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!