In late 2020, a time of cultural high-highs and low-lows (Trump would soon be out of office, but the COVID pandemic was wreaking havoc), my Instagram algorithm could not have been more confused. Locked away in my bedroom like I’d been all year, looping a playlist of Mariah Carey Christmas music (an attempt at *joy*), I found myself going Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining-style mad, as I finished the final draft of Cultish, my new nonfiction book about the language of “cults,” from Scientology to SoulCycle. Amid all the QAnoners, multi-level marketing recruiters, impassioned start-ups, and other fanatical fringe groups I’d been analyzing (read: social media stalking) over the past year, my Explore page couldn’t seem to tell whether I was genuinely interested in shopping for Flat Earth T-shirts while entertaining the theory that 5G cell phone towers were responsible for the coronavirus, or just anthropologically interested. Either way, I was eyeballs deep in the peculiar universe of shady social media gurus, when I thumbed past the perfect case study in contemporary cult language: an account called @activationvibration.
The voice behind the account is Heather Hoffman, a blue-eyed 20-something with a look that reads part beauty influencer, part religious prophet—picture ornate gold piercings and appropriative face jewels, juxtaposed with eyelash extensions and trendy tie-dye bralettes. Heather’s ultra-produced images, featuring rainbow lens flares and jewel-tone lotus flowers, accompany affirmations just vague enough to sound profound: “As you advance, you assist the collective.” “Choose to be ‘in peace’ In order: to experience peace.” “Dimensions: are Universal Constants which are separated by maintaining an individual constant vibration—It is us, who change in frequency.” (Her punctuation alone is a cosmic mystery.) In one IGTV video, Heather lounges before a mandala tapestry sermonizing that COVID-19 was caused by government “fear propaganda” and that protecting yourself means “deactivating” your “matrix grid of fear” so as not to pollute the “divine order.” Heather attests she has been reincarnated precisely to cure us lowly humans of such ailments through her ability to access “Source” (God) and other spiritual “realms” available only to her, since everyone else has fallen victim to a “program.” To tap into her transcendent knowhow, just sign up for one of her online programs, like the “Cellular Activation Course—Upgrade Your DNA” for $144.44, or, for her most exclusive wisdom, pony up $4,444 for private coaching.
Heather’s lengthy, convoluted captions are written in a dialect of New Age–speak so cryptic that insiders want to like, comment, and share, while outsiders can’t help but keep scrolling to find out what her beliefs actually are: “integrating potent codes,” “quantum transformation,” “divine alignment,” “energy matrices, grids, and frequencies.”
This way of speaking is inscrutable, but it’s also oddly familiar. I’ve heard many of Heather’s frequently used words — like, “holistic,” “synergy,” “actualize,” “integrate,” “frequencies,” “vibrations,” “alignment,” “paradigm shift,” “organic,” “intentional” — in a very different context: my old media start-up job. “Can we make sure we’re aligned on that initiative?” “There’s an ongoing paradigm shift in the wellness space.” You’ve probably come across similar terms, perhaps arranged in slightly different linguistic shapes; this quasi-mystical glossary has found its way into the mouths of everyone from Peloton instructors (“Set your intention for this class, and awaken!”) to millennial preachers at trendy Christian megachurches, like Hillsong (“This is a missional church for authentic, intentional Christ followers”). Hell, just the other day, I entered a West Hollywood salon to procure my first haircut in a year, and my stylist told me my “vibration” had “upgraded” since the last time she saw me.
Clearly, a new metaphysical dialect has emerged, and it’s swiftly taken over all kinds of social, spiritual, and professional spaces — not just the cultier corners of Instagram, but also our corporate offices, diet and fitness industries, and beyond. But… why? Where did this New Age language come from? How come it’s blowing up in such a major way right now? And, can it actually be dangerous?
Language change and cultural change have always gone hand-in-hand, and this is by no means the “dawn” of New Age vernacular in the United States. We saw something similar in the 1960s and ’70s, another era of American socio-political turbulence. At the time, Americans were craving community and spirituality more than ever, but were resisting traditional religious organizations, so, new “alternative” movements — everything from Christian offshoots like Jews for Jesus to pseudo-Buddhist groups like Shambhala to sci-fi-type fellowships like Scientology — arose to fill the void. Like now, spiritual seekers of the time were mostly young, white, countercultural types who felt that mainstream church, government, and healthcare had failed them, so they began looking toward the East and the occult to inspire individualistic quests for enlightenment. Naturally accompanying the rise of New Age culture, talk of “vibrations” and “mind-body connections” surged.
For a few decades, this speech style was really only found in society’s woo-woo fringes: moon ceremonies, music festivals, etc. But now, thanks to a complex amalgam of modern phenomena — including social media algorithms, culture-wide movements toward “transparency” and “inclusion,” further migration away from traditional religion and toward secular sites of community and ritual (think: “cult fitness” studios, start-ups that put the “cult” in “company culture,” wellness influencers) — this New Age language is absolutely everywhere.
