Whirled Musings

Across the Universe with Cosmic Connie, aka Connie L. Schmidt...or maybe just through the dung-filled streets and murky swamps of pop culture -- more specifically, the New-Age/New-Wage crowd, pop spirituality & religion, pop psychology, self(ish)-help, business babble, media silliness, & related (or occasionally unrelated) matters of consequence. Hope you're wearing boots. (By the way, the "Cosmic" bit in my moniker is IRONIC.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Into the volcano (a tale of two Joes)

"My father says almost the whole world’s asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says only a few people are awake. And they live in a state of constant, total amazement."
~ Meg Ryan as Patricia Graynamore in
Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)

"Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big… thank you, thank you for my life."
~ Tom Hanks as Joe Banks in one of my favorite scenes from
Joe Versus The Volcano

While there are cases in which unceasing wide-eyed wonder is a sign of psychosis, severe mental challenges, or the ingestion of some really good drugs, I'll grant that it would be pretty cool to live in the state of "constant, total amazement" that Meg Ryan’s character, Patricia Graynamore, described in Joe Versus The Volcano.

Put aside, for the moment, the small detail that the person Patricia is quoting in the movie, her father, is a ruthless gazillionaire who is all too willing to make a human sacrifice in order to obtain a rare resource he needs for his enterprise. The quotation is still pretty powerful in its own right. And the elder Graynamore is hardly the first person to express the notion that most people are, in essence, sleepwalking through life. Nor, for that matter, is he the first to say that people who are truly "awake" exist in a state of amazement. Buddha reportedly said much the same thing, which is probably where the screenwriters for the movie got the idea in the first place.

Joe Versus The Volcano is fiction, of course. But author and spiritual-marketing guru Joe Vitale claims he really is experiencing an almost continual state of amazement and wonder these days, the strong implication being that this is largely a result of what he has learned from Dr. Hew Len, the therapist who teaches a modern form of a Hawai'ian technique called Ho'oponopono. In his new book Zero Limits, which I wrote about on July 9 and July 10, Joe describes the "three stages of awakening." He says he believes he has reached stage three, which, he explains, is a state of almost constant amazement, wonder and gratitude. And at one point in the book, Joe even paraphrases the Meg Ryan quotation above, saying it came from "a character in a movie," though he didn’t name the movie.

Many years ago I recommended Joe Versus the Volcano to Joe Vitale. It's one of my favorite flicks. Okay, so I don't have the most highbrow tastes in movies. Actually, though, this movie is pretty deep, in a shallow kind of way – sort of like I'm shallow in a deep kind of way, which may be one reason that I like it so much. Yes, I do get all, or most, of the allegories and metaphors and life lessons in the movie, and I do get that I (and all of us) should pay heed to those lessons, as more than one person has been kind enough to point out to me. I liked the movie for all of those reasons, but also for its quirky charm, the soundtrack, the ambiance, and most of all, though it lasted only moments, for that scene with the surreal night sky over the ocean: the wheeling constellations, the enormous moon. I've seen the sky like that, and I wasn't in a state of delirium, as Joe Banks was in the movie, nor was I under the influence of any recreational substances.

Anyway, Joe V. rented the movie and said he thoroughly enjoyed it. He told me that what he especially loved was that bit about being asleep versus living in a state of total amazement. I guess this thought stuck with him.

I think we could all benefit from having more of a sense of profound wonder, a recognition that life can be experienced as a gift and not just a series of ordeals, unpleasant surprises, and gray routine, punctuated by occasional joy (as seems to be the case with most people). But is "zero state" via Ho’oponopono the way to Wonderland? Apart from the fact that it seems to be a safer path than hallucinogenic drugs – a point worth remembering on this fortieth (!) anniversary of the Summer of Love – is "zero state" achievable, or even particularly useful? More than that, is it desirable? To put it bluntly, when you wipe your mental slate clean of the effects of your memories, when you cease being so judgmental, does this mean you're really in touch with the Divine, or just more vulnerable to the next New-Wage trend that comes along?

