Monday, December 14, 2009

The 50th Law

What an extraordinary book!
It was a sheer stroke of genius to get 50 Cent to do a self-help book, and Robert Greene was the perfect author to select to help him out.
Now, the inimitable Fiddy needs no introduction, but for those interested in self-help writing Robert Greene is a fascinating character. He scored a great hit in the late 90s with The 48 Laws of Power, a book that was decidedly controversial and swam against the tide of 1990s advice manuals. Interestingly, Greene drew on the literature of renaissance Italy and examples from the French royal courts to to illustrate his philosophy, and the result was, not unsurprisingly, quite bloodthirsty and, literally, Machiavellean.
Greene has been similarly brave in this interesting book, where he draws his examples not just from 50 Cent's experiences in the music industry, but also from his career as a drug dealer and small-time thug. Such anecdotes, while illustrative of the measures necessary to achieve extraordinary success, may not sit comfortably with the average consumer of self-help books. I have no doubt, however, that the advice would strike a chord with the young men who make up 50 Cent's fans and, one supposes, the intended audience for this book.
Indeed, the testosterone level of this book is almost off the chart, and the authors constantly re-inforce the need to be an individual, look out for your own needs, and not be taken advantage of by those in power. Greene manages to find supporting quotes from Emerson along with his usual favourite writers and commentators from Renaissance Europe. Interesting to have 50 Cent juxtaposed with the great American philosopher.
The thesis of the book is that in reality life is exactly like life in the 'hood, and all of us are fighting for survival as bitterly and desperately as 50 Cent had to when he was a young hustler. We are enjoined to stay real, and to base our life plan on action and experience, not on the advice of others or, ironically, philosophies read in books.
I don't really think there's anything else even remotely like this book that's ever been printed. Of course, hardship to success stories are as old as printing itself, but I don't think I recall ever seeing a book in which the central subject is unashamed of his previous state of reprobation, and uses its lessons to impart advice to others. This makes the book truly unique, and endlessly fascinating, if not at times morally challenging.
I liked it, and think it would be the perfect thing to give any angry young man.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gift From the Sea

Anne Morrow Lindbergh's remarkably long-lasting popular classic Gift from the Sea is one of those books that more properly belongs in the category of inspiration rather than self-help, mostly because its more conventional, straight-forward narrative format does not fit the template of self-help books.
However, I feel it is important to read and analyse because it is a frequently quoted book, and one of those that people often say changed their lives.
I was surprised at how specifically the book was focused on women's issues and problems. I'd always imagined it to be more general than that, but open reading it I mostly felt excluded from the message. Of course, much of what she says could be applied to the male journey as well, but she seems to be directing her narrative specifically toward women.
I found the structure of the book a little contrived - each chapter is named after a particular seashell, and is made up of the moral lessons she has arrived at through examining the particular qualities of each shell. The writing, too, is quite pedestrian.
She does, however, have some interesting things to say. She speaks eloquently about loneliness and solitude - pre-empting Australia's own Stephanie Dowrick, who would, decades later, write a beautiful book called Intimacy and Solitude - and the necessity of creating islands of peace in our lives in which we are not afraid to be alone with our own thoughts.
On occasion she addresses herself, as a writer, to other writers, and once more she stresses the importance of loneliness in the process of creativity. In this I think she serves as something of a predecessor of Julia Cameron, whose mega-selling The Artist's Way speaks of "artist's dates" in which the artist needs to go somewhere alone in order to cultivate a talent for observation and self-absorption.
In general, Lindbergh's message is quite an old-fashioned one, especially when she discusses matters of the heart. Her own life was, of course, fascinating and filled with tragedy, but she rarely alludes to it here. Instead she talks about the different kinds of pleasures available to the mature person, and to the long-term couple.
I think that might be the secret to the popularity of this gentle, slight and even inconsequential little collection of essays. Its ultimate message seems to be that we should be content with the little we have, and to find pleasure in the simple offerings of an uneventful life.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Maggie Hamilton and the Fairies - Friday December 11

My wonderful friend and colleague Maggie Hamilton has brought out the most remarkable book on a most interesting topic - Fairies.
Maggie will be speaking at the New Church in Roseville on Friday the 11th of December at 7.30pm about the fascinating story behind the book, and I hope you'll all come! The evening is free, though donations will be accepted for the Loving Arms orphanage in Nepal.
The new book, Meeting Fairies, is a collection of writing about fairies made by R. Ogilvie Crombie (or ROC, as he was affectionately known), a modern-day mystic and one of the founders of the Findhorn community.
He was convinced of the reality of Fairies, and in fact had many encounters with them.
Maggie had access to ROC's archives and private papers, and has assembled a magical book that explores the message of the nature spirits, and their importance in Western mythology.

