Last Tuesday evening at a large, detached house in Maida Vale, several dozen people gathered for an important meeting. They were the kind of people you'd expect to find at this sort of occasion - well-groomed, confident, business-like. Several chauffer-driven Mercedes were parked in the driveway ready to whisk them off to further engagements. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, the meeting was called to order by the owner of the house, the chief executive of a public relations company. Very quickly and without any fuss they sat on the floor, crossed their legs and began to chant ... nam-myoho-renge-kyo ... nam-myoho-renge-kyo ... nam-myoho-renge-kyo ... over and over again. For this was not a meeting of the local Conservative Association, but of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists, some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country and the standard-bearers of what they call "the New Age".
To many, the term "New Age" will conjure up images of long-haired, sandal-wearing eccentrics, more interested in saving the planet than earning a living. But today's New Age Person combines "spiritual awareness" with a vigorous interest in their own bank balance. They still believe in peace and love but they know how to read a balance sheet - many of them run their own businesses. They're more likely to wear Rifat Ozbek and Katharine Hamnett than sackcloth and ashes, and they wouldn't be seen dead in a leather jacket - killing animals is wrong.
The New Age Person is a strange hybrid of the 'sixties and the 'eighties: they've retained the mystical hippy philosophy but ditched the politics. They're more concerned with developing the "inner self" than changing the world. Personal wealth is no longer seen as an obstacle to personal growth. In fact, most New Agers see financial success as a "karmic sign" that they're following "the true path". It's OK to make money so long as you're doing good, and that can include anything from running a "workshop" on "Photographing the Aura" to being a "New Age Management Consultant". Some people have described them as hippies with short hair, but an equally accurate description would be Yuppies with a conscience. It's alright to drive a BMW so long as it has a catalytic converter.
The New Age Person used to be found in "alternative communities" like Totnes in south Devon and Findhorn in north-east Scotland, but nowadays you can see them on any busy high street. They tend to wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes - dungarees, tracksuits, sweat shirts - anything, provided it's white and has a hood. They keep their money in pouches which they drape round their waists and never carry credit cards. Consumption is limited to what they need, though this can run to several cases of Aqua Libra - tap water is polluted. The women rarely wear make-up - "You have to accept me for the person I am" - and it is often hard to tell with New Agers what sex they are. As a rule, the men are the ones with slightly longer hair.
The standard New Age couple like to regard each other as "partners" rather than husband and wife, but in most other respects they lead a typical bourgeois existence. Permissiveness is for people who haven't "found themselves", whereas New Agers believe in "stable, nurturing environments", particularly as they nearly all have children. At the Ecover party in the Africa Centre last Christmas there were more babies than grown ups. Child-rearing is an important "growing experience" for New Age people, even if they are a little wary of bringing kids into a world which has nuclear weapons in it. Children have this "magical aura" because their thought-processes haven't been "conditioned" yet. As Jung said, we can learn a lot from kids.
The typical New Age home is a combination of natural, earthy materials and state of the art technology: furniture by Ikea, communication by Fax. As they relax in their portable flotation tanks they like to listen to New Age Music on their compact disc players, preferably something from Wyndham Hill. Unlike the Greens, there is nothing Luddite about New Agers. They regard technology as a source of "empowerment", a vehicle for "realising our potential". Networks of personal computers linking all parts of the globe will have a vital role to play in the future. Every home should have an Apple Macintosh - the New Age computer. Odyssey, the autobiography of Apple president John Sculley, is a New Age guide to business in the 'nineties.
Their attitude to science is more ambiguous. Conventional medicine is highly suspect and any form of "alternative medice" - homeopathy, reflexology, acupuncture, kinesiology - is infinitely preferable to visiting a GP. The trouble with conventional medicine is that it doesn't treat the whole person, it ignores the "fundamental unity of mind, body and spirit". Choas Science, on the other hand, is extremely popular with New Agers, particularly as you don't need maths to understand it. They regard Chaos as providing the scientific proof of the whole New Age philosophy, that everything is interdependent and interconnected, Yin and Yang. Strange Attractions on Kensington Park Road, which sells everything from Chaos videos to Chaos T-shirts, is a New Age Mecca - "the New Edge", they call it.
