The Wayne Dyer Phenomenon

Wayne W. Dyer (1940-2015) was one of the best-known of those popularizers of Maslowian humanistic psychology who partly went beyond it by adding spirituality of the “New Age” kind. Their academic counterpart is, or at least used to be, the American Association of Transpersonal Psychology, a branch of the American Psychological Association. It is important to understand this kind of psycho-spirituality, and the extent to which it has shaped contemporary America and to some extent also Europe and the rest of the world.

With the end of the Clinton era and the gradual disappearance of the boomer and hippie generations, fortunes have been changing somewhat for Dyer’s variety of pop psychology and spirituality. Today, a Jordan Peterson is placing new goods on the same market. Yet at the same time, the mere passage of time seems to have made Dyer respected in wider circles than before. And he and the many others like him are part of a deep current of modernity that will not end soon or suddenly. His is the kind of language in which most people today still begin to think and speak about the meaning of life in the west, to the extent that they do so at all. And people’s level of understanding, which follows from the orientation of their interests in our kind of civilization, is such that it still seems almost impossible to reach them with spiritual truths, unless these are alluringly mixed at least to some extent with pop-psych self-help, positive thinking, self-reliance, motivation and success counselling of an often distinctly American stamp, on the basis of Pollyanna pantheism.

Dyer could never see beyond his modern, romantic, progressivist, and not least American assumptions, values and attitudes. Almost always they twisted his spiritual teachings in a predictable, sometimes irritating and on occasion slightly repulsive, vulgar manner. There are cases when most readers surely cannot but suspect an element of personal dishonesty, or at the very least a very strange kind of self-deception, in his stories of experienced wonders and “real magic”. Dyer insisted, for instance, that one of his children was conceived on a particular night in a hotel room in which only he and his wife were present, but without intercourse between them, through some higher spiritual force only. Charlatanry is not uncommon in his business. He did recommend a “fake it till you make it” method for acquiring desired qualities and abilities. Fragments of his own all-American success story were always repeated, how by willing and choosing away all erroneous zones and seeing the sky as the limit, he rose from his poor, foster-home childhood to a college education, then on to a doctorate in counselling psychology from Wayne State University in Detroit and a teaching position at St John’s University in New York, and finally to his career and world fame as a popular writer and lecturer. One of his books is tellingly titled Manifest Your Destiny. His assertions about the nature of the true self and divinity, and the way to reach them, are often facile and can give an impression of cheapness.

Nevertheless, in writing about contemporary spiritual teachers, for instance Eckhart Tolle, I have suggested that it is a mistake to simply reject them because of their seemingly ineradicable and to a considerable extent unconscious modernist prejudices. For what is then missed is that some of them also did acquire real spiritual insights and realizations primarily with the help of the eastern traditions, and managed to articulate them in western terms for a western audience. The fact that these realizations were for the most part almost inseparable from romantic – in a broad sense – illusions, both metaphysical and moral, is not a sufficient reason to dismiss them. By 1995, when he published Your Sacred Self: Making the Decision to Be Free, Dyer at least seemed to have relinquished enough of his pop-psychology to be able to express genuine spiritual truths, albeit still intertwined with other modern assumptions. At least he seemed to do it on a new level of humility and authenticity. Subsequently he often relapsed into more obviously pop-psych applications of spirituality, so that there is to the end a certain continuity with his earliest writing. At first, he simply taught his readers how to get what they wanted, including how become what they wanted to be, in terms of ordinary, material wishes and desires. And this, apparently, was the simplest thing: You’ll See It When You Believe It. Later, in a book with the still absurdly unscrupulous-looking title How to Get What Your Really Really Really Really Want, co-written with Deepak Chopra, this turns out to refer to the spiritual life. Even as conceived by these authors, that is clearly something quite different.

Still, a certain ambiguity remained in the use of such titles. The premature and exaggerated formulations about the nature of spiritual reality and our relation to it never wholly disappeared. It seems to me Dyer’s career did not end on the best note. In one of his last books, Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting, he finally insists simply that his quite ordinary readers should think they are God, accept their true selves as God without any reservations, qualifications, or restrictions whatsoever, God in the fullest possible sense of the word. There is clearly a kind of madness about this, not least in the context of Dyer’s cardinal theme of “manifesting” (i.e., getting what you want, whatever it is, by producing it through psycho-spiritual techniques, “real magic”). Yet quite as often, despite such blindness, the lack of interest in historical contexts and the particular characteristics of the respective traditions he drew on, and the inability or unwillingness to pursue any proper, and unsellable, philosophical or linguistic studies of them, of the very terms and concepts that were central to his own thinking and writing – despite all such obvious and highly disturbing weaknesses, it is also often possible to recognize a writer who does seem to be growing into a kind of genuine seeker and to have grasped at least some general, deeper truths. It always remains easy, according to Dyer, to get what you want, on all levels. But now only through spirituality: There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem. Dyer’s ever lingering pop-psych tendencies and sensibilities make such a title look cheap: in one of his last books, Excuses Begone: How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits, he is suddenly right back where he started in the 1970s, with Your Erroneous Zones. Yet in fact, on the real, highest level, there is indeed always such a spiritual solution.

