The New Thought Movement or New Thought is the name of a late 19th and early 20th century religious movement that emphasized metaphysical beliefs concerning the effects of positive thinking, the law of attraction, healing, life force, creative visualization and personal power.
The earliest identifiable proponent of what came to be known as New Thought was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–66), an American mesmerist. The 1890s and the first decades of the 20th century next saw an explosion of what came to be known as self-help books, including the financial success and will-training books.
And while Self-help titles today, are often seen as repositories of unproven, sometimes improvable advice, at the heart of all self-help books, is often a professed disenchantment with conventional ways of thinking, and a worldview that often includes a mix of post-new thought and popular culture.
The authors of self-help books adopt the premise that what they have to offer is a new way of thinking that will to the benefit of the reader and ultimately the world-replace the old. Their task is a rhetorical one; they must persuade their readers to adopt the new and cast off the old. As have teachers and prophets from earlier times, they claim to bring a new philosophy to the common people, and they want to present it in a way that people will find convincing. This means that some aspects of the presentation will have to be already familiar to the audience. Like Jesus in the New Testament, many writers have used the everyday genres of story and aphorism to teach and persuade.
Another trend in publication of self-help books is for authors and publishers to produce inflated descriptors like: (a) new, unique, and revolutionary; (b) proven effective and (c) easy to learn and use.
Including cure rates, ranging from helping thousands to helping each and every person who read the book. Also oversimplification may encourage troubled consumers to carelessly seek and apply self-help books. When authors inappropriately suggest that their materials apply to all types of problems, readers in fact may convince themselves that they are working on changing particular problematic behavior( s) when actually they are not.
Nevertheless it is evident that the genre of psychology self-help books has tremendous impact on lay seekers and the general public. Not only are these books easily accessible, due to the placebo effect in matters of mental and physical health, readers who expect a positive effect from a self-help book may likely even endorse it as therapeutic.
Similarly, the self-help industry has also been quite influential within the professional milieu, having assumed an increasingly important role in the prescriptive practice of psychology.
Not surprising many of the most successful self help books are metaphorical even in their titles: James A. Kitchens's Talking to Ducks (1994); Wayne Dyer's Your Erroneous Zones or The Sky's the Limit (1980) or Real Magic (1992); Sam Keen's Fire in the Belly (1991); Claudia Bepko and Jo-Ann Krestan's Too Good for Her Own Good (1990); Harriet Goldhor Lerner's Dance of Anger (1985) or The Dance of Deception (1993); Lillian B. Rubin's Intimate Strangers (1983); Gary Zukav's Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979) or The Seat of the Soul (1999); Robert H. Hopcke's There Are No Accidents (1997); Wayne Muller's Legacy of the Heart (1992); even Scott Peck's Road Less Traveled or John Gray's runaway bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992). The objective in all such expanded essays is to sell the thesis, to persuade readers toward a new, enlightened perspective.
From the array of books that we researched, those authors who were more academic in their orientation consistently achieved the highest scores. Perhaps it is attributable to their close tie to science, practice, and professional ethics that instilled in them an internal regulation mechanism. In fact we initially hoped to, be able to suggest ways to formulate recommendations about reading this literature, and to alert lay people as to how to make informed decisions of their own choices of self-help reading books. Here, the jury is still out, and for now we can only mention a red flag and caution for both psychologists and lay readers. In fact we came to the conclusion that especially professionals, ought to exercise much more prudence in writing these books, until-or if ever-standards for professional regulation regarding self help programs are in place.
Lay readers are faced with a complex challenge. Much like picking a psychotherapist, non-professionals must tackle the choosing of a self-help book which, on the surface may appear satisfactory, and then discriminate. Preferably before even using it, a lay reader must determine whether a given book falls within the rubric of 'good' self-help books.
Self-help books can be seen as a cumulative expression, of mythical thinking in popular culture.They offer New Age answers to the cultural ambiguity that accompanies highlighted folk ideas.
Identifying some of the primary folk ideas or themes at the heart of the self-help movement-is a book produced by Ronald S. Miller and the editors of New Age Journal. The book, As Above, So Below (1992), is published by one of the noted New Age publishers, Jeremy P. Tarcher of Los Angeles, and it includes as subtitles for each of its chapters phrases that, identify the folk ideas Miller and the editors recognize as central to the New Age movement (and thus certainly a significant part of the self-help tradition).
Often immediately apparent in the combination of chapter title and subtitle is that declaration of opposites so essential in mythical thinking. For example, chapter 1 is titled "The Emerging Spirituality," and its subtitle is "Falling in Love with Our World." Implied in the word "emerging" in the title is the suggestion that previously-before the new spirituality began to emerge-people were not "in love with our world." Or again, in chapter 12, the title is "Awakening Creativity," and the subtitle is "Liberating the Inner Artist." That creativity or artistry needs to be awakened or liberated again suggests that the old folk idea restrained such expression.
In writing So Self-Help Classics, Tom Butler-Bowdon groups books into six general themes: The Power of Thought (change your thoughts, change your life), Following Your Dream (achievement and goal-setting), Secrets of Happiness (doing what you love, doing what works), The Bigger Picture (keeping it in perspective), Soul and Mystery (appreciating your depth), and Making a Difference (transforming yourself, transforming the world). The subtitles, again, reveal the points of challenge and ambiguity. If to be happy, one must start "doing what you love," then clearly an older and contrasting belief is that to be happy, one must be dutiful or moral or obedient. While the writers are not ambiguous about which beliefs are right, the culture is. The themes that are central to self-help literature reflect the ambiguity of conflicting beliefs. "
We however can also view the emergence of New Age themes in self help books as an accommodation of and response to folk ideas that have long been a part of American worldview but have been increasingly brought into question and held in a state of ambiguity. Self help books make that ambiguity-that conflict of beliefs-apparent.
The writers of self-help books themselves are more often eager to challenge the old and promote the new. It is the reader's responsibility to reconcile the differing beliefs in his or her own evolving philosophy. Robert Wuthnow, in After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950’s (1998), suggests that in recent decades, people have adopted a "spirituality of seeking"-one that emphasizes negotiation rather than the security of a settled and shared belief system and worldview. Even with regard to more secular themes, people choose to seek out a variety of perspectives and reconcile the old and the new beliefs in their everyday behaviors. Writers of self-help books feed this practice of negotiation by presenting arguments that invoke the dominant folk ideas, only to challenge them and offer their opposites.