Meeting Fairies - an Evening with Maggie Hamilton
The New Church
4 Shirley Rd
7.30pm Friday December 11
All welcome!
Entry by donation - all proceeds go to the Loving Arms Children's Home in Nepal

Friday, October 30, 2009

You Can Heal Your Life

One of the most legendary books in the history of the self-help genre is Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life. Originally self-published, it went on to become a mammoth bestseller and the source of Ms. Hay's business and publishing empire. And, in more recent years, it has broken new ground by becoming the first self-help book to be turned into a full-length motion picture.
The book is pretty much run-of-the-mill New Thought. At the time of its writing Louise Hay was a popular Science of Mind minister, and her book and career would probably have faded into obscurity under normal circumstances. But something extraordinary happened. The AIDS crisis began, and Louise Hay, with her slightly raunchy and matter-of-fact manner, her mysterious background and her frank acceptance of gay and lesbian people, became the spiritual inspiration to thousands of men who were dying from that terrible disease. Suddenly, Hay and her little book were an intrinsic part of a social and cultural moment that caught up some of the greatest and most creative minds of a generation. Leading her famous "Hay Ride" healing sessions which were packed to the rafters with gay men, Louise Hay became the first major religious figure who addressed the AIDS problem directly, and treated people with AIDS with dignity and compassion. Hers was a lone voice for some years, and her personal bravery and integrity have been, I feel, forgotten in recent years. In the early 80s very few people were saying it was alright to be gay, and this elderly lady-minister, with her old-fashioned New Thought ideas and quaint little book, was a lonely voice in the wilderness.
You Can Heal Your Life became mainstream, of course, and was for many years - and remains - a bestseller. Hay was one of the first to see the possibility of new forms of media, and released many cassettes of her meditations and other work.
The book is beautifully, if simply, written, and Hay has a great gift for getting her ideas across. She has been criticised and lampooned mercilessly over the years, but she has gone from strength to strength, becoming a powerful publishing industry tycoon with her own company Hay House, which has made the careers of many others in the self-help and metaphysical fields.
Indeed, Hay has never really written another book - her entire philosophy was so succinctly and so prefectly expressed in You Can Heal Your Life. Other books have been printed, but they are really just transcriptions of her talks and workshops, as any avid listener to her audio material can soon discover.
It makes for fun reading, and is frequently outrageous. She uses a male prostitute as an example of how to apply prosperity thinking, for example, and she suggests that people should masturbate when they feel a migraine coming on. The book consciously addresses itself to actors, artist, writers and other creative types, proving that Ms. Hay, writing from LA, knew who her core clientele would be.
But the fact remains that it is one of the most seminal and culturally influential self-help books ever to be written, and new generations of readers are constantly discovering it. Her simple prose and clear thinking make the book much more accessible than other New Thought classics, and her message of love and self-acceptance seems to continue to strike a chord in the public imagination.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Self-Help, Inc.

One of the most substantial studies of self-help books, and certainly the most recent, is Micki McGee's engaging Self-Help, Inc.
McGee is an academic, and takes a thoroughly academic approach to her analysis of self-help books. Her critique seems to be informed by Marxist theory, and he basic thesis is that self-help books mostly encourage workers to accept poor wages and working conditions, and to blame themselves for these material shortcomings.
While I don't necessarily agree with McGee's thesis (though she certainly argues it convincingly, and I think that many of her assertions are valid), I love her passion for the genre, and the degree to which it fascinates her.
The book is well-written, and superbly referenced and argued. As an academic resource it is faultless, and is certainly the main critical reference point for my own PhD.
McGee is most interesting when she talks about the different ways work is conceived in the literature of self-help. Along with Weber (who she seems to have a real understanding of), she says that the older Western notions of religious vocation and calling were transferred in the Protestant world to the areas of work and moneymaking. She sees mystical overtones in Nelson Bolles' What Colour is Your Parachute, and provides an interesting analysis of Julia Cameron and The Artist's Way (a book that interests me because of its overtly religious rhetoric).
McGee sees the growth in popularity of self-help as a negative thing, reflecting an increasingly solipsistic tendency in the Western mind. People who may once have committed themselves to social causes and societal change instead focus on transforming themselves, a work which is all-consuming and never-ending.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

7 Habits of Highly Effective People

In the course of organising my research I have put together a list of books that quite plainly constitute a canon of self-help literature. Any attempt to discuss the genre necessarily means that I must be familiar with all of the books on the list. I call it my "Classics List," and whenever I have a spare moment I am always working away at it, absorbing the thoughts of the most successful self-help authors of the past three centuries.
One of those classics is, of course, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. It was one of the books that defined the 90s, and I still remember going to the gym and seeing people with the book propped open at the treadmill while they did their obligatory kilometres. At that stage I was highly dismissive of self-help books (I was only 21), and I sneered at the sweating 30-somethings intent on their self improvement.
When I actually read it, I found it quite interesting and helpful. Of course, I have heard all the stories about the author, Stephen Covey, and his right wing political links and rank homophobia. Once a lesbian friend caught me reading it and she demanded to know what I was doing "reading that Mormon bigot?"
A little essay in the universality of self-help ideas is the example of how once I attended a talk by an Ananda Marga monk and he set forth the 7 Habits as enunciated by Covey as a perfect example of the practical application of Tantric philosophy.
Self-help academic and critic Micki McGee identifies Covey's brand of rhetoric as particularly masculinist, and points out the tortuous circles Covey ties himself in in order to disguise his peculiarly theistic - indeed, Mormonistic - worldview.
In a recent essay appearing in the Human Relations journal, John G. Cullen presents a fascinating analysis of Covey's success, identifying The 7 Habits... as a kind of secret religious propaganda, re-packaging quite distinct spiritual ideas in the language of management and success.
Probably Covey's most lasting contribution to popular culture is his introduction of the word "paradigm" into popular parlance. Where would pontificating CEOs and politicians, not to mention earnest undergrads, be without that particular well-worn buzzword?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Self-Help Nation

