Brandon's Notepad

December 23, 2013

Getting Things Done: The New Age Movement

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Does GTD Contain New Age Teaching?

GTD works if its mechanics are applied consistently. At the lowest level, it is just a system of tricks and reminders. The Philosophy behind GTD is problematic, however, for those who wish to avoid New Age teachings, including Christians. For anyone who didn’t know, David Allen is heavily involved with the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA) and he subtly promotes Zen Buddhism and New Age teaching in his GTD materials. The most obvious teaching is the constant focus on the “mind like water” philosophy he adopted while studying karate, but taking all of the talk about “psychic RAM” and “open loops” into consideration, it clearly goes much deeper. His motivation is to keep his mind empty (and yours as well) by closing loops (like electrical circuits) so that good ideas (positive energy) can flow through him (and you). This is the creative work of the universe, a concept too deep to cover in this post — just know that it means more than being creative according to the conventional meaning of the word.

The Christian Response

This begs the question, is it appropriate for Christians to practice GTD? After all, didn’t Saint Paul warn his disciples about being led astray by empty philosophies that sound really good? (Col 2:8, c.f. Gal 4:3) The phrase τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, translated as “principle elements of the world”, can be interpreted to mean astrology or even the New Age movement in general. I suspect any good Christian GTDer that has read this far is already kindling a small bonfire with the intention of pitching in all extant context lists, tickler files, and printed materials published by David Co. Not so fast. Didn’t Paul also advise to test all things and hold fast to that which is good and reject that which is evil? (1 Thess 5:20-22; and though he was referring to prophecies that may be wholly or partly false, the same approach may apply here.) If the mechanics of GTD work, can we not keep the system and reject the Buddhist underpinnings?

I for one would say that this is a reasonable idea, though some precautions might be prudent. It is unlikely that any informed and faithful Christian will wander into the cosmic abyss of Zen either accidentally or willfully (the former being a spiritual danger and the latter being a mortal sin). Therefore, it is important for Christians to remain informed so that they may remain faithful (hence, this post — you’re quite welcome).

It would also be good to put some thought into how GTD can be used to help keep us focused on the right things to do. For example, if you find it difficult to schedule a consistent time for prayer, place a reminder in a context that you enter frequently with a few free moments to spare. Incubate a follow up with someone in need a week or two after your last telephone conversation. Slip mailers, flyers, church bulletin inserts, and even hand-written reminders of radio commercials requesting charitable donations in with the bills or into the tickler file folder for your next pay day. Jot down the chapter and verse of a passage you want to research later and when you process your inbox, add it to your @BibleStudy list. Of course, you can always allocate time on the hard landscape of your calendar for prayer, study of Holy Scripture, meditation on the Word of God, and the performance of charitable works. Applying GTD for the express purpose of spiritual renewal is a good way to baptize GTD for Christian use.

GTD New Age Quotes

New Age teachings are very subtle in the first GTD text. You have to know what you are looking for. Allen’s second book, Ready for Anything, is a different matter altogether. Here is a compilation of quotes from that book.

The Law of Attraction.

Truly being “at one with the universe” frankly has very little to do with keeping lists or not, or even having a clear mind, balanced emotions, or a vibrant body. If you are good at it, you can be “at one” with confusion, stress, the flu, and even negative cash flow. You can surrender up the burdens and attachments of your life at any moment to what you relate to as the higher power at work and be free in consciousness. But if you avoid or ineffectively manage your incompletions, you’ll probably be forced to confront more negative experiences than you would like. [D.Allen-2, p. 70]

This first quote is basically a restatement of the Law of Attraction, which holds that energy attracts like energy. Visualize positive outcomes and they will come about. Think negative thoughts and they will lead to negative outcomes. This is an extension of the traditional concept of Karma with a very scientific-sounding name. Making it sound like an application of physics, New Agers sell this as a deterministic formula for obtaining what you want in life.