In keeping with their role as problem-namers and problem-solvers, self help book writers address a number of concerns individuals are likely to themselves identify as their own problem. Readers often pick up a self-help book specifically because it is about their self-identified problem with insecurity, timidity, guilt, worry, shyness, underachievement, rigidity, lack of creativity, lack of intimacy, a sense of failure, fear of death, depression, or simple lack of faith in much of anything. Others look for even more specific problem areas: inadequacy in parenting, overeating, poor health, poor performance on the job, and especially poor performance or lack of satisfaction with regard to sexuality and personal interactions. Simply listing these concerns does not really bring these issues into the arena of mythical thought.
We can do this more effectively by returning to the framework of folk ideas presented in opposition-the framework of cultural ambiguity.
While recognizing the many specific concerns viewed as problems by both writers and readers of self-help books, I am going to suggest here that there are eight "mythic" themes, themes that are in conflict in American culture and to which self-help writers have offered and promoted the "new" perspective along with challenging the old. In effect, these are eight themes that are intended to evoke a mythical, or mediating, response from the reader, a response of informed choice, an enlightened and personally negotiated response. And I would argue that, despite the energetic efforts of self-help book writers, each of these themes will remain ambiguous in our culture though for those of their readers who are persuaded by their rhetoric and examples, personal philosophies may well change to accept the new and challenging side of the folk idea.
The eight themes can be presented as single-word concepts: (1) fear; (2) control; (3) competition; (4) judgment; (5) dishonesty; (6) individualism; (7) violence; (8) impatience. It may seem that culture gives us a clear attitude to bring to each of these. In American culture, competition and individualism are good; dishonesty and violence are bad. Generally, we would argue, control and judgment are good; fear and impatience are bad. However, in fact, there is an ambiguity tied to each of these. Fear is bad if it produces cowardice but good if it produces obedience to God or a law of nature. Control is good if it leads to effective work but bad if it stifles innovation. Competition is essential in a capitalist system, but it just might not be so good if it leads to suicide or war. Our system of justice requires that all citizens be prepared to judge their peers; on the other hand, the Bible teaches us to "judge not, that ye be not judged." Everyone knows that dishonesty is bad-even a very young George Washington could not tell a lie-but then there are times when the truth must not be spoken (Are you hiding Jewish war-victims in your attic?). Individualism is the backbone of American culture, yet Robert Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart point to its many negative effects, including the loss of a sense of community. Violence is awful, of course, but we resort to it time and again, thus reinforcing its real value. And impatience is if nothing else bad practice- "All things come to those who wait" -and yet our culture is strongly geared toward action, speed, and being first in line.
Most of the concerns that self-help writers address can be grouped under one of these eight themes. In fact, a number of writers suggest that all concerns or problems are a result of the first theme-fear, that eliminating fear or at least learning to respond more appropriately to it is the one answer to all questions posed by self-help books. Ivan Hoffman writes, "Happiness, loving, caring, feeling about a situation in a positive manner, looking at the world without fear are all about the same thing" (Hoffman , The Tao of Love, 1993, 69). Susan Jeffers, in her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, says, "The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow." But she adds, "Pushing through the fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness" (Jeffers, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway,1987,30). In other words, pushing through the fear (eliminating it) is what is needed in the end.
James Kitchens brings a number of the themes together in one summary comment on this common process of coming under the spell of a fear-inspired set of folk ideas: As we grow older, we lose our souls. We learn about failure and disapproval and rejection, and we begin to fear. We risk less, and our natural creativity is swallowed up in our worry about inadequacy. We become careful and controlling as we compare ourselves to others, evaluate and grade ourselves, and compete in order to avoid being perceived as a failure. Caution and suspicion replace trust and openness. We live in order to collect things and achievements, which become badges we wear. We hope to prove to ourselves and to anyone else who might be looking that we are not losers. We forfeit ourselves, and life becomes hard. (Kitchens , Talking to Ducks, 1994, 20)
This dismal litany evokes the dominant folk ideas very clearly, if completely negatively. No quarter is granted to the idea that sometimes fear is good, that sometimes competition produces desired results, that control leads to progress. All that this writer sees is the "bitter end" to which such a fear-based belief system leads.
We must remember that it is the self-help writers' task to identify the problematic "old" beliefs and promote the opposite and "better" new beliefs they would hope their readers will come to espouse. Kitchens, in his review above of the fear and control, competition and judgment that make life hard, offers essentially one folk idea in contrast and as a solution. He calls his solution "joy"; he subtitles his book Rediscovering the Joy and Meaning in Your Life. But he goes on to say that "joy is a way of proceeding" (Kitchens,1994,39), and his description of that process is in fact the "folk idea" he hopes to promote: the process of eliminating fear, refraining from judgment, and loosening control brings joy, and we realize joy only by learning to trust-trust ourselves, trust the universe, trust God-and accept life.
Most of the writers who address the problem of fear in any of its guises timidity, insecurity, fear of death, fear of failure, a sense of inadequacy, doubt and disbelief-offer as a contrast and solution the idea of learning to trust the universe and accept life as it is. The folk idea asserts that life can be trusted-not necessarily that things will go as one might wish or that there will be no suffering, but rather that there is nothing to fear. In the larger perspective, life will provide what is needed, and what is given can be accepted as right and good.
A perhaps not -'so-subtle corollary here is the idea of the soul, the idea that, what is of ultimate concern is not the fate of the body but rather the fate of what we identify as a "self." Some writers do not identify this "self" as an eternal soul but rather as a psychological self-referential entity; however, a large number of writers do in fact write of the soul as a preexisting, death-surviving reality. Interestingly, in either case, the assertion is made that one must learn to trust that the "self" is safe, that the self cannot be harmed by life. Like Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century, self-help book writers assure us that "whatever is, is right." On the other hand, a fairly large number of "spiritual" writers (as distinguished from popular psychology writers) do also address the question of God or life after death, or both. But, again, the folk idea involved is less one of describing or even recognizing "God" and more a matter of general faith in the proposition that the universe is not to be feared but rather accepted.
