The Human Potential Movement and related teachings are based on human-centered psychology; on beliefs that one is in complete control of one's destiny and that one deserves worldly success; and on Eastern/New Age/occult teachings about the self and the world. This movement arose in the 1970's and 1980's, finding fertile soil in the ambitious and success-oriented 80's, promoting personal power, improved self-worth, and team cooperation through books, lectures, workshops; and through seminars offered on weekends, in the workplace, and elsewhere. The usual function of these seminars, which is not advertised, is to break down the identity and worldview of the participants, and replace it with a new paradigm for reality and self-identity based on the philosophies belonging to the founders of these programs. In effect, it is mind re-programming.
One of the archetypes of the human potential business today was est, founded by Werner Erhard (not his real name), who based his concepts on Eastern beliefs and on teachings from the Church of Scientology. The est program later came to be known as the Forum, and now goes by the name Landmark. Other groups similar to est, such as Lifespring, came along and multiplied. Lifespring states that one of its goals is to "redesign the underlying assumptions out of which you live your life. . ." and also warns that this experience may involve a "high degree of personal challenge or stress," (http://www.lifespringusa.com/thecourses.htm, accessed 6/14/03).
Motivational training may be less rigorous than models bases on est, but they often include spiritual views belonging to the founder or head of the program. One popular teacher and author in the motivational area is Stephen Covey, a Mormon whose book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, was a bestseller, and whose son, Franklin Covey, offers speakers and seminars through his (Franklin's) company based on Stephen Covey's book. Another popular teacher is Anthony Robbins, who promotes a training appropriately called "Unleash The Power Within." Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within, popularized firewalking as a self-empowerment technique. Both Covey and Robbins include elements of their own spiritual worldviews in their training.
One of the more spiritually based groups is the Silva Method, started by Jose
Silva (1914-1999) in 1966. Based on beliefs that man has unlimited potential and
can tap into psychic powers and the ability to heal the body with the mind,
Silva, initially called Silva Mind Control, uses meditation and guided
visualization exercises in its seminars. Moreover, Silva teaches students to
make contact with disembodied counselors (spirit guides) for guidance. These
teachings put Silva firmly into the New Age camp. (See this critique for further
Some human potential and motivational groups are secretive about their teachings and methods, use humiliation and mind manipulation on attendees, and require attendees to recruit others. Many spin-offs of the original seminars such as est and Lifespring now operate across the country, usually through the workplace. Even those groups that are not secretive or manipulative usually include in their teachings New Age and humanistic ideas that one is responsible for everything that may happen to them (including being robbed, raped, getting sick, etc.) and that one has an innate wisdom and unlimited potential, concepts that go against God's teachings that we are in a fallen world of sin, that we should depend on Him through Christ, be humble, and seek God's will for our life.
One finds in most of these seminars, even the less abusive ones, mind-altering techniques such as deep relaxation, guided imagery, and visualization. The teachings in these seminars are often subtle, mixing in with helpful advice, and are advertised as methods to improve self-motivation, workplace performance, leadership skills, and cooperation with co-workers. Participants are usually pressured to recruit others into the program or training.
Cathartic experiences are powerful, and these seminars offer them in abundance. The experiences, even negative ones, bind the participants together and form a bond between the leaders and participants. However, keep in mind this is not a level playing field; the leaders of the seminar have power over the participants, and in many of these seminars they are using time-proven techniques to manipulate thinking. This is part of their training. Although spontaneity is often given as the reason to keep the contents secret from prospective attendees, the leaders' actions and timing have been carefully orchestrated and choreographed. Secrecy and bonding through intense emotional confrontations and confessions are hallmarks of cultic groups.
People tend to imagine that the mind conditioning of cults is supernatural or esoteric, when, in fact, it boils down to powerful psychological and emotional techniques such as isolation, secrecy, bonding through confrontation and confession, shaming or humiliation before others, disparaging detractors, forbidding or discouraging questioning or criticism, discouraging thinking for one's self, verbal abuse, and techniques such as guided visualizations. Guided imagery or visualization, ostensibly used for relaxation, is actually a method that increases the suggestibility of the participants. In such a state, a person's critical thinking skills are on hold and they are more receptive to what is being said or taught. Some groups also require attendees to sign an oath, promising that they will not disclose the teachings. This creates not only a bond of secrecy, but also a separation between the "insiders" who are attending and the "outsiders" who have not had the training, leading to an elitist attitude toward the "outsiders." Many of these seminars use some or all of these techniques.