I've been reading a rather jaundiced critique of self-help called Self-Help Nation, by one Tom Tiede.
There is a whole sub-genre of books criticising self-help books, Steve Salerno's fascinating SHAM being the most recent example. I find it interesting that most of these critics seem to come from the right of the political spectrum, though in general those people vehemently opposed to self-help come from all sides of politics. It must just be the conservatives who can cultivate enough wrath to get it all down on paper.
Mr. Tiede's book is quite a good read, apart from the inexplicable inclusion of his poetry, which I naturally skip. Oh, the inordinate vanity of authors who imagine that its ok to slip some of their sup-par poetry into a work of non-fiction. He can be funny, though he can also drag the joke on for rather too long. And while I concede that self-help writing does indeed represent a rich mine of things to make fun of, I do think it is rather a soft target. Mr. Tiede's complete contempt for the books he is analysing is, to my mind, a rather too-easy pose, requiring the author not to think too seriously about the texts he is condemning.
His criticism is quite standard - that self-help books are unrealistic and cause a dangerously overblown set of expectations to rise up in the hearts of the readers. He says they are too simplistic, and is fascinated by the semi-magical numerology of self-help solutions: four steps to relationship success, seven days to true riches etc. He also includes a rather peculiar chapter in defence of addiction, which I quite enjoyed if only for its sheer audacity and lack of political correctness.
But occasionally he makes statements that are downright offensive and simply stupid - declaring, for example, that he'd rather be leading a poverty stricken existence in Burkina Faso than earning a living advocating self improvement. He also gives away rather more than I think he intended, providing a fascinating insight into his psyche, and the reasons why he finds the ideas of self-help so threatening that he had to write a whole book condemning them. In a particularly touching passage he writes about his own problematic relationship with his father, and ironically it is at this moment of tenderness, honesty and self-confession that he is at his literary best.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Prosperity Spirituality

One of the most popular forms of New Thought thinking, and one of the most controversial, is that of Prosperity Spirituality. The idea that cultivating a spiritual life can lead to material riches has always been a fundamental part of New Thought philosophy, and is what sets New Thought apart from standard Christian theology more than anything else.
The Prosperity Spirituality probably reached its apotheosis in the books of Catherine Ponder. Books like The Millionaire from Nazareth set out a new vision of Christianity that rejects the glorification of poverty and instead urges the reader to "give your attention to the science of acquiring wealth."
As much as the religious mainstream likes to make fun of these ideas, there is no denying that they are enormously attractive to the average reader/churchgoer, as is evidenced by the continued popularity of material espousing a Prosperity Spirituality. Certainly The Secret is a part of this tradition, containing as it does quote after quote from more contemporary writers and speakers advocating the power of thought to create good material circumstances.
True to her training in the New Thought tradition, Louise Hay has also always advocated the cultivation of prosperity, and defines prosperity according to health, happiness and spiritual contentment, along with the possession of objects. This is, of course, always the ultimate answer to those who might challenge the morality of Prosperity Spirituality - the greatest evidence of prosperity is a warmth and generosity of spirit, and who would seek to begrudge these?
The implication of the Prosperity Spirituality books seems to be that if we seek to be more spiritual and cultivate a truly spiritual existence, then prosperity can never be far behind. It is merely the outcome of correct living and positive states of mind. For in being spiritual, we simply release, as Catherine Ponder says, "the Divinity that is within you which is never poor."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Excuses Begone!

I've been reading, and really enjoying, the new Wayne Dyer book Excuses Begone for a while now. I am quite impressed with it. It strikes me as quite a spiritually mature book, with real depth and insight, in spite of its whimsical title. One of my friends, when he saw me reading it, burst out laughing and said it should have been called Get Thee Behind Me, Excuses!
The fact is that it is nicely written and well set-out and argued. This alone sets it apart from many of the self-help books that are released with great haste and little quality control. I understand that Dyer is a committed and methodical writer with a strict discipline that includes meditation, spiritual reading and prayer along with his daily writing.
The book is really a very old-fashioned example of New Thought, and Dyer's interests and expressions become increasingly spiritual as he gets older. While reading through it to garner quotes for a seminar I was presenting I was actually quite struck by its overtly theistic emphasis, and wondered at how an average reader might take such references.
As I've mentioned in this blog before, Dyer is an exceedingly likeable man, and his humility and self-deprecation are a part of his style. I am surprised when I search the net and find so much vitriol directed at him, mostly on the part of sceptical anti-self-help journalists who have obviously never carefully read what the man is actually saying. A huge part of his message is the fact that he is a deeply flawed human being whose life has been filled with exactly the sorts of problems and setbacks that plague us all. I was particularly appalled by the criticisms of the poor man based on his failed marriages. In recent years his wife has left him, and many seem to see this as some sort of judgement on his books and their message. Go figure. If anything, such tribulations stand testament to his overarching message, which is that problems beset us all constantly, and we can only lead a happy and fulfilled life if we keep carrying on regardless of external circumstances.
In Excuses Begone he spends a lot of time discussing Thomas Troward, who is one of the venerable ancestors of the New Thought movement. I'm glad that Dyer has resurrected him, and hope that a whole new generation of readers will re-discover this charming writer, who was one of the bestselling authors of his day.
And, of course, the book is filled with practical tips for avoiding the inertia of an excuse-filled life, urging us to keep our dreams alive, keep journals, and follow websites that excite and encourage us in working toward our goals.
I have found it an inspiring, readable and useful book, and would recommend Excuses Begone! to even the most hard-headed cynic.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Secret Doctrine

