The Sky’s the Limit: An Overview of the Human Potential Movement and Motivational Seminars

Skys the elimit graphic

(Originally printed in the Fall 2003 Issue of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 16)

You have unlimited potential.” “Success comes from within.” “Empower yourself.” These and other similar phrases are used to publicize and market seminars originating from what is best known as the Human Potential Movement. This movement arose in the 1970’s and 1980’s finding fertile soil in the ambitious and success-oriented ’80’s. The seminars promote personal power, improved self-worth, and team cooperation through books, lectures, and workshops produced by each of the particular groups. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with marketing seminars or materials. If someone truly believes something, it seems natural they would want to share it with others. However, it is also natural to ask questions such as: “Where does it come from?” “What are its basic teachings?” “Is it true?”

One of the archetypes of the human potential business was est, founded by Werner Erhard (not his real name), 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 it goes by the name Landmark. Other groups similar to est, such as Lifespring, came along and multiplied. Lifespring states that one of its goals is to “redesign the underlying assumptions out of which you live your life…” and also warns that this experience may involve a “high degree of personal challenge or stress.”1 In other words, their goal is to change your world view and this may be emotionally traumatizing for you.

Motivational and human potential seminars (sometimes referred to as Large Group Awareness Training or LGAT) are usually offered on weekends and by employers in the workplace. Lifespring, for example, runs their seminars from Thursday evening until Sunday. The introductory program is offered for 395.00 and the advanced for $995.00. The teachings may include views based on human-centered psychology—beliefs that one is in complete control of one’s destiny and that one deserves worldly success—as well as Eastern/New Age/Occult teachings about the self and the world. The unadvertised function of most of these seminars is to change the participants’ world view by breaking down the identity of each of the participants, and replacing it with a new paradigm for reality and self-identity based on the philosophies of the founders of these programs. In effect, it is a form of mind re-programming.

Right to Believe, Right to Question

In the process of comparative religious research and writing on groups such as this, there are some who might ask, “Don’t they have a right to believe what they want to believe?” The answer is, absolutely! However, someone having the right to believe what they want to believe and whether or not a particular belief is true or not are two different issues. For example, an individual has a right to believe the earth is flat, but that doesn’t mean the earth is, in fact, flat. We all have a right to believe false things if we so choose. But we also need to keep in mind that beliefs can have consequences. Heaven’s Gate believed a UFO was following the Hale Bopp Comet, and 39 people took their lives in order to get on the mother ship.

There are those in movements being studied by comparative religious researchers who define such examination and exposure as taking away their right to free speech. This is an invalid objection as well as a redefinition of free speech. Their assumption is that any questioning, criticism, or exposure is an infringement of their right to believe what they want. Free speech really does work in both directions. They can freely say, teach, and write on what they believe to be true; and those who disagree can freely say, teach, and write on how they view it and why. That is how free speech and comparative religious research work.

Spirituality by Another Name

Motivational training may be less rigorous than models based on est, but these usually include spiritual views belonging to the founder or head of the program. One popular teacher and author in the motivational area is Stephen Covey, a Mormon whose book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, was a best seller; and his son, Franklin Covey, offers speakers and seminars through his (Franklin’s) company largely based on Stephen Covey’s book. Another popular teacher is Anthony Robbins who promotes a training called “Unleash the Power Within.” Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within, popularized fire walking as a self-empowerment technique.2 Both Covey and Robbins include elements of their own spiritual world views in their training.

Other speakers who bill themselves as motivational speakers are actually religious or spiritual teachers, though they deny they are teaching anything religious. An example of this is seen in the weekend seminars led by Prem Rawat, once the child guru who founded the Divine Light Mission in the late 1960’s/early 70’s. Now leading an organization he calls Elan Vital, Rawat has promoted his talks in England as motivational lectures and did not disclose his past. Rawat, whose talks were on finding a path to inner happiness, was once called the Lord of the Universe by his followers.3 Another example is observed in the Art of Living Foundation by the famed Indian musician Ravi Shankar. His web site states that “Our programs eliminate stress, create a sense of belonging, restore human values, and  encourage people from all backgrounds, religions, and cultural traditions to come together in celebration and service.”4

Promoted as educational information based on “ancient knowledge,” Shankar’s courses include instruction in special breathing techniques, Sahaj Samadhi Meditation (“samadhi” means enlightenment), and knowledge of “Self.” His web site states that in “ancient times people went deep into the understanding of the Self and brought out spiritual practices which help you to remain centered in the Self.”5 Shankar offers seminars on stress-management for executives and business professionals, courses for college students taught on campus, and classes for children and teens.6

Methods of Operation

Many human potential and motivational groups are secretive about their teachings and methods. They often use humiliation and mind manipulation on attendees and require attendees to recruit others. Spin-offs of the original seminars such as EST and Lifespring now operate across the United States often through the workplace. Even those groups that are not secretive or manipulative usually include the New Age and Humanistic teachings 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.

One finds in most of these seminars—even the less abusive ones—mind-altering techniques such as deep relaxation, guided imagery, and visualization. The teachings 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. Graduating participants are usually pressured to recruit others into the program or training.

Secrecy and bonding through intense emotional confrontations and confessions are hallmarks of cultic and abusive groups. Leaders will urge participants to openly confess faults, failings, and fears. The result is that the confessor is put in a vulnerable position and at the mercy of what the leader will do with such information. Such cathartic experiences are powerful, however, and these seminars offer them in abundance. The experiences—even negative ones—bind the participants together and form a bond (albeit a coerced one) between the leaders and attendees. However, this is not a level playing field. The leaders of the seminar, by virtue of their position and ability to initiate whatever they desire, have power over the participants, and in many of these seminars they are using time-proven techniques to manipulate thinking. 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.

