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Human Potential Movement breeds narcissism, idolatrous individualism

Just wanted to take a moment to do something I have been wanting to do for some time now. I would like to let you know that I always enjoy reading your articles. In fact, I look forward to the Wednesday paper so I can read what story you have to share and what I have to reflect on. The last article I read of yours talked about being happy. Contentment and peace. It reminded me of a question I would like to ask you. What do you think of the author Deepak Chopra? And his philosophy? — C.B., Hilo, Hawaii

I admit your question is inconvenient for me. Because, asked in good faith, it deserves an answer in good faith, which I will provide here. But it’s inconvenient because I’m predicting a little blowback in my email box. To say Deepak Chopra is popular is to say the Beatles were a pretty good band.

When existentialism and humanism collide in western civilization, apparently you get The Human Potential Movement. Google that title, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and be amazed. First there was psychoanalysis. Then behaviorism. Then humanistic psychology and finally transpersonal psychology.

William James, Abraham Maslow, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, Ram Dass, Richard Ruiz — these are but a few names that have emerged in my lifetime, all related in one way or another to The Human Potential Movement. I think of Deepak Chopra as part of this ilk.

Now, I have no issue with exploring human potential. On paper, it’s a good thing. Seen from one view, helping people realize their potential is how I earn my living. My trainer, Phillip The Merciless, is big on potential, too. He insists that just on the other side of my well-reasoned desire to give up are three more lunges with this medicine ball.

Quickly, though, there were bothersome cultural consequences in The Human Potential Movement. Bothersome to some, for sure. Me, for example. Not to everyone.

Anti-intellectualism has been orbiting modern culture since at least the Middle Ages. Maybe longer. Ask Galileo. And I’m convinced that emerging with The Human Potential Movement has come the lauding of anti-intellectualism, dressed in intellect, of course.

In reviewing “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby, Wendy Kaminer says, “Chopra’s popular reception in America is symptomatic of many Americans’ historical inability (as Jacoby puts it) ‘to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddled theories in the guise of science.’ Chopra’s ‘nonsensical references to quantum physics’ are placed in a lineage of American religious pseudoscience, extending back through Scientology and Christian Science.”

I have noticed that people in The Human Potential Movement seem to enjoy using the word “quantum” a lot. Quantum physics. Quantum mechanics. Perhaps these folks are just way smarter than me. But still, it smells like quantum pretention. Not to mention quantum horse patootie.

I think The Human Potential Movement breeds an astonishing narcissism coupled with an idolatrous individualism. It might not mean to do this, but it does.

I think real human potential is realized paradoxically. Through surrender to limits. By confessing vulnerability and need. By learning to love something or someone more than you love yourself. You want to maximize your independence? Then commit yourself to an inner circle of one or more people upon whom you can radically depend! And then there’s the fast track of realizing your potential: Do the suffering that is rightly yours to do.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’ll never be famous. Cross my path, and I won’t be trying to make you feel better. I’ll be pushing you to make conscious the suffering that is yours to do. Because doing that work is the only hope you have for feeling better.

C.B., my answer is that, of his ilk, Deepak Chopra bothers me the least. Which is to say I don’t pay much attention to him at all.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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