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Corporate effervescence: the business seminar as ecstatic experience

As most of you know, I’m working on a book about the place of ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in post-religious / secular / rationalist society.

My broad thesis is that (1) western culture pathologised and marginalized ecstatic experiences from around the 17th century on but (2) humans kept on seeking ecstatic experiences through new and non-orthodox routes – new religious movements like Methodism and Pentecostalism; Romantic poetry and music; and then, from the 1960s on, sex, psychedelic drugs, rock and roll, and Eastern and new age spirituality.

Today I want to talk briefly about perhaps the most unlikely form of ecstasy in our post-religious society – ecstasy through business.

I know, weird right? What could be less likely!

The sociologist Max Weber said that business was part of the iron cage of rationalist bureaucracy in which we’re imprisoned. Europe is disenchanted, the spirit has evaporated, and we’re stuck in our little cubicles of Protestant work ethics, trying to earn the approval of a God we no longer believe in.

I think of the financial publishing company where I began my career, and I can’t think of anywhere less ecstatic – it felt emotionally inhibited, paranoid, meaningless, atomized and amoral. This is one of the reasons I love Fight Club and its ecstatic hatred of the emotional flatness and moral emptiness of corporate – consumer culture. Burn it all down!

And yet….

At some point in the 20th century, for some people, business itself became a means to ecstatic experience.

I think it began in the US, where the line between revivalist preacher and business motivational speaker became blurred. So you find someone like Dale Carnegie preaching in YMCAs about how to be the best salesman, with a strange mixture of Protestant work-ethic and Protestant ecstasy. You get someone like Zig Ziglar, one of the most successful business coaches of the last 50 yars, whose seminars were a mixture of self-help advice and southern Baptist ecstasy – listen to the trembling cadre of his voice, and how it reminds one of the greatest Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King.

Things got weirder in the 1970s, as baby-boomers like Steve Jobs joined the work-force, and brought with them their appetite for mind-altering drugs and altered states of consciousness, for eastern and new age spirituality, for authenticity and expressive individuality.

The baby-boomer ethos blossomed in the Human Potential Movement, inspired by figures like Abraham Maslow and Aldous Huxley, who believed ecstatic experiences needed to be re-integrated into western culture. That idea got mass produced through Large Group Awareness Training programmes like erhard seminars training (est) and Landmark Education. Organizations like est would run ‘mass marathon’ coaching sessions over a weekend, where 100 people would be encouraged to share, open up, break down, and allow themselves to be remade. Watch this clip from Adam Curtis’ century of the Self, 30 minutes in, with some amazing footage from an est seminar.

These sessions were secular versions of 18th or 19th century revival meetings, where people would experience highly emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs. But where in the past converts would surrender to Jesus, at est or Landmark today they surrender to the Leader and to the group, and accept the Landmark dogma that they can do and be anything they want.

0ea590148e19feb31e7d0c10024d93d8The cannier coaches – like Anthony Robbins – soon realized that their customers were seeking a sort of religious substitute, and they thought about how to bring in music, dancing, and rites of passage to symbolize the death of the old self and the birth of the new liberated and authentic Power-Self. Robbins’ seminars, for example, became famous for incorporating fire-walking, which originated as a religious ritual in the Meditarranean. Testimonials are also a powerful ritual for people to share their storis with the group and affirm their incredible breakthroughs – both in church, and in the business coaching seminar.

Then, in the 90s, with the rise of Silicon Valley, things got really weird. Start-up culture embraced the baby-boomer ethos of authenticity and expressive individualism (and a willingness to do ayahuasca every now and then to improve executive insight), and combined it with a techno-evangelical faith that we can change the world. Our app / social network / software design is going to liberate humanity and perhaps help us transcend to the next level of consciousness. Woo hoo!

The long hours, intense corporate loyalty and cult of the leader at tech firms like Microsoft or Google led to weird scenes like the famous clip of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer going ape at a Microsoft employee conference: ‘Give it up for meeeeeee!’ Check out that corporate ego unleashed.

Even the CEO of a shoe company, Zappos, started to get something of a Messiah complex – Tony Hsieh wrote his own comic book to tell the story of his journey and how he helped all his employees find meaning, happiness and transcendence working for his online shoe company. Yeah! You’re amazing Tony! You’re some kind of SUPERMAN!

No he didn’t. He was hired to be CEO at someone else’s company.

Today it’s very common to use the language of spiritual ecstasy when talking about your career – people speak of ‘vocation’, ‘mission’, ‘revolution’, ‘business heretics’, ‘free spirits’, ‘passion projects’, ‘epiphanies’, ‘breakthroughs’ and so on.

Maybe this seems weird to you. I find it a bit weird too. But here’s the thing: people want it. People crave it. People yearn for authenticity, emotional expressiveness, deep sharing and bonding, meaning, and – yes – ecstasy and altered states of consciousness. And most people these days aren’t religious, so some end up getting these things through business and personal development courses both within their companies and outside of them.

And people might be surprised by themselves – they may go in to these sorts of sessions with all their Enlightenment skepticism and emotional inhbition intact, and suddenly find themselves letting go and letting it all hang out…

Some people find real breakthroughs via business coaching or personal development courses. But there are risks too.