Mind Conditioning

People tend to imagine that the mind conditioning of cults and abusive groups is supernatural or esoteric; 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 of the leaders or teachings, 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. 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. It is similar to a mild trance or hypnotic state. Some groups also require attendees to sign an oath promising 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, which leads to an elitist attitude toward the “outsiders.”

A combination of confession, guided imagery, New Age meditation, cathartic exercises, and radically different teachings can subtly alter one’s thinking and world view. This process can make the participant feel there has been a “breakthrough” to new understanding, when actually what has happened has been an emotional experience, and the leader has successfully planted his/her own views into the minds of the participants.

Christian Groups

There also are groups using these same Humanistic and New Age teachings and methods from this movement that are, with a slight modification of the terminology, offered to Christians. One of these is Momentus, now operating under the name of Breakthrough, its parent company having changed its name from Mashiyach Ministries to The Association for Christian Character Development (ACCD). Momentus was founded by Daniel Tocchini, a former trainer with Lifespring. Secrecy and aversion to criticism also mark this group. The recommended reading list for ACCD is a bit of a mixed bag, recommending books by several sound authors like Tozer, Oswald Chambers, and J. I. Packer, but also including books by those whose views are problematic or founded on false world views, such as Stephen Covey, Rick Joyner, and M. Scott Peck.7 Steven Covey, as mentioned earlier, is a Mormon. Rick Joyner is a false prophet and teacher, and M. Scott Peck’s spiritual road bears more of a resemblance to the paths of Eastern religions than it does to Christianity.

Another motivational teacher within the Christian community is John C. Maxwell who teaches principles of success, leadership, and teamwork. Maxwell favorably quotes and promotes New Thought teachers like Napoleon Hill (who also practiced Occult techniques), Norman Vincent Peale, and endorses the principles of positive thinking which, at their core, are derived from the New Thought Movement.

Response

Concepts that promote “humans having unlimited potential” or “depending totally on themselves for success” go against God’s teachings of a fallen world of sin and dependency on Him through Jesus Christ. 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.8 No one should accept teachings uncritically; and secrecy is not a hallmark of anything connected to authentic Christianity.

“Positive thinking” as taught by Peale and others is not about adopting a positive attitude. Rather, it is a philosophy and technique based on the belief that one can manipulate hidden spiritual laws to bring about desired results. It is more akin to the Occult than to Christianity. These teachings are partly derived from Ernest and Fenwicke Holmes—founders of the Church of Religious Science (a New Thought church established in 1917). Peale studied these principles and incorporated them into his popular teachings and books on positive thinking. These beliefs do not align with and, in many cases, are in opposition to Biblical Scripture.9

Warning

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, the secrecy they employ, and their teachings—which may have to be investigated on the internet or elsewhere if the group conceals the specifics.

The following traits connected to seminars, classes, programs, or workshops should raise warning flags. Nobody needs to go through verbal abuse, mind-conditioning techniques, or radical “breakthrough” experiences under the manipulation and coercion of others in order to be a better person, leader, Christian, 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, high-pressure-type techniques are used to get you to participate.
  • The organization portrays its critics as ignorant, evil, anti-free speech, 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.
  • Techniques such as guided imagery or guided visualization are used.
  • Past participants exhibit an elitist attitude toward those who have not participated.
  • Past participants are pressured to recruitΩ

Marcia Montenegro, a former astrologer and follower of New Age/Eastern practices, now has a ministry, CANA/Christian Answers for the New Age (http://christiananswersforthenewage.org/), PO Box 7191, Arlington, VA 22207. E-mail at: cana2000@erols.com

RESOURCES:

For further information on the concepts, methods, teachings, and problems of LGAT, see: http://perso.wanadoo.fr/eldon.braun/awareness/
http://www.watchman.org/na/nawork.htm
http://tinyurl.com/ee93
http://skepdic.com/lgsap.html
For information on Momentus/ACCD/Breakthrough see:
http://www.cephasministry.com/momentus.html, http://www.factnet.org/cults/Momentus/
http://www.empirenet.com/~messiah7/brk_holdharmless1.htm
http://www.equip.org/free/DM494.htm.
For information on thought reform and the way to recognize cultic and abusive groups or teachings, see:
http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/cult101.htm
http://www.cultclinic.org/qa5.html
http://www.cultwatch.com/hcwindex.html

© 2015, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.

  1. http://www.lifespringusa.com/thecourses.htm, accessed 6/14/03
  2. For information on fire walking and why it generally does not injure people, and does not require special preparation, see http://skepdic.com/firewalk.html and http://www.pitt.edu/~dwilley/fire.html
  3. “Don’t Waste Your Lives” in This Is Bristol, June 16, 2003, at http://tinyurl.com/el34, accessed 6/18/03
  4. www.artofliving.org
  5. http://www.artofliving.org/knowledge.html
  6. http://www.artofliving.org/courses.html
  7. http://www.accd.org/store.html; for information on Covey, see http://tinyurl.com/ejlc; for information on Rick Joyner, see http://www.pfo.org/r-joyner.htm; for information on M. Scott Peck, see http://www.watchman.org/na/peckbook.htm and The Less Traveled Road and the Bible by H. Wayne House and Richard Abanes
  8. Isaiah 1:18; Psalm 119:59; Matthew 22:37; Romans 12:3; I Corinthians 14; Philippians 4:8
  9. See Watchman Fellowship article on Peale at http://www.watchman.org/reltop/peale.htm

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