The Siren Call of the Modern Pied Pipers

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.

Effects of New Age Training

Many of these techniques and more are taught and practiced in the creativity and human potential seminars mentioned above. Especially prevalent are various forms of meditation (often called "centering"), employing "creative visualization" or "guided imagery," often telling participants to encounter their higher selves or inner wisdom, or a "master teacher" who will guide them on their inner journey. Essentially hypnotic in nature, these exercises induce an altered state of consciousness in most participants that makes them more highly suggestible to ideas communicated while in this state.

Some training workshops employ what Dr. Michael Langone calls "assaultive" techniques.{17} Though some programs have discontinued or modified these techniques, in the past they have included verbal abuse, accusations, and enforced "confessions" of failure or inadequacy, all in a large-group context. All of these serve to "undermine a person's basic consciousness, reality awareness, beliefs and world view, emotional control, and defense mechanisms.{18} As Singer and Ofshe observe, "...attacking the stability and quality of evaluations of self-concepts is the principle effective technique used in the conduct of a coercive thought reform and behavior control program.{19}

Whether the techniques employed are of the hypnotic or assaultive variety, the effects are frequently the same. Though there often are positive results in terms of the individual becoming more self-confident, stress-free, creative, or whatever, there are also frequently negative results not commonly admitted by the trainers. Singer and Ofshe state that "[t]he majority reaction seen in people who leave thought reform a varying degree of anomie,   a sense of alienation and confusion resulting from the loss or weakening of previously valued norms, ideals, or goals...The person feels like an immigrant or refugee who enters a new culture."{20} This sense can be overcome in time as the person adjusts his or her behavior and thought to the new "paradigm."

But Singer and Ofshe (and others) have found much more serious problems occurring in a significant minority of individuals, possibly as many as 15%,{21} including "reactive schizoaffective-like psychoses" (i.e., they suffer psychotic episodes), "posttraumatic stress disorders" similar to many Vietnam veterans, "atypical dissociative disorders," "relaxation-induced anxiety," and "miscellaneous reactions...such as difficulty in concentration...; self-mutilation; phobias; suicide and homicide;" and psychologically induced strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and other ailments.{22} In rare cases participants in such seminars, specifically est and Lifespring, have actually died during sessions,{23} largely as a result of inadequate screening for people with delicate constitutions and lack of properly trained staff to intervene in a timely fashion to prevent serious harm.

Ethical and Legal Considerations

While it may be argued that in spite of these negative consequences the techniques frequently "work," producing the desired effects for the benefit of the individual and his or her company, from an ethical perspective that is not the point. In many cases (in fact, I have heard of no exceptions), there is very little "informed consent" with regard to attendance at New Age training seminars.

Very seldom do the attendees understand that they will participate in exercises of a hypnotic or even assaultive character designed to strip away their traditional Judeo-Christian world view and replace it with an essentially Eastern-mystical one. Further, the fundamentally religious presuppositions underlying most of these New Age training programs would seem to make them off-limits for corporations, at least so far as being required of employees. In the words of Richard Watring, personnel director for Budget Rent-a-Car, "Private corporations that are not church-affiliated should neither attempt to change the basic belief systems of their employees nor should they promote the use of techniques (i.e., altered consciousness) that accelerate such change; and while spiritual growth is important, corporations should not prescribe the methods whereby employees grow spiritually. This is better left for those more qualified than the Human Resource Development Department."{24}

An employee has the right under the anti-discrimination law to request reasonable accommodation to his religious beliefs. Further, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's policy statement makes clear, "That the employer or sponsor of a 'new age' program believes there is no religious basis for, or content to, the training or techniques used is irrelevant to determining the need for accommoda- tion....An employer may not reject an employee's request for accommodation on the basis that the employee's beliefs about the 'new age' training seem unreasonable."{25} Failure to provide such accommodation is legitimate cause for legal recourse, as numerous companies and government bodies have discovered to their dismay.{26} Several of the cases cited above are examples.