These days there are surely not many people left in the world who have read Madame Blavatsky's magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine from cover to bulky cover. Never an easy read, it has become increasingly impossible to comprehend, with its flowery Victorian prose and eccentric grammar. I have tried several times, but have never managed to get more than a couple of pages in before I become thoroughly confused. It wouldn't be the first great and important book to slide into obscurity, however.
Madame Blavatsky's star has faded somewhat, but the fact is that she was one of the most fascinating women of her own, or any other, time, and The Secret Doctrine was an enormously influential text. Indeed, it has probably had a much greater influence on the way we think and express ourselves today than most people would give it credit for.
Madame Blavatsky was the person behind the great influx of Eastern religious ideas into Western culture. Without the firm and slighly dictatorial guidance of Madame B, and the peculiar hodgepodge of Buddhism, Hinduism and Western Esotericism that is The Secret Doctrine, we would never have witnessed the popularity of Hindu gurus and Tibetan Buddhist masters that we are so familiar with today. Madame Blavatsky invented the New Age, and was singlehandedly responsible for making words and concepts like karma, Chakra and Lama the commonplaces they are today.
Henry Olcott, Madame B's great friend and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, was careful of the great lady's reputation after she died, but even he was puzzled as to how a poorly educated Russian emigrant was capable of producing a 2,068 page book. Like her, he credited the influence of her mythic "Masters" and, in his Old Diary Leaves, hinted that The Secret Doctrine had its provenance in more astral planes.
Reading The Secret Doctrine is really a commitment of years, and most Theosophical Societies around the world offer classes and study groups to help guide the confused. The more generous call The Secret Doctrine one of the world's great spiritual classics, on a par with the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. I wouldn't quite heap such fulsome praise upon it, but one day I will read it in its entirety, and it really is the pioneer book of the modern world, filled as it is with orientalist imaginings and inspiring inunctions to evolve, grow and become more spiritual.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Richard Bach

When I was just a toddler I was taken to see the film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Perhaps it was the Neil Diamond soundtrack that attracted my parents (my father was always a huge fan), or perhaps they imagined a Disney-esque animated feature filled with singing, cavorting seagulls. They stoically sat through the film, and later on it became a part of family legend - how insufferably bad and terminally dull was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. All throughout my childhood it was held up to me as the pinnacle of boredom. Should I complain of having nothing to do, my mother would roll her eyes and say, "Oh you're bored? Well you obviously don't remember sitting through the entire length of Jonathan Livingston Seagull..."
Richard Bach's novel, on which the film was based (what an idea!) was absolutely ubiquitous in the 70s. Every home had a copy, and as a child I would be drawn to it. With trepidation I would pull a copy down from my aunt's bookshelf and, just before I could crack it open, my father would shout, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull!? Ho ho, you're in for a treat there. Most boring book ever written. But it back, right now. Did I ever tell you about the time I took you to see the movie...?"
Years later I worked for a long period at Australia's then-largest New Age bookshop. I was surprised at how popular Richard Bach's novels continued to be. We always kept them in stock, and they would always sell a dozen or so copies a year, which is quite respectable for a backlist book. Even the dreaded Jonathan Livingston Seagull would be asked for on occasion.
Now, because of this childhood stigma I have never read a single word of any of Mr. Bach's books, so I'm not about to offer a critique. I'm sure they are lovely, and they are certainly an essential part of the history of New Age/Self-Help publishing, which means I'll have to be reading them sooner, rather than later.
Last weekend I went to the big book sale at the Great Hall at Sydney Uni, and it was heaven. I scored a box and a half of self-help classics, including a copy of Richard Bach's The Bridge Across Forever. I'll start reading it as soon as I've finished the wonderful Dennis Cooper short stories I'm currently reading. I don't like to have two fiction projects going at the same time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Laurie Levine

One of the few people left promoting the ideas of New Thought in Sydney is Laurie Levine, who conducts a monthly Positive Living Spiritual Service, and is the author of two books promoting her own eclectic spiritual vision.
Originally from America, Laurie has been in Australia for many years, and is a popular yoga teacher and spiritual healer. Her first book, Spiritual Medicine, was published in Australia by Simon & Schuster in 1999, and later in America by North Atlantic books. It is a remarkable book that encompasses a wide selection of self-help ideas stemming largely from New Thought, but also drawing from yoga, spiritual healing and other metaphysical traditions. Quite a charming read.
Her most recent book is self-published, and is a collection of blessings and prayers for use in all different life situations - it would be a perfect resource for any minister or celebrant. Hopefully Laurie will be releasing many more books in the years to come, as she is a gifted writer, with a palpable energy and a lightness of touch that make her ideas easily accessible and free of pretension.
These days Laurie is affiliated with Agape Spiritual Centre in California. This is the incredible "Trans-denominational" church whose minister, the handsome and charismatic Michael Bernard Beckwith, became such through his appearance on the mega-selling DVD The Secret. This church, and Laurie's own group, draws mainly on the Science of Mind ideas of Ernest Holmes, and represents a less rigidly religious vision of New Thought.
Agape is quite a phenomenon in America, where it has reached the status of mega-church, though without the dogma and right-wing leanings of most of the other churches that delight in that status. It has yet to gain the same degree of popularity in Australia, though Laurie is hopeful that the future will bring more people with interest and energy, inspired by Beckwith's books and appearances.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Magnificent Obsession

