Sunday, June 22, 2008

Let us prey

Thought I saw an eagle
but it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
~ Leonard Cohen,
Story of Isaac

"Story of Isaac" has always been one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs.* It was, of course, inspired by the Biblical tale of Abraham, who apparently hallucinated that G-d had commanded him to kill his kid, and was on the verge of doing so when the Lord said, "Never mind!" Of course if this incident had taken place today instead of in Biblical times, it would have been a local news story for a moment or two. Abe would have probably been locked up for a while, and Isaac, for better or worse, would most likely have been placed in a series of foster homes. And the world would have had one less puzzling Bible story, and one less lovely LC song. As it is, the story of Abraham and Isaac, like many Biblical tales, has been a subject of controversy for centuries.

Now, don't worry, Dear Ones; I'm not going all Bible on you or anything. I'll leave that to the true Bible experts in the blogosphere, such as Saint David of Victoria, who has likened his own suffering at the hands of his detractors to that of martyred saints in earlier times. These days, besides being a Law Of Attraction expert, star of The Secret, Biblical scholar and frequent though unwilling participant in Australia's Federal Court system, Saint David is a spirit-filled, faith walking Christian.

You've probably already guessed that this post isn't really about Abraham and Isaac. It's also not the first and won't be the last time I've co-opted a Cohen quotation to suit my purpose. Like many good quotations, this one works even better when taken out of context, and for me it works quite well indeed as an expression of the ambiguities of the New-Wage/selfish-help world.

I've snarked a lot about David Schirmer here because he's an easy target and I am a lazy blogger – more so these past few months than usual, due to having had so many other things to deal with. (I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I've bored with this stuff.) As you have no doubt guessed, most of what I've heard and read about Schirmer has been negative. Yet I've never hesitated to publish comments from the few people who have stepped up to defend him – or, more rarely, to attack me for snarking about him.

In the eyes of most people I've heard from on my blog, Schirmer is definitely more in the "vulture" category. But one or two people seem determined to put him up there with the eagles. He does have a few stalwart defenders, among them Aussie actor and sci-fi series producer Adrian Sherlock,** who apparently attended a Schirmer workshop, thought he got his money's worth, and really can't see what all of the fuss is about. In a recent comment to my January 30, 2008 post, "Journey To Fantasyland," he wrote:

It's important to remember that any human being who attempts to rise to a level of success above that of simply being an employee of someone else's company is going to face a long, complex and at times difficult life journey. How many people never make a mistake in their career or get fined for some infraction, etc? When the pursuit is so much bigger, the potholes will be bigger too. But the case you cite doesn't make the man a con artist or a bad person...

...If someone invested some money in the Stock Exchange and lost it, then they need to try again. Persistence and learning from mistakes is all part of the process of success.

If the people on ACA [the Aussie tabloid show, A Current Affair] are to be believed, then anyone who loses money should be able to get their stock broker on TV and say "This guy recommended I buy these stocks! I want my money back! He's a crook! Jail him!" What rubbish! The stock market's not a sure thing. You want the big returns, you take the bigger risks. They had a choice. But if that makes DS a monster, well, why only six people out of thousands of people? Why no complaints from the rest?

I'm being totally straight with you. I have not got any vested interest in the guy, I've met him once only. But he did me a good turn and I enjoyed his seminar. It was not over-priced, he was very frank and candid about things which had gone wrong in his life, everyone there seemed happy.

Con man? Proof required, innocent until proven guilty. And The Secret? One of the most encouraging things ever made, it's helped a huge amount of people. Fantasy land? Not at all. Without imagination, your house would be a pile of bricks. Someone needed to imagine your house and draw it first.

If you follow this link and scroll down a bit, you will see my reply to Adrian. I concluded it by telling Adrian that I will take him at face value when he says he has no vested interest in Schirmer's enterprises. However, I added, he does seem to have an emotional stake in the matter; something is compelling him to continue to defend Schirmer. I wrote, "Either you sincerely believe he's a stand-up guy, or you just aren't looking at all of the evidence."

Is Schirmer an eagle or a vulture? He seems to be doing everything he can to paint himself as the former, mostly by ignoring or glossing over any unsavory accusations. He's also still trying to ride on the coattails of those who are more well-known than he. Although Bob Proctor recently dissociated himself from Schirmer, Schirmer continues to feature Bob's wisdom prominently in his Succeed Magazine enterprise, and apparently in some of his email campaigns as well. I am sure he's within his rights to do that, as long as he doesn't actually try to make people think he's collaborating with Bob on anything any more. And I'm sure Bob isn't griping about all the free publicity either. But still...

Schirmer's right-hand man, Warren Henningsen,*** is exploiting the Proctor association in his own way as well. At least he's bragging about being pals with one of Proctor's assistants. Warren is perhaps best known in some circles for bravely protecting his boss last year when Schirmer hid in the men's room to avoid those vultures from A Current Affair.

