Sunday, November 21, 2010

"This Thing Called You" by Ernest Holmes

Ernest Holmes, founder of the Church of Religious Science and all-round California legend, was a prolific writer. Indeed, Holmes seems to have been an overachiever on almost every front - he was a tireless preacher and self-promoter and established a religious empire which continues to have an affect on contemporary popular culture. Of course, his magnum opus The Science of Mind is a book I've been reading slowly all year and blogging along the way. This Thing Called You is a much smaller work, a slim book made up mainly of affirmations, meditations and prayer treatments intended to improve the reader's life and strengthen her sense of living spiritually.
And where The Science of Mind, a vast book in every sense, tends toward the wordy and prolix, this smaller book is actually quite elegant and sparse, setting out in simple language Holmes' own views on how exactly the Universe (not my capital "U") functions. Indeed, it is a terrific read at times, inspiring and thoughtful, providing a very clear and practical path of spiritual practice.
In every piece of Holmes' writing that I have read thus far it is clear that his philosophy owes a debt primarily to Emerson and Mary Baker Eddy (though probably through the medium of her student and later rival Emma Curtis Hopkins). Indeed, he is free in his references to Emerson, as are most New Thought writers. He is less forthcoming in his recognition of the guiding hand of Eddy - if she is mentioned at all it is in elliptical and disapproving references.
The book's primary theme is, as always, that each of us represents the Universe in its entirety, that, to quote Emerson (as Holmes does) "...every man is a doorway to the inifinite." This infinitude which we represent (and which we are, at the most basic level) needs only to be awakened to. We need not go on any spiritual search, says Holmes, because:

"...the thing you are after is already here, within you. The only things that stand between you and it are the accumulated thoughts, beliefs and emotions of the ages" (p.13).

More than a slight impediment, one would imagine, but Holmes is eternally optimistic that the human is moving ever forward (or should that be inward) toward full knowing of her own divinity. Holmes says that the problem of our future lies not in being selfish or unfairly possessed of good fortune. The real problem is that we do not wish for more and better for ourselves and others. Our wishes, desires and thoughts create our own reality, and so communal ideas (memes, I suppose we'd call them now) are merely these same false constructs writ large. Poverty and suffering exist only because we continue to acknowledge their reality. All that is good and perfect already exists - is, in fact, all that is real - we have simply failed to arrange the world and our lives in the correct way. Holmes advocates not revolution, but the rearrangement of mental furniture (p.17).
We encounter exactly those things we imagine, says Holmes, "If you believe that wherever you go you will meet with love and friendship, with appreciation and gratitude, then this will become...your law" (p. 18). This is, of course, a classic New Thought assertion, and it also speaks of exactly the sort of folk wisdom common not only to early twentieth century Americans, but to most of us now. Common sense and theological assertion, however, do not make for much of a scientific case, and those more cynically minded might be happy to point towards plenty of examples of the gullible and the kind meeting sticky ends, despite their best feelings.
But Holmes would stand his ground, I imagine, and in this book brooks no oppositional voice, nor even raises the spectre of an alternative (and much less comforting) viewpoint. For the practitioner of Science of Mind, as for all of the early exponents of New Thought, it is the matter of belief which shapes our physical world, our mental universe, and the reality we continue to experience. It may be cold comfort, but for the experiencer of misfotune, harrassment or slander, Holmes' has simple and constant advice:

"...everything in your life depends on is done unto you as you believe. Change your belief and you can change your world" (p. 25).

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Science of Mind's Meditation for Happiness

Happiness and Completion

I am happy and complete, today and forever.
Within me is that which is Perfect and Complete.
It is the Spirit of all Life, Truth and Action.
I am happy in the certain knowledge of this Inner Light.
I cannot be sad nor sorry, but must radiate Joy and Life,
For Life is within me now.

I am happy and complete.

Ernest Holmes, The Science of Mind, p. 511

Monday, November 15, 2010

"The Treatment" in the Science of Mind

Perhaps the central spiritual technology of Science of Mind is The Treatment. This is a collection of affirmations and statements of "spiritual truth" asssembled by a Science of Mind practitioner explicitly for the use of a particular person. The practitionar speaks this Treatment in their own prayer for a designated time, and the person being treated is also given the Treatmet to read and reflect on in their private worship time.

In his books, Ernest Holmes presents hundreds of Treatments for specific problems or for those desiring specific positive outcomes. These are frequently the basis of any tailor-made Treatment.

Much care is taken by Holmes to stress that the Treatment is not a work of incantatory or intercessory prayer. It is not a magical spell, recited in the hope that God might hear the words and change your condition. The purpose of the Treatment is to re-align the subject's thoughts. These Treatments are, in fact, statements of fact, not lists of desires. When the Practitioner speaks the treatment in her own period of practice, she declares that "It is already Done." She is not praying that a subject be changed or saved - she is making a declaration that this is already a fact. By writing down and speaking these "Facts" the people involved fall back into harmony with Divine Perfection.

Another important element of the Treatment is that they are not to be simply spoken aloud. The thoughtless repetition of a Treatment is completely pointless. The person using the Treatment must attempt to genuinely believe the words being read and spoken. It is an exercise not in recitation, but in the manipulation of feeling and emotion. So it is not efficacious to simply say "I am slim and healthy" over and over again. One must really believe it to be already true. Indeed, if one can convince oneself of the truths of the Treatment, then no repetition at all is necessary - it is spoken and it is believed, and the job has already been done.

Practitioners distinguish Treatment from prayer by pointing out that the Treatment is a genuine engagement in self, with the God within. Prayer is a form of communication with an outward God, a deity that does not exist in New Thought.

Here is a sample Science of Mind treatment written by Sylvia O'Neal, a Religious Science Practitioner*:

"God is total peace, heart felt love, absolute calm, breathtaking beauty and unending joy. I have a consciousness of Oneness. All that God is, I am. As I feel complete peace in mind, heart and soul, a feeling of well being fills my world. Peaceful is my way of life. My thoughts, actions and words of peace express my God nature, the truth of who I am. As I focus my inward thoughts of peace in my life, my family, community the Universe becomes more peaceful. I give thanks for the peace in my world. With a consciousness of peace I release this into the Law of Mind. And so it is."

