I interact with wear similar clothing when attending events like this.
We turned another corner and came to the Tibetan monks creating a mandala out of sand. We watched for a while, but I admit I became quickly bored. It reminded me very much of watching paint peel or grass grow. The monks would dispense the sand in their intricate and certain manner, and it would slowly take shape, but unlike many of the awed onlookers, I didn't find the process at all interesting. The knowledge that it would be destroyed at the end further damped my desire to watch this process occur. It didn't even seem unique. "There will be another mandala," I said to my girlfriend. "There will be more sand. Let's go see what other weird things are going on." Off we went.
We wandered down the row of booths to the end, where we came to a booth holding strange-looking coils of copper and crystals in vague geometric patterns. There were pyramids and cubes and triangles hanging from the ceiling of this booth, and I watched the shopkeeper demonstrate the items on a pretty young lady. He put the item over her head and began to manipulate it so that it sat in just the right place, and then asked her, "So, is that better?" "Well," she replied, "instead of feeling like I have a headache, I feel silly, so I guess so." The man smiled, and told her the price of the contraption. Her eyes went wide and she asked him to take it off, eyeing carefully the sign above her head that said, "If you broke it, you bought it."
We wandered through some more of the Expo, taking in sights and sounds. I watched the people again while my girlfriend spent some time in a booth talking to the shopkeeper. I noticed that a lot of the people attending this event were older than me, and I figured the average age would be around forty. As pointed out above, the New Age movement isn't really "new". It's been around a long time, and the people aren't dumb youngsters. For the most part, they're people who have learned to make their own choices, and to think freely for themselves. In a word, they're different than the mainstream.
I focus a lot on that difference that makes us title this phenomenon "new". I think that it very much is about how different from us these people are that makes us even consider them a bunch of "New Agers". This movement of seekers isn't new at all, but after being brought up in a world where it's good to be different, it doesn't carry the same stigma when you call someone "different than me". Rather, you look for something else, something that doesn't sound like an insult but really is, at least in your mind.
"New Agers" are different from us in a lot of ways. They're hippies who never died or got real jobs. They're drug-culture, counter-culture kids who walk to their own drummer. They're people who would rather have an $8,000 crystal sitting in their living room than have food on their table or a down payment on a house. They're different, and that's bad.
Interestingly, the term "New Ager" is also one that carries a lot of baggage in the world of Neo-Paganism. Outsiders themselves, always different from the mainstream, Neo-Pagans tend to define themselves as "not New Agey". Rather, they call people who have practices different than theirs "New Agers" and write them off, often combining this with other derogatory terms, such as "fluffy bunny" or "unscholarly". I find it very interesting that a group like Neo-Pagans, often seen as different themselves, would find it necessary to define New Agers by their differences.
As for the New Ager him/herself, they often don't seem to realize that they're different. In one of the shops, I asked a shopkeeper, "What do you think about the way people perceive you?" She answered me in a way that seems to sum up the entire world of New Age thinking: "How do they perceive me?" In the end, I think they're not at all worried about being similar to others because they are similar, at least from their own perspective.