On a recent blog post associated with his Powerful Intentions site, Henningsen wrote about how, after watching The Secret DVD back in November of 2006, he found Bob Proctor's email address and sent him an email. Lo and behold, not long after that he heard from a guy named Mark Low, who said he worked in Proctor's Toronto office:

[Mark] spent about forty minutes on the phone to me, letting me know that Bob had read my email and asked him to get in touch with me. I was beside myself!! I recognized this call as the first step toward my certainty that I would be working with the teachers of The Secret. Now, like me you are probably thinking that Bob, a man who has over one hundred and fifty different sources of income, and any number of businesses and conferences and speaking engagements to run and oversee, must receive a vast number of emails each day, how shocked was I to think that he had read my email and asked his “right arm” to contact me!!! Tell me this secret stuff doesn’t work!!!

True to his word Mark stayed in touch and we communicated by both emails and phone calls regularly, which continues to this day.

Wow...who says miracles don't happen? (I wonder how long Mark is going to stay in Bob's employ if he keeps hanging with DS's Mini-Me.)

More recently, Schirmer has really been playing up his association with Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale. Joe contributed an article to the April/May issue of Succeed Magazine, and then was featured in a cover story/interview for the following issue. When someone recently commented on Joe's blog about this association, Joe denied even knowing Schirmer or knowing that Schirmer had anything to do with Succeed Magazine until "after all was said and done." Uh-huh.

Undaunted, Schirmer bragged on his blog last week that he'd recently had another chat with Joe, this time a long and friendly one, which Schirmer is now promoting as a teleseminar.

It is clear that Schirmer is still getting all of the mileage he can out of having been in The Secret, as well as his association with his "co-teachers" in the world's most famous New-Wage infomercial. Meanwhile, there seems to be a lot going on in the background, and a number of things that have not yet been publicized. I'll be glad to share details as I learn them, and, yes, I'll do it whether they point to "eagledom" or "vulturedom" for Schirmer.

The David Schirmer saga, of course, is just one of hundreds of similar stories. In a broader sense, it is immensely difficult to judge whether the selfish help/New Wage is largely malignant or mostly benign. While I applaud the efforts of people such as Steve Salerno (thank goodness he has decided to continue SHAMblog), as well as anti-self-help-fraud activist John Curtis, and, of course, Rick Ross, I suspect that the truth lies somewhere squarely in between.

Few people from either side of the argument are willing to concede to that, however, because, gosh, it's just so boring.

Though I definitely err on the side of snarkiness on this blog, I have always stopped well short of declaring that the New Wage is either evil or dangerous. Unlike most of the defenders of the faith, however, I don't hold to the idea that critics are all pathetic, cynical, small-minded, fearful and deeply unhappy sorts. Maybe some are, but then again, I've seen loads of pretty pathetic stuff on the pro-New-Wage forums too.

And fairly frequently I hear from people who have experienced the darker side of the movement.

For example, I recently received a private email from a person who wanted to know if I could offer any information on another New-Wage guru I'd snarked about a few times. This person said that the guru had abandoned a child from a previous marriage, and now no one seems to know where the child is. My correspondent told me that the former spouse of the guru had been killed recently in an accident, and the dead ex-spouse's parents (friends of the writer) were desperate to know the whereabouts of their only grandchild. I put my correspondent in contact with someone who might have information or at least insight.

Of course I don't know the entire story. It could be that the guru and ex-spouse had an agreement about child custody and that it wasn't really a case of abandonment. However, given the apparent flakiness of this individual, I'm leaning on the side of believing my correspondent's spin on the matter. So many of these folks have left a ton of wreckage behind on their quest for the perfect New-Wage shtick.

Some apologists for New-Wage gurus have suggested I'm being too judgmental; after all, we all make mistakes and all that. Sure we do. I've made plenty. But I'm not going around making a fortune giving advice about how people should live their lives either. Even so, I'd still be willing to cut some of the gurus more slack if they didn't attempt to selectively exploit their private lives for their own gain. So many of them cherry-pick events from their lives in order to cast themselves in a heroic light, prompting their followers to ooh and ah over how candid they are. There's just one problem with this: the facts they leave out invariably tell much more about their character than the facts they choose to share. And I have personal knowledge of some of these folks' stories, so this isn't just hypothetical.

"Collateral damage" done to the families and loved ones of New-Wage gurus is one issue. The damage that can be done to followers and their families is another. There's no doubt that some people completely lose their heads when they get involved with a guru or group. Consider this recent comment on one of my posts about ACCESS Energy Transformation: sister in law is doing some crazy things for this ACCESS group.She was left widowed with her two gorgeous little children, last July when my brother passed away within 6 months of being diagnosed with a brain tumour. She then got involved in ACCESS. The long and the short is that an american access 'chick' has moved into their home with them and my sister in law is having a sexual relationship with her!! we are so shocked and so worried for her kids and the confusion all this ACCESS rubbish is causing in their lives... she has already flown to Mission Beach leaving her kids with her mum in school holidays(!?) for another "course", came back declaring she is going to move to [Queensland] to live to help with the ACCESS school and become a teacher there!...We have suspicions this ACCESS woman that has moved in is probably some sort of converter or keeper...