* Source:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Evil in the Science of Mind

Probably the greatest theological problem faced by New Thought is the question of the existence of evil. This same problem dogs orthodox Christianity, of course, but at least itcan fall back on the doctrine of original sin. That doctrine is rejected by New Thought, which teaches that we are all created perfectly, not just in the image of God but as manifestations of God - a part of creation which is eternal, wholly good and perfect. The existence of bad thinsgs in such a schema would seem to be a fundamental stumbling point. It was exactly this point that many of the early critics of Christian Science (most notably Mark Twain, to the consternation of his devoutly Christian Science daughter) harped on, and it continues to be the achilles heel of New Thought philosophy. If God is Good and good is our natural state of being, why do we witness so many bad things in our world?
"Evil is man created," says Ernest Holmes in The Science of Mind (p. 499). He goes on to explain "God - the eternal goodness - knows nothing about it. He is too pure to behold evil and cannot look upon it. Evil is the direct and suppositional opposite to good, and has no reality behind it, or actual law to come to its support." This is the standard explanation, and is pretty much the same thing you'd hear from a Christian Scientist or, for that matter, a Swedenborgian. God is only goodness, so anything that we might interpret as evil is created by us, and is, in fact, an illusion. This seems an adequate response, but I always want to ask, "Yes but why? Why do we have to suffer these delusions? If God is Good and wants only happiness for us why has he allowed us to create these phantoms of unhappiness?" The response to this is that we have been afforded free will - that free will is, in fact, the one essential aspect of our being as humans, the thing with which God has gifted us. This is an idea which derives clearly from the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. We are free to choose at any moment between good and evil. Interestingly, this same notion of free will is essential to most Buddhist thinking - that conditions, circumstances and karma are all very real, but equally real is that moment of volition when we can choose between a wise or a foolish action.
It is interesting to note, as well, that in this passage Holmes seems to be anthropomorphising God, something strictly frowned upon in New Thought theology. This turn of phrase is undoubtedly reflexive, but it betrays an older way of thinking about God, creation and the problem of evil. God in this description is definitely a pure deity, one who knows only good, and cannot see imperfection. But to my mind it begs the question - because it is unseen, does it mean it doesn't exist? In the rest of his writing (and in New Thought in general) Holmes absolutely rejects a dualistic vision of the universe as divided between good and evil. The problem is always in human perception, in our own misunderstanding of circumstances. In an essay on The Impersonal Face of God, Holmes writes:

"We are not dealing with a negative as well as a positive Power—not two powers but one; a power that sees neither good nor evil as we see it. It knows only that it is all, and since it is all, it creates whatever is given it. From our limited standpoint we often think of good and evil; not realizing that, as yet, we do not know the one from the other. What we call good today, we may call evil tomorrow, and what we think to be evil today, we may tomorrow proclaim as the greatest good we have known. Not so with the Great Universal Power of Mind; It sees only Itself and Its infinite ability to create."

To further refine his explanation in The Science of Mind, Holmes goes on to make a distinction between God, which is all good, and Universal Law, which is objective and unchangeable. "The law is no respecter of persons and will bring good or evil to any, according to his use or misuse of it" (SOM, p. 500). So God is the source of all good, but his agency is the action of Universal Law. It is the duty of the human to work with these immutable laws and fall into harmony with them - thus bringing ourselves the promised perfection.
So serious is this question of evil (and, probably, so recurrent were the questions surrounding it) that Holmes devotes a whole section of The Science of Mind to it. Here he underlines the notion of evil as an unwise use of life's laws and conditions. It is nothing in and of itself - it is a fiction. It is the word we use to describe a whole host of results, the causes of which are mysterious to us. Evil is a destructive meme, and the student of Religious Science can leave the concept behind forever. "To turn from evil and do good is the desire of every soul who is consecrated to the Truth; this we can do only as we cease talking about, believing in, or doing evil."

Maggie Hamilton - An Introduction

One very important element of self-help writing that I will be exploring in my thesis is the influence of what is commonly known as the "New Age." Anyone who has had anything to do with books in the last 20 years will know that this segment of the publishing industry has had an explosion in popularity. Though this popularity has died down somewhat, it is still a very important section of the market, and most publishers have an imprint (or two) devoted especially to New Age titles.
Indeed, at some point in the 80s the literature of self-help and the New Age became blended in the minds of publishers, retailers and book buyers, and these days the distinctions between them are hard to define.
The central author I'll be concentrating on in my chapter on the New Age is Maggie Hamilton. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure I must mention that Maggie is not only a personal friend, but also my publisher. This leaves me in the unenviable position of analysing closely and critiquing the work of a friend! But the thrust of my thesis is not to in any way tear down or dismiss the genre of self-help. On the contrary, the fundamental idea of my thesis is that these books represent important cultural artefacts, and document a popular literary history of Australia. Nonetheless, I am reading them closely for patterns and intertextuality, for derivations and similarities - no author could be comfortable with that kind of analysis!
Like that other great icon of Australian self-help, Stephanie Dowrick, Maggie emerged from the publishing industry. They also both hark from New Zealand, which is another fascinating coincidence - and quite possibly material for an entire journal article. But I digress.
Having achieved some success as a children's author, Maggie published her first book spiritual self-help book, Coming Home, in 2002. Very much a book of its time, it combined a whole host of spiritual influences in describing a spiritual journey "Home" to the soul. Elegantly written and beautifully produced in its first edition (complete with Pre-Raphaelite detail on the cover), Coming Home represented the fruits of Maggie's own spiritual journey, with Shamanic, Spiritualist and New Age Christian ideas peppered throughout.
Maggie later branched out into a more practical (and to some, more accessible) format of writing books of more specifically focused (and less overtly spiritual) advice. The first was Love Your Work in 2004, followed by What Men Don't Talk About in 2007. This excursion into the problems of gender prompted Maggie to continue to tease out these questions, and she has produced two highly successful books specifically addressing the problems of parenting: What's Happening to Our Girls (2008) and What's Happening to Our Boys (2010). In the interim she has also continued to write in the areas of spirituality and self-help, producing a small book of inspirations in 2004, Magic of the Moment, and a wonderfully eclectic and wide-ranging collection of essays and encounters with the sacred, A Soft Place to Land (2007).
Importantly, Maggie's influence on the world of New Age publishing continues behind the scenes. She is the director of the New Age imprint at Allen & Unwin, Inspired Living, and in that capacity has published a number of important Australian books in the area.
She also excels as a speaker and teacher, and is much sought after in that capacity.
I look forward to reading her books more carefully as I attempt to identify their influences and place them more exactly on the continuum of self-help literature in Australia. The breadth of her influences and the widespread success of her work make her a perfect case study for my thesis.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