Any ecstatic experience can be dangerous, because it involves a move beyond one’s usual ego-constructions to a new form of being. This can involve some form of temporary regression to a childhood state, and it can involve trauma coming up from one’s past – abuse, rape, or just parents who didn’t love us enough. If people already have unstable egos, a challenge to one’s ego might lead to temporary psychosis, like a bad trip. At the least, it involves people suspending their critical faculties and their emotional reserve and moving into a hypnotic state where they’re highly suggestible (and exploitable).

Corporate culture or business-coaching culture is not always a safe vessel for this type of intense experience. Within businesses, it can lead to a cultish absorption in The Company and devotion to the Leader. People within the Company lose critical distance, lose the ability to say ‘this isn’t right’. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street, for example – the charismatic leader inspired his employees, but also led them (and their customers) off an ethical cliff.

Within business coaching seminars, the organization – Landmark or whoever – might not have the training or the willingness to cope with the emotional trauma that might come up in participants. I wrote about this in Philosophy for Life, telling the story of a friend, Adam, who had a psychotic episode during a Landmark course, and didn’t feel he was given any sort of proper care.

People can also get caught up in the emotional contagion of the group dynamic. Within a church context, that might mean they suddenly find themselves converting to Christianity. Wthin a business-coaching context, it might mean they suddenly find themselves quitting their job. Both might not be fully conscious decisions (Christians might say ‘so what, any route to Jesus is good’).

I think the biggest risk is that, in the words of the Vatican, places like Landmark ‘marry counter-cultural values with the mainstream need to succeed’. I would like to believe that God doesn’t need me to be a material success, and the proof of His love for me is not in my earnings. I would like to believe He lets me be broken and lost, while business ecstasy sometimes requires me to be superpowered and superoptimistic. I’d like to believe I can part of His family for free – I don’t need to pay for membership like I would at Landmark.

And can you imagine having an ecstatic experience – a movement beyond your ego – and all you end up reaching is Microsoft? That’s not transcending very far.

Then again, organized religion is not always the safest vessel for ecstatic experience either, and it can be just as corporate and money-grubbing. Think of the massive global popularity of Pentecostalism, with its Gospel of Prosperity and its tele-evangelists with their pay-per-prayer business model. Organized religion can be just as exploitative, just as damaging, just as unregulated, just as willing to promise Incredible Benefits to the faithful. And God doesn’t always seem to be there, while career achievement is more…er….tangible.

Three insights I gained from this weekend

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence no newsletter last week. I feel like I am spinning plates at the moment. Luckily I’m off to Cornwall tomorrow to take it easy with some good friends. In the meantime, here are three insights I have taken from this weekend’s wild adventure.

Bo3qukaCIAAVK7wThe weekend started with a flight to Madrid, on Thursday evening, for an AECOP conference – AECOP is the Spanish association of business coaches. I have never met a business coach before, but a member of AECOP, Winni Schindler, reads this blog and was kind enough to invite me to give a key-note. On Friday morning, I gave a talk about how we can use ancient Greek philosophy in modern life, to a room full of 150 business coaches. An interpreter translated my talk as I went along, but I was a bit over-caffeinated up so the poor lady was exhausted by the end of the hour!

The coaches really liked the talk, I think. For the last question, a lady asked me ‘how can we learn about your approach, where do you do courses, and how much do they cost?’ I replied ‘well…you can just read the books of ancient philosophy, they’re all free and easy to read!’ Then I sat down at my table, and this Israeli business coach shook her head at me in wonder and said ‘you just missed a huge opportunity’. It turns out I should have had a Philosophy for Life training workshop ready to pitch to the room of business coaches, and lots of them would have signed up. I realized then: I need a business coach to tell me how to make money!

I honestly hadn’t imagined that coaches offer coaching to other coaches! I wasn’t even sure what coaches did – do they offer one-on-one coaching lessons or do big workshops or what? It turns out that business coaches do all these things. You can hire them one-on-one, or go to a workshop of say 10 to 100 people, or sign up for one of their online courses. All of which I can do, and I could actually get paid decent money for it.

This is a remarkable discovery. I’m so used to giving book talks for free, in the hope I’ll sell perhaps 20 copies of my book, and get 7% royalties for each copy (which means perhaps 50p a book). It’s quite a slog, as any writer will tell you.

Yes, but…would it be selling out to offer philosophy life-coaching or business-coaching? Wouldn’t this be like Michael Sandel, who charges $30,000 to do talks about his book, What Money Can’t Buy? Perhaps one should offer this stuff for no money, simply in the service of humanity (while living in a cardboard box under the Hammersmith Flyover). I think it depends how you do it. Many is the philosopher who teaches life-wisdom but has absolutely no idea about how to make ends meet. It’s important to me that I can make a living, otherwise I end up asking for handouts from relatives or needing to churn out books every year. So I have no problem with making money for what I do.