Magnificent Obsession is one of my favourite movies, for all kinds of reasons. Mostly because it's a film I saw several times on television as a child, and its settings and plot remained vivid in my memory for years afterward. I picked up a copy in Singapore a few years ago, and watched it over and over again, absolutely in love with its overwrought performances and implausible plot.
I also recognised something that had gone over my head as a child - the film's plot is overtly religious, though until now I've never really been able to get my head around the mysterious theology that informs the plot.
A couple of weeks ago I bought a new edition of the DVD, and it's simply marvellous. It features the original 1935 version of the film, as well as the 1954 feature (the one I love) with a fascinating commentary by Australian film historian Dr. Mark Nicholls.
Put quite simply, the film is a brilliant (if slightly over-stated) enunciation of the philosophy of New Thought. The original novel on which it was based was written by Lloyd Douglas, a retired clergyman who moved more and more toward New Thought ideas as he pursued a career as a novelist. The novel was greatly beloved by those in the New Thought field, and it is quoted at length in Napoleon Hill's Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude. In that book he advocates that all people should develop "a magnificent obsession" just as the character Bob Merrick does in the book and later the film.
Apparently the director Douglas Sirk was largely unaware of, and uninterested in, the film's underlying philsophy. He couldn't get through the novel on which it was based, and he never saw the original version of the film, in which the New Thought ideas are much more explicitly, and repeatedly, stated.
Of course, the degree of absurdity and high improbability of Bob Merrick's achievements in the film (becoming a brain surgeon in order to save the life of the woman he loves) tempers the power of its message to a modern audience. But it is nevertheless filled with a naive, melodramatic charm, and I defy anyone not to cry during its closing scene.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Science of Mind

Science of Mind is the organisation/philosophy based on the great New Thought philosopher Ernest Holmes. It was also the name of his enormous book, which still serves as the bible of the movement, and of the monthly magazine which is still published.
Holmes was a prolific writer, and a late-arriving student of Emma Curtis Hopkins, the woman most people consider the grandmother of New Thought, the teacher of teachers.
Holmes was obviously a charismatic and energetic man, because he established a religious empire which is still going on today. One of its most illustrious followers is Louise L. Hay, probably the most famous exponent of New Age beliefs in the world.
The basic philosophy of Science of Mind is pretty much the same as you would find in Unity or any of the other New Thought based churches. Also known as Religious Science, its founder Ernest Holmes never really intended it to be a new church. The magazine Science of Mind, which has been in continuous production since 1927, certainly has a readership well beyond the church membership, and many subscribe to Holmes' ideas without declaring themselves a formal part of the movement.
The fundamental idea behind Science of Mind seems to be that we are created perfectly, just as God is perfect, and so we are capable of achieving anything. We are all moving into a new age of possibility, and if we can align our thoughts with the energy of the Divine, we can become a race of supermen.
Like much New Thought philosophy, Science of Mind flirts with the fringes of spiritualism and Theosophy, and Holmes' magnum opus is littered with tantalizing references to the extraordinary possibilities of the human mind freed from the old ideas of negativity. The book itself is reasonably difficult to read these days. Its enormous size and frequently prolix style means that it is best consumed in small bites, rather than sitting down to read it from cover to cover.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Esther & Jerry Hicks

Probably the biggest stars on the self-improvement circuit right now are Esther and Jerry Hicks, an unassuming, middle-aged couple from Arizona who have slowly built up a following until, around 5 years ago, they suddenly became massive.
Mrs. Hicks is a channel, and she channels a disembodied collection of entities that, rather confusingly, go by the singular name Abraham. The copious books and CDs produced by the couple are, in fact, the teachings of Abraham, though the name Esther and Jerry Hicks appears prominently on book jackets etc.
The message of Abraham seems to be a perfectly innocuous collection of New Thought ideas, with a heavy emphasis on the Law of Attraction and the concept of co-creation. In truth, it is hard to know why the books are so enormously popular. They have a tendency to ramble, and are incredibly repetitive. I suspect it is the sheer folksy charm of the Hicks, and the relentless positivism of the message. There is also a distinct message of the inevitability of progress, which I suspect is also comforting in a world that is normally heavy on the doom and gloom and the downward spiral of humanity's journey.
Jerry Hicks credits the influence of both Napoleon Hill (Hicks was a teacher of Hill's methods for many years) and the channeled Seth writings of Jane Roberts. These latter are what inspired Esther to accept her own talents as a channel.
The Abraham material is focused on the idea that we are at a particularly important juncture in universal development, and that all people are capable of flowering and prospering if they will only do the necessary spiritual work and cultivate a sufficiently positive worldview. The books, audios and DVDs are normally reproductions of talks and seminars conducted by the Hicks, replete with question and answer sessions from the audience. With this format it would appear that the potential to produce new material is endless, and certainly their publisher, Hay House, is pushing out Abraham stuff at a rate of knots. It will be interesting to see if the market can continue to absorb such a high volume of releases.
The Hicks' have become incredibly influential on the New Age/Self-Help scene. They were the original inspiration for the movie The Secret, but by all accounts they withdrew over financial issues, and The Secret was eventually unleashed on the world without their contributions. Both Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay are great fans of the Abraham material, and constantly endorse it.
Hay House has been quite visionary in its handling of the Hicks and their work. Realising that more and more consumers are moving away from books, Hay House has focused just as much on audio and DVD in its Abraham releases, and it seems to have been working for them.
It is hard to be offended by the Abraham material, as it is entirely free from controversial claims and statements. My only reservation regards the style of the books, and the basically unedited nature of the content. There really is an enormous amount of duplication from book to book, and I daresay that the serious reader need only read one of them to get the full gist of Abraham's message.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Samuel Smiles