That's Just How My Spirit Travels

At first Rosemary Fillmore Rhea's book That's Just How My Spirit Travels seems a peculiar kind of memoir. Hers is not a big name in any area (except, perhaps, within the management of the Unity church), and her life has not been one of any dramatic peaks and troughs. But after a while the book begins to charm and eventually the reader is left utterly absorbed in the life and spiritual vision of someone with a truly unique insight into a modern American spiritual movement which, though small and relatively unknown, has had an immense influence on Western culture.
Rhea is the grandaughter of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, co-founders of the Unity church, the largest organised religious movement based on the teachings of New Thought. She was, naturally, born into the movement, and so this memoir is a fascinating insight into the life and ideas of someone who from the cradle has been taught the precepts of New Thought: that the world is perfect, that our thoughts create our circumstances, and that God is within us.
That's Just How My Spirit Travels has some wonderful stories about the Fillmores and the early days of Unity (the church is based in its own mini-town on the outskirts of Kansas City called Unity Village). Rhea recalls entertaining in her living room (she was married to a Unity Minister, and became one herself, eventually) extraordinary people such as Alan Watts, Victor Frankl and Norman Vincent Peale. The celebrity spotting doesn' stop there. Rhea and her husband branched out into television in the seventies, and this saw them moving into a more elevated world of showbiz, and soon we meet people like Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood and (my personal favourite) Jennifer Jones. The short segments that they filmed with fading movie stars and other celebrities were broadcast across America as 'The Word from Unity' (based on Unity Church's venerable inspirational monthly almanac The Daily Word), and these short spots have since moved into the realms of nostalgic reverence, their style lampooned most famously by "The Church Lady" on Saturday Night Live.
She is suprprisingly honest in her assessment, not only of the spiritual empire built up around her family, but of the difficulties and challenges an advocate of New Thought faces in dealing with life's less-than-pleasing complexities. Herself a divorcee who lost her mother as a child, occasionally she expresses the frustration with this essential conflict between the reality of loss and the rigid worldview of New Thought that doesn't allow for disappointment. Rhea attempts to explain it by saying (in this case in relation to the death of Natalie Wood) "Why people have to experience such tragedy is inexplicable, but there must be reasons that only our soul knows and perhaps at some point in time we will understand why every experience is a necessary part of our journey" (186). It is a brave and eloquent explanation, but I fear it wouldn't cut the mustard with the Dawkins-inspired neo-atheists who currently hold the hegemonic upper hand in present-day discourse.
Like most advocates of New Thought, Rhea's own politics veer toward the liberal and she is an enthusiast for international friendship groups and such like, as practical ways of establishing relationships between different cultures. She is also a staunch supporter of non-violence, tracing back the roots of discord to our own mental unrest, and crediting her grandfather with bringing this fact to the attention of the world.
Using the example of her own humble life, imperfectly lived, Rhea seeks in her memoir to establish some kind example of how New Thought philosophy might play out through the period of a lifetime. She sees a continuum between the radical religious ideas of Tolstoy, the practical spiritual philosophy of her grandparents and the more radical and political path of Gandhi and the later generations of 1960s America. For Rhea violence manifest in the world is, in the ultimate analysis, "Violence against our inner self" (228). She is at pains to acknowledge the real presence of anger and social injustice in our world, but her philosophy encourages her to see an end to this imperfection, and to dwell on practically solving their problems rather than dwelling on the fact of injustice.
That's Just How My Spirit Travels is a charming and old-fashioned read. You can download the two episodes of 'Hooked on Classics' from Unity FM to hear Rosemary Fillmore Rhea herself interviewed. In many ways she is the last of her kind - a living and very involved link to the great blossoming of New Thought that reaches back into the mid-nineteenth century. For the student of modern religion it is a fascinating book, and on a personal level I came away quite in love with this honest and unpretentious woman who has, despite appearances, led a truly extraordinary life.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Science of Mind on Strange Ideas

"We are not to be afraid of strange ideas or doctrines, but are to prove them and accept only that which is true. We are to analyze, dissect and investigate until we know the Truth and then hold fast to It. In this way, all advances must come, whether in science, philosophy, religion or anything else."
~ Ernest Holmes, The Science of Mind, p. 498

Friday, November 5, 2010

Heaven in The Science of Mind

The New Thought idea of heaven represents quite a departure from the standard Swedenborgian visions which initially inspired the movement. By the time Holmes was writing The Science of Mind, the vision of heaven being enunciated was a distinctly Buddhistic one, described more as a state of mind and being than as an actual place.
Holmes writes that "Only that can return to heaven which was born in heaven, and since heaven is not a place, but a state of consciousness, the return must be a recognition that heaven is already within" (SOM p. 472). This is a further illustration of Holmes' central idea (via Mary Baker Eddy and a host of New Thought writers) that the process of self-improvement is not one of seeking outward advances, but of returning to an already existing state of perfection. Holmes criticises orthodox religion because it most often externalises the spiritual quest. In Holmes' philosophy all of the things that people have considered to be outside them - God, Heaven, even Christ - are in fact already in place in our spirit. We have forgotten that we are simply expressions of these qualities, and so we foolishly pursue an outward quest to discover something we are in fact carrying with us constantly. More than being a place on earth, heaven is our own mind, if we will allow it to re-unite with Original Mind.
Holmes says that we are unaware of these truths because centuries of conditioning have rendered us incapable of comprehending the true spiritual message of Christianity. It is only in this modern age, when our world is advancing and our minds improving, that teachers like Holmes and others are able to finally explain the truth. Those who refuse to believe are simply emulating the thick-headed listeners spoken about in John3:12 "If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" We struggle with the ideas of illusion, when we could be falling into accord with the realities of heaven.
For Holmes the world that is real - the world we know now - is in fact the illusion. It is maya, and it is merely a distraction. But if the ways of the world hurt us, if we know sorrow and difficulty, this may be a good thing. Such sufferings may be what inspire us to begin on the spiritual path. Many of us are doomed to learn to the fullest extent the impossibility of a worldly outlook, but hopefully once we see the futility of materialism, "the lesson will be learned and we shall enter the paradise of contentment" (SOM p. 491).
Like all other Biblical concepts and imagery, heaven is for the most part a symbol for Holmes. It is the code word for all that is good, and all that which is most spiritual. "The time will come when we will let our "conversation be in heaven," and refuse to talk about, read or think about, those things that ought not to be" (SOM p. 55), says Holmes, describing one of New Thought's more controversial edicts: avoiding and denying those things which aren't in accord with perfection. The heavenly state is one in which positive thought, feeling and action are constantly at work. The metaphysician (for so Holmes describes the student of New Thought) must choose always the heavenly path, and to dwell always in heavenly qualities, though the truth around her may be quite different. It is Holmes' point that this "truth" of suffering, of lack and discontent, is in fact truly false. That which is not good is error - only the good is heavenly.
In fact, the effort to improve, to become a truly good person, is itself a daily struggle, a daily spiritual journey from the earthly to the heavenly. In his 1957 book How to Change Your Life, Holmes wrote that "...being lifted up from the earth means uniting with heaven. This daily lifting up of your thought is necessary if you wish to unite yourself and everything you are doing with the Divine..." (p. 252). Holmes seems to be suggesting that in manipulating our thoughts and the direction and intention of our daily tasks, we re-orient ourselves heavenward, and can be immersed once again in the divine perfection from which we emerged.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Wizard of Oz as a New Thought Text

The Wizard of Oz is one of those books so rich in symbolic possibility that it has been claimed for many a cause. For years it was read as a kind of political/economic commentary, based on a very clever and convinving essay by Henry Littlefield in 1964. Though this essay evinces a rich imagination and a nice grasp of symbolic possibility (hence the popularity and longevity of its proposals), most agree that it is a bit wide of the mark. There is no evidence to suggest that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was in any way interested in politics or economics. What he was interested in was the new religious movements that were becoming quite popular and influential at the time he was writing. Specifically, Baum was deeply influenced by Theosophy and New Thought, and it was these ideas that were being represented in his wonderful books for children.