Ryan Holiday, Stoic business guru
Ryan Holiday, Stoic author

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that ancient philosophies were not simply about ‘getting ahead’. They were counter-cultural spiritual philosophies.  An entrepreneur called Ryan Holiday has just brought out a ‘Stoicism for Entrepreneurs’ book called The Obstacle is the Way . He comes from PR – his last book was a Machiavellian guide to PR called Trust Me I’m Lying – and his latest book has been well-promoted and is selling great. Ryan’s success shows both the opportunity and the risk of taking Stoicism into business coaching –  Stoicism is not really about being successful in a conventional sense, it’s about being a good person. All of us doing ‘Stoicism for modern life’ need to be clear that the ancients didn’t think of this philosophy as a formula for conventional success.

So, here is the first of this weekend’s three insights:

I could do philosophy life-coaching for organisations and individuals, as long as I used the profits to subsidize work with less rich and more disadvantaged groups.

I think it’s OK to offer workshops on wisdom and philosophy within organizations – in fact, there’s a noble tradition of adult education within companies, like my ancestors the Rowntrees used to do. But philosophers have a moral obligation not just to cater to the affluent or the elite. And we need to be clear about the end or goal of the education. We should never teach wisdom with the end of ‘getting rich’ or ‘being a success’ – that would be misusing the ancients’ advice. We should only use it with the end they had in mind, of helping people build good characters. Even at Saracens rugby club, even the week before a big final, we still focused not on ‘winning at all costs’, but on building good characters. Which brings me to my next insight.

rugby_2927613bAfter the conference in Madrid, I went to the Premiership final at Twickenham, where the Northampton Saints were playing Saracens. I’ve been running a philosophy club at Saracens this month, which the Saracens coaches were kind enough to big up in a piece in the Telegraph last week. Alas, the team lost the final in the last second of extra time, having put their bodies through a brutal ordeal for 80 minutes. And this was just a week after they lost a similarly brutal European cup final. So having led the Premiership league for the entire season, and won the most points, they came away with nothing for the second consecutive season.

The players coped with the defeat with great integrity, applauding the fans and shaking the hands of the opposition. They didn’t even complain to the referee, although he awarded the match-winning try despite not being able to see if the ball had touched the ground. That’s admirable – to show character in the face of galling defeat. They had done everything right, all season, and they still lost. This gave me my second insight of the weekend:

Sport is cruel.

Unlike pretty much every other profession, there is a tiny margin between victory and euphoria, and defeat and heartbreak. All season, we have been practicing philosophy and the idea that it’s not just about externals, it’s about integrity, values and character. Which it is. But in sport, it’s also, inevitably, about externals – the external of winning or losing. This makes me glad I’m not a professional sportsperson – though I hugely admire these people who can take such a physical and emotional battering, and get up and do it again a few days later.

BpDBCXMIMAI6YS6-1OK, final insight. On Sunday I did a talk at Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, on ancient philosophy and how wisdom can help us transform our emotions and improve our lives. It went well – in general I think humanism can be a bit shiny happy optimistic, and philosophies like Stoicism offer it something a bit grittier, which is all to the good. I wanted to offer a similar talk in the church I sometimes go to in Kings Cross, but the vicar basically stymied the idea. I’m not sure if he (a) doesn’t trust me (sensible fellow) or (b) doesn’t trust Greek philosophy because he sees it as a rival to Christ and St Paul. What a pity if Christianity has become so existentially threatened, like modern Islam, that it sees every other philosophy as a threat, even one that did so much to influence Christian culture. If that’s the case, it’s destined to become a cultural ghetto, and to disappear entirely.

After the Sunday Assembly, I went to a Christian service at a church in West London. The sermon was by a visiting New York pastor called Pete Scazzero, about how he had set up a church in Queens, only to suffer a breakdown. He’d decided that he was utterly emotionally illiterate, and it was holding back his church. So he read widely, from Thomas Merton to Henri Nouwen (two psychologically-literate Christian writers), and studied contemplation techniques from Christian monasticism. And he eventually wrote a book, Emotionally Intelligent Spirituality, summing up some of his ideas. It is ancient wisdom served up for evangelicals – and is precisely what born-again Christianity needs.

the-emotionally-healthy-churchIt seems to me that evangelical / charismatic Christianity does some things well. It does worship and music well – although its music tends to be really upbeat, unlike the Psalms, which are two-thirds lament. It does community well, although its communities tend to be full of people saying ‘amazing!’ and ‘awesome!’ and ‘Jesus!’ rather than honestly talking about their difficulties. It does evangelism and mission well, although it focuses intently on the ‘moment I came to Christ and everything got better’ rather than talking honestly about the continued difficulties of the spiritual life after finding Christ. And it does passion / ecstasy / encounters with the Holy Spirit well, but unfortunately ends up over-relying on such full-on encounters, and desperately imploring the Holy Spirit to do more, more, more.

Well, we have our reason as well, don’t we? That’s a gift too! And we have the centuries of tradition of Christian prayer and contemplation. That’s a gift too. So why not use them, instead of relying totally on outpourings of the Holy Spirit to do all your healing needs.

So this is my third insight of the weekend:

The extravert thrills and spills of charismatic Christianity needs to be balanced by a revival of the interior stillness and silence of contemplative Christianity.