I'm doing a talk about Samuel Smiles and the invention of self-help at the Sydney Unitarian Church on Sunday August 8, so have been immersing myself in the wonderful world of Smiles.
Possessed of what is quite possibly the most gorgeous name in the world, Samuel Smiles was a Scottish doctor, newspaper editor and pamphleteer who went on to become the biggest selling author of the Victorian age.
The book that rocketed him to fame was the simply named Self-Help - he being the first ever person to employ the term.
Now Self-Help is quite different to contemporary self-help books - it is frequently moralistic in tone, and is really just a collection of biographies of the great and good and how they became that way. Smiles also moralises about the virtues of a simple life, and how through hard work and self denial the working classes might be able to improve their lot. I doubt such advice would be very popular these days. But all in all it is the original, the very template for a genre that has gone on to become one of the most popular in modern publishing. Mr. Smiles probably never dreamed that he'd spawned a monster industry - though he certainly made plenty of money from his book, and from the subsequent follow-ups that were all variations on a theme: Thrift, Duty, Character etc.
But criticise him as much as you like, Mr. Smiles set out a moral and social vision that is still admirable, and his great conviction was that honesty and good cgaracter were infinitely more important than riches and social position. He disparaged cleverness for its own sake, and he despised the various elites that held sway during the Victorian era. He was an unpretentious man, a country doctor with Unitarian leanings.
The fact is that Smiles believed that everyone was capable of improving and becoming something better, regardless of natural talents or inherited social class. His was an egalitarian vision that has ultimately triumphed, and I think he was a great visionary.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wayne Dyer

Dr. Wayne Dyer is the godfather of the contemporary self-help scene.
He rocketed to fame in the 70s with his saucily title Your Erroneous Zones, a self-help classic that I can remember everyone was reading when I was a child. I think the local librarian even banned it, thinking it too racy for a small North Queensland town.
Ever an energetic self-promoter, Dyer's face loomed large on the cover of that book, and he bore a striking resemblance to my father. He still does, as a matter of fact, so that may be the reason for my fondness for him.
Dyer's work has shifted with his readership over the years - from basic, psychology-based self-help to more spiritually inclined material. He was banging on about the law of attraction long before The Secret, and in recent years he has been basing his work on the Tao Te Ching.
Apparently he is returning to his roots in Jungian psychology, and is very big on the idea of "the afternoon of life," which is borrowed from Jung. I have just bought his newest book, but am not very far in, so can't report on what influences are obvious in it yet.
Dyer was at the forefront of producing audio visual product based on his work, maybe seeing the limited future (and earning potential) of books. Last year he released a very fine film, which seems to have largely escaped people's notice. He declined, apparently, to appear on The Secret - a decision I'm sure he's been kicking himself over ever since. I recently listened to a CD of he and Marianne Williamson in conversation, and the regret they both shared over dismissing Rhonda Byrne's offer was palpable. Which just goes to prove, you're never too big to turn down a promotional opportunity.
I like Dyer's recent work. Very much, in fact. I think that, as usual, he is absolutely tuned in to the zeitgeist and has seen that people are looking for an excuse to step back a bit and stop pushing their lives so frantically. I'm also interested in the way that he has re-incorporated Eastern ideas into his life and teaching (I think in his early years he was an enthusiast for Ram Dass' guru).
He's a likeable figure, avuncular and relentlessly sensible. And incredibly productive - I don't know how he maintains the energy!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Florence Scovel Shinn

If ever there was anyone willing to "speak the word" of positive truth, it was Florence Scovel Shinn, an early 20th Century illustrator, New Thought preacher and bestselling writer. Her little book The Game of Life and How to Play It is still in print and is perennially popular.
Her books are slight and wonderfully old-fashioned in their language and examples. Florence was a dyed-in-the wool positive thinker, and in example after example she illustrates how people's lives have been turned around through taking a more optimistic view of things and employing the tools of prayer, affirmation and visualisation. Like many teachers of the time, she cast herself as a "metaphysician" (a wonderful job description!), and it is certain that her early training as an actress greatly helped her in her later career as popular preacher.
She died in 1940, and her books have influenced many modern writers in the self-help field, most notably Louise Hay.

"There is a supply for every demand."
Florence Scovel Shinn

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Myrtle & Charles Fillmore

The Fillmores, founders of the Unity School of Christianity, were the great popularisers of New Thought, and their cultural importance and influence reach far beyond actual members of the Church.
Meeting reasonably late in life, Charles and Myrtle Fillmore were always an odd couple. At some point soon after their marriage, the sometime Christian Scientist Myrtle Fillmore attended a lecture in which the idea that God created only perfection sank into her consciousness at a really deep level. She meditated on this idea, and soon after she was cured of the tuberculosis which up until that point had been a death sentence for her. She never again suffered from its effects, and lived to a ripe old age.
Her husband Charles, a younger man, was an atheist and exceedingly sceptical about this new method of spiritual healing. However, upon witnessing his wife's complete recovery, he decided to investigate the metaphysical ideas of Christian healing in depth.
He and Myrtle became converts to this new religious idea, and after many years of study they established their own group, which eventually came to be called the Unity School of Christianity.
Charles Fillmore survived his wife by many years, and until his dying day he kept applying the principles of spiritual healing to his own legs, one of which was much shorter than another and required special shoes. He never managed to cure himself completely, but he maintained that his bad leg had grown many inches over the years, and the type of orthotics he required changed drastically as a result.
The religion they founded, The Unity School of Christianity, is still going strong. It is a positive thinking religion par excellence, with branches all over the world (including Australia). The Church is famous for publishing The Daily Word, a monthly magazine providing day-by-day affirmations and positive reflections. The world headquarters of Unity is also famous for maintaining Silent Unity, a 24 hour global prayer ministry.
The Unity Churches have distinguished themselves by being at the forefront of both New Age and progressive social thinking. They have sustained the careers of many notable self-help authors by inviting them to speak and lead worship, and Unity has an outstanding record when it comes to respect for gay people and other minorities. The majority of Unity ministers are women.
Charles Fillmore was a reasonably prolific writer, and he is most famous for his Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, his magnum opus that attempts to analyse the entire Bible according to New Thought metaphysical ideas.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Helping Me Help Myself

Most books about self-help books tend to be hyper-critical, relying on time-worn old platitudes about the culture of selfishness and the lameness of most self-help writing. I thought that Helping Me Help Myself would be more of the same, though I was duty-bound to read it.