This folk idea of trust is also offered, perhaps more indirectly, by writers addressing the issue of too much control or the perceived need to evaluate and judge. For example, in their book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, Allan E. Mallinger and Jeannette DeWyze draw a picture of the obsessive individual as someone who maintains a "myth of control": They come to believe that, through control of themselves and their personal universe, they can protect themselves against the dangers in life, both real and imagined. If they could articulate the myth that motivates their behavior, they might say: "If I try hard enough, I can stay in control of myself, of others, and of all the impersonal dangers of life (injury, illness, death, etc.). In this way I can be certain of safe passage." (Too Perfect,1992,15)
And while the authors offer some very specific suggestions of how to overcome the compulsive behavior associated with this kind of thinking, in general their message is tied to the larger idea of learning that control is ultimately not in our hands, that we must trust life rather than try to control it.
Similarly, the "issues" of judgment, prejudice, even dishonesty itself are seen as responses to the problem of fear, or the lack of trust. Often, the self help book writers remind us, we prejudge people because we fear that if we don't, they will take advantage of us in some way. We are convinced that we need to be in control; we do not trust that we are safe in situations in which we must deal with people who are different from us.
Even in our most intimate relationships, deception is often the choice we make. As Harriet Goldhor Lerner says, "The human capacity to hide the real and display the false is truly extraordinary, allowing us to regulate relationships through highly complex choices about how we present ourselves to others" (Lerner, The Dance of Deception, 1993,118).
Lerner goes on to echo the observation of many self-help writers: "Trust evolves only from a true knowledge of our partner and ourselves and a mutual commitment to increasing levels of sharing and self-disclosure" (170). In other words, what we call trust in an intimate relationship develops only when the fear of self-disclosure is abandoned, when we no longer fear being honest rather than cagey. For many of the self-help writers, the contrast between fear and trust, between dishonesty and trust, soon pulls into its domain a related worry over what happens when trust is absent-competition, self-centeredness, and isolation, and even violence. As I mentioned earlier, these ideas are often celebrated or at least consciously tolerated in American culture. "It's lonely at the top" is often seen as the price of competition and individualism, but Americans are loath to give up any hard-won victories on behalf of the rights of the individual.
The answering folk idea that many self-help writers offer in response to these very ambiguous cultural icons of competition, individualism, and violence is an assertion that the universe and all in it are one. In particular, many writers argue that there is a unity among all people, among all living beings, and that awareness of that unity will restrain the individual from the imbalances of aggressive competition, arrogance and self-centeredness, and violence. There are, however, surprisingly few practical suggestions offered for how to implement this folk idea in daily life. Those who seem most easily able to make such suggestions are writers who adopt from the very start an Eastern rather than Western stance. Ram Dass (previously Richard Alpert), noted counterculture figure of the 1960s, for example, took from his long immersion in teachings of India a new sense of how to respond to the "separateness" so characteristic of Western culture. In Compassion in Action, reporting on his work with AIDS victims, he speaks very directly to the problem of how fear compels us to remain separate and also how we can overcome it: When people are dying they often feel alone in their pain and fear. Those around them are not going through what they are, so how could they understand? It takes a lover who is not afraid of the pain to be present and wipe away the loneliness. For over twenty-five years I have been often in the company of dying people. In the course of all those moments I have come to see just how in love I can stay with other beings in the face of their suffering. If I am afraid of pain, then in a subtle and sometimes not -so-subtle way I distance my heart from the dying person with whom I am sitting. If I am afraid of dying, then the very dying process of another awakens my fear and inevitably I push that person away so I can remain safe in my own "not dying" illusion. (80-81)
He goes on to speak of the disturbing experience of recognizing that he is distancing himself from the dying patien When self- help books treat the question of unity, often apparent is some confusion of individuality and separation with the notion of subjectivity. Again, the message or folk idea that New Age writers are sending is one that advocates cutting through subjectivity to see that people are all "the same". under the skin, all a precious expression of life-even, as Neale Donald Walsch tells us in Conversations with God: Book 1, an incarnation of the divine-and all, therefore, worthy of our love. Some of this confusion is apparent in Barbara Sher's book It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now. In discussing romantic love, she offers the following "exercise" for understanding how self-centeredness clouds the ability to love people in the more general sense: To experience real love is to understand that a unique creature, separate and different from you, is standing in front of you. When you can see another human that way, you can't help loving him. To do that, however, you need a stable identity, a sense of knowing who you are, and no desperation in your heart. ... You can get a very brief glimpse of what I mean if you try this experiment. Sometime when you’re out in the world, take a look at an ordinary stranger: a bus driver, or someone sitting near you on a train or in a restaurant. Spend a few seconds looking at him. Then imagine you just got a message from the future and found out he was going to die the next day.
Suddenly that person looks different. In an instant his value becomes clear to you and you see how unusual and unique he is. It's only a trick you've played on your senses, but it gives you an idea of how miraculous people will look to you one day, once you've learned how to see without the fog of self-interest. That's love. The real thing. To see someone else clearly, not to look into the mirror of your own desire or to dress up the beloved with the scrim of your favorite fantasy, or to reinvent him for your own uses. (1998,130-31)
Here, seeing the other as a separate being seems to be a goal rather than an obstacle, and yet despite the language used, we are still being coached to see the unity of all persons and to not, in this case, let our subjectivity deny that unity and instead substitute a mirror image. We need to escape our own island of perception and see that we are not the only real person in the universe. Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, "One practical way to do this is to look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them" (1994,26).
He speaks of coming to grips with his own failure to be open and then describes the process of moving from this distancing to a sense of compassion: "I go deeper within myself, far behind my identification and fears, back into awareness, mindful of our predicament but no longer lost in it. The humanity is there, but so, too, is the spacious awareness. I have come into love, and I feel the barriers between me and this other being dissolve" (81).
