It was 2006, and the book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, which followed the film by the same name, came to revolutionise our bookstores and bookshelves. A new era for the self-help industry appeared to have begun.
Seeking change and progression is a natural human habit. Having said that, change is never absolute and never-ending, and the idea that the answer to all of our problems is out there has built an industry that it’s estimated to be worth $11 billion only in the United States. Therefore, I believe that, to the benefit of all people who have sought growth through the numerous books, multimedia, tv programs, telephone lines, conferences and retreats, it is fair to ask whether this industry has self-improved itself over the last decade.
There are certainly more tools and media to access the content of self-help materials. The TED talks are the living proof of that.
It used to be the case that the writer became the speaker, and the speaker became the guru, but that cycle has been broken and re-brought to life as we have developed new ways to communicate and the speed in which we can access the world around us has increased significantly.
As our world has become far more fast-paced than reading a book, listening to CDs, and travelling to a costly seminar, perhaps in another city or country, the need for the adaptation of the self-help industry into more tech-savvy territory became a necessity, with the surge of apps and webinars.
But for all that it’s worth and how much it is expanding, the self-help industry remains highly under-regulated, specifically in terms of who claims to be an expert in what, along with the fact that it doesn’t appear to be any reliable independent records or statistics of the results of any particular self-improvement method.
The market remains alive by mostly reassuring its followers that they can achieve anything, provided that they change their mindset and attitude in the face of adversity, and by the outstanding capacity to produce and express ideas which feed this premise.
Some might say that it can be rather cynical to blame victims for their failure, avoiding to place an individual in a social construct where there are environmental elements as well circumstances which can affect events in one’s life.
Are all impoverished individuals to blame for their own conditions? Are victims of sexual or physical abuse at fault for what has happened to them?
In 2009, the self-improvement “guru”, James Arthur Ray, who had appeared in the original 2006 film“The Secret”, hosted a retreat in the middle of the Arizona desert, urging attendees to enter a “sweat lodge”, an appropriation of a purification ceremony used by Indigenous people of the Americas for the purposes of prayer and healing.
Its nearly 60 participants packed themselves skin-to-skin, into a 415 square feet hut while hot rocks and water were brought inside, in order to create hot steam and reach sizzling temperatures, with the promise of coming out of the experience with a fresh and clean perspective about life which would ultimately propel their self-growth. As a result, three people died, and 19 others were hospitalised. Ray was convicted of negligent homicide, and effectively serving 20 months in prison of the original six years sentence.
The 2016 CNN film, Enlighten Us, follows Ray after being released from prison, as he attempts to rebuild his life and self-help career, but also interviews some of the attendees of the retreat in 2009, who expressed that upon calls for aid of participants who had fainted or have stopped breathing, Ray had ignored their pleas and encourage them to push through.
In numerous presentations he appears to start by mentioning what he calls “a terrible accident” as a starting point for his speeches, and while at some points he claims he is responsible for the events, at others, he seems to convey the idea that this was something that happened to him, and that his conviction was an unfair use of the law against him. One might say that for all the guru knowledge and incredible public-speaking abilities that Ray demonstrates, he does not seem to be able to connect the dots.
While sentencing Ray the judge said: “The evidence from the trial and presentence proceedings show that Mr Ray, as misguided as he was, believed he was helping people. And the evidence is that people believed they were being helped…”
As long as Ray and other gurus will continue to offer their rather incredible capacities to inspire others, we are constantly going to be seeking advice. Especially because more of it is being made available, and it continues to be profitable and technology facilitates it even further, yet, we need to remain the free-thinking analytical creatures humans are, discerning truths from fantasy, and allowing for common sense to prevail.