Twilight of the New Age?
Findhorn, Schumacher College, Omega and other venerable spiritual centres are in crisis
The Dartington Trust was founded in Totnes, Devon, in 1925 by a wealthy heiress, Dorothy Elmhirst, and her husband Leonard Elmhirst. They were disciples of the Indian poet-mystic, Rabindranath Tagore, and wanted to set up something similar to Santiniketan, his ashram-college in India. They founded Dartington with some of the $500 million or so (in today’s money) that Dorothy inherited from her father. Dartington attracted many leading free thinkers of the day – Aldous Huxley sent his son to the school, Gerald Heard ran a meditation group there in the 1930s, while the Dartington School of Arts trained generations of artists. It was part of the first wave of ‘the New Age’, from the 1880s to the 1930s.
In the 1990s, Dartington gave birth to the Schumacher College, founded by eco-monk Satish Kumar. Schumacher offered undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in regenerative farming, ecological design and holistic thinking, and became one of the hubs of British ecological spirituality. It was something between a university, an eco-community and an ashram. Several friends of mine lived and studied there, and came out transformed. It was a university like no other – students had to write essays, but they also toiled in the gardens, went on vision quests, attended grieving ceremonies for Gaia.
Schumacher College was and is a special place, particularly for the UK where spirituality is hardly mainstream. George Monbiot, the leading British environmentalist, tells me: ‘Schumacher is crucial. It’s got a fantastic record of being well ahead of the curve on environmental issues. It has significant teachers there and really great students, so what’s happened is tragic.’
What happened is that, one month ago, the Dartington Trust abruptly announced it was suspending all courses at Schumacher College, despite students having arrived from around the world to study there. There was very little communication by the Trust and students took to protesting outside its building. Meanwhile much of Dartington’s employees were put on zero-hour contracts and have taken redundancy.
To those familiar with Dartington, it is not a surprise. The Trust has been in financial trouble for decades, and closed the School of Arts in 2010. Anna Neima wrote about it in her 2021 book, The Utopians. She tells me: ‘Dartington was supposed to become self-sufficient and sustainable, but it never did. It was running at a loss since the word go. The trustees began selling things off in the 1980s.’
Dartington and Schumacher are not alone. Also last month, Findhorn, the eco-spiritual community in Scotland, suspended all its classes, laid off 40 workers, and is trying to find a way to survive. Omega Institute, the spiritual retreat centre in upstate New York, is also pleading for emergency financial support. Even Esalen, the venerable personal growth centre in Big Sur California, is facing questions over its long-term future.
What’s going on?
From a broad perspective, one could say that New Age spirituality doesn’t lend itself to durable institutions – it is anti-institutional, individualistic, nomadic, rejecting dogma or settled teachings, and preferring direct experience and personal charisma. Perhaps that ethos doesn’t lend itself to institutions lasting centuries, like Benedictine monasteries.
On the other hand, there are some New Age institutions that have lasted decades or even a century or more. There’s the Swedenborg Society, founded in 1810; the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882; the Theosophical Society, 1888, the Dartington Trust, 1925, Eranos in 1933. And then more recently you have Esalen, founded in 1962; Findhorn, also in 1962; Auroville, 1968; the Psychosynthesis Institute in 1973; Osho’s ashram in Pune in 1974, Damanhur in 1975, and the Omega Institute in 1977. No doubt I’m missing others, tell me in the comments!
So why are some of these more durable institutions in danger of going under now? Alastair McIntosh, a Scottish theologian and mystic, gave a recent talk at Findhorn in which he identified six reasons for this present existential crisis.
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