One celebrated case in 1987 illustrates another type of legal and financial liability that can be incurred by corporations that sign up their employees for New Age training. This involved Pacific Bell, which sent about 15,000 of its 67,000 employees to "Leadership Development" training sessions led by associates of Charles Krone, a student of Russian mystic Georges Gurdjieff. When the California Public Utilities Commission investigated, hundreds of employees complained that "the training was based on spiritual philosophies not appropriate in a job setting."{27} The CPUC ruled that PacBell stockholders, rather than consumers, must pay $25 million of the estimated $160 million total cost of the training. In addition, employees sent to training seminars which cause them serious psychological or even physical injury may claim damages from their employer as well as the trainers if attendance was mandatory, either explicitly or implicitly. The fact that numerous such claims have already been made by individuals against most of the New Age seminars mentioned above{28} should be warning enough for companies considering enlisting them to train their workers.


Enthusiastic endorsement and testimonials aside, it is an open question whether New Age trainings really produce their advertised results. As PacBell found out, its expensive flirtation with Kroning served mainly to lower employee morale, divide the work-force, and create an uproar in the community. As for the stated goal of many of the business-targeted programs to forge greater employee loyalty and cohesiveness, these are certainly necessary qualities in any workplace. But if a bi-product of their generation is a mentality that, as Langone says, "insists on the primacy of good feeling and the validity of one's own reality,"{29} then the time-proven creativity-enhancing clash of ideas among co-workers may well be inhibited. According to New Age thought, "It is not possible to be wrong, just different."{30} But as Austin says, companies must allow for failure and support risk-taking, both "when it works and when it doesn't."{31} This implies being able to say, "Your idea sounded good, but it proved to be wrong." Saying "Your idea was valid according to your reality, but our customers have a different reality" doesn't cut it in the business world.


While many people seem to benefit from New Age seminars and training programs in terms of becoming more self-confident, relaxed, or creative, a significant number (as indicated in the accompanying article) suffer very serious negative consequences. Whether the programs are required or recommended by the corporate management, or entered into by the employee's own volition independently of his company, EAPs need to be prepared to intervene if necessary. In order for the EAP to be able to be effective in helping such individuals neutralize these effects, he or she must be able to recognize the danger signs. A few of the more common are the following:

1. Radical change in personality or behavior. Change is normal with any religious, philosophical, political, or social "conversion," but the key here is the word "radical." Has the person gone from being a quiet introvert to being an outgoing extrovert? Has he or she suddenly begun talking about new ideas or using new words or expressions such as enlightenment, holistic, human potential, transformation, transpersonal, transcendental, life force, etc. (these terms are not in themselves "bad" or proof of New Age involvement, but they can be the first clues of it.)

2. Severe depression or anxiety. These symptoms can be indicators of posttraumatic stress disorder, sometimes experienced by participants in New Age seminars. These disorders can be triggered by negative episodes undergone during sessions of guided imagery or "past-life regression" often included as part of such seminars. Both depression and anxiety are often accompanied by an inabilty to concentrate, chronic distraction, and inappropriate emotional response.

3. Confusion about reality, values, or knowledge. Since New Age programs are designed to "transform" the way one views and relates to the world as well as to the tasks at hand, the transformational process can result in a disjuncture between the individual and everything else that makes it difficult to determine what is real, valuable, or true. The New Age insistence that "we create our own reality" can, when inculcated by means of hypnotic or assaultive techniques, cause one to suffer psychotic episodes.

4. Diminishing or loss of critical thinking skills. The basic Eastern-mystical concept of the unity of all things includes as one of its corollaries that there are no distinctions between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil. In fact, Eastern/New Age teaching generally attempts to invalidate Aristotelian logic in toto, so that "A" can also be "not-A." This, if carried to the "logical" conclusion, makes nonsense out of language, and meaningful communication becomes impossible. A typical New Age statement is, "That may be your reality, but it's not my reality."

5. Sudden onset of a series of physical ailments. As Singer and Ofshe have found (see article), radical thought reform programs can cause a variety of physical as well as psychological problems. These include strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and lowered resistance to communicable diseases. The EAP needs to be alert to these as they can be signs of psychological distress brought on by these types of training programs.

6. Marital or other relationship discord. Seemingly normal "spats" between spouses, siblings, or parents and children can be precipitated by attendance at a New Age (or other) seminar or program. The radical transformation or conversion that often occurs frequently produces a fanatic out of the convert, whether the conversion is to New Age thinking or Christian fundamentalism. Unconverted relatives normally find it difficult to endure the religious/metaphysical obsessions of the fanatic. EAPs should be prepared to inquire discreetly of the employee who is experiencing such discord at home to find out if the cause may be of this nature.

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