But it makes sense, doesn’t it? If you choose to not let things get to you, embrace your work, and stay focused then certainly you are more likely to succeed in meeting your goals, right? Of course you are, but that’s called diligence and it has nothing to do with leveraging cosmic energy through positive thinking. And the quote above said nothing about creating anything, right? True, but consider the following:

I am continually amazed at how often I forget about our astonishing ability to create what we want by what we envision. Outcome thinking and the willingness to visualize something’s being true before it’s physically present is a master skill that we all could probably develop to a much greater degree. [D.Allen-2, p. 46]

So you are doomed to suboptimality if don’t focus on having only positive thoughts, and what’s worse is that you’re not very good at it from the start. Your problem is that you’re not willing to believe that something already exists even though — well, to be frank — it doesn’t. Don’t trust me? Here, I’ll say it again in a different way.

Be God.

One of the greatest challenges we must face at some point in our lives is that our sense of self-worth cannot hang solely on our inventory of what we’ve created. If all we’d done were to disappear — at this moment — we have to know that we will continue to have value and that we can create from scratch what we need or want. [D.Allen-2, p. 30-31]

My apologies for the sarcasm, but humans have never had the power to create anything out of nothing, nor to simply will something into existence. This concept should sound familiar to the Christian, however, for God did create the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) by an act of sheer will. The New Age promises to make believers like unto God, or to put it more correctly, to help them harness the powers they already possess as parts of God. Rejecting the need for our God the creator was precisely the nature of the Original Sin [Genesis 3:4].

An Appeal to Science.

This is the corollary to the principle “A change in focus equals a change in results.” […] An infinite number of things in the universe are held back from you only by your altitude and attitude. [D.Allen-2, p. 63]

Again, this sounds like a lesson in physics. Principle, in scientific terms, is a synonym for law. In this case, we are still talking about the Law of Attraction. New Age teachers also capitalize on other branches of science and medicine, especially psychiatry and psychology. For example, the following is Allen’s commentary on the “therapeutic” practice of evaluating negative events of the past:

As I became familiar with the principles of forward visioning, however, I questioned the need to do that. “Why delve into anything that’s not what you want?” I asked myself. Then I discovered why. If I’m subliminally afraid of an experience or harbor judgments about it, it will hold me captive at some level. [D.Allen-2, p. 133]

This is the flip side (yang?) of the Law of Attraction, that is that fear is negative energy that attracts more and more negative energy. Why dwell on the negative events of the past if doing so will lead to negative events in the future? It is obvious that he put enough thought into it to reconcile psychology with New Age teaching when he states that the act of dwelling (of acceptance) is not negative at all, but a positive act, because it is undertaken for the purpose of improving one’s well-being in the future. Honestly, I’m impressed. It seems, based on our varied conversations, that my New Age friends gravitate to this power of positive thinking so that they can sustain a state of denial over some tragedy or another, to avoid acceptance (or at least secure a superficial form of it) because the journey to real closure is too painful or their hearts are too hard. Even if I don’t agree with Allen’s assessment, at least it has finesse. [Hmmm, on second thought, that makes it more attractive, and thus, more dangerous.]

The Chameleon.

Allen must have realized at some point that some potential disciples may object to his methods because they are unsure of his motives, so he tries to set them at ease by claiming not to be a spiritual guru. However, in the very next chapter, he boldly states that it is all about the spiritual, that there is no benefit otherwise.

I don’t teach how to be “spiritual”. I teach how to clear and manage focus so the energy you have is most efficiently used, to get what that energy can produce. [D.Allen-2, p. 71]

If I’m managing the incompletions of my world because in truth I simply want to disengage from my life, the stress never really goes away. […] If, however, I’m able to move my inner awareness to a spiritually connected place, more from my heart than my head, it’s a totally different game. [D.Allen-2, p. 72-73]

Pantheism.