The more I hear and read about ACCESS, the more patently absurd – and yet the scarier – it gets. I have to say that it mostly weighs in on the side of absurd, though. If you truly want to be left scratching your head and saying, "WTF?" , take a look at some of the videos of ACCESS presentations. You can find quite a few of them on a site called Potency Productions, which has nothing to do with male performance enhancement...well, on second thought, maybe it does. Anyway, I challenge you to try to make sense of, say, "Choice and the supermind" by Dr. Dain Heer, a chiropractor turned ACCESS leader. Or this one: "Facilitating through beingness." Almost puts me in mind of the last two paragraphs of a November 2006 post of mine, in which I lampooned another cult-like org called Avatar. It truly seems that the purpose of ACCESS is to render language utterly meaningless, and thought completely irrelevant. In return for losing the gift of meaningful conversation and your capacity for thinking, you get to have unlimited sex with anyone who who suits your fancy, as long as you don't try to actually enter into a "relationship" with them (horrors). At least I think that's how it goes.

So... is ACCESS helpful or harmful? Are the ACCESSories, particularly Dain Heer and ACCESS founder Gary Douglas (who reportedly "received" ACCESS from a disembodied being who in turn got it from the late Russian unholy man Grigori Rasputin), eagles or vultures?

That depends, I suppose, upon whether you're asking (1) the woman who is giddy with her newfound "knowledge" and infatuated with her ACCESSory lover, or (2) that woman's family.

It could certainly be argued that the whole "eagles or vultures" question is mostly a matter of individual perception. When it comes to self-help gurus, one person's eagle may be another's vulture, and vice-versa. Some may vacillate between perceiving any given guru as one or the other. And competent adults should have the right to choose who or what to follow without interference from what some refer to as the self-help police or the spiritual cops.

But I think we'd all do well to remember that despite the noble attributes often assigned to eagles (as opposed to the general disdain in which vultures are held), both are fierce predators and blatant opportunists – eagles no less so than vultures. An eagle will snatch a cute little puppy right out of your backyard if it gets half a chance. Moreover, like most other flying birds, even the most gloriously lovely, awe-inspiring eagle is not above taking a big messy poop in midair. So as you're driving down the road to enlightenment, watch out. You never know what might hit your windshield.

*although I prefer the version by Suzanne Vega, on the Tower Of Song tribute album, to the Cohen original
** Update, 2010: Not long after this post was written, Adrian apparently saw the light and ceased defending David Schirmer.
*** Update, 2010: Warren Henningsen has long since left Schirmer's employ and is now doing his own motivational thing.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The righteous shall inherit the LOA

Appearances are not reality, but they often can be a convincing alternative to it. You can control appearances most of the time, but facts are what they are. When the facts are too sharp, you can craft a cheerful version of the situation and cover the facts the way that you can cover a battered old four-slice toaster with a knitted cozy featuring images of kittens.
~American novelist Dean Koontz
The Good Guy (2007)

The above quotation appears in the context of Dean Koontz's description of a psychopathic killer who always tries to put a positive spin on every situation, even when things aren't going so well for him. But it's also a perfect description of the way many New-Wage gurus ply their trade, don't you think? That's why this particular quotation stuck out for me when reading Koontz's novel (which I highly recommend, if you're a fan of suspense/thrillers). For some reason the kitten imagery really grabbed me too, maybe because I'm such a cat lover, as I'm sure many of you are. I didn't have time to hunt for a picture of a knitted toaster cozy with kittens on it, but fortunately I already had some kitty pics; they will just have to do. (Some of you, I think, will get the true significance of these pictures.)

But this post isn't about cute kittens. It is about another development in the career of David Schirmer, Aussie star of The Secret. An alert reader sent me a link to Schirmer's updated profile page on Marcy From Maui's Powerful Intentions web site. After going on about what a successful millionaire he is due to applying the Law Of Attraction, Schirmer adds:

I am a Christian and part of my goal is to help other Christians understand that God desires them to have abundance and prosperity in all areas of their life; and that sickness, lack and poverty are sin (falling short of the mark). God's promises are abundances and that "All things are possible for those who believe." Contrary to some of teachings linked to The Secret I do not believe all roads lead to eternal life with God - otherwise the Bible and God is a lie. So my other goal is to help people know the truth about Jesus, God and salvation.
Regarding the first part of this statement, Schirmer is really not much different from the many advocates of "prosperity Christianity," such as Joel Osteen, the pastor of Houston's Lakewood mega-church. Nor is Schirmer all that different, in some respects, from New-Wage gurus who try to convince their followers that Buddha (for example) taught that desire is a virtue and that driving fancy cars and living in mansions is your divine right.