Instead I discover that Beth Lisick, a very funny and accomplished writer, has instead approached the subject with something of an open mind.
Deciding to spend a year being guided by different self-help gurus, Ms. Lisick details the standard domestic traumas of any 12 month period (incipient poverty, a car accident, a regular job dressing up as a banana) and how her new interest in the philosophies of self-help may be changing her usual reactions. And perhaps re-shaping her state of mind.
She reads Jack Canfield (even ends up spending a Thanksgiving weekend with him!), Julia Cameron and Stephen Covey. She goes on a cruise with Richard Simmons and has an epiphany during a Sylvia Browne live show.
Interestingly, the only person for whom she bristles with suspicion is John Gray, who during his seminar seems most intent on shifting his suspect range of health supplements.
Lisick manages to identify the genuine need which people possess as they seek out some meaning in life, and attempt to gain some control of their futures. Though many of our efforts can appear pathetic to the more cynical, the fact is that in one way or another the human creature will always, as Ms. Lisick says, "take stabs at being better or happier people." Those who poke fun at this impulse seem to forget that it remains the driving force behind all efforts at art, culture, spirituality - all forms of transcendence.
This book represents a genuine, and often touching, struggle to understand why regular people turn to mass-produced literature and information in an attempt to improve their lives and their sense of self.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Eckhart Tolle

One of the more interesting phenomena in the recent history of self-help publishing has been the rise and rise of Eckhart Tolle.
It is really quite difficult to fathom the appeal of Tolle, but he has written one of the bestselling books of all time, so obviously I am a little out of synch with the rest of the world. But even his most diehard fans will admit that he is not a charismatic speaker, and someone from among my acquaintance who adores the man confessed that whenever she can't sleep she just picks up her well-thumbed copy of A New Earth and after just a few paragraphs she drifts off.....
As an author he is actually quite difficult to categorise. In a pefect world I wouldn't even list him as a self-help author, because I really think the books are more religious in content, spelling out a pretty basic Advaita Vedanta message and observing none of the standard forms of the self-help genre. But booksellers seem determined to shelve him in the self-help section, and it is marketed and promoted as a self-improvement book, so I will bow to the pressure of public opinion.
I do, however, think its disingenuous of people like Oprah (and Tolle himself) to state that the books make no religious claims and are compatible with all spiritual worldviews. Even the most basic reading of A New Earth will show that it delineates quite a specific theological viewpoint which is completely at odds with mainstream Christianity. This doesn't bother me, but fundamentalist Christians are quite right to attack it as a piece of quite specific religious literature.
Al these criticisms aside, A New Earth and The Power of Now are both such monumentally successful works that their influence will be felt for decades to come. I remember when The Power of Now first came out I was asked to review it, and my judgement was that it was dull and derivative and no-one would ever read it......rather humbling to look back on one's old pronouncements.
A year or so agao, when I was working in a bookshop, a man came in and asked wher he might find Eckhart. I automatically lead him to the enormous piles of Mr. Tolle's work, but the man looked at me rather nonplussed and said "Actually, I meant Meister Eckhardt...."
Don't get me wrong, I think the content of Mr. Tolle's books is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, for the most part I find myself in total agreement with him. It's just that it's all been said before - much more conscisely and much more interestingly at that. A New Earth is such a deathly dull book. I really don't know why people rave about it so.

Friday, May 1, 2009


An idea that was very big in the 80s and early 90s, Codependence was a re-working of 12 Step ideas so that almost everyone could identify as an addict, and so benefit from the spiritual path of the 12 Steps. This idea had an immense influence in America, and books about it became something of a publishing phenomenon. The Codependence movement created its own set of superstars, most of whom are still around. Largest in the firmament was Melody Beattie, whose landmark (and massive bestselling) book Codependent No More I've just finished reading. Some of the other big names were Anne Wilson Schaef, Janet Woititz, and Charles Whitfield. Codependents were also very keen on the work of John Bradshaw (who has a new book coming out that sounds quite fascinating), but he was popular across the entire addiction/recovery movement, and any self-helper worth their salt spent a few evenings back in the 80s watching the legendary "Bradshaw Videos."
Reading the books now, one is aware of a certain old-fashioned desperation. The notion that we are all addicts seems quite dated today, and as a message it was always a little nihilistic. How long can you live with the idea that you are hopelessly out of control in your life, and all you can ever do is recognise this and turn to God for some semblance of stability? People seem to have returned to the old New Thought ideas - that we can shape our world with our thoughts, and everything is within our control.
Melody Beattie was always quite a good writer, and as the Codependence bubble burst she went on to write more general self-help books, all of them very good. But she will always be remembered as the woman who championed Codependence, and the notion that, at heart, we are all quietly desperate and in need of self-care.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Body Expressing the Mind

