The Human Potential Movement: Self-Help Gurus. Pt.1

The belief that human abilities are expandable is not a new idea. The Human Potential Movement as a systematic program may have first begun in the West with the Stoics, who were active at the beginning of the 3rd  Century BCE. Stoicism claimed that the quality of life of the human being could be improved by releasing anxiety (suffering) through attaining “peace of mind.” If ignorance and emotions caused suffering, reason and indifference could be used to nullify suffering. Of course, the Organized Religions have always produced literature (The Vedas, Dhrarmapada, Tao Te Ching, The Bible and Quran) which were touted as legitimate sources for self-improvement or self-transformational change. The New Thought Movement and Christian Science both focused on “mind-cures” to ease the suffering of physical illness. Theosophy claimed that there is a Divine Plan that ends with humanity evolving to a divine, posthuman state. The Integral Theorists represented by Ken Wilber and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens have updated this meme for the 21st Century.

Thus the Human Potential Movement has many dimensions – its origins stem from psychological, spiritual, existential and capitalist concerns. But while the method may differ, what they all have in common is a penchant for creating wealth for its creators by promising wealth and health for the consumers of the message.

Unsurprisingly, the drive for wealth, fame and power has caused more than a few to fall from grace. James Arthur Ray, a prominent self-help guru made famous by his appearances on Oprah and “The Secret” film, promised his followers, “harmonic wealth in all areas of your life.” Charging $10,000 a head to attend a “Spiritual Warrior” sweat lodge ceremony, catastrophe ensued, resulting in 3 deaths and a conviction for Ray on charges of negligent homicide. Ray was sentenced to two years in prison in 2011. While Ray claimed he had no excuses on what transpired at the sweat lodge in Sedona, he is now appealing the conviction on a technicality. [1]

Dale Carnegie (Dale Carnegay)

Dale Carnegie began a path to teaching public speaking which eventually led to the Dale Carnegie course, which promised to increase confidence in men, which made a healthy profit for Carnegie in the 1930s. Napoleon Hill taught that people could change their reality through positive thinking. By the end of the 20th Century, the New Age’s mantra that one could create their own reality, effectively made the New Age Capitalism’s Religion. Carnegie’s teaching did not go unnoticed by future self-help gurus like L.Ron Hubbard, Werner Erhard and Anthony Robbins.

Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) , a brilliant pupil and colleague of Sigmund Freud, was the first to predict and describe the sexual revolution in a work published in 1936. Acknowledged as the Father of the Sexual Revolution, Reich believed that the sexual liberation of the human being would bring about a healthier, happier and advanced human being. Although Reich was scorned and humiliated by the psychiatric community, his ideas were embraced by the emerging counterculture of the 1950’s.

“Orgone” was what Reich called the principal “life force” of the universe. By freeing the constrictions of orgone within the body through orgasms, or time spent in one of Reich’s Orgone Acculmulator, could one become more sexually free and mentally fit. Of course, liberation of sexual energy was heresy according to the Freudians, and Reich was drummed out of Freud’s circle, ruining his career. Although reviled and rejected by the psychiatric community, Reich’s idea’s would live on within his colleagues and followers, which were destined to challenge the psychiatric establishment after his death when they were deployed to inspire what would become known as the Human Potential Movement.

 Dianetics and Scientology

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) was an accomplished, but poorly paid pulp fiction writer before his fortune changed with the publication of Dianetics:The Modern Science Of Mental Health in 1950. Hubbard claimed that all diseases of the mind and body were caused by “engrams”[2] lodged in the subconscious mind. These engrams were allegedly formed through dramatic events. Well-being could only occur after one was made to relive the situation that created the engram which then could be “cleared” with the help of a Dianetics “auditor.” The psychiatric community denounced Dianteics and Hubbard, claiming that Dianetics was not proper psychological treatment and that Hubbard fabricated case histories where he showed how Dianetics cured physical and mental illnesses. Internal conflicts, money problems and criticism from the medical community helped cause Dianetics to go bankrupt in 1952. Undeterred, Hubbard created Scientology, which essentially recast Dianetics as a religion. Scientology became an even greater success than Dianetics. Scientology went further than the everyday self-help tactics of Dianetics; it proposed to deal with spiritual problems that human being have to deal with, as well. Scientology still dealt with questions on why we do not reach our full potential, and apparently Scientology provided the answers people wanted to hear because Scientology became a world-wide religious institution despite the widely advertised legal problems that perpetually hounded Hubbard.

Hubbard, an acknowledged master of science fiction (indeed, the first publishing of Dianetics appeared in Astounding Science Fiction  is said to have created a world religion entirely from his imagination and cunning. Critics accused Hubbard of being a charlatan and a criminal. Constant troubles and never-ending controversy finally drove Hubbard in seclusion where he lived out his last days before dying alone in a remote ranch in California

Humanistic psychology

Psychoanalysis and behaviorism were the two main forces in psychology during the fist half of the 20th Century. The philosophy of humanism is a dominant thread within the HPM, as well. At the center of Humanistic psychology is the idea that human beings are capable of fulfilling their potential. Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) contended that humans have a capacity for actualizing themselves and fulfill their potential. Rogers sought to treat patients in a way that they would be able to solve their own problems in the future.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) constructed a map of a “hierarchy of needs” It was Maslow’s theory that once these needs were met, then the person would be capable to realize their full potential. The problem with both theories is that they do not explain why more people in affluent societies don’t “self-actualize.”


The Human Potential Movement was also influenced by European existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 essay, “Existentialism Is A Humanism, had this to say:

 “Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality.”

Existentialism denies the universalism of human nature, or at the very least, denies that human nature is meaningful. The acceptance of free will is central to existential philosophy. Although no hope was given for any human transcendence or finding anything of value in an empty, indifferent universe, existentialism does acknowledge freedom of choice and finding value within self. In fact, the self is the only value that exists since only the self can give definition to existence. Existential philosophy claims that the human being exists in a state of freedom (Sarte claims humans are “condemned to freedom”), and cannot help but to impose meaning onto a meaningless existence.

Esalen  Institute

Michael Murphy studied at Sri Aurobino’s ashram where he was introduced to the ideas of human and spiritual evolution. Aurobindo authored The Life Divine, a text that expounded on Aurobindo’s theories of spiritual evolution of humanity, “infinite consciousness” and various theories of existence. Murphy later met Dick Price in San Franscisco and soon founded the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, California in 1960 on the property owned by Murphy’s family. At Esalen, they would explore human potentiality. Authors and proponents of “human potentialities,” such as Aldous Huxley[2], Jean Houston and Paul Tillich. The term Human Potential Movement is said to have been coined by George Leonard in 1962, and Leonard is acknowledged as being one of the principal intellectual forces of the HPM.

Esalen exerted a gigantic influence in the political, spiritual and philosophical shape of the counterculture of the 1960’s and 70’s. Alternative psychology was also featured, particularly the work of psychologist Fritz Perls (1893–1970) who once worked with Wilhelm Reich, first developed his brand of “gestalt psychotherapy”[4] in the 1940s before taking residence at Esalen where he led therapy group sessions. Encounter groups, meditation and psychedelics were used to liberate the potentials in the mind and body.

 Werner Erhard (John Paul Rosenberg )

Erhard was a businessman, so it’s not surprising that he would be influenced by the ideas of Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie and L. Ron Hubbard. Erhard became interested in human potential theories of Rogers and Maslow and studied with Alan Watts. Erhard began his program of self-transformation in 1971,which he called, “est” (Erhard Seminars Training) after experiencing what he called a “peak experience” while driving. Erhard’s message was simple. The world can work for you.”At all times and under all circumstances, we have the power to transform the quality of our lives.”

During the 1970s, est and Werner Erhard was a worldwide phenomenon, which reportedly did not go unnoticed by a furious L. Ron Hubbard, who was incensed that Erhard had “stolen” Scientology ideas, prompting Hubbard to allegedly command his followers to harass and destroy Erhard. (LA Times article.) Erhard closed est in 1984 and ended up selling the business to employees in 1991.

 Osho (Chandra Mohan Jain)

Chandra Mohan Jain (1931-1990), better known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and later as “Osho,” was a provincial college lecturer of philosophy in India during the 1960’s before becoming a controversial guru with a worldwide following before his death in 1990. There is no overarching principle to Osho’s teaching although he issued a torrent of books that were mainly transcriptions of him speaking about various topics. Freedom, love and self-responsibility were often subjects of his discourses. Mediation should be diligently practiced. Osho also taught that enlightenment was potentially available for all of humanity, and was also a very big proponent of capitalism and sexual liberty (the latter left Osho with the sobriquet of the “sex guru”). Unfortunately for Osho, his predilection for rebelling against authority along with the resentment caused by his flamboyant lifestyle (it is said he owned 93 Rolls Royces at his commune in Oregon) landed Osho in a federal prison where he served two years for immigration fraud and fined $400,000. Osho died at his commune in India after being deported to India.

Next: The Human Potential Movement Part 2. The New Age Gurus.


[1] Scott, Orr. James Arthur Ray appeals sweat lodge conviction. Prescott, Arizona: The Daily Courier, 2012.

[2] The term, engram, was first coined by the German biologist Richard Wolfgang Semon (1859-1918), who theorized that memories traces were stored in “engrams” inthe brain.

[3] Badliner, Alan Hunt. Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002. Print.  Michael Murphy: “I was not impelled by any knowledge of or interest in psychedelics, but once we started, there it was. It was there, first of all, among the first famous figures who came here – like Aldous Huxley. In Mexico, he gave me Sandoz laboratory LSD and his wife Laura was my sitter.”

[4] Gestalt therapy directs the client toward appreciating the form, meaning, and value of his perceptions and actions.


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