human potential movement (Religious Movement)

The Human Potential Movement (HPM) originated in the 1960s as a counter-cultural rebellion against mainstream psychology and organized religion. It is not in itself a religion, but a broad umbrella of theories and practices derived mainly from Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology (see Maslow, Abraham). Maslow influenced a number of major psychotherapies, in particular Carl Rogers’s person-centred counselling, Fritz Perls’s Gestalt therapy, Arthur Janov’s Primal therapy, Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA), and Will Schutz’s encounter groups. They shared an optimistic belief in the fundamental goodness rather than sinfulness of human nature, and affirmed the right of the individual to ‘self-actualization’: the fulfilment of one’s highest potential and unique destiny. In a reversal of the Christian polarity, evil and dysfunctionality were projected onto society—which was seen as restricting and controlling individual freedom in order to maintain the status quo.

The HPM was initially a psychotherapy movement, dedicated to exploring the affective domain of feelings and relationships. The aim was the destigmatization of therapy, transformed into a path enabling ‘normal neurotics’ to achieve health and happiness—via the ‘heart’ rather than the ‘head’. In the 1960s, these techniques were further developed by counter-cultural ‘growth centres’, of which the largest is Esalen, founded in California in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price. In London, Quaesitor (founded by Paul and Patricia Lowe) and Michael Barnett’s Community were the main centres. Books were instrumental in spreading HPM values, in particular Be Here Now by Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) and I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas Harris. These paved the way for the current boom of bestselling self-help books which comprise the fastest growing publishing genre.

The HPM has been criticized as narcissistic and lacking social conscience. The response of its practitioners is that self-love and self-awareness are essential preconditions for altruism and effective social action. Furthermore, as with magical practice in Paganism, self-development is a positive response to political powerlessness: the individual cannot change the world but at least can change himself. Certainly, encounter groups and other groups pioneered a shift from individual growth not only towards a group praxis but also the creation of a community of kindred spirits.

However, during the 1970s many therapists and their clients became dissatisfied with the perceived limitations of HPM ideology, and began to look outside Western culture for deeper spiritual solutions. Eastern mysticism and meditation seemed to offer a more effective methodology than the ‘meaningless’ ritual of Christianity; it provided a path to self-transcendence and ultimately enlightenment. Therapists began to utilize meditation as an adjunct to ‘personal growth’. The most significant developments happened in the Rajneesh Movement, which attracted many of the leading British and American HPM therapists, including the founders of Quaesitor and Community. Together with the movement’s leader Osho, they created a synthesis of therapy, Dynamic Meditation and other Eastern meditations, which became known as Rajneesh therapy. In the 1970s-1980s it was considered the cutting edge of psychospirituality, and has influenced other therapies and spiritual praxes.

Various fusions of psychotherapy and meditation include Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, Ken Wilber’s transpersonal psychology, and Jack Kornfield’s interpretation of Buddhism. Even Christianity has been influenced, such as the Alpha courses. The New Age can be seen at the direct heir of the HPM (see New Age Movement); its beliefs and values closely reflect HPM philosophy. Neo-paganism and Shamanism also owe much to it; self-development and empowerment are key concepts in magical ritual. Reciprocally, some shamanic healing techniques have been taken up by psychotherapists, although shamans interpret spirits and the ‘non-ordinary reality’ in which they are encountered as ontologically more ‘real’ than the material world, whereas psychologists tend to interpret these experiences as elements of the personal psyche or archetypes.

Nowadays the HPM has expanded in many directions into mainstream society, and become routinized in representative councils and associations such as the Association of Humanistic Psychology (AHP) and hundreds of self-development centres and training organizations worldwide. Esalen itself now offers over 400 courses and programmes. Its influence can be traced in both secular and spiritual developments.

The most interesting and significant secular development of the HPM is its impact on business philosophy, practice and training. Personnel and management training, and teacher training are increasingly focused on the affective domain, utilizing frameworks such as Transactional Analysis and techniques including sensitivity training, role-play, feedback, and group dynamics. Business philosophy is influenced by ‘soft’ HPM values, such as the widespread emphasis on stress management as an alternative to rampant ambition and competition.

Despite the HPM’s emphasis on personal development extending into spiritual growth, it has been largely probusiness and entrepreneurial; many of its practitioners have amassed large personal fortunes and founded successful commercial organizations. Some founders of self-development groups are from a sales background, and their groups have become involved in business consultancy and management training, such as Landmark Forum (formerly est), Scientology’s subsidiaries WISE and Sterling Management Programmes Ltd, MSIA’s Insight Seminars, Lifespring, and Silva. These organizations are sometimes classified sociologically as new religions, though they tend to describe themselves in secular terms.

Most of these trainings do not focus on spirituality directly, but some business leaders are becoming interested in spirituality and inculcating these values into their organizations, such as Richard Barrett at the World Bank. Hundreds of Japanese companies have implemented corporate meditation programmes through the Maharishi Corporate Development International (see Transcendental Meditation), which has several multinational corporations as clients. Conversely, therapy and spiritual centres regularly present events and workshops on prosperity consciousness and other approaches to money and spirituality.

The HPM has given a powerfully cohesive framework and set of values to the counterculture, the NRMs linked to it, the New Age and other alternative spiritualities. The widespread interest of contemporary mainstream society in personal development in the workplace as well as private life, the growth of holistic health, and the replacement of hard political causes with softer issues such as environmentalism, also owe much to HPM values. It can thus be seen as one of the most significant and influential forces in modern Western society.

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