A vanguard of self-schooled female mystics are doing an end-run around the mainstream self-help and New Age movements — and are advancing a radical, 21st century spirituality. Call it the ‘Anti-Me Generation’
For two years, Byron Katie was so maniacally depressed she rarely got out of bed. A mother of two boys and a teen-aged girl in Bakersfield, CA and an alcoholic, she ended up in a local halfway house. When Katie awoke one morning to find a cockroach crawling up her foot, she had an out-of-nowhere epiphany. “All my rage, all the thoughts that had been troubling me, my whole world, was gone,” she recalls. “The only thing that existed was awareness. I was seeing without concepts, without thoughts or a story. There was no me. The foot and the cockroach weren’t outside me. There was no outside or inside.”
During the two decades since that halfway-house psychic makeover, Katie has drawn audiences in the thousands to lectures and workshops, for which she typically charges no fee, offering others the same experience. To both experts and lay people alike she appears to live in an elevated psychological state utterly free of internal conflict, akin to a yogi or a lama. Katie herself claims that she does not even see herself as a spiritual person. “I don’t know anything about that,” says Katie. “I’m just someone who knows the difference between what hurts and what doesn’t.”
Across the centuries, spiritual seekers have invariably been women and the teachers men; From Jesus to Gurdjieff and Rumi to Ramana Maharshi, enlightenment has been a male-dominated business. But Katie, now 63, is in the vanguard of an astonishing advent in the mystical tradition she is a leading light in a scattered coterie of women who have propounded a radical, new esoteric spirituality and seem to have leap-frogged ahead of male counterparts in the pursuit of the sacred. Their work, if you want to call it that, isn’t wholey cribbed from Indian gurus or apprenticeships in Asian monasteries but forged in a homegrown fashion in the crucible of contemporary America – sometimes as a result of frustration with oriental traditions. Alongside Katie, these self-schooled spiritual masters include Oregon-based Catherine Ingram (pictured above), Santa Fe’s Pamela Wilson (below), and Calgary, Alberta-based Karen McPhee.
They represent an implicit indictment of the legion of vendors from the human potential movement who appear on Oprah’s show, or who fill the pages of Common Ground. Those services are New Age brands that explicitly pitch self-improvement, and promise to fill in the ego’s deficits. But Katie, Ingram and the others undermine the very notion of self-enhancement through spiritual seeking. In fact, they take direct aim at the personality’s hegemony over reality, and advance a counter-intuitive proposition that the act of thinking itself is an inherently contaminating phenomenon. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, the age-old adage goes. To the new female mystics, the mind is simply a terrible thing.