After all, what people like Dyer are doing has by now been going on for more than two hundred years in the west. Liberal and speculative reinterpretation of spirituality, of mysticism and esotericism, even without new eastern or pseudo-eastern impulses, has a long history. Their kind of understanding of spirituality has become dominant in the west. It is what is now given in terms of spiritual understanding, and it is therefore what we have to take into account and work with. It is significant that towards the end of Dyer’s life, he seemed to be welcomed back into the academic community he once left, to give presentations of his pop teachings at major universities. Indeed, his contemporary American folkishness and pop-culture jargon were never far removed from those of today’s educated American elites themselves.

It is perhaps not obvious that “New Age” is still an adequate descriptive term. It was long a standard one in academic scholarship – for instance in the work of Wouter Hanegraaff, who sudied Dyer in his New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought from 1996 – but few of the writers it was applied to actually seemed to use the term, in the sense of the word. Conceptually, the unmistakably modern view of history that the term primarily expresses was always a central part of their message. But the term is less felicitous in as much as this is not the whole of the message. In some respects, so-called New Age spirituality also represents a step beyond the limitations of exoteric and dogmatic Abrahamism, a step in the direction of the tradition of sanatana dharma and spiritual enlightenment as conceived in the main eastern traditions. Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as modern fundamentalist ones, of course still exist, and resist the liberal reinterpretations that have a long history in their religions, seeking to restore instead old positions or set forth new but purportedly original ones. Yet on the whole, few members of at least the western churches seem to believe any longer in dogmatic, literalistic, exoteric Christianity.

In addition to the direct imports of eastern teachings, more or less adequately comprehended, New Age spirituality typically works through the psychologized esoteric reinterpretation of Abrahamism. Of course, its strongest and most vocal critics are therefore the remaining orthodox representatives of such Abrahamism, like Richard Abanes, who, in his book A New Earth, an Old Deception: Awakening to the Dangers of Eckhart Tolle’s #1 Bestseller (2008), sought to refute Tolle simply through scriptural references and contextualization. Not surprisingly, he was right on most or perhaps all points regarding the meaning of Biblical quotes used by Tolle, as well as, needless to say, on Christian dogma in general as something quite different from Tolle’s teaching. But this only moves the discussion to another level. The contemporary reader inevitably asks simply: which is the true worldview – Abanes’s or Tolle’s? Abanes’s Christian orthodoxy, or Tolle’s eclectic spirituality, including interpretations of the Bible which, while historically and dogmatically untrue, adequately express the truths of Tolle’s own position that builds primarily on other sources and traditions? In fact, on this new level, Abanes’s argument is strikingly and indeed sometimes absurdly unconvincing; it seems only fundamentalist Evangelicals and some Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditionalists could entirely side with him.

It is precisely the softness of what I have called my “soft” traditionalist position that makes me take this attitude towards contemporary spiritual teachers of Dyer’s and Tolle’s kind. Obvious as it is from that perspective, let alone from the “hard” traditionalist one, that the title of Dyer’s book Wisdom of the Ages: A Modern Master Brings Eternal Truths into Everyday Life makes dubious claims, and that the book’s eclecticism is a far cry from the stricter and more discerning conception of philosophia perennis and l’unité transcendante des religions, the nominal ambition at least is the right one. This is not René Guénon or Frithjof Schuon, nor Huston Smith, nor Aldous Huxley. But it is hardly by simply rejecting authors like Dyer and their vast audiences that the people of the west – and indeed also of the westernized east and the rest of the world – can best be reached with true spiritual teachings today. Rather, they must be met and addressed where they happen to be, where they have been helplessly brought by the obscure but powerful forces of modernity. Accepting what is true and valid within their current horizon, not dismissing them because of the ever-present modern dynamic that more or less, yet without exception, shapes and derails their individualistic neo-spiritualism, is surely the best way to move beyond the latter.

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All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi