Self-Help Gurus

John Naish looks at the top people who have got inside our heads, from Deepak Chopra and Susan Jeffers to John Gray.

Are you unhappy, confused, frightened, stuck, mildly dissatisfied or do you simply fancy the latest inspirational sensation? Consult a guru. It’s the modern way. Last year Britons spent about STG80 million (RM560 million) seeking spiritual support, solace and relationship wisdom from these self-appointed founts of knowledge.

Britons bought 400,000 of their books and were happy to pay between STG50 (RM350) and STG1,000 a throw for life-coaching sessions.

Twenty years ago these people barely touched our consciences. The very concept of gurus sounded exotic or alien. Now the sofas of chat- show Britain are crowded with lifestyle gurus, spiritual gurus, intimacy gurus, business gurus, mind gurus.

Booksellers’ shelves are piled with their wise words and one British training academy alone has turned out nearly 5,000 new life coaches in the past five years.

What is it with gurus all of a sudden? They are hardly new. The original Hindu teachers appeared thousands of years ago as sacred conduits to self- realisation. The word is thought to have originally meant a “dispeller of darkness”.

In modern Western use, it still means anyone who acts as a religious, spiritual or philosophical guide. Or, of course, they might just be an expert in something or other.

The Hindu roots bear an important clue. Hinduism is a religion with a pantheon of gods, not just one great authority. In that sense, it reflects our postmodern mix-andmatch approach to lifestyle: be it in clothes, art, furnishing, food, philosophy or spirituality.

In the last two sectors, gurus are our cocktail shakers – mixing up a bit of Buddhism, a touch of Kabbalah, some feng shui, a dash of Wicca and a pinch of shamanism.

So where does that leave our traditional religious leaders, with their old-fashioned single-brand approach to theisms? Increasingly obsolete. Likewise, we no longer listen to our former authority figures – school, the Army, our employers. Or Mum and Dad.

That life began to die in the Sixties and with it went our certainties. We have created a vacuum. A God-shaped hole: We are in danger of being left rudderless. We need help to answer the great post-Sixties questions: “OK, I’m thinking for myself now… What sort of things should I be thinking? And why am I not happy yet?”

In response, a charismatic tribe has rushed over the western horizon armed with seven-point plans, questionnaires, audiotapes and about a million catchphrases.

Our love of gurus also feeds off our fixation for celebrity. Why ask the chap over the garden fence (assuming you know who he is) for his opinion when you can get advice from someone famous – an “expert”, a personality? Why say: “I’m trying to lose weight” (dull, fat) when you could say: “I’m on Atkins” (trendy, new)? Don’t say: “I’m trying to sort my head out” (mad, loser) when you can reveal everything about your latest life coach, seven-day life revolution or spirit guide.

But, when we come to the core guru messages, not much is new.

They originate from ancient texts, old wisdom. Common themes are sugared-up, God-lite versions of affirmations as old as the Neolithic farmers who first looked up at the skies in wonder: “There is a power greater than you”; “Negative powers are a product of your imagination – banish them”; “Open your heart to love”; “The past is not the future”.

This is religion rebranded for the consumer age – and we know which stuff is best because we have to pay a premium for it. That’s handy if you are one of those leading brands. As our study of Britain’s top 20 gurus shows, if you are interested – in grubby material matters such as money, gurudom proves very lucrative.

But the most important question of all remains: is it harmful, this mini-industry of experts telling us how to improve our lives, our relationships, our careers, our spiritual selves?

If we spend time reflecting on how best to live our lives, love others and contribute to our communities, it can be only helpful. But, obsessing on this stuff and depending on it for answers could prove as harmful as any other form of dependency. Gurus may offer only junk food for the soul – but it’s best taken with a large pinch of salt.


Message: Invented the term emotional intelligence – the idea that emotions are not necessarily wild impulsive things that control us; we can rein them in and refine them.

Life: He grew up in California, has a doctorate in psychology from Harvard, where he also taught. For 12 years he wrote for The New York Times and was the senior editor at Psychology Today. In 1995 he published Emotional Intelligence: Why It can Matter more than IQ – one of the most successful self-help books of the past decade. In the book he argues that our emotions are habits, and can often be bad habits. By unlearning some emotions and developing others, we can gain control of our lives.

Earthly goods: Emotional Intelligence sold five million copies in – 30 languages – a prime example of what using your emotional intelligence can achieve.

DEEPAK CHOPRA, The guru’s guru

Ask Deepak Chopra who he is and you’ll get this sort of reply: “The entire universe expressing itself through an individual. Who you are is everybody.” Yes, he’s that deep. Just don’t get behind him in the queue at passport control.

