Don’t get me wrong. I like a good bit of advice on personal development the same as anyone else.
Personal development fills in many gaps in our mainstream education and offers a seam of deep fulfilment and connection with other human beings. And it doesn’t need to come from a source that is a qualified expert. In fact, the source can be, let’s say, a little esoteric at times. At times of transition, I’ve visited astrologers, psychics and tarot readers, of varying ability.
I’ve sought their reassurance and I was pretty happy if they just reiterated or confirm what is on my mind. At vulnerable times, I guess I allowed some of their views to influence me more than they should, but then your mum, best friend or favourite talk show host can do that to you too, right?
I have also experienced huge and I do mean HUGE learning, from experiences, books, talks, courses, interactions and education that gave me great personal insight. These experiences brought about profound shifts in my experience of myself and my life. Heck some of them felt like they changed my life completely. Like I came into the room one way and left quite another.
The accumulation of what I learned turned me into the person I am today. They moulded the career I have and the work I do.
Feel the benefits of personal development here.
This very natural impulse to seek guidance is as old as we are. The seeker can begin his or her search in folklore and the rites of ancient pagan traditions found in every society.
We can explore the world faiths and their mystic traditions. Read the ancient texts and study Sufism, Kabbalah and The Gospel of St Thomas. Now we can easily take ourselves on retreats designed in the varied Buddhist meditation traditions. We can learn to spin, in the ecstasy of a Sufi dervish ritual.
For as long as we have existed, we have constructed stories, rituals, prayers and songs, to help us frame and anchor our experience of life. They can help us move through life with a degree of grace and wisdom; give us courage and insight and can produce ecstatic and mind-altering moments.
Yet, for every positive aspect there is also the shadow. The very profound and mysterious nature that makes this kind of learning so useful for us can also be used to harm.
The dark side of it…
Andrew Cohen is an example of this. A relatively modern self-proclaimed spiritual guru, of the 80’s and 90’s in the USA, he ran a retreat center based loosely on his experience of Zen monastic tradition. People came from around the world to spend time in this community. In 2013? This happened.
Tip: You know you are in trouble as a guru when even your mum complains about your behavior.
A number of retreat members started to speak out, about demeaning experiences that they had had, at the hands of Mr. Cohen. Claims were made of extortion. Forced marriages, forced sex and forced abortions. Retreatants were asked to commit acts of violence or to publicly humiliate others in the group. It was not a good look. Mr. Cohen was dismissed from his position as the head of the centre but amazingly, no charges were brought against him.
Last month, he was back on the circuit doing a speaking tour, in London.
I am surprised to report this.
If getting fired from your own retreat centre and receiving worldwide coverage concerning your abuse of power weren’t indicators that perhaps it was time to consider a career change, I am not sure what is!
At the event, Mr Cohen made no explicit mention or apology regarding these claims, only obliquely mentioning ‘integrating all that he had been through’ and ‘his ego having got the better of him’.
How do I know that he said that? Because I was there.
I only found out what I have shared with you after the talk!
This was odd for me as I tend to investigate the background of new teachers and traditions before I turn up. But for whatever reason, an email landed in my inbox from his marketing department and it intrigued me. It was in the third person. Which was unusual. It spoke of Andrew’s painful experience of the last few years but did not elaborate further, thus piquing my interest.
I thought perhaps he had been bereaved. That something truly tragic had occurred. I was interested to see what a practitioner from the Zen tradition, which works with the acceptance of suffering, might have to say about that kind of experience. So, I just booked a ticket to the talk and thought no more about it until I got there.
Once I was in the room, though he spoke very eloquently on various topics, there was definitely some kind of elephant in the room. I got suspicious.
I began to feel that something was off. Yet it wasn’t till I left and got online that I learned what I shared with you above. Later I reflected, amazed that there was such a strong seam of self-pity coming from our guru that suggested he still didn’t quite get just what he had done, to both his followers and to the industry as a whole.
This is how it happens. This is how we can fall under the spell of a ‘guru’ who may well not have our best interests at heart. The guru has tremendous power. On their platform, in their posh seat, with all eyes on them. With the hopes and fears of their followers or audience or participants, in the palm of their hands.
The Good, The Bad and The Flexible!
One of the challenges with this personal development world is that it is largely unregulated. I can fully see the benefits of this and the challenges that might arise from regulation of the industry and speakers in it, given the sometimes esoteric or maverick requests that they can make of their followers or delegates. And yet herein lies the rub. How do you know when what you are being asked to do or say feels wrong for you? You listen to your guts, right?
And yet, what if everyone around you, maybe hundreds or even thousands of people, are happy to carry out what is being asked? It could be as simple as closing your eyes for a guided visualization or as challenging as walking on hot coals. We all have our comfort zones and to some extent, we come to do this work to challenge them.
Yet, research shows that we can override our gut instinct when everyone around us acts as though this is normal.
There is an experiment, related to groupthink. Six people are in a room. They are looking at two pieces of string. One, let’s call it String A, is clearly longer than the other, string B. Of the six people in the room, only one is the actual subject of the experiment. The other five have been planted there.
“Which string is the longest?”, the subject confidently says A. Then the other five people are asked. They all, one by one say “B”. The subject looks confused.
Around they go again with the same question. The subject gives the correct answer, the other five an incorrect answer. The subject gets more confused.
Left long enough, most times, the subject overrides his or her knowledge of the facts and chooses to side with the group, taking whatever view, they take on which is the longer string – even if he/she can visually affirm that their view is wrong.
This is how things get dangerous.
We want our gurus and teachers to be a little maverick in their method. We don’t want Norman the Beancounter from number 62 Acacia Avenue, we want Oprah, we want Rajneesh, we want Tony Robbins. All three of these inspiring educators have their fans and their detractors. They have their phenomenal moments and their slightly less so. Being human does not exclude them from doing good work.
So, it is tricky. Einstein was a genius but he was a very cruel husband and father. Bikram Choudhary, whose yoga practice was a big part of my life for a decade, was recently convicted of racial and sexist discrimination. Many of our great teachers and thinkers were rough around the edges, so we can’t dismiss them just because they aren’t perfect.
Yet I want to keep my clients’ safe. I want them to explore and know themselves in nurturing and safe environments. I want them to access free or reasonably priced education that is their birthright. That helps them know who they are and navigate their way in this world in the most positive ways possible. And I want them to tolerate discomfort, challenge and stretch themselves along the way.
So here are my headlines of taking care of yourself in the personal development field. Then I will give you My Top 5 Places and Spaces for this kind of growth.
Erica’s ‘Keep It Real’ Guide
1. YOUR SOVEREIGNTY OVER YOUR LIFE
No one should coerce, humiliate or force you into anything that compromises your personal values, privacy or sense of safety.
The invitation may be there…
To (and I have done all of these); jump, with a harness, from a great height (Insight), to be naked in a group of over 100 other suddenly naked people (HAI), to be silent for ten days (Vipassana), to dance like no one is watching (5 Rhythms).
These exercises can be potent.
But you should never, ever, ever feel under duress. You should never, ever feel obliged to hand over money. This is true whether you are a zillionaire or whether this is the last bean in the tin. And any company worth its salt will have a cooling off period for any expensive educational purchases made in the heat of a workshop or a sales pitch.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH
Unlike me at Andrew Cohen, take recommendations from real people. Show caution and care when accepting online reviews. Some educators, Marie Forleo and Roger Hamilton are good examples of this (and are both people I have bought and learned from), work very hard to keep all criticism of themselves and their brand off the internet. I think this is wrong.
Even if you are good, you will always have fans and detractors. So be sure to be suspicious if there are only ever glowing reviews. Credible organisations, be they personal development, coaching training firms, nutritionists, healers or other individual practitioners, will have open days where you can try before you buy or do a short taster session. They will also (except for psychotherapists, for reasons of client confidentiality), be happy to put you in touch with previous students before you make a buying decision.
Also, like any investment, shop around. There is a huge range of styles, teachers, formats and one size does not fit all. Tony Robbins is loud and clappy. The Quakers are not. Landmark Forum works by using analysis and mind-based argument. Insight Seminars (my preference), uses a more heartfelt and gentle approach. Find training and teachers that align with your values. And trust your guts.
3. BE OPEN
Having said all this, you do need to be up for the adventure. What my mother used to call “The holiday fun”, by which she meant the joy of sleeping rough on Mykonos beach because you missed the last ferry, but anyway 🙂
Within your personal boundaries and in the structure of a credible organization, there is value in letting your guard down and trying some things out. If you do what you have always done, you will get what you always got. Every safe space will allow plenty of time for you to reflect on the experience of the exercise and to extract all you can learn from it. So, allow yourself to do something that scares you.
In safe spaces, I have, with encouragement, tried out these experiments…
Asked a stranger for money
Been rocked like a baby by 30 adults (Insight Seminars)
Taken suggestions from a group and turned these into a character and plot live on stage (The Maydays)
Had my coaching deconstructed by seven other coaches
Had my body painted from head to toe by three people I met the day before and helped to paint their bodies too (John Hawkin, Tantra Workshop)
Put on a red nose and allowed whatever emotion came up to be seen by the group
Learned to run 5k by pretending that I was being chased by zombies (Zombie Run)
Told a personal story from my life in front of a live audience (School of Storytelling, Forest Row)
Practised selling a random item as though I was on QVC with a producer whispering into my earpiece (show the glove… that’s it and smile…..)
