On the Self-Help Movement

Closely related to New Age religions and New Thought religions are the self-help and human potential movements. None of these terms have, of course, precise definitions. The beginning of “self-help” has at times been traced all the way back to Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” But a better starting point is probably Dale Carnegie’s 1936 tome “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” followed closely in 1937 by Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich.” The 1939 publication of “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” (now known as the “Big Book”). In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale brought us “The Power of Positive Thinking.” And thereafter, the deluge.

It’s been noted by some commentators that the language of self-help, and especially the language from the 12 Step movements, has completely infused popular culture. Terms like “recovery,” “dysfunctional” and “codependent” are now part of everyday language.

If self-help began with Dale Carnegie, then the human potential movement can be said to derive from Abraham Maslow‘s self-actualization work and hierarch of needs. Subsequently, in 1962, Michael Murphy and Dick Price founded the Essalen Institute as a center for the study and development of human potential in Big Sur. Werner Erhard founded the “est” workshops in 1971, followed by Stewart Emery’s “Actualizations” program, Oscar Ichaz’s Arica School, John-Roger Hinkins’ Insight Seminars, John Hanley’s “Lifespring” courses, Alexander Everett’s Mind Dynamics, Peak Potentials Training from T. Harv Eker, the Silva Mind Control method, the Sterling Institute of Relationship, and more recently the Hoffman Quadrinity Process and the work of Tony Robbins.

In his book SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno has noted the twin themes of “victimization” and “empowerment” in the self-help movement, and how they often work at cross-purposes in ways that aren’t clearly recognized. Salerno’s book also focuses on the questionable credentials of movement leaders like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Phil McGraw, Tony Robbins, Marianne Williamson, and John Gray. While Salerno probably takes some cheap shots along the way — credentialing isn’t all that important in these endeavors — there is a consistent kind of hypocrisy that his book exposes. So, for example, Dr. John Gray, famous for his book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,” took as his second wife fellow relationship expert Dr. Barbara DeAngelis, who is famous (or perhaps infamous) for having been married five times herself. Aside from John Gray, the magician Doug Henning was another of her spouses. Gray and DeAngelis are now divorced. They also both received their PhD degree from Columbia Pacific University, a correspondence school.

Then there is Marianne Williamson who famously wrote, in a quote that has sometimes been misattributed to Nelson Mandela:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

It’s a great quote, but is it true? It’s one of those quotes that, at first blush, sounds absolutely profound. But I don’t think it’s true.

In any case, the author of the famed quote also has an interesting back-story. Born in 1952 to two left-leaning Jewish lawyers in Houston, Williamson majored in theater and philosophy at Pomona College, supported herself for a time as a nightclub act, and shared an apartment with the actress Laura Dern. By her own admission, she led a lifestyle that involved a fair amount of mind altering substances before coming upon Helen Schucman’sA Course in Miracles.” Schucman (July 14, 1909 – February 9, 1981) was an American clinical and research psychologist, and professor of medical psychology at Columbia University in New York, who reported having “scribed” the Course in Miracles, dictated to her by Jesus Christ. As the story goes, Schucman was sitting at home one night in 1965, when she heard an internal voice say to her, “This is a course in miracles. Please take notes.” The Course was eventually published in 1976 by the Foundation for Para-Sensory Investigations. When Marianne Williamson found it, she used it to straighten out her own life. She began to lecture on it in 1983 and found a receptive audience. By 1992 she had published a book about the course entitled, “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles,” which was shortly thereafter endorsed by Oprah. And the rest, as they say, is herstory.

Nor is Williamson the only one mining this territory. It’s also being mined by Gary Renard, who in his book “The Disappearance of the Universe” claims to be reporting the words of two “ascended masters” known to him as Pursah and Arten, but who are really Thomas and Thaddeus, two of the first disciples of Jesus. In Renard’s book the two ascended masters essentially flesh out the teachings from the Course in Miracles.

Large Group Awareness Trainings

Closely related to the self-help movement is the phenomenon of large group awareness trainings (or LGATs), the most famous of which is the “Erhard Seminar Trainings” (or “est,” consciously in lower case), founded by Werner Erhard, born as Jack Rosenberg. That the est training was controversial should be without controversy. It attracted celebrities like Yoko Ono and John Denver, and was known for its grueling hours, abusive trainers, and the lack of bathroom breaks. People who were unprepared for the intensity of the experience had a hard time with. A few had emotional breakdowns before or after the experience. Twenty years after its founding Erhard sold the intellectual property to his brother and others, who became Landmark Education. By now, the Forum has been shortened from two weekends to one long weekend, and the trainers are no longer abusive. Bathroom breaks have been reinstated. But the Forum is still shrouded in mystery.

Other examples of LGATs include Barry Neal Kaufman’s Option Institute Happiness is a Choice program, the Opening the Heart workshops, T. Harv Eker’s Peak Potentials training, and the Pathways Institutes’ Personal Mastery Intensive. (These are just ones that I have some personal familiarity with; there are many more).

Two of the distinguishing features of large group awareness trainings are size — they normally involve at least 50 people and can range in size up to 200 or 300 participants or more — and the fact that these programs are almost never advertised. Their advertisement is all “word of mouth,” and often the solicitation is built into the program itself. So, for example, the Landmark Forum recruits very actively among its program graduates, encouraging them assiduously to bring their friends and acquaintances to a program. The Pathways Institute has an advanced program called “Stand and Deliver,” the primary purpose of which is to enroll the next class of the Personal Mastery Intensive. The Peak Potentials Training draws people in by offering the initial workshop for free, and then putting on the hard sell for people to enroll in subsequent courses.

– Are Large Group Awareness Trainings Effective?

The question of whether these trainings are effective is one that does not have a clear answer. Part of the problem is that there has been little independent research of the LGAT phenomenon, and part of the problem is that a number of the organizations sponsoring these trainings are very secretive and actively discourage objective analysis. Landmark Education, sponsor of the Landmark Forum, is notorious for its aggressive litigation posture against anyone who dares to criticize their programs.

What appears to be the case is that LGAT trainings can often give participants a powerful short-terms sense of belonging and of revelation. These programs can be very successful in breaking down longstanding defenses, in breaking through certain psychological barriers, and giving participants a sense of transformation. Of course, if you do have a breakdown, there isn’t necessarily anyone with the skill and attention to help you put yourself back together again. Some — although not many — participants in LGAT trainings have had psychotic breaks, occasionally leading to litigation. One notable distinction between traditional therapy and an LGAT, is that participating in an LGAT normally involves waiving any and all legal rights prior to participation, something which never happens in traditional therapy.

In addition, whether these positive phenomenon last is open to debate. Many participants, finding themselves bowled over by the power of the experience, sign up for a string of successor courses, often at a very substantial cost. Still, repetition can solidify the lessons learned at the initial training.

The flip side of that coin is the concern, actively expressed by many critics of large group awareness trainings, that these have much in common with cults. And there are certain disturbing commonalities. Many of them are 12 or 14 hour workshops that encourage a certain amount of sleep-deprivation. There tends to be a very active message relative to how wonderful or powerful the workshop is, with active encouragement to get participants to testify to the same. Many of these workshops are actively hostile to any kind of criticism and work hard to direct anyone who happens to go off-message. Still, while coercive, there are also limits to the analogy. These workshops do not require participants to renounce their former lives, to move into segregated housing, to donate all of their money to the group, to cut off contact with former family and friends.



About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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