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Selling Enlightenment

Oprah’s  “The Life You Want Weekend Tour" presented by Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, The Wildly Successful Talk Show Host.

By: Kurt von Behrmann

                Déjà vu struck quickly when I read about Oprah Winfrey’s recent U.S. and Canadian Tour.  The wildly successful talk show host, actor, producer, author and media mogul mounted a tour to bring enlightenment, hope and her signature “feel good” vibe to her audience in person.

  The common thread that connects this event with the past can be found in one significant self-help movement of the 1970’s.   And it all began on the West Coast, specifically Northern California.

                San Francisco has been a long time destination point for those hoping to either find themselves, or simply be themselves.   Some arrived desperately escaping lives they would prefer not to remember.  Such was the case for one John Paul Rosenberg.

                Rosenberg would be much better known to the world as Werner Erhard.  Armed with a new name and a desire to start over, San Francisco would be home to his new beginning.  His new found identity however did not include either his wife or children.   They were left to fend for themselves in his absence.

                When people move to the west coast, there is the expectation that the move alone will solve all, it not most, problems.  If you are in San Francisco, it only follow happiness will naturally follow.   The promise of California, the place where stars live, dreams come true and the sun always shines, turns out to be more myth that reality when you live there.

Culling ideas from pop psychology, Buddhism, Dale Carnegie, Scientology, western philosophical thinking, self-help books of the era, and almost anything else connected to self-improvement, Erhard cobbled together “EST.”  This would be something of an answer to those seeking what was absent in their lives.

EST was going to provide the turn key answer to human fulfillment.  In short, it was constructed around the idea that we are all responsible for the direction of lives.  If your life was not working, clearly there was something “wrong” with you that needed to “fix.”  Once enrolled in the program, at some point you would have a “Eureka” moment and move past the impediments.  

For 60 hours, covering two weekends, those electing to enter this program were subjected to long periods of instruction, exercises and the like cut off from the world with bathroom breaks spaced hours apart.   About 250 at a time were gathered in hotel ball rooms to take this rigorous course of instruction.

Some coming out of this said it improved their lives.   Others felt that they had been trapped and abused for 60 hours.  Not everyone go “IT.” 

Werner Erhard,  The Founder of EST, the self improvement movement of the 70's.

                Times, change and what the public wants does as well.  The audience for intensive self-improvement workshops like EST were not what they had been.  1984 marked the last one.

Flash forward a few decades and self-improvement and motivational speakers are back, but in different forms.   Riding this wave, or rather helping to reshape it for this century, Winfrey has taken some of what has been before, but wrapped in a far more user friendly package.   

She has also added another dimension that was not so prominent in EST.  The consumption of goods and services were not added to the mix.

Comments on line from those attending Winfrey’s traveling workshops made specific note of the consumerism involved.   Tents and wares were sold outside at the venues where she was appearing.  Bags, mobile phone cases and assorted items were sold boldly bearing Winfrey’s logo.  The intimacy of a 250 person hotel ball room had been replaced with 18,000 seat arenas.  Higher consciousness did not mean you could not shop for a new car. 

The base starting price for entering was $ 99.00, and if you wanted the opportunity to actually get close to the media magnate, you will need $ 1,000.00 to do so.    

Interestingly enough, EST still lives on in The Landmark Forum.  Their 40 hour workshop will set you back $ 500.00 (circa 2009).    

What Winfrey and Erhard share is telling.    Both have been fiscally successful, Winfrey obviously much more so than  Erhard ever was,  both have charismatic personalities, both can influence large groups of people and the most important both are firm advocates of  the “You and only you are responsible for your own happiness” ethos. 
It is easy to see why they embrace this philosophy.   Winfrey and Erhard are self-made.   They emerged from struggles, Winfrey far more so than Erhard.    But there is something deeper that they are claiming their programs will do  without coming out and directly stating it.

What they are selling beneath the lofty heights of spiritual fulfillment and pseudo-intellectual psychological insights is something far more “earthy.”   
“If I can make a lot of money, so can you.” 

Certainly more nuanced than any late night television “get rich quick scheme,” the bottom line is very much the same.   If you want proof of success, look no further than the person selling the product.   If he or she has found the “American Dream,” surely what they profess publicly will be the direct path to glorious riches. 

What none of this takes into consideration are such impediments such  as mental illness, intellectual capacity, physical illness or any number of socio-economic issues that can halt personal development.  Obstacles to human success can be numerous.

 Access to higher education is prohibitive, public schools are failing, and  jobs that permitted a middle class life style are shrinking.   What jobs that are out there are becoming increasingly “part-time.” 
 Certainly, personal responsibility matters.  Choices can be made that permit better outcomes.  The reality of America for most Americans is complex, difficult and filled with veritable land mines.  Any solution that offers real answers is going to be multifaceted.

Complex ideas cannot be reduced to tag lines and hash tags.  Direct messages are much easier to sell than more nuanced ones.

The clever crafting of the message is the mark of good salesmanship.  Every politician knows this.  On the surface, this all may seem harmless.  But, there is something very disturbing about people not trained in psychology or psychiatry attempting something as monumental as helping people reach higher levels of potential.  In fact, it can be dangerous.

When your only credentials are business success, this is  a good endorsement for expertise on everything, particularly something that is associated with psychology. 

“Claim Your Power, See Yourself From A Different Perspective, Stop Holding Onto the Past, Look Ahead In A New Direction, Take Your Glory and Run,” are words Winfrey uses.  

To have a direct message that is general and broad sweeping can work.   The tour was a financial success.  But for those who spent thousands they could hardly afford to hear this message, one has to wonder if they really “got” anything out of it.  Sure, they saw a celebrity, but did their lives improve because of it?  Did their personal problems find resolution? 

Entertainment promises a good time.  It can provide insight, revelations and introspection.  It does not usually promise to improve your life on such a deep level, or provide a path to economic security. 
  When powerful personalities, star power, charisma and commercialization merge, it is safe to assume that a product will be produced and hopefully a profit made, a hefty one.   

Kurt von Behrmann is a visual artist and writer living and working in Phoenix, Arizona. Currently he developing and raising funds for an exhibition based on Bipolar Disorder.   Check out his GoFund Me project.


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