Made a shape with my body to mirror my relationship with my dad
Created a dialogue between a My Little Pony and a clockwork chicken to better understand my inner critic
My Top 5 Places and Spaces for Personal Development
Ooooh, I could go on a really long time about ‘workshops, workshop leaders and books I have known and loved’.
1. Forgiveness + Personal Insight
I love Insight Seminars. They turned me into the work I have dedicated my life to, helping people find meaning and fulfilment in their careers and their lives. They run weekend workshops around the world for around £400. Go. Learn how to drop your stuff with your parents and breakthrough your limiting belief.
You will be a happier person out the other side.
I go every couple of years to repeat Insight 1 and I keep learning. I have also heard very good things about the pricey Hoffmann Process. Some people love Landmark Forum – it’s a bit aggressive for me.
2. Meditation + Mindfulness + Connection
Meditation is, for me, the perfect way to access heart and peace in a frenetic world.
I’ve been visiting Gaia House, annually since I was 18. They offer many wonderful silent retreats with a variety of teachers from around the world in a former nunnery near Totnes.
You can take Vipassana – mindfulness instruction at local classes near you or on a 10-day retreat. This is also totally silent and gives you the ability to experience bliss and serenity once you’ve spent about 4 days listening to your ‘monkey mind’ go wild in your head!
The Triratna Foundation of the Western Buddhist Order has some lovely centres all over the world if you fancy something a bit more chattier.
Drop-in Mindfulness classes are popping up everywhere.
I started my journey with meditation by buying The Little Book of Calm. A simple way to start.
If you like to move, check out embodied meditation in the form of 5 Rhythms. These wonderful, music-filled 90-minute sessions encourage free-form movement, interaction with others if you wish and are a wonderful form of exercise.
Yoga, yoga, yoga. Iyengar, Bikram, Flow, Hatha, Shivananda. Learn the basics from YouTube. Go to a class. Try them all. Have a yoga holiday at least once in your life (try Shivananda in Kerala or a chill out at www.ecofaralya.com in Turkey)
3. Rediscovery Of Your Creativity
Everyone should read and do The Artist’s Way. This is a beautiful ‘course in a book’ that helps you rediscover your creativity. Get some friends round and do it together once a week for ten weeks and see who you are at the end. It was doing exactly that, that helped me realize, at 26, that even though I did not have a book published yet, that I was indeed, a writer.
I’ve really enjoyed taking classes in theatre improv with Amused Moose in London and The Maydays in Brighton. I think I even took a few in San Fran. Improv helps with spontaneity. It makes it cool to get things ‘wrong’. It’s a delightful and surprisingly fun way to play as an adult.
Contact improv is another version of this that uses the body more. You can also learn to improvise in rap, poetry or song format.
Another joy in my life has been the work of Vivien Gladwell and his clowning training Nose to Nose. Clowning is about embracing the art of being lost and learning to be vulnerable.
My storytelling education came, in the main, from Roi Gal-Or at the School of Storytelling at Emerson College, Sussex. They offer a wonderful range of short and extended courses in the art of telling stories. I also sometimes run workshops on how to tell powerful stories. Contact me here to find out more.
4. Personal Coaching, Therapy and Group Therapy
I couldn’t possibly leave the list without recommending coaching, could I? I have a business coach and mentor and have hired different coaches over the years to support me in my growth, including a nutrition and wellness coach Ellen G – who is a wonderful human being.
Coaching and therapy are great for those moments of transition. They offer a structured support system for reflecting on your journey and making plans for the future.
If you are a coach or planning to be one, make sure to have a good supervisor to support you. Training for coaching has become a very expensive business. Check out a few providers before making an informed choice.
Therapy has also been hugely helpful to me. I have been seeing my current therapist for two years and we ain’t done yet. She allows me the space and insight to explore the scary places. Again, try a few out before committing – there are many schools of therapy. The BACP is a good place to find a credible referral.
Other forms of group therapy I have tried included the work of Osho at Osho Leela (not for me – bit too sexually inclined), The Ohm Group Meditation, The Human Awareness Institute, which does some interesting work on intimacy and various Tantra (John Hawkin and Jewels Wingfield) workshops, with and without a partner.
5. Your Local Library
So many wonderful books! I love the work of Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I take time most days to study the book A Course In Miracles. And then there’s Your Life Plan – that one’s pretty good too!
But I am not your guru. No one outside of you is.
You are your guru and your own best teacher.
Share with me below – what workshops, tools, spiritual practice has informed your life and work? Tell us a story about your experience.