You'll have to make up your own mind about that, but I think these are questions worth asking. I have to say that for me, it's been very tough not to view Zero Limits in the context of Joe's other work, and especially in the light of his penchant for overly-enthusiastic promotion.
Truth is, virtually everything Joe has ever promoted has supposedly cast him into a state of wide-eyed wonder and amazement similar to what he describes in Zero Limits.

I am sure some folks will point out that Joe is just an enthusiastic guy by nature, and that in any case, that sense of wonder and amazement isn't even the central point of Zero Limits or of Ho'oponopono. Taking "100% responsibility" for healing yourself and all of the problems that come into your awareness is the real point, they'll say, and that's accomplished, in part, by "cleaning" via those four powerful phrases: "Thank you," "I'm sorry," "Please forgive me," and "I love you." And the ultimate point, perhaps, is healing the world. "Peace begins with me," after all. (To me this is reminiscent of the "Peace Song," which was written over 50 years ago and is sung at the services in many Unity and other New Thought churches. "Let there be peace on Earth / and let it begin with me..." They've been singing that song for years and years. So where's the peace?)

Be that as it may, this post focuses on the sense-of-wonder angle because it is the one thing that really grabbed me about Zero Limits.
And it's one of the factors that led me to read the book again and try to filter out the things I found annoying the first time around.

Some history

Like most people who have built a public persona and gained a following, Joe Vitale has his share of passionate fans and fierce defenders, and that's putting it mildly.
Over the past several months, some have accused me of engaging in "Joe-bashing." Some have said it is very obvious I don't know him.

But I did know Joe during what he has referred to as his "Houston daze." Regarding that small but meaningful pun, he’s not the first and surely won’t be the last person to view Houston as a place from which to flee in search of greater things. As columnist Kristen Mack wrote in the Houston Chronicle recently, people come here primarily for work. It’s rarely a place to which one journeys for awakening or enlightenment. The climate alone, particularly on a steamy summer day, is enough to stifle any longing beyond the primal urge to immerse one’s entire being in a body of cool, cool water. And let's not even get into the traffic and the air quality.

There were many things I liked about Joe when I knew him back in the daze. I liked his love of books and writing and the fact that he was (and is) a voracious reader. I liked some of his earlier books about marketing, particularly the one I’m in. (Hey, it's just a cameo appearance, but you know I'm a narcissist.) I liked Joe's long-time fascination with advertising and copywriting – not just the how-to, but the history as well. Like Joe, I love those old-time ads, such as those reproduced in They Laughed When I Sat Down by Frank Rowsome, Jr. I liked Joe's sense of humor and the fact that he wasn't afraid to laugh at himself. I liked his fascination with the Internet; say what you will about him, for better or worse, he was one of the first people I knew to really grasp the entrepreneurial potential of the Net. In fact he introduced me to email and the Internet way back in the prehistoric mid-nineties (though it was computer-whiz Ron who actually got me online and taught me how to use the Net). I still use the Juno email address I got when Joe gave me a disk with an early (free) version of the email program. I liked that Joe was supportive and helpful in my earlier days as a freelance writer. Finally, as a hopeless cat lover myself, I liked that he adores cats, and even today, I think the Catarium he has on his Hill Country property is very cool.

So I'm not just some random "basher," and really not a basher at all.

Like many others, I have been turned off in the past few years not only by the breathless hype Joe brings to everything he promotes, but by the increasingly "out-there" ideas (and products) he is selling or promoting, The Secret being the most glaring example. (The logic he continues to employ in explaining the Law Of Attraction leaves me wondering sometimes who's the real satirist here: Cosmic Connie, or Mr. Fire? Is the joke really on me, after all?) Also off-putting is Joe's tendency to write excessively about his cars and other expensive toys, his wealth, and his fame. It comes across to me and many others as boasting, pure and simple.

With Joe, as I noted in a previous post, it is all too often difficult to separate the heart from the hype, the core messages from the messenger’s entire body of work (and, for that matter, from the entire New-Wage/self-help industry). It's not a simple matter of pulling salient quotations from a movie, finding kernels of wisdom in what was intended to be mainly popcorn fare. For me, it’s more like scrabbling for a tiny treasure, which may or may not be there, in a huge box of Styrofoam peanuts. (You'll have to excuse the metaphors; once I get started it's hard to quit.) The point is that even a sense of wonder and amazement, however genuine it may be, loses its sheen in a milieu of ceaseless marketing

As for "stage three" in the three stages of awakening described in Zero Limits, you will forgive me, I hope, for wondering how long it will be before Joe reveals that there is, after all, a "stage four," newly discovered, and you can find out all about it on his exclusive new DVD series. (In all fairness, he did say in the book that he believes there are at least three stages, so that certainly gives him some leeway to invent...er...discover, and market...additional stages.) [See PS below. ~CC]

It boils down to a credibility issue, and these are legitimate criticisms that do not come from a place of snarkiness. But I don’t expect Joe to change his style any time soon. And why should he, if it’s working for him?

As for the bragging, friends of his have told me that they honestly don't think Joe is aware of how this appears to others. One person said that Joe still doesn't believe that all this – the wealth, the fame, the accolades – is happening to him, and that Joe can't understand why people like him so much. What sounds like bragging, this person said, is simply the expression of "an amazed heart."

I couldn't help wondering, though, why no one apparently saw fit to suggest that Joe tone down some of the parts in Zero Limits that seemed boastful, particularly those exchanges with Dr. Hew Len that painted Joe as a minor deity. I speculated that maybe early readers of the manuscript had offered this advice and it was ignored. One friend suggested that perhaps these people, having heard Joe relate these tales in person, understood the spirit in which he told them in the book. In person, Joe's pal assured me, these stories come across as joyous sharing, not bragging. Others have told me, and I'm sure Joe himself would say, that his purpose in relating his stories is to encourage other people towards similar success. ("If I can do it, so can you!")

Insightful as those comments may be, they did raise another question for me: Could Joe really be so unaware of how his words appear to others, when he is supposed to be an expert on marketing, persuasion, and perception?

It's one thing to share endless stories about your luxury sports cars, your celebrity and fame, or your growing status as a spiritual leader in a warm conversation with close pals, or even with folks who have paid a thousand bucks to attend one of your intimate weekend workshops. It's quite another to repeat these stories incessantly on the printed page (or on screen) to millions of perfect strangers. It doesn't come out the same at all.* Context is everything; the medium does matter. In fact, anyone who has ever been involved in an acrimonious online exchange with relative strangers could tell you the same thing. Many of us have, at one time or another, found ourselves embroiled in an online "fight" because the words we wrote appeared overly harsh to the recipient. More than likely those same words, spoken in person over margaritas or coffee, would have resulted merely in a spirited debate.

Nevertheless I understood what Joe’s friends were trying to say. Viewed through the eyes of his friends, I can almost believe that Joe is simply expressing gratitude, in the way that other Joe, Joe Banks, does during the luminous moment cited at the beginning of this post. "Thank you…thank you for my life." I get it, I really do.

But it still rubs me wrong the wrong way, as it does many readers, when an author engages in what appears to be excessive self-aggrandizement in a book. As a person who loves books and makes a living trying to help people write better books, I still think that someone somewhere along the line should have taken more responsibility to keep out elements that, for many, would distract from the core messages in Zero Limits. Supporters of Joe will no doubt point out that what I perceive as the book's flaws have not kept Zero Limits (and some of Joe's other books as well) from climbing pretty high in Amazon ranking. I submit that the success of these titles is as much a result of the power of aggressive marketing and promotion as anything else.

Speaking of which, call me closed-minded or easily distracted, but in my rereading of Zero Limits I am still finding it a challenge to focus on the more profound messages, particularly in light of one of Joe's latest marketing gimmicks. Someone suggested to me that marketing is so much a part of what Joe does and who he is that he can't not do it. Maybe so, but I can only take it in small doses. I guess you could say I've got a serious case of marketing fatigue.

Still, I thought it fitting to take a brief break from my routine of what some must have viewed as gratuitous sniping. But don’t worry, I haven’t gone soft on y’all. And no one has paid me off or anything. Tomorrow, or the next day, it'll be back to Snarky Town for me. My email "in" box is full of snarkworthy tidbits from my favorite New-Wage spam service.
But I felt, somehow, that I needed to write this post, if for no other reason than that I used to know Joe.

One more thing before I sign off: If you haven't done so already, go rent (or better yet, buy) Joe Versus The Volcano, which Ron and I watched again just the other night. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll roll your eyes. But I think you will mostly be delighted. Pick up some orange soda to drink while you're watching.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to work. The Rev and I are not quite at the point where we can just pack up everything and go "away from the things of man," but we're doing work we love, and when our work is done for the day, we are going to venture out and about in Space City.
Which really isn’t a bad place to be at all.
PS - This post counts as a wrap for the increasingly ill-named Hawai'ian "Week," because the last portion of Joe Versus The Volcano takes place on a little Polynesian island that has a big volcano. Also, Tom Hanks plays a ukulele and sings (though it's an old-style cowboy song, not "Tiny Bubbles"). His voice isn't half-bad!

* Here is a video of Joe Vitale talking about Zero Limits at one of his weekend workshops.

PS added months later: Yup, I was right about that "fourth stage of awakening"....

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Blogger Citizen Deux said...

It's Sunday morning, nice and early. I sit taking in my morning read and sipping my volcano-like McD coffee (hey - Deepak, how about that for synchrodestiny?). I don't think I will read anything else today, after your column.

Wonder and amazement is a state in which I think we all would benefit. I commented, briefly, on my site about airport behavior. It is this environment which seems to spark the wonder engine in my own head - maybe it's just the anticipation of jet lag.

Nonetheless, thanks for a great article. Having been dragged to a Unity church - I always change the words on the peace song to cheese references - I have come to view this as another opportunity for wonder and awe. For me it's a metaphor. There are people who genuinely want to live in a peaceful, pleasant setting - not simply acquire stuff.

Well done.

Sunday, July 22, 2007 5:58:00 AM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks, CD, for your comments. I'm with you on that airport idea. Actually I've always sort of liked the peace song and its sentiments. Never mind that some of the most misguided folks I've ever met have been drawn to Unity. It's also true that one of the most beautiful souls Ron and I have ever known is also a Unity person. And she's *not* focused on the endless acquisition of "things."

Thanks for writing!

Sunday, July 22, 2007 9:57:00 AM  
Blogger RevRon's Rants said...

If one looks at the life of Siddhartha Buddha, his enlightenment was only achieved after he met diversity and - dare I say it - negativity head-on. Despite the protestations of one who tries to pass himself off as the "Buddha of the Internet," Siddhartha could not achieve his Buddha-hood so long as his life was focused only upon peacefulness and joy.

The lesson for us, I believe, is that we should face even the most difficult experiences, savor them, and learn from them. By doing so, we eventually emerge from diversity much stronger than we would be, had we focused entirely upon "positive" things. The Zazen practice of shikan taza, or "just sitting" might be compared to the "Zero state" that Joe is presently marketing. The difference between Joe's approach and the Buddhist practice is that, in the Buddhist mind, the state of perfect peace is transitory so long as we are enmeshed in the human experience; a place to strive for and visit when possible. Tasting the stillness gives us the balance we need to face the discord of life. We may return to that state, but until we have fully evolved, we may not live there.