In general, self-help writers are looking not so much at unity in the face of cultural differences as at an awareness of unity in the face of a philosophy of separatism. Even intimate partners who share many aspects" of culture may feel a sense of alienation, competition, self-centeredness, a need to withhold or deceive, shame or arrogance, and even violence that comes from seeing each other as entirely separate. Self-help writers are eager to offer a philosophy that ties all human beings together, and yet they find it difficult to suggest practical applications of that idea. Perhaps that is why James Redfield felt it necessary to offer his insights in the form of a fictional story. In his second parable, The Tenth Insight, he has one of his characters, Wil, respond to the narrator's question "Aren't some people just inherently bad?" with the following comment: No, they just go crazy in the Fear and make horrible mistakes. And, ultimately, they must bear the full responsibility of these mistakes. But what has to be understood is that horrible acts are caused, in part, by our very tendency to assume that some people are naturally evil. That's the mistaken view that fuels the polarization. Both sides can't believe humans can act the way they do without being intrinsically no good, and so they increasingly dehumanize and alienate each other, which increases the Fear and brings out the worst in everyone. (1996,134)
And later the same character adds: "We know that no matter how undesirable the behavior of others is, we have to grasp that they are just souls attempting to wake up, like us" (149).
One surprising application of this awareness of unity is in Peter Senge's popular business handbook, The Fifth Discipline. Among his many other insights, Senge observes that "systems thinking" eliminates the need for casting others as villains. In mastering systems thinking, we give up the assumption that there must be an individual, or individual agent, responsible. The feedback perspective sug~ gests that everyone shares responsibility for problems generated by a system. That doesn't necessarily imply that everyone involved can exert equal leverage in changing the system. But it does imply that the search for scapegoats-a particularly alluring pastime in individualistic cultures such as ours in the United States-.is a blind alley. (1990,78-79, emphasis in original)
In effect, Senge's practical advice presupposes a philosophy or folk idea that views all individuals as interdependent, as equally tied to the system that sustains their interactions. From Redfield's rather mystical notion of unity to Senge's pragmatic one, there is a New Age reinforcement of the idea of unity and an awareness of its importance in overcoming self-centeredness. It represents a shift in awareness similar, Senge argues, to that "so ardently advocated by ecologists in their cries that we see ourselves as part of nature, not separate from nature" (78).
Narratives of Experience
Experience is a multifaceted phenomenon; a perusal of the self help sources analyzed here reveals a vast variety of narratives of experience. Yet it always been fascinated by the choices performers make-why they pick certain songs to sing or stories to tell and how they decide what contexts would be appropriate or even ideal for performing certain items from their repertoire. Even more intriguing is the case of the performer who creates a narrative seemingly out of whole cloth from his or her own experience or observation and tailors that story to a very specific context, at least the first time it is told.
In an effort to consider why this situation does, we might ask first why the authors choose to include stories in the first place. The authors obviously have certain expectations. They assume above all that the stories will be effective in the didactic sense: stories will teach the lesson or make the point they intend.
Furthermore, authors know that people are more likely to believe in or trust information conveyed through the familiar format of a story, plus provides the author with an opportunity to introduce or repeat a point that is made elsewhere more directly without seeming to be repetitive and dull.
And, perhaps most telling of all, they know that stories help sell their books. People love reading stories , and, as with oral personal narratives, listeners tend to believe that someone speaking from personal experience is telling the truth.
A common type, is the earmarks of a story created to suit the requirements of the-.commentary that follows or precedes it, a "commentary-requires-story" form.
For example Wayne Dyer, author of Your Erroneous Zones, Pulling Your Own Strings (1978), The Sky's the Limit, What Do You Really Want for Your Children? (1985), You'll See It When You Believe It, Real Magic, Your Sacred Self (1995), Manifest Your Destiny, The Power of Intention (2004), and many other books, uses many such stories.
He has made the national best-seller list many times, and most of his books are still in print. The high number of personal didactic exempla in his works is, it seems, simply a result of his tendency to use stories whenever possible. For example, in one passage in You'll See It When You Believe It, Dyer is discussing the concept of giving rather than taking. To illustrate, he tells the reader that recently he backed off on a financial misunderstanding that cost him nearly two hundred dollars. But he relates the information as a story; he creates a narrative by casting the information into a sequential plot that can be manipulated to serve his point of illustration. Here is his story: I recently purchased an automobile and found after the closing that the dealer had added a charge of almost two hundred dollars into the contract, over and above the price that we had agreed upon. I did not discover this until I had returned home and looked over the final papers more carefully. For me, this was a perfect opportunity to practice all that I have been writing about in this book. Years ago, I probably would have been angry, felt cheated, and had an unpleasant exchange with the car dealer. Not this time. I simply called, and expressed my opinion to the salesman about what had happened, and explained that I did not feel that he had acted from integrity in the closing. I also talked to the owner, and I again expressed how I felt about it, without any anger or bitterness. We had a pleasant exchange, and the dealer apologized, but felt that he could not refund the money since we had signed the papers and after all a "deal is a deal." I told him that I did not respect this particular business practice, and I then let it go. I did not need to forgive him, since I was not owning any anger about the situation. I vowed I would look more carefully at contracts before closing in the future. That was the end of it. Until the following letter arrived some ten days later.
What you think about expands. Thus if your thoughts are on getting all that you can and beating the other guy who you believe is trying to do you in, then you are constantly thinking about, worrying about, and planning on the notion of deception. Your thoughts are focused on the dishonesty of the other guy and the callousness of the world. That is what will expand in your life, because that is what you are thinking about. Consequently, you will find yourself getting more and more fearful about being cheated, insuring yourself against the possibility, hiring attorneys to protect you, and loading yourself up with adversaries. You literally put yourself in an adversarial relationship with almost everyone that you meet. And sure enough, you find this sort of thing continuing to expand. (250)
The story, then, is a concrete example of someone (himself) resisting this mistrustful, adversarial kind of thinking. He is less concerned with the dramatic appeal of the story itself (which is fairly low) than with the appropriateness of the story to his theme. This theme is central to his book-in fact, to a number of his books. He tries to find many ways to express the idea that "what you think about expands," and this personal exemplum is one that allows him to express the idea in a concrete rather than abstract way.
