New Age Workshops: Superlearning or Psychobabble?


Vermont Business Magazine/May, 1987
By William Sypher

From est, the progenitor of virtually all the current human potential seminars, on down, thinking becomes a suspect activity, a contributor of trainees' problems. The authors of Snapping, a book exploring "sudden conversions" in everything from cults to human potential seminars, describe a conversation with an est graduate:

"'Thinking is the enemy,' he said flatly. 'Thinking is . . . a barrier to experience. Thoughts are not based on truth; they're based on tapes, things from the past.' est appears to view the process of thinking essentially as tape recording. It declares the mind a storage vault of troublesome tapes that clog the essence of pure experience. Erhard's pop philosophy works like a charm for individuals fleeing their pasts, as it does for those whose route to pleasure is simply ignoring the things that trouble them." Several seminar graduates interviewed by Vermont Business used the word 'tapes' to describe their past.

The group identification Hoffer describes is so potent in some of the seminars that participants may not operate easily outside the group's embrace.

Apart from questions about why people attend and what the longrange effects are, the lecture content itself is puzzling and sometimes inconsistent. Some groups decry our dependence on the left brain as too analytical, too linear. Their leaders argue that we 'language' too much instead of feeling and creating, using our right brains more.

Curious then is their insistence at every step on turning honest, groping, self-examination by participants into slogans like "The only way to fail is not to participate" or "You are not the captain of the universe" or "You added value." Great writers might have a word or two about how limiting language is.

Why are the real and moving words of searching souls put in a blender and decanted as slogans?

The depth seminars obviously compel members to probe themselves but such searches can be painful, even frightening. Those opened up need to be healed but some critics, even a few participants themselves like Riki Bowen, or Skowyra, question whether follow-up sessions weeks or months afterwards are sufficient. The Next Step is increasing its follow-ups, but Bender said, "I can only support people to the extent they are willing. I wish some people would stay in the game."

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