A very common idea within the world of self-help is that sickness is merely an external expression of negative states of mind.
The virus, the bacteria, the inherited illness - all are bunkum in the world of self-help, where one's unfortunate physical circumstances can only ever be evidence of wrong thinking.
This is a very old idea, and, like many popular self-help ideas, can be traced back to the work of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a faith healer who inspired the work of Mary Baker Eddy and many others.
The concept is still going strong - kept alive in the 80s and 90s through the work of Louise L. Hay, some Australia authors also subscribe to this system of ideas, most notably Annette Noontil and Inna Segal. In most of these books one can look up the symptoms of one's illness and discover the corresponding mental or spiritual causes. Then there is normally a suggested cure, taking the shape of an affirmation or prayer or visualisation which will reverse the negative state that caused the trouble. Such a system seems to be very comforting to those who are ill - probably quite understandable when one considers how alienating and authoritarian the conventional medical system can be.
I'm very interested in Inna Segal's work because she is quite young and the book (The Secret Language of Your Body) has been released quite recently. It intrigues me how she managed to learn and absorb these old ideas. I can see the strong influence of New Thought and Christian Science teachings in the work.
But, on a purely practical level I have to report that a chronic health condition I was suffering from last year remained completely unaffected even though I scrupulously applied these 'esoteric healing' methods. Eventually the only cure was good old fashioned surgery.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Orison Swett Marden

Marden was an interesting character. One of the great popularisers of the New Thought movement, Marden was in his day an extraordinarily well-known and successful author, though he's largely forgotten today.
Born of humble stock, Marden was something of a child prodigy, and at an early age had managed to earn himself a slew of higher-educaion degress, including Masters Degrees in both medicine and law. Having written a bestselling book based on the principles of New Thought - principles that had helped turn Marden into such an extraordinary achiever - he promptly gave up the professional careers he'd spent so long studying for and concentrated on being a wildly successful author of self-help books.
At present I am reading his The Miracle of Right Thought, an edition printed in Australia in 1935, which is a clue as to his popularity even here.
It is a charming book, filled with the old-fashioned kind of exhortations to positive thinking and trust in God that are so common in the New Thought books of the period. Marden urges us never to complain, as our complaints shape our lives as much as our praises. "Right thinking will produce right living" he reminds us.
Marden was a monumental figure in the history of self-help publishing, and I think I will enjoy reading his old books. I'm not sure I will be able to cover them all, however. He was enormously prolific, and his titles run into the dozens.
He calls God "The Great Dispenser of All Good" - a truly worthy title, and one I'd like to steal, were it not such a mouthful.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Catherine Ponder

Catherine Ponder is one of the most stellar, and certainly one of the most loveable, figures in the history of self-help publishing.
Ms. Ponder rose to fame through a series of books which managed, somewhat perplexingly, to fuse Biblical stories with a self-help theory of prosperity and personal development. Currently I'm reading her great classic The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity. Some of her other titles include The Millionaires of Genesis and The Millionaire Moses.
Ponder's own biography is an essential part of her appeal. Born poor, she was widowed at an early age and left destitute. Through a careful study of the Bible and the writings of Charles & Myrtle Fillmore, Ponder managed to create for herself a prosperous lifestyle. She became a Unity minister, and went on to Pastor several successful congregations, teaching her own high-octane version of the prosperity gospel and running workshops on spirituality and the creation of money.
These workshops and lectures make up the bulk of the material in her books, and have also been the source of many of the examples and case studies she cites.
The books are wonderfully eccentric, veering from old-fashioned biblical exegesis to frenzied affirmations of impending wealth and well-being. She peppers the books with all kinds of eccentric advice and exercises, from throwing away all of one's old clothes in order to allow the universe to send you nice new ones, to writing letters to one's angels and secreting them in the family bible till your wishes come true.
As one would expect from a Unity minister, Ms. Ponder's philososphy is pretty standard New Thought, but her wildly successful books prove that her readership extends well beyond that particular religion.
I just adore her - I imagine she was/is a completely outrageous and very colourful person, and the assuredness of her assertions and randomness of her advice make the books constantly entertaining, and frequently inspiring.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Unity Centre of Positive Living

I went to the only Unity church left in Sydney now, the Unity Centre of Positive Living in Crows Nest. There were only 4 of us in attendance, but it was a lovely morning spent in prayer and uplifting quotes, affirmations, readings and music. Like all small churches in Australia, this one struggles just to keep its doors open these days, but they remain steadfastly positive (as their theology demands they do). I agreed with the Centre's wonderful minister, the Rev. Mary-Elizabeth Jacobs, when she said that it is important for such institutions to remain open and available. They provide a living link to the past and a place of refuge if people ever decide to go back to old-fashioned communal worship.
In terms of the history of self-help, Unity is very important. The church was started by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, who based their eccentric metaphysical readings of the bible and their belief in the transformative power of the spoken word on the writings of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. Quimby had also inspired Ernest Holmes (founder of the Church of Religious Science, which was where Louise Hay did her training) and Mary Baker Eddy, his most controversial pupil. Quimby himself was more of a mental healer, and most people seem to say that he was an atheist. Bizarre how his ideas spawned so many churches!

Unity is one of the most influential of the New Thought schools of philosophy, and Unity churches in the US have become something of a locus for the latest trends in self-help and motivation, regularly hosting speaker such as Wayne Dyer and Cheryl Richardson.
Unity Churches posit themselves as Liberal Christian, but their exceedingly metaphysical interpretations of the Bible as a symbolic text puts them well outside any orthodox reformed church tradition. Their liberalism extends to an embrace of other religions and schools of thought, as well as an emphasis on personal growth, a new-agey concept of peace and harmony and a belief in the power of affirmations and positive thought.