Regarding those who imply that they have reached a stage in their spiritual evolution that allows them to live in that exalted state of peace, I offer a lesson my teacher gave me, many years ago. On an occasion when I was frustrated with my failure to hold tightly to the Path, the Master told me to close my eyes & drop my chin to my chest. He then told me to open my eyes and tell him what I saw first. I responded, "my feet." He asked where they were, and I told him, "on the ground." He laughed, and told me that so long as my feet walked the earth, I wasn't "there" yet. So if someone tries to convince you that they're "there," or that they are more evolved than others, you might want to check their feet - especially if their claim is part of a sales effort! :-)

It is not by coincidence that none of the great Masters ever tried to profit from their enlightenment, or that most were resistant even to the idea of putting their wisdom into writings.

Sunday, July 22, 2007 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Hi, Ron, I was hoping you'd contribute your insights on "shikan taza," which you and I discussed the other day. I don't know enough about either Zazen or Self Identity Ho'oponopono (the method in "Zero Limits") to determine if shikan taza and "zero state" are even the same thing, but there do seem to be similarities. It seems to me that a "zero state" is not in fact sustainable 24/7. We are still operating in these physical vehicles, which include our brains, and I would think that the brain is simply not capable of sustaining such a state constantly. Even astonishment-inducing drugs wear off after a few hours! :-)

Actually, in other parts of his book, when he's not summarizing the "three stages of awakening," Joe says that he's not in zero state all the time either; he's just in it more often these days. He says that even Dr. Hew Len himself isn't "in it" all the time. He quotes Dr. Hew Len as saying that he (Dr. HL) can't go through an entire day without judgment.

Joe doesn't actually come out and say, "I'm more evolved than you." It's more subtle than that. He just indicates that he's more evolved than *he* was, with the implicit or explicit message being that we too can reach a similar state of evolvement (and he has just the books and DVDs to help us reach it).

You make a good point about the great Masters. Of course they lived before the Internet age :-), but even so, it seems to me that many if not most of them found their enlightenment to be as much a burden as a gift at times. Yet they seemed willing to share their knowledge without an eye to what was in it for them.

As I've expressed in numerous ways before, I don't believe spirituality and capitalism are mutually exclusive, but when they're brought together, the net result is often either ludicrous or sleazy. Today's New-Wage entrepreneurs are selling a very appealing message: that enlightenment doesn't have to be painful and difficult. It's as easy as reading a book, attending a workshop or two, or popping a DVD into a slot and letting your subconscious do the work for you - thus, in many cases, eliminating the "middle man": experience. (Well, I guess a workshop can be a contrived experience.)

But I guess if it weren't for the New-Wage capitalists, I wouldn't have much of a blog, eh?

Anyway, thank you for contributing. I value your insights on Buddhism because so many of the New-Wage gurus -- not just JV -- use Buddhist (or pseudo-Buddhist) constructs to push whatever it is they're pushing.

Sunday, July 22, 2007 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger RevRon's Rants said...

"Joe doesn't actually come out and say, "I'm more evolved than you." It's more subtle than that. He just indicates that he's more evolved than *he* was, with the implicit or explicit message being that we too can reach a similar state of evolvement"

And you don't think that by logical extension, he is making that very claim, couched in feigned humility? I think we both know him better than to dismiss such an inference.

Of course, spirituality and capitalism are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they necessarily mutually dependent. However, spirituality and the *obsession* with affluence (or anything else), as manifest by the constant desire for more, do not coexist within the same consciousness. To constantly parade one's acquisitions and accolades speaks pretty clearly to that obsession, and attempts to characterize such behavior as consistent with spiritual teachings represents a level of cynicism that bears looking at very closely before following a self-proclaimed "teacher's" aggressively marketed multi-level path.

Sunday, July 22, 2007 1:31:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Yup, that's pretty much the way I see it too, Ron. As you know, this post was, in part, my small attempt to be "fair and balanced" by presenting the viewpoints of some of JV's supporters. I have carefully considered those viewpoints, especially since I once shared them. But I think my eyes are pretty wide open regarding these issues -- and they're open not in amazement, but just in a sense of being aware. I hear what you're saying, in other words. :-)

Sunday, July 22, 2007 1:48:00 PM  

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