Have you been gurued?

There's a fine line between being motivated and encouraged and being "gurued" - could you be a victim?

The Sunday Telegraph/May 29, 2005
By Helen Hawkes

Have you ever emerged from a motivational seminar and thought you finally knew how to be happy, rich or successful? Then, a few weeks or months later, you've come down off the high and wondered what happened? Well, here's what: you got "gurued".

You bought into (most times, literally) someone else's idea of how to be a success.

And, here's the irony: you might not be, yet. But they are. After all, they were paid hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to give a get-rich-quick lecture, or a change-your-life-in-30-days spiel to you!

So does that mean that what these modern-day gurus - self-declared experts in wealth and health creation and personal and spiritual success - have to say is worthless? Absolutely not.

Some of the advice from gurus such as Anthony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, or Louise Hay, may help you.

"The search for self improvement is a worthwhile thing and many people could be doing more with their lives," says psychologist Sarah Edelman, author of Change Your Thinking (ABC Books).

But the danger lies in swallowing everything you hear and not questioning whether it's valid for you.

And that can be easy to do. Oxford University psychiatrist Dr Anthony Storr, the author of Feet Of Clay: A Study Of Gurus, says: "Gurus who are truly able to influence people radiate charisma and give their followers the deep-felt feeling that they `know' (the answers)."

fad or phoney?

Add to that the fact that we are bombarded by media messages about life-changing mystics or speakers, with celebrities like Demi Moore, Madonna and Britney Spears leading the stampede towards the hottest guru, and it's easy to see how we'd fall under a guru's spell.

Says Mark McKeon, a Melbourne-based motivational speaker: "Unfortunately there are a lot of people seeking answers who are also willing to give up their responsibility for their lives to a guru.

"They're looking for someone else to take control and they become zealots, or seminar junkies, who take everything they hear as total gospel.

"Of course, when they finally realise that the guru they have been following is not the panacea to their unhappiness, they look for someone else."

Or for something else. How many people flocking to Kabbalah are motivated by an interest in Jewish mysticism?

But, especially at times when we are under pressure, it can be too easy to submerge ourselves in the next popular philosophy, or even spout life-changing platitudes - "if it's going to be, it's up to me", and so on.

Recently, I went to a seminar with a guru who urged people to put their life in order by recognising the good in life as well as the bad, or by counting their blessings.

"It's all about perception; about accepting that happiness and sadness are part of life," the guru said.

It sounded good. After all, we all face adversity and it can help to remember that good times are around the corner.

But, later, the guru took this message one step further, telling me that what people failed to realise about the tragedy of September 11 was that, afterwards, the domestic violence and crime in New York decreased significantly. This, the guru reasoned, balanced the actions of the terrorists. "But does anyone ever say thank you bin Laden?" the guru asked.

Clearly, this wasn't going to be the philosophy for me, although who am I to say whether this was a valid message for those who had paid $1000 to attend the weekend of teachings.

Says McKeon: "You can get ideas, or techniques from gurus that are valid and will help you improve yourself and your life. But what you need is to take responsibility for yourself, not hand that responsibility over to someone else, someone who you believe can solve your problems or answer your questions about the meaning of life."

Says Dr Storr, "Remember, besides financial rewards, ego may be a major factor for those who spout their life-changing philosophies for a fee."

In fact, he believes that many gurus are less interested in the exchange of ideas and more concerned with stamping others' thinking with their own convictions. With exaggerated self-belief, they think they know how to put order into chaos, he says.

"I think one of the things we ought to educate the young about is not to fall for the doctrines of people who are terribly forceful in personality," Dr Storr told ABC's Radio National.

Comments Edelman: "At best, gurus do no harm. However, some of the advice gurus give out can, for many people, be dangerous rubbish.

"For example, the idea that you can be anything you want to be may be totally unrealistic for many people," she says.

"We all have our limitations. But people who are vulnerable and looking for direction may use statements or clichés about achievement to make inappropriate decisions such as leaving their job or abandoning their relationship."

Edelman, who used to work in psycho-oncology (the study of psychological factors on cancer), adds: "Some of the advice sounds very scientific, but no scientific person would take it seriously.

"For example, listening to some gurus talk about wellness, you may get the message that if you're sick, you're just not trying hard enough."

McKeon believes that people should be aware that the "guru industry" is totally unregulated - "you don't have to pass any tests to be a guru" - and just because Demi and Madonna are rich and famous, it doesn't mean that following their gurus is going to make you that way too.

"Unfortunately, the only thing some of the information out there is going to do is change your bank balance," says McKeon.

Or, as Edelman says: "I'm reminded of the cartoon where the guru says `repeat after me: my income is constantly increasing' and the crowd repeats `your income is constantly increasing'."

People may be better off using that money to learn a hobby or have a holiday. Bearing in mind, too, that messages taught over such short periods of time are hard to incorporate into daily life.

If you really want to change your behaviour, you need to think about a long-term program."

bad guru

  • Uses hypnotic techniques to instill dubious ideas
  • Suggests you can be healed if only you change your self-beliefs
  • Has a bullying delivery style
  • Has names for his or her seminars that sound like religious experiences
  • Uses "psychobabble" to baffle you with bull
  • Tells you about miraculous healings that were brought about by his or her messages without any scientific proof
  • Insists you keep enrolling for more seminars and merchandise

good guru

  • Encourages open discussion and feedback
  • Charges a nominal fee to hear his or her messages
  • Doesn't encourage a "groupie"type attitude
  • Doesn't have a garage full of Rolls Royces and multiple houses in the Bahamas, the Maldives and London, Paris and Prague
  • Tells you that you can improve your life but it's up to you and it won't happen overnight

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