It’s really no wonder these magical-sounding terms have spread so quickly: First of all, special jargon is just plain fun. Who doesn’t love learning a secret code language? Having an exclusive tongue gives members of a group something to assemble around, and like a snappy new uniform, it makes them feel like they’re a part of something greater and that they’re doing something right with their lives.
That said, this hazy metaphysical-meets-scientific-sounding speech does come with risks. We often take for granted the material power of language, largely because it’s invisible and seemingly harmless — sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you, right? Well, not quite. Having spent the past two years researching the social science of cult influence, I’ve learned that more than physical violence or some vague concept of “brainwashing,” language is the key means by which all degrees of cult-like influence occur. With emotionally charged buzzwords and euphemisms, renamings, chants, mantras, and even hashtags, pernicious gurus are able to instill ideology, establish an “us” and a “them,” justify questionable behavior, inspire fear, gaslight followers into questioning their own reality… essentially everything a cult needs to do in order to gain and maintain power.
At its most innocent, New Age lingo acts as a symbol of in-group solidarity. When my hairdresser told me my vibration had upgraded, there was nothing sinister lurking underneath. I know that she’s into naturopathic medicine and life coaches, and for her, the New Age vocabulary is a way to feel connected to a community of like-minded seekers that seems to genuinely inspire fulfillment. Those ideas may not be my particular cup of kombucha, but I’ve learned not to judge folks too harshly for holding faith-based beliefs (we humans are an irrational bunch by nature, after all), as long as they’re not hurting anyone or pushing them to convert.
But New Age–speak can also be a red flag. In some contexts, nebulous terms like “alignment” and “awakening” serve as scammy marketing buzzwords that have no clear or specific meaning, but simply paint a portrait of the speaker as transcendently wise, like some kind of all-knowing wiseman or prophet (even if they themselves don’t quite know what they’re saying). In competitive workplace environments, for example, excessive New Age lingo — constant talk of “missional synergy” and “holistic idea-sharing” — can promote a culture of conformity, discouraging individualism and questioning, while obscuring the fact that behind all the gobbledygook, the company’s higher-ups might not have the most “holistic” intentions (a recent Bond University study found that one in five CEOs is a clinical psychopath). And on social media, where influencers are no longer selling just athleisure and eye cream, but also their very souls, dime-a-dozen Insta-gurus like @activationvibration offer free nuggets of spiritual-ese, hoping followers will get suckered into paying for their self-actualization courses or retreats in order to learn what the hell they’re actually talking about.
“Some words are used not for their meaning, but for what the word says about the person who uses it,” wrote Lutheranism scholar Kendall Davis (@hispterlutheran) on his blog. Commenting on how millennial megachurches in particular exploit this New Age rhetoric as an unctuous marketing tactic, Davis writes: “The hipster church down the street isn’t calling itself an ‘intentional and authentic community of missional Christ followers’ because each of those words carry a specific meaning, but because each of those words/phrases identify this group of Christians as not like those other Christians, those Christians who are presumably part of an ‘accidental and inauthentic hermitage of anti-missional Christ deserters.’” The words’ precise definitions are not important — in fact, they don’t even exist. Instead, says David, it’s the social capital they carry. It’s their ability to instill a sense of unearned, us-versus-them elitism in followers who know how to use the language, while ostracizing or villainizing those who don’t.
At its very worst, New Age language conflates science and metaphysics in a way that misrepresents and delegitimizes data, ushering in a wave of hazardous anti-science thinking. Since the New Age boom in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so many notorious figures — from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to NXIVM’s Keith Rainere — have co-opted technical terms from scientific fields like psychology and astrophysics, infusing them with vague spiritual meanings as a way to convince their followers that they’re tapped into knowledge that transcends science.
Because New Age ideas and conspiracy theories have overlapped in such inauspicious ways over the past decade — giving us a whole new category of cultish belief termed “conspirituality” (think: anti-vaxx yogis, Pastel QAnoners, etc.) — this imprecise, mystical verbiage can serve as an on-ramp leading to much more destructive conspiratorial thinking. Many of QAnon’s central buzzwords fall into this very same category of New Age vernacular: “paradigm shift,” “5D consciousness,” “awakening.” This is no accident: The familiar, innocent-sounding words work to reel in and bond recruits without revealing too much. Akin to a horoscope, the generic rhetoric allows participants to project whatever they want to believe onto the language, all the while camouflaging the fact that much more ominous, fact-phobic, anti-Semitic ideas might await them deeper down the rabbit hole.
Of course, New Age–speak is not inherently treacherous. But its sheer ubiquity says something profound about this uniquely cultish time in history. Keeping our ears attuned to deceptive buzzwords dressed up as the language of enlightenment can help us all make sure we don’t slip and fall into the wrong ideological whirlpool — whether we’re at church, work, spin class, or perusing our Explore page.