What really struck me, though, was the second part of this blurb, which seems to be a thinly veiled declaration that anyone who doesn't embrace Christianity lock, stock, and barrel is doomed to eternal damnation. This means that anyone who doesn't accept Jesus H. Christ as his or her personal savior will spend eternity in torment, presumably without BMWs, big houses, quarter-million-dollar dining room tables or any of the other good things that the Lord grants to the righteous.

This would mean that in reality, David Schirmer believes that most of his fellow Secret "teachers," and most of the New-Wage gurus he promotes in his magazine, Succeed, are going to burn in hell unless they decide to give their lives over to Jesus. Included on Schirmer's list of the damned would be Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale, who is featured on the cover of the latest issue of Succeed, and who seems to be more enamored of Eastern philosophies, and some of those heathen indigenous teachings such as Ho'oponopono, than of Christianity. (He also, as you may recall, denies knowing Schirmer or having known anything about Schirmer's association with Succeed when he agreed to be interviewed for the magazine.)

So I guess if you can't join 'em, damn 'em, huh, David? I suppose you can't blame a guy for trying to establish a brand for himself. After all, the more famous Secret stars are dissociating themselves from Schirmer, and he hasn't been too successful so far at breaking into the US New-Wage market. So maybe he reckons that if he re-brands himself as some sort of an LOA (Law Of Attraction) Christian evangelist he will finally find acceptance on these shores.

Of course if he's not careful he could still end up in a bit of legal trouble, as has happened with quite a few of our famous evangelists. As Jimmy Swaggart learned, for example, sometimes the Lord can't keep a good man out of the arms of wicked women, and as Jim Bakker learned, sometimes even Jesus can't keep a guy out of jail. (If you follow the link to the Wiki article on Bakker, scroll down to the section labeled, "Philosophy," and see what Bakker has to say about "prosperity theology.")

Amazingly, some folks have apparently bought Schirmer's Christian shtick, leading me to believe that the most abundant resource in the universe, for New-Wage hucksters anyway, is the gullibility of Powerful Intentions community members. Indeed, the army of the deluded seems to be growing, as evidenced by some people's comments on Schirmer's Powerful Intentions page (apparently in response to his invitation to be their "friend"). For example, there's this one:
Dawn Nocera said…

Thanks for connecting! I love your magazine! Megan from Australia introduced it to me! Love those Aussie's! I also wanted to say thank you for letting the world know you are a CHRISTIAN! You are a light for me to follow. Thank you again!
Dawn, Dawn, step away from that light!

By the way, anti-self-help-fraud activist John Curtis, who is on sort of a mission himself, sent a link to a good article on self-help from a Christian perspective. You might want to read this one, David...

Fame is a yobbo
I just had to use that word again; I learned it recently from one of my commenters. "Yobbo," for the benefit of those who don't know, is a Brit/Aussie slang word referring to a lout, a hooligan, a totally uncouth guy...well, you get the drift.

I thought of that word when I read a passage from another book I recently completed, the late Evan Hunter's 1974 novel, Streets of Gold. Hunter was a prolific author and screenwriter who also penned works under numerous other pseudonyms, of which the most widely known was Ed McBain. Streets of Gold is the story of Dwight Jamison, a blind jazz pianist born of Italian immigrants. Dwight was, for a spell, an American success story, rising to the giddy heights of a fame that was transitory, as fame often is. Fame, and the pursuit of fame, did some things to him that he really didn't like. Here's his take on success, American style:
Success is difficult to resist; it is exceedingly difficult to resist. It has been personified as female, the Bitch Goddess, but I firmly believe it is male in gender and exclusively American in origin. I have seen this hairy male beast...attack and devour the strongest men and women. He stinks of booze and fornication, his breath can knock you senseless for a week. He belches and farts in public, he uses obscene language, he is a braggart and a dullard, and he has but a single ear. Yet when he clutches you in his powerful arms and plants upon your lips a kiss that surely reeks of all things vile (it is the kiss of death, make no mistake), there is nothing to do but succumb. The Beast is too strong, he can break you in two, he can scatter your limbs to the four winds after he has picked them clean of flesh (he will do that, anyway), and it is better to suffer his crushing embrace (it's what you wanted all along, isn't it?) and let him take you where he will.
But I bet you won't find that quotation in the pages of Succeed Magazine.

PS ~ I'm still working on a post about something I think is really important: the sad news of the end of Steve Salerno's SHAMblog. I hope to have that post up in the next couple of days. (But I'm not-so-secretly hoping that Steve changes his mind.)