I have been reading the book (for the first time) with New Thought philosophy in mind, and the parallels seem obvious, though of course I could be accused of reading meaning into a simple story. But to me The Wizard of Oz is an obvious parable about human potential, the realisation of innate perfection, and persistence in the journey towards success.

The harmless munchkins are, in fact, the ultimate negative thinkers. Their small stature is illustrative of their small minds. They see danger all around them, and have hemmed themselves into a world dominated by a wicked witch. When Dorothy arrives to save them they are grateful, but they still attempt to dissuade her from pursuing her own dreams - they find it impossible to conceive of personal transcendence. In the north, south, east and west they see nothing but danger, and the idea of ever reaching the Emerald City is almost an impossibility. The munchkins represent the great bulk of the population who, according to New Thought philosophy, choose to restrict themselves to a cramped existence and live constantly in fear.

The Emerald City is, of course, the great possibility. In fact, the City is really God. It is all goodness and all perfection, and looms distant in our horizons. There is a clear path to this City, but most choose not to travel it. In fact, they trust the care of this City to the Wizard, who is ultimately exposed as a simple mortal like all of us. He lives within the City, but so can we all. The great City is Emerald, and this is just one example of the great deal of description of colour in the book, which points towards Baum's interest in colour and its symbolic meanings. This kind of thing was very popular in Theosophical circles, and someone better versed in this lore would be able to read much more into Baum's use of colour than I can.

Each of Dorothy's travelling companions is missing an important quality, but of course we soon realise that these limitations are all in their heads. The Tin Woodman who has no heart is emotional, gentle and compassionate, the Scarecrow with no brain is resourceful and clever and is the one to come up with all of the solutions, and the Cowardly Lion is brave and self-sacrificing, constantly coming to the aid of others. These creatures illustrate the self-imposed negative beliefs we all carry about ourselves. Our limitations are self-imposed, and often we are the exemplars of the very qualities we crave. All we need to do is realise it - but of course, we don't, and we imagine that any gains can only be made by difficult journeys to mythical lands and consultation with people we imagine to be much greater and wiser than ourselves. This is all basic New Thought philosophy rendered beautifully and simply in Baum's fable.

The Yellow Brick Road obviously represents the path toward our ultimate goal: that of goodness, perfection; of God. This journey toward the Emerald City is not an easy one - we travel through dark forests and are swept away by wild rivers. But Baum's message is that we must never despair at these diversions - they are to be enjoyed and cherished as part of our story. Not too much, though, as the field of dangerously seductive poppies proves - the path of sensuality is an easy and terrible trap, and we must keep our focus on getting back to the Yellow Brick Road.

Each of the characters represents an element of the human struggle - even Toto who is, according to the Theosophists, representative of a more primitive instinctual knowledge. Baum's characters were representative of the great human spirit and the will to progress. Dorothy's longing to return home is representative of a universal human longing to be united with God, to return to our spiritual birthplace. Our quest to find the City is ultimately a desire to return to ourselves.

It's a beautiful, lyrical little book, and with its great potential for deeper understandings it's no wonder it has become one of the great classics of children's literature, and its imagery entered into the popular imagination. I encourage you to read it for yourself (it is only a short book, and there are some really beautiful versions of it around) and see if you can arrive at some of your own meanings.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eric Butterworth - Discover the Power Within You

Eric Butterworth was one of the most influential New Thought preachers of the mid-twentieth century, as well as being a prolific author. His influence on the Unity movement was enormous, and continues to the present day. Unity FM has just started a whole radio show devoted entirely to the teachings of Butterworth, and recently the 'Hooked on Classics' book club on that same station studied his 1968 classic Discover the Power Within You.
It is actually quite an impressive work, a carefully laid-out view of New Thought spirituality, especially the central notion that "You ask for success by getting into the consciousness of success" (p.114). Butterworth was obviously a great scholar, and his writing is based on an easy grasp of literature and religion. Despite its corny title, this is actually quite an erudite work, and its argument quite compelling.
Butterworth excels at putting some pretty difficult New Thought notions into plain language, evincing a grasp of aphorism and folksy philosophy that is a very old part of American literary culture. The book is intended as a practical guide, and so encourages people to apply their spiritual views to their daily lives. Reading the book one is constantly discovering areas in which the author seems to be speaking directly to us. I am also conscious that he is enunciating New Thought philosophies that date back to Mary Baker Eddy, though with far more accessible language. For example:

"When we realize that evil is simply the concealment of good, then any person who is unloving, vicious, or unjust is actually a person who is good but doesn't know it. In a very real way, we can change him - at least as far as we are concerned. We can see him with the "single eye" that relates only to the good and the true" (p. 124).

This is basic Christian Science thinking - that there is only goodness in God's creation, and that all of us, being a part of this creation, must at heart be good. The error is in the seeing; we choose to see bad. It is a challenging philosophy, and one difficult to apply, but I think Butterworth describes quite a noble effort in this passage.

One of the constant criticisms I hear about self-help books is that they pander to the selfish side of humanity, that they encourage materialism and tacky consumerist desires. This frustrates me because any careful reading of almost any self-help book exposes a constant injunction to develop the spiritual above all other attributes, and to see growth in metaphysical rather than materialist terms. It is a point that Butterworth himself drives home over and over again: "Success cannot be measured by what you have amassed" (p.131). This is, above all, a devotional work, a book that is about the development of a complete spiritual worldview, the growth of a soul. As such it illustrates perfectly one of the central points of my thesis, that self-help books are in fact quasi-religious texts that offer practical moral teachings and metaphysical worldviews.

The author has sought with this book to describe a practical, progressive and positively-focused Christianity. There is a surprising amount of theology in the book, much of it of a decidedly Girardian flavour. I know that would shock my academic friends, but I stand by my assessment. Butterworth's book is a lyrical, complex and deeply thoughtful text which challenges the authority of mainstream Christianity, as well as the easy laziness of reflexive individualism and the unexamined life.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

40 Day Mind Fast Soul Feast

The almanac and the devotional day-book are key ancestors of self-help books, and their continued existence in the 21st century interests me greatly.
Since the birth of printing people have been able to get religious day-books intended to help with prayer and contemplation. A quote from scripture was provided for each day of the year, and the book served as a spiritual companion for the literate person who may not have had access to a full version of the Bible.
Almanacs had evolved in China, where they were (and still are) cheaply printed and produced daily guidebooks showing the phases of the moon, the astrological significance of the day (including what is and isn't lucky for that day) and snatches of poetry and philosophy.
At some point in the West the two types of book combined, and almanacs became filled with pious injuctions and pieces of folk-wisdom, along with recommendations for farming and housekeeping. Almanacs became popular in Elizabethan times, and they really took off later in America, the most famous being produced, of course, by one Mr. Benjamin Franklin.
My own grandmother was a great fan of day-books, and throughout my childhood she used Francis Gay's Friendship Book. I was always fascinated by the quote of the day, and many of them have stayed with me. I fancied myself a deep thinker as a child.
In recent years the devotional/inspirational/self-development day-book has experienced something of a resurgence, thanks in part to the output of Hay House, Louise Hay's new-age publishing company. They have breathed new life into this quaint form by producing colourful and attractive (and eminently saleable) hardcover day-books featuring the words of their most popular authors.
I have recently completed Michael Bernard Beckwith's perpetual day-book 40 Day Mind Fast Soul Feast. As the title would suggest, the book covers a 40-day period. Naturally the siginificance of the 40 days is obvious to anyone from a Christian background, and the book was obviously concieved as a kind of lenten guide, though Beckwith is not coming from any kind of conventional Christian perspective.

The book is posited as a practical guide to spiritual living, a guide to "how to arrive at profound inner fulfillment." This is quite a claim, but it is exactly the sort of claim that most self-help books make. The claim promises to turn reading from an act of education, enjoyment or distraction into something altogether more metaphysical: reading as enlightenment.
Michael Bernard Beckwith would be familiar to many as one of the most popular faces in Rhonda Byrne's film The Secret. He is the head of the hugely popular Agape church in California, and is one of the superstars of 21st Century New Thought Christianity. He teaches a supremeley palatable philosophy of positive thinking, easy-going spirituality and inclusive, progressive Christianity. His worship style draws on the great traditions of African-American church worship, with high-energy oratory and incredible music (provided by his equally brilliant wife, Rickie Byars Beckwith). And while his preaching style is steeped in the traditions of African-American oratory, the Agape community itself is multi-racial, creating quite a new vibe in American worship.
Each day this book provides a central idea to contemplate, followed by a brief exegesis by the Rev. Beckwith. Themes include: "Service, Not Servitude", "Birthless, Deathless Eternality" and "Spiritual Loyalty." Each day is opened with a quote gleaned from spiritual classics East and West, and closes with a brief affirmation to work with that day. Beckwith's texts are strongly and conventionally New Thought in content and expression, and some of it would be bewildering to a reader not familiar with the tradition and its philosophy. The intent of the book is clearly to fire the reader up to do good each day, and to excel at personal development. Its purpose is strongly motivational, and as such it serves as an interesting example of book as spiritual technology. This is a book not simply meant to be read - it is meant to be used as inspiration for a life better lived. It prescribes techniques, thoughts and concepts to help the reader live each day in a more spiritual (and more happy) state of mind.
Beautifully packaged as a small, sturdy hardcover, it is interestingly free of the floral flourishes that distinguish the Hay House efforts in this same genre. In fact, the brown wash of the cover design would indicate to me that the book is intentionally aimed at a male as well as a female readership - a reasonable rarity when it comes to modern self-help books.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Etiquette Books

The second chapter of my thesis is on etiquette books.
I've long been obsessed with etiquette books. As a child I would regularly borrow an enormous pink edition of Miss Manners from my local library, fascinated by the almost mythical moral quandaries it discussed. It was as removed from my world as any science fiction book, and I became lost in its social possibilities. Later I discovered the Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, and was instantly absorbed in its extraordinarily demanding universe of correct stationery and forms of address. The only stationery we had in our house was a large ruled writing pad from Woolworth's, but that didn't stop me dreaming of engraved calling cards!
So where do etiquette books fit in to my thesis? Well, chronologically they are a good fit with New Thought books - though in reality etiquette and conduct manuals were being printed long before New Thought was even imagined. My suggestion is that etiquette books describe a sense of longing, and also a kind of narrative about class and aspiration. The thrust of the books is every bit as metaphysical as the much more overtly religious New Thought texts.
Etiquette books claim to provide a kind of blueprint to a better life through a minutely codified way of being, and a stark insistence on the improving benefits of a carefully lived civility. Manners and courtesies are the things we cling to in an effort to convince ourselves that there is some kind of superior state of being in this world - they prove (we hope) that we are more than animals. In a settler society like Australia's, etiquette manuals take on an extra element of urgency, describing poignantly a barely-possible world of balls and suppers and lawn parties. The Australian was struggling with an identity crisis as early as the 1850s, and etiquette books were already emerging in this period telling the anxcious social climber exactly how she (and it was invariably a "she" being addressed) should be behaving.
I am mainly relying on a massive 1950s tome called Woman's World, because it is a reliably camp extoller of cliched ideas of refinement. I am contrasting it with Marion Von Adlerstein's infinitely more sophisticated (and more subtly anxious) Penguin Book of Etiquette, published in Australia in 2002.
The chapter is meant to be finished with already, but I am still struggling along with it - I have promised myself it will be done by Wednesday.
Until then, I spend all day every day lost in a fantasy world of perfect manners and the adequate terms of address for a Governer-General's soiree.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How To Win Friends and Influence People

For many (me included), How To Win Friends and Influence People is the archetypal self-help book. Whenever people ask me what I mean by self-help (and I am constantly surprised by how few people have a clear understanding of what a self-help book is) I mention this book and they understand instantly where I'm coming from.
The elements that make the book a quintessential example of the self-help genre include:

  1. It is filled with potted biographies telling of how people have changed their lives and succeeded
  2. The author is incredibly self-referential - many of the success stories stem from people who have won out in life through taking Dale Carnegie's own courses
  3. It promises something enormous and quite intangible - let's face it, 'influencing people' is a pretty grand and indefinable claim
  4. It attempts to cover many different aspects of life experience - work, marriage, conversation, friendship, social life - all are addressed by Mr. Carnegie, and solutions for improving them all are offered
First published in 1937, How To Win Friends... has been a perpetual bestseller almost ever since. There are various updated versions around, but these are almost more dated than the original, with their clumsy references to new-fangled things like VCRs. I prefer the good old fashioned original, complete with its occasional lapses into sexism and racism.
Carnegie was also one of the earliest examples of that peculiar self-help phenomenon - the person who becomes rich and famous through telling others how to get rich and famous. He had begun life in humble circumstances, and started his career as a self-improvement guru by teaching courses in public speaking at the YMCA.
Once his book had rocketed him to fame he established his own training institute, which still exists today, training businessmen in the quaint 1930s manners and courtesies which must be even rarer now than when Carnegie first started out.
Some have accused the book of being Machiavellian, encouraging people to manipulate others by cultivating reactions and responses intended to please and, ultimately, influence. Carnegie's methods have also been hailed as an early form of NLP, exhibiting a sophisticated understanding of human psychology - and frailty.
The most famous injunction form the book is to always be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise." Carnegie contends that we gain more influence and regard by praising and encouraging than criticising and fault-finding. But he always stresses that any such praise should be based in genuine feeling, because "Flattery is counterfeit, and like counterfeit money, it will eventually get you into trouble if you try to pass it on."
And from all the accusations of cynical manipulation of the feelings of others, I feel I must defend Carnegie. What he is really encouraging is that we should all take a genuine interest in the stories and ideas of others. He is talking about the cultivation of a more open mind, and championing the art of interested listening. Yes, he says that such an interest in others will bring with it social rewards, but it may also bring about an improvement in character and learning in the practitioner.
In many ways it is a more conversational, and more detailed, examination of the hierarchical structures in which we all live, the systems of power that had been mapped out more conventionally (and less interestingly) in the etiquette books of the 19th century. Carnegie, a smart man of humble birth, had worked out that a species of power lay in acknowledging and feeding the power fantasies of others. Indeed, the whole book could be read as a Foucauldian exercise in rallying opower to the cause of one's own social advancement.
Carnegie was a gifted and charming writer, and even now the book is a very easy read, filled with nuggets of folk wisdom and constant references to the life lessons to be gleaned from notable figures in history.
15 million people have read How To Win Friends.. since its release, and it is almost certainly the most influential self-help book ever published.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Infinite Way

The Infinite Way is one of the great classics of self-help literature - indeed, it is one of the books on the 'Timeline of Self-Help Writing' that I put together for my thesis.
Based largely on the teachings of Christian Science, it is a slender book, quite poetic in its content and deeply mystical. Though not a formal exponent of Christian Science, Joel Goldsmith was influential in Christian Science circles. His works were great favourites of Doris Day, who said she went to bed every evening listening to audio recordings of Goldsmith's lectures. But in rejecting the formal affiliation with the church, Goldsmith places this, his most famous and enduring work, in the canon of New Thought, and it's is still read and enthusiastically recommended by serious students of New Thought.
Though short, it is reasonably dense, and is really meant to be read slowly and reflectively. Indeed, since its publication groups have sprung up devoted to the reading and study of the book, establishing around Goldsmith a quasi-religious structure. Such groups were active in Sydney well into the 1990s, though I'm not aware that there are any still going.
The central message of the book is the basic Christian Science doctrine that we are merely expressions of God, and therefore perfect. Goldsmith tells us that God's reality is all-good, and so the only truth is in abundance, health, happiness and prosperity. The only truth is God, expressed in many different ways. "God, Consciousness is forever expressing Itself and Its qualities. Consciousness, Life, Spirit, can never fail. Our task is to learn to relax and let our Soul express itself" (38).
The book is really an extended meditation in that same style - there is little that is practical here, for Goldsmith returns again and again to his central theme: we need only awaken to God, who is already in us. It is a devotional text rather than an instructive text. And as such it frequently transports the reader with great gusts of hope, and with a carefully constructed mystical longing. This is Goldsmith's power as a writer - he can make his particular philosophy, singular as it may be, distinctly beguiling.
"We must begin our days with the inner reminder of our true identity. We must identify ourselves as Spirit, as Principle, as the law of Life unto our affairs. It is a very necessary thing to remember that we have no needs: We are infinite, individual, spiritual consciousness embodying within ourselves the infinity of good..." (80). The Infinite Way (Goldsmith's first book), then, serves as a textual way to remind us of this heavenly identity. There is much of Swedenborg in this, as of course there is in the work of Mary Baker Eddy.
There is some discussion of healing in the book, and it seemed as though healing was a central part of Goldsmith's lectures, but he tends not to be too specific in The Infinite Way. The book takes an extreme position: there is no illness, and all healing is but the return to the promised spiritual state of perfection.
Goldsmith was a prolific author, and many of his books remain in print. The Infinite Way remains his greatest achievement, however, and is an absolutely intriguing exercise in New Thought absolutism.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ask Yourself This - Wendy Craig-Purcell

Ond of the podcasts I listen to religiously is Unity FM's Hooked on Classics. It is a weekly book club that examines books by and about the Unity Church and New Thought. From the point of view of my thesis writing it is a valuable process, because it really examines New Thought ideas in depth, and from a number of different perspectives. On a personal level, I enjoy the whole process of reading a book very closely over a couple of months and hearing it analysed week-by-week. I've always wanted to be in a book group, but my insane schedule doesn't allow for it. This is the perfect compromise.

One of the books recently studied was Wendy Craig-Purcell's Ask Yourself This. Craig-Purcell is a Unity Minister, and spoke about her own book on several of the shows. Needless to say I found this a prticularly fascinating exercise, a kind of anti-Barthesian commentary that actually says a lot about self-help writing and it's excessive intertextuality and self-referencing.

The premise of the book is that it represents a series of personal questions that the reader should ask herself. These questions are challenging and are meant, naturally, to facilitate personal and spiritual growth. As well as exploring the questions at length in print, the reader is also asked to meditate on each question and to journal on the reflections, thereby deepening the impact of the reading process.

The questions are not particuarly innovative or unusual, but they are broad enough to be quite challenging to answer, and spending time in wondering about them causes any number of additional questions to be formed in the mind of the engaged reader. Questions include such things as:

"What am I looking for?
Who am I trying to change?
If I knew I would be successful, what would I be saying "yes" to?"

The final chapter of the book is a peculiar diversion into the area of home schooling, something about which the author is passionate. Home schooling is a hot topic in America, and Craig-Purcell is keen to explore it as a religious person who is neither conservative nor fundamentalist. I must say that this section seems to sit awkwardly with the rest of the book, however, and for this reader at least added nothing to the process being explored. And certainly in Australia, where home schooling is a non-issue, this whole bit can profitably be ignored, and the book be wound up at the end of chapter 7.

Ask Yourself This is interesting because it is not a practical self-help book. Published by Unity House, the Unity School of Christianity's own publishing arm, the book is decidedly spiritual in bent, and the questions are intended to inspire prayer and reflection rather than specific action. This leaves the whole process of reading the book and folllowing its suggestions a much more open-ended process, and one I think would be quite attractive to many readers, particularly if they are of a more mystical bent.