[GTD] puts you back in the driver’s seat, at the center of your universe. You become cause instead of effect. […] [Angst] arises when you let loose the reins and stop directing your own energy. Indeed, we are all at the mercy of things bigger than ourselves, and at some point we all learn that surrendering to — and cooperating with — some greater and larger aspect of the universe is the real game. [D.Allen-2, p. 149-150]

This excerpt seems self-contradictory at first. “Follow me and put yourself in control yet admit that you aren’t really in control at all?” This makes no sense unless it is evaluated in the context of pantheistic belief in the universe. Similar to collective consciousness, this belief extends far beyond sociology into the realm of metaphysics. In the New Age, there is no conflict between you, the universe, and God, because you and the universe are God. Allen’s remarks can basically be interpreted to mean that everyone must control what they can as best they can, because everyone is steering toward a unified oneness anyway, and variances between the will of the person and the will of the collective consciousness only hinders (but will not ultimately prevent) progress toward that end.

Zen.

To illustrate the connection with Zen Buddhism, consider the following quotes:

The art would be to stay in [the] zone all the time — to keep the appropriate amount of attention focused on the most appropriate thing, from the most appropriate perspective, for the appropriate length of time. No more, no less. Then refocus on the next thing, in the same way, with 100 percent positive creative energy. This would be a Zen-like state of productivity, in which you deal with what’s present from a perspective that is both detached and fully engaged. [D.Allen-2, p. 76]

Expansion and contraction. Creation and completion. Right brain, left brain. Yin and yang. The more we bring these polarities into balance, the more productive we are. [D.Allen-2, p. 112]

You exist on many levels. […] To the degree you accept the responsibility for managing them equally, you’ll find it easier to enjoy and transcend the whole game. [D.Allen-2, p. 129]

Universalism.

One way in which New Age practitioners attempt to gain converts is by convincing people that all religions are founded on a single set of basic universal truths. They borrow a little from here and a little from there, and then challenge you to re-evaluate your own worldview in light of all of this “empirical” evidence.

We have to know that no matter how finished we think we are, God isn’t done with us until she is. [D.Allen-2, p. 31]

Yes, you read it right: until she is. This is a fairly common New Age jab at traditional belief systems, and especially Judaism and Christianity which, for important theological reasons, always refer to God in the masculine. Statements like these attempt to reduce this Tradition and its sacred language down to a mere absurdity, thereby appealing to the liberal-minded culture of our postmodern age. It tugs especially to the heartstrings of those who hate the Church for her (perceived) bigotry as well as those who are so enlightened that they can only muster a claim to be “spiritual” but never “religious”. In this case, the “evidence” cited to illustrate the narrow-mindedness of Western Christian thought is the criticism of Biblical Creationism as scientifically false (which is a red herring) coupled with the empirically-verifiable existence of ancient cosmogony stories that involve “Mother Earth”, such as Native American folklore and the Greek myth about Gaia the earth goddess.

In discussing the importance of the GTD Weekly Review, Allen asserts that its efficacy is rooted in cosmic truth:

There seems to be something in our psyche that maps nicely to a seven-day cycle for our operational work life. We need to back off every seven days or so from our tree hugging and do a little forest management…” [D.Allen-2, p. 89]

Thomas Aquinas held that the Ten Commandments are an expression of Natural Law, and that the requirement that the Israelites keep the Sabbath Day holy as a memorial of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt extends a moral obligation for Christians to keep the Lord’s Day holy as a thanksgiving memorial for our deliverance from eternal condemnation. The seven-day cycle that we call “the week”, including the two memorials that constitute “the weekend”, is a direct product of the Jewish and Christian religions. Unlike the current division of the year into twelve lunar months (which could have just as easily been divided into a sterile set of ten segments lasting thirty-six days each), the awkward demarcation of fifty-two periods of seven-days each is distinctly cultural. I can’t help but smile, thinking that this is God’s retort to Allen’s own universalist hijacking attempt. “Yes, David, even you cannot deny the truths I’ve written on the hearts of men.”


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