Sunday, June 29, 2008

New Age Miracle or Fraud?

[Google analytics tells me that very many people have been reading my posts and longer articles about the work of Bob Hoffman, "The Ontological Odd Couple," "Science vs. Spooks," and Jonestown and our Deliverance from Cults. To make the search easier, I am going to assemble them together, here on Buddha, S.J. This piece, "New Age Miracle or Fraud," was intended as an introduction.]

In the 70’s California seemed awash in spiritual awakening. We imported Indian gurus, Tibetan tulku’s, zen masters from Japan and Korea, plus there were a slew of home grown American hybrids, Werner Erhard’s est, Scientology, psychic readers, Seth speaks, the Course in Miracles - the list goes on. The sea changes of the 60’s had left my generation with a yearning for religious experience that the faiths of our fathers, and mothers, did not satisfy.

Now more than 30 years later, I am trying to step back and assess the current state of our spiritual life. The pews of most mainline churches are, at best, sparsely filled. Here in California only the elderly and immigrants attend with any regularity. Whatever became of the New Age born-again’s? Perhaps they just faded into the culture supplying raw spiritual perspective, devoid of religious garb.

The most interesting innovation in that awakening, to my eyes, was the proposed marriage of spiritual practice and psychological work. If the workings of the mind could be assessed and treated in a scientific way, paying attention to the spiritual dimension, then, perhaps, years of spiritual training could be compressed. However, along with this promise came the drawback of distinguishing spiritual practice from psychological work. Are they really the same reality hiding under different masks? Meditation practitioners were suddenly getting professional degrees as therapists and old line therapists began a meditation practice, but do they know what’s what?

A quicker Path is so appealing to the American psyche—no mumbo jumbo, precise/technical language, measurable results. There were promises made, results that you expected to create, or would appear, in your life. One teacher said that everyone who worked with him doubled their real income. Another promised harmonious and satisfying relationships. I actually heard the president of one human potential enterprise hustle a gay man with AIDS, promising that his fear of death would disappear after 6 days of working with him at the cost of several thousand dollars. ‘Enlightenment,’ though lacking a clear definition, is certainly a column on the spreadsheet.

Any exaggerated claim to entice you to put your money down is fraud, pure and simple, and as the price goes up, the insult becomes more egregious. When I paid somewhere around $300 to hear Werner Erhard say to me after two weekends of marathon sessions, “that’s it, there’s nothing to get, get it?” I didn’t feel ripped off. I actually got it. If it had cost thousands, I might have been so resentful that I never would have been able to hear a thing.

Most of these short experiential workshops were not based on good science or professional practice, and, as a result, any scientific test for lasting effects is extremely difficult, if not impossible. What I have proposed for myself is a case study is the development and creation of the Quadrinity Process, then known as Fisher-Hoffman Psychic Therapy, created by Bob Hoffman between 1968 and 1974. I do think that there is something of real value available in the experience that is created during the Process, but it is so overlaid with garbage science and the unsubstantiated trappings of the Spiritualist Church, that its value is at best obscured.

A quick anecdote about a scientific hoax might demonstrate part of my thesis. In 1972, when I was working with Hoffman in the first group he “took through” the 13 week Process, National Geographic published an article about the “discovery” of a Stone Age tribe in the Philippines called the “Tasady.” Hoffman, with the enthusiasm of a latter day Jean Jacques Rousseau, was convinced that he had found the noble savage who proved that the natural condition of humankind was uninhibited love, the free exchange of emotional feelings, with no blockage from parental conditioning.

In Hoffman’s defense, he was not the only person duped by this elaborate hoax created at the end of the Marcos regime. Roderic Gorney, M.D., Ph.D., writing about the Tasady in the Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis (1981), postulated “(1) that during the last ten thousand years the psychosocial identity and self-esteem of the human species have increasingly grown out of conditions of competition and low social synergy, leading to the conflict, terrorism, and war that now jeopardize us, and (2) that there is on the human agenda a current shift toward greater cooperation and high social synergy…” There is not one shred of evidence that this group was really “pre-clothing, pre-fire-making, pre-anything cave-dwelling family unchanged since prehistoric times, who had no words for War or Anger, never fought among themselves & burst into tears if you brought up the subject of death.” Their cave (pictured above) was only 8 miles from the nearest village, an easy trek for a steady steam of celebrities eager to connect with their pristine roots.

Bad science and the complete disrespect for professional practice went hand in hand with the naive conjecture that was the origin of the “Fischer-Hoffman Psychic Therapy.” That it was eventually rooted in the scientifically tested techniques of psychotherapy is entirely the work of Naranjo and other mental health professionals who worked with Hoffman.

My case study traces the development and creation of the Quadrinity Process, between 1968 and 1974, when it was know as the Fisher-Hoffman Psychic Therapy. After I examine Hoffman’s version of his other worldly experience with Dr. Siegfried Fisher, I deconstruct the psychic therapy that Hoffman practiced in his Oakland tailor shop to sort out the borrowings from the Spiritualist Church. Then I detail Claudio Naranjo’s major contribution, adding professional psychotherapy to the mix, but I also touch on the contributions of Miriam and Julius Brandstatter, Ernie Pecci, and Ron Kayne.

I freely admit to having a horse in this race. I began a meditation practice in the early 70’s that continues to this day. I also explored every new offering that I found interesting. I began this exploration with Claudio Naranjo in 1972 and worked in his group until he took a sabbatical from teaching in 1976. I also knew Hoffman and offered a version of the Process for almost three years in the late 70’s with mixed results.

I began my paper, “The Ontological Odd Couple,” when the current owners of the intellectual property developed by Hoffman began to rewrite their copy, recasting Hoffman and his Process, and editing out the contributions of many people who worked hard and selflessly to create an effective tool for insight and growth.

Jonestown and our Deliverance from Cults

April 9, 2007

It is a cold Monday night in San Francisco and I am in tears. On KQED, I just watched a documentary on Jim Jones, the People's Temple cult, and the mass suicide of over 900 people in Guyana. No, that's not right at all - it was the murder of 900 people by Jim Jones.

The documentary forced me to remember that event as if it had happened yesterday. When I ride the bus out Geary, I see the gap between buildings where the Peoples' Temple used to be. I see faces of people I knew and worked with in politics. I cannot remember their names. I had been very involved in the mayoral campaign of George Moscone which put the People's Temple in the public eye. I had defended the Peoples' Temple in conversations with friends just because Jones's followers had worked for George's election.

In a previous post about the Hoffman Quadrinity Process, I wrote of my experience with one man, a follower of Jones, who did the Fisher-Hoffman Process of Psychic Therapy. The Process, which has some hallmarks of a cult in its history, turned out to be his deliverance. I will quote that last paragraph again to restore some hope in my heart.

"I have not kept in touch with people that I worked with [in the Fisher-Hoffman Process of Psychic Therapy]. But one person, a very articulate and bright African-American, and his Process, were memorable. Early on in the prosecution of Father, the name Jim Jones kept coming up in our sessions—my client said that Jones was a remarkable psychic, a healer, a prophet, a seer. I had never heard of Jones and though the People’s Temple was only a few blocks from where I lived in San Francisco, I felt no desire to “check him out.” I just kept encouraging my client to examine any transference he might have to Jones. After a few more weeks and the “prosecution of father,” I noticed that Jones’s name was not coming up. I asked how he was feeling towards Jones. He replied that Jones was just another fraud preying on the black community. He left the Peoples’ Temple before the exodus to Guyana and escaped the horrific aftermath.

Just that result is enough for me."