I enjoyed the book, and interestingly I read most of it while I was on retreat at a Benedictine monastery, and it was the perfect companion on such an occasion. Slim and easy-to-read, Ask Yourself This is an excellent primer in New Thought and a nifty text for helping the reader to explore some of the more challenging (and more grandly focused) spiritual niches of the mind.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Emma Curtis Hopkins

Probably the most famous obscurity in the history of self-help literature, Emma Curtis Hopkins (1849-1925) is known as "the teacher of teachers" and was responsible for the training of many of the stellar figures in the New Thought movement.

A quiet, reclusive wopman, Hopkins had for a time been Mary Baker Eddy's right-hand woman. Eddy banished her, however, when Hopkins made it clear that she would not become a mindless devotee. Never one to brook opposition, Mrs. Eddy became furious when she learned that Hopkins was devising some of her own ideas, and so caused the division which would help shape a whole new movement (New Thought) and probably, ulitimately, guaranteed the eventual obscurity and decline of Christian Science.

While she always propagated the general ideas of Christian Science, Emma Curtis Hopkins was much more committed to ideas of personal choice and individual free will, and lacked Eddy's famously dogmatic personality. Travelling from city to city, Hopkins would set up shop in a genteel hotel and set about teaching lessons in 'Christian Healing' to select groups of students. In this quiet way she lived out her life, earning a living from teaching her lessons and spending much of her time alone and in prayer.

Painfully shy, Hopkins (who had left her husband years ago in order to follow Mary Baker Eddy) spent most of her time her room, occasionally releasing a book. These books were extraordinarily dense and difficult to read (inspired, most probably, by the style of her great mentor), but their subject matter continues to influence the content and ideas of self-help, though most authors are completely unaware of it. Though gentle and retiring, she must have been possessed of a great charisma, because she taught and inspired people like Charles & Myrtle Fillmore, Nona Brooks and, right at the end of her life, Ernest Holmes.

Her own books are really exercises in theology, and barely fit the mould of self-help at all. They explore biblical stories and the sayings of Jesus in-depth, in a manner obviously inspired by Eddy. Because of the radical nature of her views and the popular manner of their propagation, she is yet to be recognised as a theologian, though I would suggest she is, perhaps one of the greatest and most influential biblical scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her continued obscurity is testament to the shameful gap in knowledge about New Thought and its importance on the behalf of most historians and scholars of religion. This obscurity was, however, addressed brilliantly by Gail M. Harley in her scholarly 2002 biography of "The Forgotten Founder of New Thought."

Hopkins was as well a committed 'womanist', a proto-feminist whose inspiration and ideas helped shape the New Thought movement into the female-dominated domain it was and is.

Norman Vincent Peale

One of the giants of self-help writing is Norman Vincent Peale. He almost single-handedly defined the genre in the 1950s and 60s, starting off with his monumental bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking, and he established for decades a particular style of self-help writing, a style which is still being emulated today.

I have written before of the overt religiosity of Peale's writing, and his radical re-casting of Christianity as a positive aid to lifestyle and success both captured the zeitgeist of mid-20th century America and helped, in part, to shape it. The stolid Protestant friendliness of Peale's utterances, coupled as they were with just the right degree of acknowledgement of science and medicine, set the minds of a generation at ease. His great genius of expression inspired other writers, most notably the Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who sought to do with Catholicism what Peale had done with mainline Protestantism. In Australia Peale's style was copied by the Presbyterian clergyman Gordon Powell.

Peale sought to reconcile Christianity with psychiatry, something M. Scott Peck managed so successfully a generation later with The Road Less Travelled. Peale established the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry right next door to his church, and from here he attempted a kind of Christian psychotherapy, employing professionals from both camps. It would seem that counselling was his great passion, and his books are filled with case studies of people he had counselled. He seemed inordinately proud of the new hybrid he had created. Of course, this movement seems these days to have come to nothing and at the very most Christian-tinged counselling and psychology has acquired a dubious name, associated as it has become with the extreme right-wing fringe of Christianity, and the mental and spiritual abuse of young women and gay people.

Peale, I think, would have been shocked by the state of things now. He was most certainly not a fundamentalist, and saw himself as a part of the great tradition of American liberal Protestantism. Though the language of his books is almost shocking to a contemporary secular audience, it's worth keeping in mind that his reading of the Bible and his theological understanding was distinctly progressive. Though he claimed all his life to be a conventional Protestant clergyman, and was lionised by people like Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan, he was deeply influenced by the ideas of New Thought, and was for a time a student of Ernest Holmes.
Like most successful self-help writers, he diversified into other forms of media, and was particularly successful on radio, where his program 'The Art of Living' ran for 54 years. He was also one of the first to produce audio versions of his books, and you can still buy recordings of him reading The Power of Positive Thinking.

These days Peale is deeply unfashionable, though his books remain in print. It is hard to imagine that his worldview, as unashamedly religious as it was, will ever again be mainstream. Self-help critic Wendy Kaminer, in her book I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, accuses Peale of being a magical thinker and "oblivious to social injustice."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Law of Attraction

Probably one of the most vilified tenets of self-help philosophy is the concept of The Law of Attraction. This "Law" has achieved a significant amount of cultural currency in recent years due to The Secret - basically, the Law of Attraction WAS The Secret (sorry if that's a bit of a plot spoiler!), and many millions of people encountered the idea for the first time there.
But it is a mistake to think it is a recent invention. Rhonda Byrne herself freely admits that she came across the idea of LOA while reading the works of Wallace Wattles, books published around the turn of the 20th century. The idea in its recognisable form can probably be dated back to Charles and Myrtle Fillmore and the Unity School of Christianity in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
What is the Law of Attraction? Simply put, it is the idea that whatever you think about, you attract. As the Buddha used to say in the opening credits of Monkey, "With our thoughts, we create the world."
This idea goes well beyond the pioneers of New Thought, of course. This kind of "mind only" philosophy has a long history in Buddhism and, before that, Advaita Vedanta schools of Hinduism. I think the real difference between these Eastern and Western forms is where the emphasis lies. For the most part, this realisation in Hinduism and Buddhism is meant to lead the seeker to try and transcend this world, realising that ultimately nothing is real, and all is meaningless, a creation of our desire. Law of Attraction as it has manifested in popular American thought has been directed in a thoroughly more worldly manner: since we're creating our world, how about we create a really nice one.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Indeed, many of the spiritual practices of Mahayana Buddhism involve just this process, visualising the jewelled Buddha lands and the extraordinary treasures of various divine realms. The Law of Attraction enthusiasts are, if anything, a shade more honest than most of their consumerist counterparts, by recognising that they want nice things in their world, and seeking to create these things at a metaphysical level. Whether or not you believe this is possible is a whole other question, and one in which I do not engage.
What I do find interesting is the vehemence with which such beliefs are denounced by those who don't share them. As religious beliefs go, I consider the Law of Attraction a pretty benign one. It certainly beats a whole lot of other worldviews, including those of most who pour such scorn on the LOA scene.
At its simplest I really just see LOA as a Western re-casting of the same ideas of karma and rebirth that are subscribed to by pretty much most of the Hindu and Buddhist world. As such, it attracts many of the same criticisms and is subject to all the same shaky logical and philosophical premises. It's just that, being an idea seen (incorrectly) as the product of modern consumer culture, it is subjected to the kind of paternalistic scorn that people would never dare direct toward a Hindu or a Buddhist.
The fact that it is always described as a "Law" is also significant. The new religious movements that emerged in America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were all, to some extent, responding to modernity. One of the ways they did that was by casting their new ideas not as religious revelations, but as much more scientific-sounding "Laws", "Principles" and "Sciences."
Apart from The Secret, the great proponents these days of the Law of Attraction are a cuddly pair of middle-American trance channelers called Esther and Jerry Hicks. Esther channels the voice of a disembodied entity called "Abraham" and this material sells wildly throughout the world, making the Law of Attraction more and more one of the strongest contemporary popular religious beliefs.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Yes You Can! - Behind the hype and hustle of the motivation biz