However, such personal exempla are not very memorable, even if they do make the point effectively. Somewhat more memorable is the personal insight tale. Such stories are not necessarily more impressive as narratives, but because the author ties the experience at the base of the story to a telling personal insight, the story stays with the reader. In this case, often the story is "memorable" simply because the reader is impressed with how significant the experience or revelation was for the author. This is one instance in which the intimacy of the personal narrative works to the author's advantage. Early in the twentieth century, Irish novelist James Joyce borrowed the term "epiphany" to identify such personally revelatory experiences. In self-help books, the author who chooses to use such personal insight tales is often obligated to weave into the story (or at least conclude with) some commentary on the significance of the event relative to the "insight" gained. Otherwise, the plot may seem thin since the "action" is actually a sequence of thought rather than the more usual dramatic event.
For example, in his book Talking to Ducks, James Kitchens relates a long story recounting mostly his feelings on a specific Saturday night two years after his divorce from his wife and subsequent separation from his children. He writes in minute detail of his thoughts about his efficiency apartment where he was living, his observations of people walking below as he stood ~on his balcony, his sense that maybe he wasn't even there. He tells how, after crying uncontrollably for some time, he went to a nearby convenience store and bought some gum, just to see if the clerk would acknowledge that he existed. The clerk's "Thank you" as she took his change was, he said, "among the sweetest words I ever heard."
Kitchens summarized the insight he drew from the experience as follows: "My life had been a morass of attempts to be someone else, someone whom other people wanted me to be. That night of pain and fear unmistakably dramatized that I did not know me, that I was not being me. And I knew that I had better do something about it" (1994, 26). His epiphany, his insight, would likely not have been apparent to his readers without his commentary, and, indeed, the bare content of the story would likely not have made any impression without the author's guidance on why the rather simple actions-crying, standing on the balcony, and purchasing gum at the convenience store-were important.
Another example of the personal insight tale is the following story from the classic self-help book The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck. Almost all of us from time to time seek to avoid-in ways that can be quite subtle-the pain of assuming responsibility for our problems. For the cure of my own subtle character disorder at the age of thirty I am indebted to Mac Badgely. At the time Mac was the director of the outpatient psychiatric clinic where I was completing my psychiatry residency training. In this clinic my fellow residents and I were assigned new patients on rotation. Perhaps because I was more dedicated to my patients and my own education than most of my fellow residents, I found myself working much longer hours than they. They ordinarily saw patients only once a week. I often saw my patients two or three times a week. As a result I would watch my fellow residents leaving the clinic at four-thirty each afternoon for their homes, while I was scheduled with appointments up to eight or nine o'clock at night, and my heart was filled with resentment. As I became more and more resentful and more and more exhausted I realized that something had to be done. So I went to Dr. Badgely and explained the situation to him. I wondered whether I might be exempted from the rotation of accepting new patients for a few weeks so that I might have time to catch up. Did he think that was feasible? Or could he think of some other solution to the problem? Mac listened to me very intently and receptively, not interrupting once. When I was finished, after a moment's silence, he said to me very sympathetically, "Well, I can see that you do have a problem." I beamed, feeling understood. "Thank you," I said. "What do you think should be done about it?" To this Mac replied, "I told you, Scott, you do have a problem." This was hardly the response I expected. "Yes," I said, slightly annoyed, "I know I have a problem. That's why I came to see you. What do you think I ought to do about it?" Mac respouded: "Scott, apparently you haven't listened to what I said. I have heard you, and I am agreeing why you. You do have a problem." "Goddammitt," I said, "I know I have a problem. I knew that when I came in here. The question is, what am I going to do about it?"
"Scott," Mac replied, "I want you to listen. Listen closely and I will say it again. I agree with you. You do have a problem. Specifically, you have a problem with time. Your time. Not my time. It's not my problem. It's your problem with your time. You, Scott Peck, have a problem with your time. That's all I'm going to say about it." I turned and strode out of Mac's office, furious. And I stayed furious. I hated Mac Badgely. For three months I hated him. I felt that he had a severe character disorder. How else could he be so callous? Here I had gone to him humbly asking for just a little bit of help, a little bit of advice, and the bastard wasn't even willing to assume enough responsibility even to try to help me, even to do his job as director of the clinic. If he wasn't supposed to help manage such problems as director of the clinic, what the hell was he supposed to do?
But after three months I somehow came to see that Mac was right, that it was I, not he, who had the character disorder. My time was my responsibility. It was up to me and me alone to decide how I wanted to use and order my time. If I wanted to invest my time more heavily than my fellow residents in my work, then that was my choice, and the consequences of that choice were my responsibility. It might be painful for me to watch my fellow residents leave their offices two or three hours before me, and it might be painful to listen to my wife's complaints that I was not devoting myself sufficiently to the family, but these pains were the consequences of a choice that I had made. If I did not want to suffer them, then I was free to choose not to work so hard and to structure my time differently. My working hard was not a burden cast upon me by hardhearted fate or a hardhearted clinic director; it was the way I had chosen to live my life and order my priorities. As it happened, I chose not to change my life style. But with my change in attitude, my resentment of my fellow residents vanished. (1978,39-41)
In didactic exempla, such as Wayne Dyer's story of the extra $188.50 charge above, the plot, such as it is, is responsive to the author's need for an illustration. The reader's participation in the creation of meaning of the story is limited by the author's fairly heavy-handed manipulation of the plot and the author's commentary. The reader is never allowed to forget that the reason for come what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. He even explains that he has been a rock climber since his early teens. He concludes as follows.
After an hour had passed, I had finally faced up to defeat, made an attempt to swallow my pride, and determined that there was nothing for it but to shoulder my pack and start back down the path. As I reached for my pack, I noticed the silhouette of a small but strangely shaped figure shuffling into view along the same cliff path that had broi1ght me to the bridge. I saw her but she did not see me. An old bent woman, carrying an enormously wide-mouthed dung basket on her back, she saw nothing but the ground she was so intent on searching. In these bare high places, denuded of trees and fuel, yak dung dries quickly in the parched air and is harvested as a valuable fuel.
She shuffled, head bent, toward me, and seeing at last the two immense booted feet of a westerner, looked up in surprise. Her face wrinkled with humor as she registered her surprise, and in the greeting customary throughout Nepal, she bowed her head toward me with raised hands, saying, "Namaste." The last syllable held like a song. "I greet the God in you."
