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How did ideas from alternative spirituality and the occult spread into the boardroom?

I was in a conference call the other day, with a group of figures from what one could call the ‘New Age’ or ‘consciousness culture’. The six of us were discussing our work and how to develop ‘the culture’ in the UK. What struck me was that two of the people on the talk — a third of us — were corporate coaches.

There we were discussing the spread of spiritual practices and the apparent increase in mystical experiences, and one of us piped up with ‘I’ve just come from a seminar with Microsoft’s senior managers, and let me tell you, there’s a real heart-shift happening.’

This overlap between the New Age / consciousness culture and corporate coaching is weird. It was apparent way back in 1980, when Marilyn Ferguson’ wrote The Aquarian Conspiracy, the book which announced the mainstreaming of New Age culture. She noted how the ‘new consciousness’ was being spread in leadership and transformation courses and seminars.

Coaches, it seems, are the Jesuit priests of the New Age, spreading its ideas into places of power and influence.

The term ‘coaching’ can cover a huge amount of different content, and some of it has nothing to do with occult or New Age ideas. Coaching could include ideas from humanistic psychology, Positive Psychology, sales techniques, life-planning, motivational speaking…all kinds of things.

And yet there is a definite influence from the occult and alternative spirituality. For example, among the box of tricks a coach may use, you might find

- Visualization and positive affirmation (a technique of folk magic found in late 19th century / early 20th century alternative spirituality movements like New Thought)

- Neuro-Linguistic Programming (a technique for auto-hypnosis and the hypnosis of others, with its roots as much in magic as science)

- the Enneagram (a diagram for finding your personality type, based on one of nine archetypes, such as the individualist, the dreamer, and so on. It is an occult symbol and idea, first mentioned by the early 20th century Armenian trickster-guru, GI Gurdjieff, and then developed at the Arica Institute in Chile).

- Constellations therapy (in which people act out the various constituents of a situation, and their feelings magically shed light on the situation. It was developed by a German psychotherapist-priest called Bert Hellinger, inspired by Zulu ancestral channeling.)

- Psychedelics (increasingly popular with CEOs and entrepreneurs as a tool to unlock innovation. I note one of the co-founders of the Psychedelic Society in the UK previously worked as the advisor to a CEO).

Or you might be taught meditation, Jungian archetypes, experimental theatre / improvisation, ecstatic dancing, tribal drumming, fire-walking, vision-questing, or other ways to achieve ‘flow’ or ecstatic states.

All these techniques are, in the best tradition of magic, designed to take the CEO, manager or entrepreneur beyond their ordinary rational consciousness and their limited idea of self, and into a more expanded sense of consciousness, purpose and unlimited potential, to make them more inspired, more effective, more charismatic, more sensitive, more abundant, more successful, and above all more powerful.

The role of the ‘futurist’ is even more obscure than the coach, but equally well paid, and in some ways similar. The futurist, like the coach, is a freelance individual offering mysterious services to CEOs and corporations. They draw on a range of tools, some apparently scientific, some frankly occult — they rely a lot on the use of the imagination to paint scenarios, to model possible futures, and to help their client manifest the future they want. In some instances futurists have clearly drawn on occult practices, as when the Stanford Research Institute employed the channeller and remote viewer Ingo Swann, for example. In San Francisco, I met a ‘corporate shaman’ who consults the spirits for her clients.

How did this happen? How did ideas and practices from the occult and alternative spirituality pass from the margins of society to the corporate boardroom?

You can trace the origin of the coach / futurist to the Renaissance magus. The magus (figures like John Dee or Tommasso Campanella) were freelance operators travelling around Europe, in search of rich patrons. Marsilio de Ficino had Cosimo de Medici, John Dee had Rudolph II. They promised their princes wealth, foresight, longevity and power, and in return they wanted money and a place to do their research. Their secret dream was often to bring about some grand societal transformation — a new Age of Love.

John Dee: I can make you rich!

Likewise, coaches sell the dream of personal wealth and power to their clients, but often harbour a grander vision of total societal transformation — the coming of the ‘New Age’. They may feel a tension between this grand cosmic vision, and the reality of schlepping from office to office doing the same goddam PowerPoint workshop for a bunch of bored accountants. The life of a magus can be hard.