He has been described as a modern-day prophet. Time magazine voted him one of the 100 top heroes and icons of the 20th century and Esquire voted him one of America’s top 10 motivational speakers. But he says: “I am everybody else’s point of view. I explore consciousness as other people explore mountains.”

The 57-year-old Indian-born doctor – the son of a Delhi cardiologist and a British Army officer – left a successful career in his medical specialism, endocrinology, in the 1980s to evangelise for Transcendental Meditation and holistic mind-body medicine.

After a dispute with the Maharishi he split to create his own brand of self-awareness.

Hardwork and charisma have paid dividends. But no one was particularly interested in his first book. He had to find US$5,000 (RM19,000) to publish it himself in the late 1980s. But he struck Zeitgeist bingo and within 10 years had become the rock star of self- fulfilment. Actress Demi Moore followed him to India, declaring: “Through his teachings I hope to live to a great age, even 130 years isn’t impossible.”

Not everyone is such a fan: he was severely criticised, for example, in a Journal of the American Medical Association article for being “unscientific”.

In 1995 he created the Chopra Centre For Wellbeing to promote the integration of Western medicine with natural healing traditions. Want a healthy body? Get a healthy spirit, says Chopra. His central spiritual message, as espoused in his latest work, The Book of Secrets, is that you can make your own reality – life isn’t “out there”, it’s in your mind, which is joined to the universe through the oneness of all things. So by liberating your thoughts from the personal and selfish, you can connect with the divine intelligence of the universe. What goes around plays a round: Chopra has a golf handicap of less than 10 and plays whenever he can. “Golf is a form of yoga, too,” he says. “It teaches you mind-body co- ordination, it teaches you detachment, it teaches you humility and once in a while you transcend and you have a really good shot.” Last year he published Golf For Enlightenment: Seven Lessons for the Game of Life.

Chopra is an industry that sells books, videos, greetings cards, retreats, Ayurvedic medicines and general enlightenment. He is a director of the Chopra Centre at La Costa Resort and Spa, in California, which trains practitioners in mind and body medicine.

He says that he also mentors corporate and political heads through his Soul of Leadership workshops. He has written 35 books, eight of which are bestsellers. These sell about 25 million copies a year, earning him a reputed US$15 million (RM57 million) annually. He has declared that he plans to give it all up, divert the income to charity and sink into anonymity.

SUSAN JEFFERS, Self-help queen

Susan Jeffers was one of the first big selfhelp authors and is still up there with the stars. Her message is her own life story – a rebel yell of “stand up and get the hell out of there” to woman readers who are feeling trapped and trammelled.

In 1986 she published Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. She had spent years finding a publisher but the formula was an instant hit. Jeffers followed it with Feel the Fear… And Beyond. After that came her Feel the Fear Power Planner. There is also her Fear-Less series of affirmation books and tapes. Other book titles, such as End the Struggle and Dance With Life and Embracing Uncertainty, push the fear-bashing envelope a little further. Her latest book, Life is Huge!, a collection of her essays, was published in August.

Jeffers is happy to parade her own broken shackles to the world. Life looked predictably pre-planned and packaged for the Jewish daughter of a pharmacy-owning father and housewife mother. But it wasn’t to be that way. “Be grateful to your parents for teaching you the things you don’t want to be,” she now says. “Mine weren’t adventurous.”

Neither was she to start with. Her way of escaping parental life was to marry at 18 “taking an unsuitable partner far too early, to avoid loneliness” and having two children. But the cement had hardly set on her selfbuilt cell when she had her epiphany. “I was fearful when my children were very young. I was afraid to fly or to go out alone at night. I saw an airline commercial that said: `Get into this world’, and it hit me that I wasn’t in this world.”

She decided that she didn’t want to play happy families and went back to university. She got a degree, then a doctorate in psychology.

Her first job was as the director of the Floating Hospital, a ship that offered help and medical advice to the poor of New York.

“I was petrified in the beginning but, little by little, I got stronger, and I looked at myself and thought, `Look what I can do.” Then she divorced. She took the children at first but then told her husband to take them. “I rang and said, you know, hon, I think I’m leaving the house today and everything in it is yours, including the children.”

She experimented to find a spiritual direction, became a workshop addict, went to India with a guru and to Egypt to meditate at the Pyramids. “I did it all, year after year. My life changed dramatically.”

