The Human Potential Movement Part 2. The New Age

The “Secret” with dealing with Rhonda Byrne? Sign the contract.

Human Potential Movement  and the New Age
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the followers of a Greek-Armenian mystic with a message of awakening to a “higher consciousness” promoted George I. Gurdjieff (1866?-1949) as an enlightened spiritual master. Gurdjieff claimed that human beings were helplessly caught in a “waking sleep” unable to perceive reality fully, thus Gurdjieff’s teachings were necessary in order for the student to transform his life into one of enlightenment and clarity.

Gurdjieff’s theories were allegedly given to him through a mysterious association of a secret spiritual group called the “Sarmoung Brotherhood,” an esoteric Sufi group that Gurdjieff claimed descended from the Assyrians who live somewhere in the “heart of Asia.” Modern critics claim that the Sarmoung was a fictive device Gurdjieff used to promote is ideas.

In America there was a concurrent, if small movement that taught that humanity was spiritually evolving. In 1924, Baird Thomas Spalding (1872–1953) began publishing a series of books called, Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. These books allegedly depict Baird interviewing beings of great spiritual power, “Ascended Masters” much like the “Mahatma” figures made popular by Helena Blavatsky and the mysterious Sarmoung Brotherhood of G. I. Gurdjieff.

Guy Ballard (1878–1939), who happened to be a friend of Spalding, claimed he met the Ascended Master “Saint Germain” on Mount Shasta. The message from the Ascended Masters was that they were once human beings after becoming perfect during reincarnation; their spiritual perfection allowed them to be immortal, residing in the higher planes of existence. They invariably mentioned that their evolution from human to god was destined to occur for all humanity, in accordance to the Divine Plan.

Even though the core of the HPM was wrapped around the pole of existential humanism, there was a metaphysical slant that appeared at the beginning, thanks to Esalen’s attraction to Zen Buddhism, and Esalen’s attraction to the ideas of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), who had worked on his theories of spiritual evolution and what he called, the “Supermind.” For Aurobindo, the Supermind is similar to the nous or the Logos of Classical Greek metaphysics, and the familiar all-pervading Brahman of Hinduism; the divine creative consciousness, transcendent and immanent within the world. According to Aurobindo, the potential exists within every human to access the consciousness of the Supermind which would lead the humanity into a realm of supernatural transformation.

Alice Bailey (1888-1949) produced a multitude of densely complex spiritual material that covered, in part, the role of what Bailey termed, the “Spiritual Hierarchy.” This squad of immortal masters were behind the physical and spiritual evolution of humanity. Whereas the “Mahatmas” of Blavatsky claimed that depictions of “God” were “imaginary,”[1] Bailey’s Masters argued that a “spiritual plan” presupposed its creation by “God,” and included an intervention of cosmic avatars who would descend to Earth and prepare humanity for the arrival of the cosmic Christ, who would then rule the Earth along side the Spiritual Hierarchy (which sounds much like a New Age reinterpretation of Christian fundamentalist view of the Book of Revelations). Bailey believed that the raising of one’s consciousness to the divine, as will as recognizing one’s inner divinity would initiate a golden age for humanity. [2]

In 1963, Jane Roberts (1929-1984) and her husband Robert Butts where playing on a Ouija board when she began receiving messages from a spirit who came to call himself, “Seth.” The material dictated by “Seth” energized and gave shape and form to the emerging New Age movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Seth repeated stated that the key to self-transformation was to “create your own reality.” The Seth Material almost single-handedly gave the New Age in the 1970’s its vocabulary, shape and cosmology. “Seth” continuously referenced “Inner Selves,” “Higher Selves” and that consciousness creates and influences the physical. Seth also loudly echoed and reinforced positive thinking principles. New Age luminaries like Shatki Gawain, Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra and many others have referenced the Seth Material as being a great influence in their thinking.

J.Z. Knight (Judith Darlene Hampton) and her channeled being, “Ramtha,” who claims to be a being from an ancient and advanced race of humans in the distant past and became an “ascended master,” speaking through Knight and continuing in Seth’s path in the wake of Roberts’ death in 1984. The message from Knight/Ramtha was that consciousness and energy can change reality. Consciousness and energy are the same. Human beings, according to Ramtha, are on a path towards enlightenment, and we are also “divine” (echoing many spiritualists of the past).

Rhonda Byrne and “The Secret”
However, the culmination of 20th Century spirituality occurred in 2007 with the release of the film, The Secret. Rhonda Byrne, the film’s creator, claimed that the core ideas for the film were the messages from a book written in 1906; “Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World,” by W.W. Atkinson (a New Thought writer) and Wallace Wattles’ 1910 book, “The Science of Getting Rich.” The Secret contains many New Thought ideas such as, “No rules according to the universe… you provide the feelings of having it now and the universe will respond.” The Secret, although considered as “New Age” as anything, was primarily a reiteration of a century-old New Thought spirituality.

The Secret, with the help of media attention, slick packaging and being in the right place at the right time, made millions for Byrne, and brought attention to the stable of speakers featured in the film. Byrne was embroiled in a legal dispute with two former associates who claimed they were promised a cut of the profits from Byrne’s film, which reportedly grossed $20 million in the first eight months (The film and books ended up raking in over $300 million collected worldwide). When the subject of payment came up with her Australian director and co-author of the screenplay, Drew Heriot (who had personally kicked in $10,000 towards the production), Byrne instead fired him.

“Essentially, she said my company wouldn’t be working with her again and they’d be using another writer and director for the sequel. I said, ‘I can’t believe you are doing this. Are you saying there is no profit-share?’ She said, ‘Yes, but I can return the $10,000 you gave me.’”[3]

Heriot sued Byrne for copyright infringement and fraud. Heriot sued Byrne, but lost in court in 2009. [4] Heriot vowed to appeal. Apparently, the Law of Attraction works better if you get it in writing.

Esther Hicks and “Abraham”

One of the main speakers in the original cut [5] of The Secret was Esther Hicks and her channeled entity (or entities, as Hicks claims Abraham is a collection of beings), who carried their Law of Attraction message to a wider audience. Esther Hicks was influenced by Seth Material, in particular, “Seth Speaks” and (not surprisingly) Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” which seems to be the go-to book for anyone wanting to make a splash in the Human Potential Movement. Abraham/Hicks goes a step farther beyond being indebted to the Law of Attraction, for if you visit the Abraham/Hicks site you’ll see a rebranding of the Law of Attraction as the “Teachings of Abraham” and where your grandfather’s Law of Attraction took time to get what you wanted, the Teachings of Abraham offers of manifesting your desires “instantly.” I suppose we can call this Law of Attraction 2.0.

Next: The Human Potential Movement Part 3. The New Prosperity Gurus


[1]  The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, 2nd. ed., TUP, 53, 1926. pg.142- 43.

[2] Bailey, Alice. A Treatise on White Magic, Lucis Publishing 10-11

[3] Guilliatt, Richard. “The secret of Rhonda.” Australian Magazine. 28 2008: n. page. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.

[4] “Heriot recalls that early on Byrne promised him a percentage of the film’s profits, but rebuffed his request for a written contract. “Rhonda actually insisted that we not have a contract – she said they limited people’s freedom, that they’re designed to guard against things going wrong, which is not the way of The Secret because it is focusing on the negative,” he says.” (Guilliatt).

Indeed, since Heriot did not get the promise down in writing, he effectively failed “to guard against things going wrong,” allowing Byrne to “burn” him out of millions. 

[5] Salkin, Allen. “Shaking Riches Out of the Cosmos.” New York Times, 25 Feb. 2007. Web. 31 Oct. 2012. Byrne promised the Hicks 10% of the DVD sales, but just before the big money came in, Byrne told the Hicks that they would either have to accept ripping up the contract or be cut out of the film. The Hicks took $500,000 and went away. 


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