The Renaissance magus evolved, from the 16th to the 19th century, into the figure of the occult teacher or guru, figures like Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, Gerald Heard or Rasputin. Such figures were semi-hustlers — they were often broke and needed patrons and followers. As a result, occult teachers would often attach themselves to patrons from the aristocracy and the landed gentry.

Take Gerald Heard — friend of Aldous Huxley and an influential teacher of alternative spirituality in the 1930s to 1960s. He had a knack for impressing the rich and powerful, starting with American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst, who bankrolled Dartington College in Devon.

The history of the New Age in the UK is inseparable from the history of the landed gentry, whose country estates provide the funding and the location for many a guru’s spiritual workshop or consciousness-raising festival. ‘We realise,’ Gerald Heard once quipped, ‘that manors are an essential part in the making of men.’

In the US, the upper classes provided some support for alternative spirituality (consider how Vivekananda was hosted by various East Coast heiresses in his visits to America) but on the whole, an American wannabe-guru had to get out there and hustle to CEOs, managers and salesmen. The occulture adapted and shaped itself to American free market capitalism.

In the 1920s and 30s, for example, you find New Thought and Law of Attraction being taught to businessmen and salesmen by Napoleon Hill. You find Thomas Edison using spirit-channeling to develop his business strategy.

In the 1950s, you find Gerald Heard popping up in California, teaching contemplative techniques and psychedelic practices to the CEOs of Time-Life and Southern Electric. Long before Timothy Leary was advocating LSD to ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’, Heard was giving it to CEOs to make them more industrious, more productive, more successful. His theory of change was that humanity would evolve via an upper caste of advanced beings — which, in American capitalism, meant CEOs.

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Gerald Heard with Henry Luce, CEO of Time-Life, who he turned on to LSD

Likewise, the American psychologist and paranormal investigator Gardner Murphy — a friend of Heard’s and of Aldous Huxley — lays out his vision for change in his 1958 book Human Potentialities. He says ‘there will soon be a world scientific-technical-political system…Such a system — if it is to survive — will have to be characterized by…[the] development of a fluid ‘power elite’…Such men, the super-executives of today, are…artists in the manipulation of top-level organizational problems.’

In the 1960s, alternative spirituality and the human potential movement went mainstream via Esalen, a pioneering self-development centre on the cliffs of Big Sur. The relatively expensive courses gave middle-class managers a thrilling taste of the bohemian occult — meditation, ecstatic dance, free love, psychedelics and so on.

Marilyn Ferguson, in The Aquarian Conspiracy, quotes a ‘wealthy real estate entrepreneur’:

It was at Esalen, my first trip there several years ago. I had just had a Rolfing session [a form of somatic healing], and I walked outdoors. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the beauty of everything I saw. This vivid, transcendent experience tore apart my limited outlook. I had never realized the emotional heights possible. In this half-hour solitary experience, I felt unity with all, universal love, connectedness. This smashing time destroyed my old reality permanently…If this happened to me once, why not again?

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In the final scene of Mad Men, Don Draper goes to Esalen, meditates and…comes up with a genius advert for Pepsi. Eureka!

In the 1970s, the experimental practices evolved at Esalen got commodified and sold to corporations by figures like Werner Erhard, founder of erhart seminars training / Landmark, and John Hanley, founder of Lifespring. Both of them were salesmen — Erhard started his career selling encyclopedias, Hanley selling toilet cleaning products. They were a far cry from gentlemanly intellectuals like Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. But they knew how to hustle. Watts and Huxley tried to get funding for a research programme on ‘human resources’, and couldn’t raise a penny. Erhard and Hanley made a killing selling their courses to HR departments. They sold ecstasy at scale, hiring out hotel ballrooms and getting 100 people at a time to roll around on the carpet screaming (and if one or two had psychotic breakdowns, hey, no big deal).

People emerged from these ‘large group awareness training’ sessions feeling like Nietzchean supermen. They felt liberated from all their hang-ups and conditioning, liberated from the need to be polite or compassionate. You feel bad because I fired you? Well that’s your racket, dude, you should liberate yourself from it and step into abundance.

