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The Siren Call of Modern Pied Pipers

Article Index
The Siren Call of Modern Pied Pipers
Effects of New Age Training
Ethical and Legal Considerations
Danger Signs of Harmful New Age Influence

by Lawrence A. Pile

In an article in Working Woman entitled "Wacky management ideas that work," Nancy K. Austin wrote, "... making it in modern times requires staking out brave new competitive territory. And to do that, the tool managers most urgently need is imagination."{1} Few CEOs, managers, or even shop foremen would argue with that observation. Where differences arise, however, is in proposals offered to produce or stimulate this needed imagination. Along with new or expanded imagination and creativity, corporations large and small throughout North America are increasingly looking for ways to augment productivity (and profits) by helping their employees to more effective performance through stress reduction, self-regulation, accelerated learning, and accepting a greater share of responsibility for themselves and their companies.{2}

To accomplish these commendable and even necessary goals, numerous businesses are turning to a mushrooming crop of training and consultation firms offering workshops, seminars, and courses which claim to transform employees into highly motivated and efficient visionaries and producers. Among the major corporations which have enlisted these firms are AT&T, GM, Ford, IBM, Calvin Klein, Westinghouse, Dupont, Scott Paper, Campbell Soup, Lockheed, RCA, Procter and Gamble, All State Insurance, NEC, Boeing Aerospace, General Foods, GE, and McDonald's-in short, approximately 20% of the Fortune 500 corporations,{3} plus innumerable smaller companies.

And it is not only business, but also government that is jumping on the creativity training band-wagon. The IRS, CIA, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have all engaged these training companies. Many of the trainers, however, use techniques and promote philosophies at variance with the moral and religious convictions of employees who are urged, and sometimes required, to attend the workshops.

Most often, these techniques and philosophies arise from the broad and variegated matrix of the so-called New Age Movement (NAM). And this fact has caused a great deal of controversy in and around the workplace, reported in numerous books and articles. The core of the controversy is highlighted by Arthur Johnson's statement that "There's a fine line between corporate culture and corporate cults."{4} Consider the following:

Steven Hiatt, an evangelical Christian,was fired from his job as a senior manager of a car dealership after first recommending, and then urging the cancellation of, a New Age training program offered by the Pacific Institute of Seattle. He says he became disillusioned with the program, then called "New Age Thinking," on the third night of a facilitators training workshop for employers he attended. That was when, he says, the instructor "set a very spiritual mood and began talking about life after death. He urged us to question our concepts of truth, and to set spiritual goals using the program's techniques and goals. He said the real reason for the training was to save the world." That was enough for Hiatt, who got up and walked out.{5}

William Gleaton, former manager of human resources for a Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Albany, Ga., also lost his job after objecting to a training program offered by the Pacific Institute.{6} He sued and eventually reached an out of court settlement with the company.  In May 1989 eight former employees of the DeKalb Farmers Market in Georgia also accepted an out-of-court settlement of their suit against their former employer charging that they had been fired for refusing to attend a training program they claimed promoted New Age ideas and techniques. The program in question was the Forum, said by detractors to be a watered down version of Werner Erhard's 1970s est (Erhard Seminars Training). According to the plaintiffs, "...the Forum's espousal of the supremacy of man violate[d] their belief in the primacy of God or other higher beings. Supervisors who declined to participate and recruit their employees were harassed, humiliated and interrogated."{7}

Also in 1989 five employees of an electronics company in California sued their employer for requiring them to attend "communications and time-management courses" taught by an organization, Applied Scholastics, that proved to be a branch of the controversial Church of Scientology. The employees alleged in their suit that "the training sessions amounted to recruitment and indoctrination into Scientology."{8}

In the spring of 1991 almost three dozen Broward County, Fla., employees were sent at county expense to attend training offered by Lifespring, a program similar to Werner Erhard's est and Forum. Though some workers said they enjoyed the program and even went on to further training at their own expense, other employees disliked it and balked at going further with it, while still others dropped out without completing the first sessions. According to an article in the Broward County Sun-Sentinel, "Employees were required to attend Lifespring after work, from about 6 p.m. to midnight for three days, then all day on the weekend."{9} In February 1992 Franklin County, Oh., Children Services discontinued staff training by the Forum (at taxpayers' expense) after a rash of negative news reports and complaints from the community.{10}

Why all the fuss? Simply that many of the seminars and workshops being offered promote New Age concepts to which some employees object, and they have been charged with using methods and techniques that instill these concepts without the participants' realizing what is happening. What is the New Age? In one sense, the New Age is not really new. It arose gradually and almost imperceptibly out of the hippie movement spawned during the turbulent decade of the '60s. Building on the foundation of the '50s' beatniks, who were into Zen and other forms of Eastern spirituality, the hippies eventually grew up to enter the corporate world, often taking with them their mystical spiritual and philosophical worldview. During the '70s the so-called "Human Potential Movement" came to the fore, led by Erhard and est (and its later incarnation, the Forum, marketed through Transformational Technologies). Erhard has acknowledged that est was most heavily influenced by Zen, Mind Dynamics, and Scientology. Other influences were the German atheist philosopher Nietzsche, the Indonesian occult movement Subud, and the Hindu gurus Swami Muktananda and Satya Sai Baba.{11} Other similar human potential programs and training firms established about the same time or since are Lifespring (John Hanley), Insight (John- Roger Hinkins: Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness), Actualizations, Krone Training, PSI World, Pecos River Institute, Sportsmind, and the Pacific Institute (Louis Tice).

Underlying all of these programs, to one degree or another, are the following concepts:  All of reality is part of one essence. This is the Eastern philosophical view known as monism which teaches that "all is one." In other words, there is no ultimate distinction between God and creation, or between one individual and another. The distinctions we see are unreal or illusionary.  This means (among other things) that God and man are the same-"If you don't see me God, it's because you don't see yourself as God," Shirley MacLaine told an attendee at a seminar in the New York Hilton.{12}  If man is God, then man has unlimited potential, able to accomplish anything he desires and is able to visualize-an attractive idea, no doubt, to many corporate managers, and illustrated in such immensely popular films as "The Karate Kid" and the "Star Wars" trilogy.  Further, if "all is one," then there are not only no distinctions between God and man, there are also no distinctions between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil. In fact, all distinctions are mere illusion. To quote Erhard, "What is, is, and what isn't, isn't."{13} Or, as the est graduation booklet put it, "Obviously the truth is what's so. Not so obviously, it's also so what."{14} Thus, the problem of humanity, as MacLaine said above, is that we have forgotten our own divinity. This lapse of memory must be overcome by undergoing what is called a "paradigm shift," a drastic change in the way we view the world around us. As New Age populist Marilyn Ferguson wrote, "A paradigm shift is a distinctly new way of thinking about old problems... A new paradigm involves a principle that was present all along but unknown to us. It includes the old as a partial truth, one aspect of How Things Work, while allowing for things to work in other ways as well. By its larger perspective, it transforms traditional knowledge and the stubborn new observations, reconciling their apparent contradictions..."{15}

This paradigm shift is accomplished by any one or more of numerous "psychotechnologies." These "intentional triggers of transformative experiences" include "sensory isolation and sensory overload...; biofeedback...; autogenic training...; 'consciousness-raising' strategies...; hypnosis and self-hypnosis...; meditation of every description: Zen, Tibetan Buddhist, chaotic, Transcendental, Christian, Kabbalist, kundalini, raja yoga, tantric yoga, etc...; Sufi stories, koans, and dervish dancing...; seminars like est, Silva Mind Control, Actualizations, and Lifespring...; Arica, Theosophy, and Gurdjieffian systems...; Logotherapy...Primal Therapy...Gestalt therapy...; Science of Mind...; A Course in Miracles...," etc.{16}  The frequent result of all such techniques is that the individual comes to sense the dissolution of his person and a oneness with the Universe, referred to in Eastern religions as enlightenment, cosmic-consciousness, or God-consciousness.