First written June, 2003. Updated October, 2023
The Human Potential Movement and related teachings are based on human-centered psychology, much of it stemming from Abraham Maslow, his ‘heirarchy of needs”and “self-actualizationi;” on beliefs that one is in complete control of one’s destiny and that one deserves worldly success; and on Eastern/New Age/occult teachings about the self and the world.
This movement arose in the 1970’s and 1980’s, finding fertile soil in the ambitious and success-oriented 80’s, promoting personal power, improved self-worth, and team cooperation through books, lectures, workshops; as well as through seminars offered on weekends, in the workplace, and elsewhere. The function of these seminars, which is not advertised, is to break down the identity and worldview of the participants, and replace it with a new paradigm for reality and self-identity based on the philosophies belonging to the founders of these programs. In effect, it is mind re-programming.
One of the archetypes of the human potential business today was est, founded by Werner Erhard (real name, Jack Rosenberg, b. 1935), who based his concepts on Eastern beliefs and on teachings from the Church of Scientology. The est program later came to be known as the Forum, and now goes by the name Landmark Forum and Landmark Education. Other groups similar to est, such as Lifespring, came along and multiplied (Lifespring is now defunct but other groups have arisen). To get a glimpse of Erhard’s thinking, we have this:
One can see the influence of Buddhism in that quote, because Buddhism teaches that the only reality that exists is Buddha Mind or Buddha Nature. All else is form and has no substantial reality. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, was also influenced by Buddhism and Erhard was involved with Scientology.
Motivational training may be less rigorous than models bases on est, but they often include spiritual views belonging to the founder or head of the program. One popular teacher and author in the motivational area is the late Stephen Covey (d. 2012), a Mormon whose book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, was a bestseller, and whose son, Franklin Covey, offers speakers and seminars through his (Franklin’s) company based on Stephen Covey’s book. Franklin Covey is listed on a Mormon site about Mormon businesses.
Another popular teacher is Tony Robbins, who promotes a training appropriately called “Unleash The Power Within.” Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within, popularized firewalking as a self-empowerment technique. Both Covey and Robbins include elements of their own spiritual worldviews in their training.
One of the more spiritually based groups is the Silva Method, started by Jose Silva (1914-1999) in 1966. Based on beliefs that man has unlimited potential and can tap into psychic powers and the ability to heal the body with the mind, Silva, initially called Silva Mind Control, uses meditation and guided visualization exercises in its seminars. Moreover, Silva teaches students to make contact with disembodied counselors (spirit guides) for guidance.
Although the Silva Method has cleaned up its image to appear less spiritual, it still advertises that it uses visualization, and markets itself with the phrase “Unleash Your Mind’s Potential” along with:
Access Altered States of mind and transform your reality in just 4 weeks with The Silva Ultramind System without overwhelming effort or disrupting your schedule.
Some human potential and motivational groups are secretive about their teachings and methods, use humiliation and mind manipulation on attendees, and require attendees to recruit others. Many spin-offs of the original seminars such as est now operate across the country, usually through the workplace.
Even those groups that are not secretive or manipulative usually include in their teachings New Age and humanistic ideas that one is responsible for everything that may happen to them (including being robbed, raped, getting sick, etc.) and that one has an innate wisdom and unlimited potential, concepts that go against God’s teachings that we are in a fallen world of sin, that everyone needs redemption, and that people should depend on God through Christ, and seek God’s will for one’s life.
One finds in most of these seminars, even the less abusive ones, mind-altering techniques such as deep relaxation, guided imagery, and visualization. The dangerous ideas in these seminars are often subtle, mixed in with helpful advice, and are advertised as methods to improve self-motivation, workplace performance, leadership skills, and cooperation with co-workers. Participants are usually pressured to recruit others into the program or training.
Cathartic experiences are powerful, and these seminars offer them in abundance. The experiences, even negative ones, bind the participants together and form a bond between the leaders and participants. However, this is not a level playing field; the leaders of the seminar have power over the participants, and in many of these seminars they are using time-proven techniques to manipulate thinking. This is part of their training. Although spontaneity is often given as the reason to keep the contents secret from prospective attendees, the leaders’ actions and timing have been carefully orchestrated and choreographed. Secrecy and bonding through intense emotional confrontations and confessions are hallmarks of cultic groups.
People tend to imagine that the mind conditioning of cults is supernatural or esoteric, when, in fact, it boils down to powerful psychological and emotional techniques such as isolation, secrecy, bonding through confrontation and confession, shaming or humiliation before others, disparaging detractors, forbidding or discouraging questioning or criticism, discouraging thinking for one’s self, verbal abuse, and techniques such as guided visualizations.
Guided imagery or visualization, ostensibly used for relaxation, is actually a method that increases the suggestibility of the participants because it is a form of hypnosis. In such a state, a person’s critical thinking skills are on hold and they are more receptive to what is being said or taught. Some groups also require attendees to sign an oath, promising that they will not disclose the teachings. This creates not only a bond of secrecy, but also a separation between the “insiders” who are attending and the “outsiders” who have not had the training, leading to an elitist attitude toward the “outsiders.” Many of these seminars use some or all of these techniques.
There are also groups using humanistic teachings and methods from this movement that are in the church and market themselves to Christians. These are not the normal church retreats that focus on a study of the Bible and fellowship. These larger group gatherings influenced by the secular seminars claim that by attending one of their weekend retreats or gatherings will you will grow closer to God, will have spiritual experiences, and/or will have some kind of spiritual breathrough. Most of them have you reach the destination with others so that you do not have a way to leave, ask or have attendees sign a paper that they will not share information of what happens at the gathering, press you to recruit others, and have you continue to gather after the event. Some of these groups are the Emmaus Walk, Tres Dias, The Great Banquet, Women’s Walk with Christ, and others.
Christians should recall that Jesus taught in the open (“I have said nothing in secret,” John 18:20 ), and that God tells us to use our reason and minds to think things through (Isaiah 1:18; Psalm 119:59; Matthew 22:37; Romans 12:3; I Corinthians 14; Philippians 4:8). Christians are not to accept teachings uncritically, and secrecy is not a hallmark of anything connected to authentic Christianity.
Another motivational teacher within the Christian community is John C. Maxwell, who teaches principles of success, leadership, and teamwork. Maxwell favorably quotes New Thought teachers like Napoleon Hill (who also practiced occult techniques) and Norman Vincent Peale, and endorses the principles of positive thinking, which at their core derive from the New Thought movement and do not align with scripture.
There are hundreds of such groups and seminars, both secular and Christian, throughout the country. Be aware that some groups may change their names; therefore, it is important to recognize them by the way they present themselves, their secrecy, and their teachings (which may have to be investigated online if the group does not share the specifics).
The following traits connected to seminars, classes, programs, or workshops should set warning flags waving, and a rigorous investigation should be done. Nobody needs to go through verbal abuse, mind conditioning techniques, or radical “breakthrough” experiences coerced by others in order to be a better person, leader, or team player.
-An organization, its leaders, or past participants refuse to share the contents of the seminars beforehand
-You are required to sign a “hold harmless” agreement (letting the organization and its leaders off the hook if harm or distress should result from the training)
-The organization/seminar has hyper language offering self-transformation
-Strong sales-type techniques are used to get you to participate
-The organization portrays its critics as ignorant, evil, or influenced by Satan
-The organization dissuades you from evaluating the teachings and methods yourself
-The organization discourages or discounts criticism from participants or others
-Promises are made to redesign your view of your self and reality
-Past participants exhibit an elitist attitude toward those who have not participated
-Past participants are pressured to recruit
See CANA Article on Landmark Forum and Werner Erhard