They tend to eat organic food and most of them are vegetarians - "Meat is Murder" and "Dairy is Rape". They avoid "artifical stimulants" and always make a point of including alcohol and tobacco in this category. Drugs are for people who are looking for a "short cut to enlightenment", something which should take years to achieve, ideally in the company of a Zen Master. When a New Age Person talks about "turning on and tuning in" they're probably referring to a "SynchroENERGIZER", an electrical device which synchronizes the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Perhaps their most distinctive characteristic is their pre-occupation with therapy. New Agers are obsessed with their "spiritual and emotional well-being" and will go to practically any lengths to restore their "chakras" - energy levels. Art Therapy, Colour Therapy, Aroma Therapy, Polarity Therapy, Electro-Crystal Therapy - most New Age Women are training to be therapists of one sort or another. However outlandish the name, though, the lesson is always the same: be yourself, follow your instincts, listen to your "inner voice". Therapy enables you to "get in touch with your true self rather than the person you've been brought up to think you are".
Their attitude to life is an odd combination of the primitive and the post-modern: Pantheism and the Gaia Hypothesis, Zen Bhuddism and computer literacy, Astrology and the Heisenberg Uncertianty Principle. They combine a lively interest in new science and technology with the credulity of a savage. They see hidden meanings in everything, from a chance encounter in Sainsbury's to the numbers on a bus ticket. In the New Age universe there is no such thing as a coincidence; every event, however obscure, is significant. This accounts for their fascination with the Tarot and the I-Ching; what to ordinary mortals seems like infantile superstition is to them the wisdom of the ancients.
What is so striking about the New Age is how mainstream it has become. Ten years ago, if you talked about the "healing power of crystals" people would think you were round the twist. These days, sober-minded businesmen carry little lumps of quartz around with them in their briefcases. (Craig Sans, chief executive of Whole Earth Foods, keeps a crystal on top of his Apple Mac.) Many of the products in the New Age home - recycled lavatory paper, vegetarian dog-food - can be found at this year's Ideal Home Exhibition. There is a "SynchroENERGIZER" centre on Wardour Street, a "Flotarian" in St John's Wood. Tetley now make organic teabags, Organic Wine is available at Safeways and Organic Corn Flakes at Asda. You can buy Tarot cards at Waterloo station. What was once an obscure cult now permeates every aspect of our society. The future King is a New Age Person. Who knows, perhaps David Icke will be the next Prime Minister.
Should we be worried by all this? There are those, particularly Born Again Christians, who regard the New Age as terribly sinister. They see in it a return to Pagan worship, the rise of the Occult. To them, the term "New Age" refers as much to ritual child abuse on the Orkneys as the annual Festival of Mind, Body and Spirit at Olympia. Given half a chance, they'd start burning New Age counsellors at the stake. But it is difficult to feel morally outraged by a "Smile Therapist", even if they do claim that "conscious smiling and laughter" can cure cancer. The truth of the matter is, beneath all the New Agers' talk of "raising consciousness" and "global awareness" they are really rather superficial. They often say things like, "Who am I, what am I doing, where am I going and what does it all mean?" But while such questions trouble us all at some stage, to seek the answers in astrological charts or crop circles seems an admission of defeat. They dismiss the entire tradition of Western philosophical thought, describing it as "mechanistic" and "logocentric", but it is doubtful whether they have ever read a single example of it. They hold conventional medicine in contempt, but they are unlikely to turn to a reflexologist or a homeopathist if they have a burst appendix.
New Agers ignore the extent to which our material prosperity depends upon on a disenchanted view of the universe: it has only been by reducing the natural world to a soulless, inanimate landscape that we've been able to harnass it to our advantage. The New Age Person wants to enjoy the fruits of capitalist society without paying any of the costs. They trivialise the deep unease that everyone feels about modernity by treating it as a psychological problem - nothing a little therapy won't cure. They believe in redemption without penance, salvation without suffering.
The New Age Person regards himself as much deeper than the rest of us, with our over-reliance on rationality and our tendency to categorise everything. But when you examine their beliefs in any detail, it turns out to be them who are rather shallow.