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7 Secrets for Becoming a Landmark Education Ass-hole

In the 80s and 90s, more and more of these coaching programmes appeared, often selling ideas and techniques from the New Age / occult / human potential movement / alternative spirituality. There was ‘Exegesis Programmes’ for example:

Exegesis seeks to induce a profound sense of self-responsibility into apprentices [writes Rachel Storm in In Search of Heaven] to the extent that they begin to believe in their own magical power. ‘In the Exegesis seminar, you end up having a religious experience of consciousness — that attracted me to working in Programmes’, said a former employee. ‘It was a bit like joining a monastic order.’

There was the Business Network, nick-named Angels in Pinstripes, founded in 1982, which aimed to ‘act as a forum and discussion point for all those who feel that business should be nourishing not only to the wallet, but also the mind, the emotions body and the spirit’. It worked with Olivetti, Cathay Pacific, Esso, British Gas. ‘We offer a fitness course of the spiritual’, said Network co-founder Francis Kinsman. In 1984, members of the Network organized a seminar on the future of business, drawing representatives from American Express, Shell, BP, Whitbread, Ford, and British Rail. ‘When planning the seminar’, writes Rachel Storm, ‘Network members attuned themselves to the task-in-hand assisted by a crystal, candle and paying-in book.’

There were / are coaching programmes rooted in Anthroposophy, astrology, Zen, Stoicism, Tarot, ayahuasca. Even Findhorn, the heart of the British New Age, got in on the act, offering its course in ‘Intuitive leadership’.

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A panel from the graphic book by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, who has clearly drunk the Kool Aid

Why the overlap, and does it matter?

Why is there this strong relationship between the New Age and corporate coaching /futurism? I suspect it emerges from the institutional weakness of the New Age. It rejects institutional religion, which is liberating, but that rejection leaves its teachers with no established structure of tithing and emoluments, so New Age teachers have to hustle, constantly. Their financial situation is constantly precarious. Corporate coaching emerged as a way for spiritual seekers to make a living (along with being a yoga or meditation teacher, massage therapist, acupuncturist or astrologer…there aren’t many options).

You can either go out there and hustle for the retail market, or you can try and get into the elite market of ‘super-executives’ or wealthy nobility. Every magus needs a prince.

Coaching is also very much connected to and interwoven with elite sports — one founding figure in the movement is Timothy Gallwey, a tennis coach who wrote the excellent Inner Game of Tennis and then taught the same principles to managers; another is Sir John Whitmore, a former racing driver who brought the spirit of Esalen to UK coaching. Both coaching and sports (particularly tennis and golf) are activities for the wealthy, the leisured classes, with time and money to develop their consciousness or improve their back-swing.

So what? Does this matter?

Well…it’s weird. And I guess what you can end up with is a religion for the rich*. And you get figures who are one-part spiritual teachers, and three-parts hustlers, like Osho, who spiked potential patrons with MDMA before asking them for donations. The more confident their pitch, the bigger their salary. The cheesiest, crassest salespeople with the cheesiest, most vapidly-optimistic message tended to do best. They step on the stage to impart eternal wisdom, then almost immediately open their suitcase to offer a whole suite of products — books, courses, retreats, scenarios, elite gatherings, neuro-hacking supplements, legal highs, and so on.

And God forbid they should question their clients’ business practices or luxurious lifestyles! On the contrary, they assure their clients that they are part of the evolutionary elite, the teal vanguard of consciousness, homo superior, The Elect, the Magi, the Gods. Who wouldn’t pay to hear that?

They? We! I am also a spiritual seeker, who loves exploring and writing about spirituality. I too have to make a living. I am in the same precarious position. I too have to adapt to the market-place, experiment, hustle, try, fail and try again. It’s a slog. I feel for my fellow coach / futurist explorers!

On the whole my business model feels OK to me — I don’t feel I have to kiss anyone’s ass or betray my values. But I worry that my work, and New Age culture in general, only reaches the relatively affluent.

As we head into another Great Depression, and unemployment looks set to reach 20%, and I see people lining up at food-banks in my neighbourhood, I ask myself, can I do more to help the worst off? At the very, very least I can donate to my nearest food-bank. And I can try to adapt wisdom teachings not just for the top and middle of society, but also for those who are struggling.

*A friend responded that the New Age isn’t just popular with the rich. This is true. Things like The Secret or The Celestine Prophecy have a much wider readership than that — not to mention astrology, psychics etc. So perhaps I am talking about a certain sub-sect of a subculture — intelligent spirituality, which is particularly attractive to educated professionals…

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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