There were just four of us today: Katie Kaminski, Jordan R., Duff McDuffee, author of the Beyond Growth blog, and me.

First question: What led you into positive thinking, the human potential movement, and like phenomena?

Duff said that he has never been a very positive person, and that he thought it “was worth a try”.  At the other end of the spectrum, Jordan recounts that for years he tried to avoid the “crystal-clutching hippies in new age stores” that assured him that all he needed was to hope and believe “hard enough” to achieve anything he wanted.

The seeds of were planted when, working as a life coach, Duff noted that many of the people coming to him for help with “getting motivated” to achieve their goals were actually severely overburdened, and had perfectly justifiable reason for “resistance.”  He continued working as a life coach, but developed a more empathic and realistic approach.  It is too common in the personal development movement to forbid a moment’s deviation from positive thinking or permit a moment’s resistance.

There is a priceless scene in a classic science fiction story, C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons,” which depicts a society where everyone is mildly retarded [don’t ask].  Scene: psychiatrist’s office.  The psychiatrist dons the traditional gold-rimmed glasses and fake goatee.  Patient enters.  Lies down on couch.  “Freud forgive me,” she says, “for I have neuroses.”

“There are many shallow/shadow elements,” says Duff, “in the personal development community.”  He recounts the story of a friend who went to a weekend workshop that struck Duff as having cultish elements about it, who was hospitalized afterwards with an acute mental breakdown.  A lot of these workshops are “overly intense and dangerous.”

One of the less harmful personal development books, says Duff is The Inner Game of Tennis.

Personal development teachers tend to either accept everything, good or bad – which is healthy – or shut everything out – dangerous, though often powerful.  The aggressiveness of some approaches is an indication of either superficiality or inexperience on the part of the teacher.

It is rare, too rare, to find a teacher/organization that will permit “the luxury of a negative thought” (Duff says this is actually a book title: You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought by Peter McWilliams – which I DON’T want to read now.)

Michaele brought up a scene from an otherwise horrific movie, Kill Bill.  This is the scene in which the martial-arts heroine, hospitalized and paralyzed from the waist down, kills a thug who comes into her room to murder her.  After stealing his keys, dragging herself out to his car, and propping her feet up on the dashboard, she spends eight hours telling herself to “Wiggle your big toe.”  Then she drives off.  Sometimes all you can do is wiggle your big toe; many times, that has to be enough.  Often, maybe even usually, it IS enough.

But a big problem with the personal development movement is an addiction to the drama of big miracles.

Katy brought up the misunderstanding of Karma: it is not the equivalent of God’s-gonna-get-you, or anything that the West might understand as divine justice; it is much closer to homeostasis – more about balance than about punishment.  In the personal development movement, however, this misunderstood concept often turns into a way of blaming the victim.  Just because things happen for a reason doesn’t mean it’s always a good reason.

Are there any sane methods of positive thinking?  Duff comments that the over-emphasis on positive thinking leads to empathy deficit; for example, people saying cruel and bizarre things about the “benefits,” “lessons” or “gifts” of cancer.  It is up to the sufferer to discover what these might be, not to have someone else force their interpretation on that person without listening to their suffering.  Empathy is always the most effective (and the more sane).  And, who knows?  The gift of cancer might be ANGER.

Something Jordan worked out: People are going to hate you; it’s because you’re doing something better than they are.  Stay practical and stay realistic: you are going to die, feel sorrow, fall in love.  Be prepared.

In what way does the overt practice of magic mesh with the personal development movement?

Duff read Ken Wilber in high school, found his methods practical and useful.  Later worked for his organization for a while, and found it to be something of a personality cult.  Though he became a critical thinker, he had to give up pure materialism after his experience of Vipassana meditation broke down the “overly rationalist” viewpoint.  When he realized that “How do we know what we know?” was a legitimate question, he questioned science itself.  After all, (Michaele noted) Terence McKenna called scientific thinking a “charmed circle.”  It is powerful for measuring the physical world, and for banishing monsters from under the bed.

Personal development, says Jordan, is a superficial attempt to do real magic.  And even if you do have spiritual powers at your command, says Duff, some goals come effortlessly, some are still very difficult and some are still impossible.  (Michaele quoted: “The more sorrow you feel, the more joy you can contain,” which Katy noted is a Hermetic saying.)

The James Ray fiasco (you can read all about it at is magic gone horribly wrong.  This “Spiritual Warrior” weekend called into being a confrontation with death from which not all walked away.  Such hyper-masculine aggressiveness is dangerous.

Next week’s topic: Chapter 1 of Lives of the Psychics: the Shared Worlds of Science and Mysticism, by Fred Frohock. It’s been out for some years now, so copies are available fairly cheaply at  You can also read parts of it at Google Books.

We meet on Skype every Sunday at 4 pm Pacific time. Search for michaele.maurer on Skype and leave me a message when you are ready to join us.

If you have a good fast internet connection and some kind of microphone setup, you can download Skype, which I found easy to use.

If not, you can email me your phone number off-list and I can add you to our Sunday School group; Skype is very amenable to conference calls.

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