A Caution When Encountering Gurus

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(All Images: Authors Book Collection)

Years ago, I was pleasantly surprised when the folk singer Jewel Kilcher succeeded in having her book of poems, A Night Without Armor published. It was with more than a modicum of skepticism that I purchased a copy and actually enjoyed it. In fact I re-read it. For the uninitiated, it’s almost next to impossible to publish a book in the poetry genre today; there simply isn’t a sufficient audience to make such a project viable in the eyes of decision makers at the major publishing houses. Think Random House, to cite but one example. Impossible, that is, unless you’ve sold millions of compact discs and become very famous (and very wealthy against all adds). This is not to suggest insincerity, nor to invoke sarcasm or cynicism. The book stands on a solid foundation, and it was later followed by a collection of essays from the road, written again by Jewel during her worldwide tours to promote her music.

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Now comes a book that is well written, and clearly at age 42, a more mature Jewel has emerged with Never Broken – Songs are only Half the Story. This singer epitomizes a lady who has endured hardships that are simply staggering.

However, a word would be helpful in the aftermath of this particular publication, lest the pre-Socratic saw: “The heart when left to itself misses the road” loses meaning.

Personally, I feel it is worth noting that the desire to inspire others and even provide practical help to everyday problems each of us face is admirable. What the singer/songwriter and author has managed (without any ill intent) is to create a website purporting to serving as “an emotional fitness destination”. It leans heavily on cross marketing her book, and touts the work of the late psychoanalyst Carl Rogers, Ph.D.

Most recently the singer emerged from another in a series of excursions to billionaire Richard Branson’s retreat — an island the mogul owns in the Bahamas called Necker — espousing what I call “business speak”. Words such as “verticals” and catch phrases such as “building ones brand” have taken center stage for the moment, and away from the music world. A series of exercises in the book designed to enlighten “steps of change” through “focusing” (an offshoot of a book the singer recommends by Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D.) has become enabled by a sea of admirers and fans alike. My concern is that this group of people would follow just about any direction, particularly as vulnerable “people in ¬†trouble”– to quote the late and troubled Viennese psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (an exiled disciple of Freud, to no one’s surprise).

Let me conclude this brief post by stating with sincere clarity that it is far too easy to succumb to assuming the mantle of a pied piper of mental health, invoking paths to a higher state of “awareness”.

Much of this dates back to the late Jack Kerouac’s seminal book “On the Road”, read today by college freshman who are inadvertently led to believe they have the emotional maturity to carry the weight of insights to the human condition that have otherwise eluded the vast majority of the population.

There is a fine line between becoming an expert and using celebrity and selected “practitioners” to offer copious advice on subjects ranging from child rearing for single and divorced parents to coping with depression. This can also be very dangerous, a brave over-reach that begins with noble intentions, but can unintentionally worsen a person’s mental state. This is, to be generous, far from a panacea for society as a whole. To offer counterbalance, I suggest reading this book afterwards. I have it in my library:

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In a culture that fewer of us have reason to invest much faith in, I suggest that the Dan Goleman book ought to be considered as a final read over Carl Rogers humanistic¬† client-centered approach to psychotherapy. This is a therapy that bears an unfortunate tendency to “travel light in the emotional department” in a day and age when more substantive therapies are available, and not associated with celebrity. I support a more balanced and inclusive approach to lending insight that is sufficiently supported by research equal to or even exceeding that of Messrs. Gendlin or Rogers.

Just the same, one cannot deny the musical talents and personality of Jewel that alone inspires so many. Indeed, the message is clear. ‘I have found something that works for me and I thought I’d share it.’ That’s fine. I merely encourage others to look at additional options as well.

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