Then, when she was aged 46, a diagnosis of breast cancer was made. It led to her second marriage, to the British film producer Mark Shelmerdine, who gave us the TV series Poldark. Now, aged 66, she says that they enjoy a “glorious” relationship. They e-mail each other love notes from the separate floors of their house where they work.

Recently she has co-written a self-help manual for fearful children called I Can Handle It!, aimed at three to seven-year- olds. Her other recent title, Embracing Uncertainty, leans heavily on intuition, smiles and affirmations stich as: “I can learn from this” and “Everything is going perfectly” and “I radiate light and love wherever I go.”

Is everything perfect for her, in her large Los Angeles home? “I have worried about money since I was two years old. I’m married to a film producer, so it’s not like we’re impoverished. I work on letting go and enjoying the money,” she says.

“I joke that God has made me this way on purpose because he was afraid that I would be too lazy to write my books if I wasn’t worried about money.”


Message: Men? Women? Duh! Women talk about feelings, men skulk in caves.

Life: He says he taught himself to meditate at the age of six. He was his mother’s favourite of six brothers and the jealous siblings tried to bury him alive. He is not every woman’s favourite, though. His first marriage ended after two years. His bestselling book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, made many feminists feel that he had typecast them unfairly. He has written a skip-load of follow- ups but is also pitching for spiritual guru status, writing in his book Practical Miracles that the technological revolution of the past 50 years has been accompanied by a spiritual awakening that has peaked with the new millennium, giving us the ability to create miracles in our lives.

Earthly goods: More than 10 million people bought the relationship guide that made his name. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus but Gray is laughing all the way to the bank.

TONY BUZAN Mind mapper

Tony Buzan developed his idea of mind maps – a way of graphically organising and developing your thoughts – while teaching children with learning difficulties for the Inner London Education Authority. He was largely inspired by the American inventor Thomas Edison’s theories of creativity and brain organisation.

Since then, Buzan has become ever more convinced that his method could be a vehicle for transforming human consciousness. He is not the only one to believe it – governments and leading corporations have signed up to the idea as well.

He claims that mind mapping first produced amazing results among a group of city schoolchildren who had previously been considered unteachable.

This inspired him to spread its use into business. He was subsequently asked by the BBC to turn it into a one-off television programme which then grew into a 10-part television series in 1974, with an accompanying book, Use Your Brain.

It proved a significant hit, the first of 82 international bestsellers based around mind maps – not bad for what seems to be a system of scribbling thoughts over a large whiteboard in different coloured markers, then drawing lines between them. He says that his method aims to tackle a simple, basic educational problem: we are taught what to think, before we are taught how to think.

“Very young children use 98 per cent of all thinking tools. By the time they’re 12 they use about 75 per cent. By the time they’re teenagers they’re down to 50 per cent; by the time they’re in university it’s less than 25 per cent; and it’s less than 15 per cent by the time they’re in industry,” he says.

Buzan has spent the past three decades travelling the world popularising his methods. The pace of success has been glacial but he has doggedly kept plugging the idea.

Now his Buzan Centres have evolved to become an “international group of teachers who teach teachers to teach children”, he says.

Many leading corporations use the system, including IBM, HSBC, Barclays International and Microsoft. The British Government is taking an increasing interest, says Buzan, and a Scottish Assembly- backed organisation is working to have every child in Scotland taught mind mapping.

In Singapore, it is already part of the country’s national educational curriculum. He has also set up the Brain Foundation, which organises the World Memory Championships, and he is an adviser to the British Olympic team’s rowing squad and chess team.

His books, the latest being Mind Maps At Work, have been published in more than 100 countries and in 30 languages. They have made him financially comfortable, but hardly in the Chopra league. His evangelism has few bounds – he claims to have been heard by more than three billion people worldwide.

Next April he plans to introduce mapping to 6,000 British children at the Albert Hall. “It has to end up with every child in every school in every country in the world knowing how to use mind maps, to understand how their brain functions, and how to use it to remember, to read, to be creative,” he declares in his deep mid- Atlantic tones.

“Once we have reached that state, we will have a very different planet. There are many people starving mentally all over the world; it is the starvation of intelligence and evolution. That is what leads to the physical starvation we see in newspapers every day. So we need to address mental starvation as a priority.”


* Have a life-changing experience.

* Learn an empowering message from it that you can communicate in seven steps.

* Write a book, do talk show circuit, launch range of table-mats.

* Second book, same subject, prefaced with, “Women/Men who” … or “Beat the…”

* Endure marriage split or tabloid exposure.

* Share your pain with the world.

* Return to step two…

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