From where I sit here in Australia, one of the most esoteric and quintessentialy American occupations must be that of professional speaker. It almost seems unbelievable that someone can earn their living from talking to rooms full of people. It seems to hark back to an earlier age, to the times when Dickens, Wilde and Twain travelled the US lecturing to vast audiences.
In Yes You Can! ex-Playboy editor Jonathan Black examines this amazing industry, and is drawn into its high-energy milieu to the point of seeking to become a motivational speaker himself.
Refreshingly, he never sets out to "expose" the industry, or to tear it apart. As he points out, he simply never met anyone who was manipulative, hypocritical or unusually avaricious. The motivational speaking industry is like any other, and Black does a brilliant job in explaining just how mundane - and often corny - its particular machinations are.
The speakers, both obscure and struggling and stellarly successful and wealthy, are shown here to be a wonderful crowd of eccentrics, each constantly working an angle and trying to stand out in a monstrously competitive field. His descriptions of their schtick are somethimes hilarious, and Black retains a cynic's eye throughout. But along with him you can't help but admire the incredible drive of these people to be successful.
Conceding that it is the type of career that normally attracts a bad rap, he speaks about the efforts being made to quantify the impacts of motivational speakers on company morale and - ultimately - profit. Unsurprisingly, this still looks like being almost impossible.
I was conscious throughout of the ways in which the self-help industry employ a wide range of media and technology to spread its message and, of course, to make money. The presence of so many celebrity speakers reminds us that this whole philosophy was born on the pulpit something which Black himself ultimately realises, in a moment of great personal significance. The speakers promote their audio material and their books, and vice versa, ad infinitum. This multiplicity of media marks motivation and self-help as distinctly modern phenomena, born in the age of modernity and in reaction to the changes it forced upon society.
Yes You Can! is a great book - well written, well researched and sensitively rendered. Jonathan Black has approached the subject in a uniquely thoughtful way and offers, for a change, some genuine insight into the business of self-help, instead of the usual blanket condemnation.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Science of Mind on The Universe

"The Universe gives us what we ask; experience alone will teach us what is best to have."
The Science of Mind, p. 462

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Each Mind a Kingdom

One of the things that is most apparent when studying the history of self-help literature is the dominance of women. Since the earliest days of New Thought women have been the movement's principal leaders and followers. Certainly in the early literature of Australian self-help, immersed as it is in the philosophy of New Thought, women are the real pioneers.
American historian Beryl Satter has written an excellent book called Each Mind a Kingdom, which details the phenomenon of women in the New Thought movement.
In my research on Sister Veni Cooper-Mathieson, a wonderfully eccentric Australian author, publisher and spiritual leader, I noticed that she led something called the White Cross Crusade. I was surprised to discover that this was a society to promote celibacy aming young women. They met weekly in the Domain, and there was a companion group for young men. By the brevity of the mentions, I can only assume that both movements were not particularly well subscribed. Sister Veni wrote extensively on the subject of female emancipation, a key component of which she saw as being chastity among the young.
It wasn't until I read Satter's fascinating book that I realised that these crusades for morality and celibacy were an intrinsic part of the New Thought movement in America. Indeed, the position was seen as a progressive one, helping to combat the problems of unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease and the abandonment of unmarried mothers.
The New Thought movement saw itself as ushering in a new, purer age, in which women were empowered, and would no longer be enslaved to what was characteristically cast as the baser sexual demands of men.
Physical desire - and sexuality in general - was posited in this early movement as a problem, something to be overcome. It is fascinating how these early feminist visions were tied in with ideas of chastity and sexual purity.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stephanie Dowrick - An Introduction

Australia's leading writer on matters of spirituality and personal transformation is without a doubt Stephanie Dowrick. Her lyrical and frequently literary books are also bestsellers, though they sometimes defy categorisation in any of the usual sub-genres of self-help. Drawing from a deep understanding of religion, mythology, psychology and literature, Dowrick's oeuvre is pretty much all her own, and is these days increasingly imitated.
Dowrick emerged from a background in publishing, which probably goes some way to explaining the great commercial success of her books. There is no doubt she has a flair for marketing, publicity and promotion which has seen her emerge as one of Australia's leading media commentators. In London in the 70s Stephanie was the founder and first Managing Director of The Women's Press, proving her pedigree as a feminist. It is that aspect of her writing that particularly interests me academically. I think she was among the first in the self-help genre to really speak to a female readership, though the books are in no way intended for women only. I am interested in reading the books closely to find out in what ways (if any) feminist ideas are engaged and explored.
She later worked as a publisher at Allen & Unwin in Australia. This, too, would be an interesting avenue to explore, though I doubt I'll have the space in my thesis. Maggie Hamilton is another publishing industry executive who went on to write self-help books. And, perhaps obliquely, Rhonda Byrne was a successful television producer before she branched out into the field of personal transformation. It's certainly an interesting phenomenon, and I wonder if I could find parallels in America or the UK.
These days Stephanie Dowrick is one of the pioneers of the burgeoning Interfaith movement, and noting the different religious references in her books would also be a fascinating endeavour. She has a background in Jungian psychology, and has been deeply influenced by Quaker thought. She also seems to have a clear understanding of both Buddhism and Sufism, which speaks to the extraodinary depth of her learning and her spiritual understanding.
I plan on bringing you a few little potted analyses of some of Stephanie Dowrick's books as I slowly piece together my PhD thesis. I hope you'll find them as interesting as I do.