I inclined my head and clasped my hands to reply, but before I could look up, she went straight across that shivering chaos of wood and broken steel in one movement. I saw her turn for a moment, smile almost mischievously, and then to my astonishment, she disappeared from the sunlight into the dripping darkness of the opposing cliff. Incredulous, but without for one moment letting myself stop and think, I picked up my pack and went straight after her, crossing the broken bridge in seven or eight quick but frightening strides. (47-51)
Because the story includes the almost symbolic image or motif of the broken bridge as well as the contrast between an old but wise woman and a young but frightened man, we can imagine any number of applications for the implied lesson. Whyte himself expands on the idea of seeming impasses in the workplace and how courage and confidence (and perhaps a good example) are needed if individuals are to work through problems. The story itself is well told and memorable. The reader's invitation to identify with the storyteller and the storyteller's thoughts and actions is clear, and the author is free to make fun of his own fearful feelings while at the same time celebrating the dramatic and inspiring end to the story.
The personal insight tale and the personal parable are similar in function; their differences lie primarily in what we might call the quality of dramatic narrative and the sense of traditional motif. Again, since the stories are personal narratives rather than traditional tales, their content in both cases is based on actual experience of the narrator and should not, therefore, exhibit the hallmarks of traditional narrative-specifically, a recognizable, traditional plot and culturally stereotyped characters. However, in the case of the personal parable, the close approximation to the content or motifs of traditional tales and to the archetypical behavior or actions of traditional dramatis personae make the story seem more traditional and in fact more satisfying, "better," or worthy of repetition. The personal parable can stand on its own simply as a good story, even though it has that quality of instruction that makes it particularly effective in a didactic context.
Another kind of personal experience story is a belief that is demonstrated through the events recounted in the story. In the past, folklorists and anthropologists often collected such stories purely for the sake of abstracting and recording the beliefs involved. But as stories, such narratives have the advantage of being regarded as highly dramatic and significant, and thus they can be useful to self-help book writers not so much as evidence for a belief as a memorable rhetorical device for underscoring a piece of advice or a more general attitude or perspective.
Many personal experience stories that recount coincidences would be of this sort. Often the stories are themselves so striking that the point the author is trying to make gets lost, even though the story has great impact. The underlying belief, in other words, stands out as the primary message, whether the author particularly intends to promote that belief or not. For example, consider the following story related by Wayne Dyer. He offers the story for the first time in his book You'll See It When You Believe It, but he refers to it again in later books (Real Magic, Your Sacred Self, and Manifest Your Destiny), always with the clear intention that the reader associate the story with, in this case, the theme of forgiveness. It is Dyer's own story-in fact, his own special kind of insight tale-and there is little reason to doubt that in his mind the story and the theme of forgiveness are inextricably linked. However, I would argue that without his commentary, his readers would not necessarily connect the two. Instead, they would very likely simply take away from the story some reinforcement of a belief in the mystical workings of synchronicity, or perhaps even in messages or actions from beyond the grave. We mentioned Wayne Dyer's story, but let us offer a few excerpts that tell the rest of the story.
I was born in 1940, the youngest of three boys, all under the age of four. My father, whom I have never seen, abandoned this family when I was two. From all accounts, he was a troubled man who avoided honest work, drank excessively, physically abused my mother, and had run-ins with the law and spent some time in prison.
Dyer explains how resentful he became about this abandonment and how he hoped to some day find and confront this man, his father.
In 1970 I received a call from a cousin I had never met, who had heard a rumor that my father had died in New Orleans. But I was in no position to investigate it .... Then .came the turning point in my life. In 1974 a colleague of mine at the university invited me to take an assignment in the South .... When I decided to go I telephoned the infirmary in New Orleans where my cousin had reported my father to have been, and I learned that Melvin Lyle Dyer had died there ten years earlier of cirrhosis of the liver and other complications, and that his body had been shipped to Biloxi, Mississippi.
He then resolves to seek out his father's burial place, and he reflects upon whether or not his father had even given any thought to him and his brothers.
I rented a brand-new car in Columbus to make the drive to Biloxi. I mean brand-new! The odometer read 00000.8 miles. As I settled in behind the wheel I reached for the lap belt and discovered that llie right-hand belt was missing. I got out of the car, took out the entire bench seat, and there was the belt, attached to the floorboard of the car with masking tape, the buckle encased in plastic wrapping, and a rubber band around the plastic wrapping. When I ripped off the tape and the plastic, I found a business card tucked inside the buckle. It read: "Candlelight Inn ... Biloxi, Mississippi," and had a series of arrows leading to the inn. I thought it was odd, since the car had not been used before I rented it, but I stuck the card in my shirt pocket.
I arrived at the outskirts of Biloxi at 4:50 P.M. on Friday and pulled into the first gas station I saw to call the cemeteries in Biloxi. There were three listed, and after a busy signal at the first and no answer at the second, I dialed the third and least impressive listing. In response to my inquiry, an elderly-sounding male voice said he would check to see if my father was buried there. He was gone for a full ten minutes, and just as I was about to give up and wait for Monday morning to do more research, he came back with the words to end a lifetime journey. "Yes," he said, "your father is buried here," and he gave me the date of his interment.
My heart pounded with the emotion of this powerful moment. I asked him if it would be all right if I visited the grave right away.
"Certainly, if you will just put the chain up across the driveway when you leave, you are welcome to come now," he said. Before I could ask for directions, he continued, "Your father is buried adjacent to the grounds of the Candlelight Inn. Just ask someone at the station how to get there."
Shivering, I reached into my shirt pocket and looked at the business card and the arrows on it. I was three blocks from the cemetery.
When I finally stood looking at the marker on the grass, MELVIN LYLE DYER, I was transfixed. During the next two and a half hours I conversed with my father for the very first time. I cried out loud, oblivious to my surroundings.
And I talked out loud, demanding answers from a grave. As the hours passed, I began to feel a deep sense of relief, and I became very quiet. The calmness was overwhelming. I was almost certain that my father was right there with me. I was no longer talking to a gravestone, but was somehow in the presence of something which I could not, and still cannot, explain. (1989,3-6)
The story is well told, but nevertheless, it is apparent that the story itself is memorable, and while we do not believe that Dyer succeeds in tying the theme of forgiveness to the story, and is not so permanent as is the memorable quality of the story itself. People will remember the story far longer than they will the reason it was told (or in this case, written). Like Whyte's personal parable, the story itself seems to have the strength of narrative drama inherent in its structure. The author's commentary is icing on a very solid and delicious cake.
Finally, as we might expect, some authors more or less give in to the power of certain stories and include them with little real hope that the theme or lesson to which they are tied will be remembered much beyond the page. Rather, they seem simply to delight in the opportunity to tell a good story. Such stories clearly could stand on their own as an entertaining anecdote or joke. Though an anecdote is technically about someone else and a joke is fictional, I refer to this last kind of personal narrative as a humorous personal anecdote. Typically, the story has that quality of counterpoint between two worlds of discourse and expectation that characterizes the joke. And, because it is a personal narrative, some of the humor comes as well from the reader's knowing that the author is making fun of himself or herself and actually offering some of that friendly psychological exposure that creates intimacy.
One very short example comes from the book What Love Asks of Us by husband and wife Nathaniel and Devers Branden. The authors introduce the notion of avoiding too much seriousness and its inhibiting effects, especially in sexual relations. Devers Branden then relates the following story: By way of illustrating what we mean by lightness of spirit, I will just mention an occasion when Nathaniel believed we had finished making love while I entertained the notion that perhaps we hadn't. Borrowing one of the tools I sometimes use in therapy, a Snoopy hand-puppet (I will not attempt to explain), I improvised a new use for it in bed that neither of us had contemplated before. (1987, 138)
From Healing Narrative to Worldview
Narratives of experience as seen above, are models of past events as well as models for future experience. And as we have seen sofar, sel fhelp books are prone to presenting claims on the basis of the writer's authority alone, not even adding the weak support of anecdotal evidence.
Frequently used, narratives in the third person, are typically short segments of text in which persons of the writer's acquaintance, or clients he has met in his practice, act to put a point across. But where third person narratives abound in the self help literature by such authors as Louise Hay, Shakti Gawain, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer and the others seen above, they also make frequent appearances in those selfhelp books that propound alternative therapies.
So for example, the rhetorical legitimacy is given to the “Bach remedy” itself, rather than to the unorthodox theory that underlies Edward Bach's specific form of complementary medicine.
A young woman participating in a meditation camp cut three quarters of the way through the tip of her finger when preparing vegetables. The cut bled profusely and no doctor was immediately available. She was given a few drops of Rescue Remedy in water every few minutes as a first-aid measure, and a pressure bandage was put on to stop the bleeding. When the bleeding had stopped, Rescue Remedy Cream was cautiously applied to the wound surfaces, and finger and fingertip were held together with dressing . By the fifth day, the wound had healed completely.1
The second narrative, taken from the same text on Bach flower remedies, goes further in that it establishes an important distinction. The alternative therapy is not only efficacious, but actually works better than conventional medicine.
A little girl of 16 months pulled a tablecloth off the table. Freshly made tea caused severe bums on her head and all down her right side, and she had to be admitted to hospital. Her mother had immediately given her Rescue Remedy, also taking it herself . The doctors felt they could not offer much hope when they saw the extent of the bums. That day and throughout the following day the mother treated the bums with Rescue Remedy Cream. The doctors let her do it, for apart from pain relief there was nothing they could do at that point. The child was discharged from the hospital on the fifth day-"a miracle cure". 2
Healing methods in use in the self help milieu differ greatly in terms of the actual practices involved. Nevertheless, there are underlying assumptions uniting many of them. The following examples show how third-person narratives can be used to underpin such assumptions. The first, consisting of several sections taken from a rather long case history, illustrates the wounded-healer legend element: the common belief that healing abilities come to those who are able to transcend great personal suffering.
Marnie, forty-four, is a healer, a genuinely anointed healer, who began her work following a seven-year-long "dark night of the soul" in which she had to heal herself When Marnie was thirty, she was a social worker in Scotland, lived an active life, had a number of friends, and enjoyed her work immensely. Then she was diagnosed with an "undiagnosable" condition. With each month, Mamie developed increasing pain, sometimes in her back, sometimes as intensive migraines, sometimes in her legs.. Melanie spiraled into depression. One night while she was weeping, Marnie said she reached "surrender". "I realized that I might never feel better, and if that's the case, what would I then say to God? I surrendered completely. I said, 'whatever you choose for me, so be it. Just give me strength'''. Mamie's pain instantly eased, and he!' hands filled with heat-not ordinary body heat, but "spiritual heat".. Marnie is now a greatly loved and highly respected healer.3
The second example, in which Depak Chopra relates an anecdote from his family history, illustrates an equally common presupposition, namely that belief in illness engenders illness.4
For years I heard about the terrible allergies my mother suffered in [Jammu]. Her tormentor was the pollen of a native flower that covered the ground when it blossomed every spring. It caused her to have severe asthma attacks; her body swelled, and on her skin appeared large welts and blisters . One spring the rains had made the roads impassable, and my father decided that they should fly back home early. They boarded the plane, and after an hour it touched down. [My father] put his hands reassuringly on my mother's arm, but he could already see the red spots on her skin and the effort it took for her just to breathe. My mother's allergy was so severe that the steward ran up and asked what was wrong. "There's nothing you can do", my father said, "It's the pollen in Jammu". 'Jammu?". The steward looked puzzled. "We haven't landed there yet".5
Both the "wounded healer" legend element and the "belief engenders illness" element are metaphysical beliefs that elude any demonstration in the stricter sense of the word.6 Narratives such as these can act persuasively by giving a rhetorical confirmation of such basic assumptions.
One instance of healing can also become a singular event that instantiates an entire anthropology and cosmology. Sitting before me in desolation and despair is a rather colorless woman, with an uncaring and uncared for look about her. The signals she is sending out are very weak, and yet, as I regard her, the personal or "true" aura, although paled almost to the point of insignificance, lights -up in my consciousness. I detach. In the flashback of time, I see the glowing, beautiful soul (or aura) dearly revealed and shining through. My hand reaches for the Rescue remedy I lift the bottle, and in the other hand I hold my torch, the light I use to release the energies within the colors.7
The generalities of such a narrative are, of course, perfectly understandable even for a reader with no knowledge of the technique involved, Aura-Soma therapy. References to past lives, embedded in the text without being spelled out, make sense for readers with a general appreciation of New Age doctrines (termed "New Age Spiritualities of Life" by Paul Heelas 2008). So does the term "energies". The concept of a "true aura", the equation between soul and aura, and the cryptic references to "Rescue" belong to the specifics of this therapy.8
Healing narratives such as those exemplified above constitute phases in a kind of progressive rhetoric: from the belief that healing is efficacious, to accepting that it is more efficacious than any competing systems, to finally being open to the idea that healing has these properties because human beings and the cosmos are constituted in a specific way. However, healing narratives speak not only of healing as a method, but also of those being healed: who they are, what processes of illness and recovery they pass through. Healing narratives subtly reinforce specific notions of personhood, of the character and development of illness, and provide a structuring script through which relevant parts of the reader's life history can be interpreted. More or less diffuse symptoms can be given a label. Changes in the experiences of the reader are subsumed under the ready-made schemata of the healing narrative. A positive outcome can be anticipated, since collections of healing narratives are prime examples of selective reporting and almost by definition exclude failed cases.
Many texts present what would emically be considered somatic, psychological and existential or social problems together, without any distinction, in a way that has earned these methods the epithet holistic. Thus in a central text on crystal healing, the mineral Kunzite is said to be useful in meditation, to make people more loving, to balance negative emotional states and help the circulatory system.9 Aromatherapist Julia Lawless recommends jasmine essence for migraine as well as lack of confidence.10 Judy Hall claims that past life regressions can help those afflicted with epilepsy, sexual problems and phobias.11 Diane Stein recommends Reiki healing for relieving pain, speeding the healing process, stopping bleeding, relaxing the recipient and balancing chakra and aura energies.12 At the far end of this spectrum, another Reiki healer, Tanmaya Honervogt, includes narratives of people who have been helped with problems ranging from physical illness such as allergies and inflammatory pains, to psychological problems such as depression, to a medley of needs such as healing pets and reviving potted plants, to fulfilling diffuse, culturally constructed desires such as "finding one's inner self", "enhancing one's intuition" and even "balancing one's organs".13 Narratives of healing similarly juxtapose or even conflate the tales of people cured from physical symptoms with stories of clients whose emotional troubles were alleviated. Intuitive healer Caroline Myss presents case studies of clients whose physical and emotional states are closely interconnected: their chronic pain goes with their compulsive behavior, back injuries have to do with anguish over failed business ventures, cancer is linked with fear of loneliness.14 Part of the healing narrative is the story of the treatment itself.
The narrative may briefly describe the intervention of the self help made healer, and will naturally be couched in the terminological framework of the specific method employed: what crystals were placed on the patient's body, what aromatic oils were applied, how did the energies feel during the healing session? They will cue the reader with only a modicum of knowledge of the method to an understanding of what will happen during treatment. A narrative that affirms that "Usui Reiki energies" feel alternately hot and cold, whereas "Tera Mai Reiki energies" feel like effervescent bubbles or small electrical impulses, will lead those learning these techniques from self help book, to interpret a variety of vague proprioceptions in the appropriate way.
For most recipients, it is reasonable to assume that the point of the treatment is not just to get diagnosed or to experience the healing itself, but to get better. The healing narrative has typical ways of coming to grips with the effects of healing on the patient. Thus, ever since the inception of post-Enlightenment alternative medicine, especially of mesmerism, it has been a commonplace within numerous forms of ritual healing that a crisis of some sort is to be expected. Before the patient recovers, there will be a period during which the symptoms will be exacerbated. This belief can be found in methods as diverse as mesmerism, 18 homeopathy and 19 crystal healing.
Most critical of the above is Steve Salerno in his book Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (2005). In his book he explains how the talks and tapes offer a momentary boost of inspiration that fades after a few weeks, turning buyers into repeat customers. While Salerno was a self-help book editor for Rodale Press (whose motto at the time was "to show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better"), extensive market surveys revealed that "the most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months." The irony of "the eighteen-month rule" for this genre, Salerno says, is this: "If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us--at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again."
1 Scheffer Bach Flower Therapy, p. 206. Rescue Remedy essentially consists of water infused with the "energies" of Star of Bethlehem, Rock Rose, Impatiens, Cherry Plum and Clematis. What the down-to-earth narrative does not indicate is the highly unorthodox belief system behind the reported cures. Sudden noises, accidents, negative feelings of all kinds are said to cause energetic traumas, in which subtle (spiritual) elements have withdrawn from the physical body.
2 M.Scheffer Bach Flower Therapy,1990 p. 206.
3 C. Myss Anatomy qf the Spirit,1997,pp. 226 f.
4 The roots of this belief go back at least as far as to the students of F.A.Mesmer in central Europe, and in N. America the nineteenth century healer Phineas Parkhurst Quimby.
5 D.Chopra Quantum Healing,1989, pp. 117 f.
6 Psychosomatic medicine would accept the more modest statement that "some beliefs may contribute to causing illness", but selfhelp authors are apt to draw much more far-reaching conclusions.
7 V.Wall Miracle of Colour Healing, 1993, p. 114 f.
8 Dalichow & Booth Aura-Soma, pp. 34 ff.
9 K.Rafaell Crystal Enlightenment, 1985,pp. 114 ff.
10 J. Lawless Aromatherapy, 1995,pp. 163 ff.
11 J.Hall Past Lift Therapy,1996, pp. 15 fr.
12 D.Stein Essential Reiki, 1995,p. 21.
13 T.Honervogt,The Power of Reiki,1998. Reiki is constructed around numerous such narratives.
14 C.Myss Anatomy if the Spirit, 1997, pp.158,200, 245 ff
18 Frank Pattie, Mesmer and animal magnetism, 1994: 57 ff.
19 B.Bravo Crystal Healing Secrets, 1988, p. 13.