MY CURIOSITY ABOUT LIFESPRING BEGAN THE NIGHT MY HUS-band came home transformed. Steve had just finished a twelve-hour personal growth seminar and he was acting like a kid who’d just discovered he could tie his own shoes.
His eyes were bright, he was talking too fast, and any trace of his usual skepticism was gone. Even more startling, his familiar cigarette breath had been replaced by the scent of Juicy Fruit.
This was not the man I’d been married to for seven years, But I listened as he rambled about all the things he intended to change in his life. Quitting smoking was just one way to express his new commitment.
I was truly amazed. Just the night before he’d been entertaining me with stories about the bizarre mind games they were playing in Lifespring and about some of the strange people in his group of 165. Now here he was, spouting Lifespring jargon and mainlining chewing gum.
“One guy said something tonight that was frightening but true,” he said hours later, as he began to wear down. “If they’d offered us grape-flavored Kool-Aid, we probably would have chugged it.”
Hmmm. Like any concerned wife, I decided to check into Lifespring and find out exactly what we were dealing with here. Steve’s experience had started innocently enough. His boss was always enrolling him in leadership programs and executive seminars and he expected Lifespring to be more of the same.
But he soon realized that Lifespring was no Dale Carnegie clone.
Lifespring, in fact, is a leftover of the human potential movement that blossomed in Southern California in the early Seventies. Of these transformational trainings, the Erhard Seminar Training- est-was the most notorious. Its controversial training session became as hip as Nehru jackets and long hair, attracting celebrities and the socially prominent who could afford the enrollment fee.
Two years after Werner Erhard founded est, a man named John Hanley started Lifespring. The two men had been instructors in Mind Dynamics, an earlier program that had folded because of lawsuits. While Hanky’s program lacked the pizazz of est, it grew steadily, attracting the middle class instead of movie stars.
Today, Lifespring is big business with training centers in fifteen major cities and more than 250,000 graduates who pay $450 for basic training and $900 for the advanced program. It is a program that thrives on itself. All the staff and trainers are recruited from the ranks of graduates who enroll their family, friends, and neighbors in the training.
There is a Lifespring movie, a Lifevision magazine, and even Lifespring Foundation, a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is “to evoke possibilities for committed action that forward peace and human well-being.”
Lifespring and similar programs succeed because they claim they can help people get their lives to work better. The trainings encourage participants to cast aside their old beliefs and create a new outlook. To accomplish this breakthrough, they warn, the trainee must be willing to participate at what “might be a stressful and uncomfortable level” in the Lifespring games, interactions with the trainer, dyads (one-on-one interaction with another participant), sharing, group exercises, “mingles,” and “closed-eye processes.”
Here’s an example of what can happen: in Steve’s class, one man was confronted by the trainer, who, during a simple sharing, asked if the man loved his family.
“Sure I do,” he said. “I love them very much.” But the man’s voice was too subdued. “Are you sure you love them?” the trainer demanded. The man nodded.
“Well, let me ask you this,” the trainer said. “Let’s suppose your family was here and a man grabbed your wife, dragged her out into the hall, and raped her. What would you do?”
The man mumbled that he would hope the man wouldn’t do that.
The trainer was screaming. “You hope he wouldn’t rape her? This is the most important person in your life and you can only hope he won’t hurt her?”
The man started to sweat. “I would try to stop him,” he whimpered.
“You would try to stop him,” the trainer screamed. “Your wife is being attacked and the best you can do is try? Is that how you show up in your life?”
After several minutes the man finally broke down, admitting that he was a drug abuser who frequently spent his kid’s lunch money to support his habit.
By the end of the Lifespring session, however, he was a changed man. He stood up and proudly told the group that he was clean-he had flushed $200 worth of marijuana down the toilet.
Not all graduates are as thrilled with their experience. According to the Spiritual Counterfeits Project of San Francisco, an organization that studies new religious movements and cults, Lifespring has a past that could generously be called checkered. In 1979 a Seattle woman with asthma died after a Lifespring trainer allegedly convinced her that she didn’t need to take her medicine. The woman’s family was paid $450,000 in an out-of-court settlement. The following year, ABC’s “20/20” did a report critical of Lifespring. And in 1982 the family of a Seattle man sued Lifespring after the man went through training and emerged convinced that he was alternately Jesus Christ and the Devil.
In 1984, the first jury verdict was rendered against Lifespring when a New Jersey woman sued, claiming mat she suffered permanent psychological damages following her training. She was awarded $800,000. Several other suits have been filed for assault-by people claiming they were grabbed or roughed up by trainers-and for emotional stress.
In recent years, the experts have been divided. Some therapists and psychiatrists endorse the sort of self-help that Lifespring offers. Others say it can be as dangerous as walking off a cliff.
So, naturally, I signed up.
They say the training begins the moment you enroll. Which simply means that until your basic class begins, Lifespring staffers will badger you with calls, forms to fill out, and chipper reminders that the big day is approaching.
“Sooooo, you’ve got small children,” an observant Lifespringer noted as my eighteen-month-old daughter screamed into the phone during one such call. “Maybe being a wife and mother you don’t have much time for yourself,” she said, coaching me. “Maybe you’re losing your identity. Well, those are just some things to think about before you enter the training.”
Then there was the basic training worksheet, a questionnaire that covered my relationships, my career, my finances, my health, my family, and my community-to be completed in my spare time. Plus a confidential health form asking such questions as “Have you ever had a nervous breakdown?” On the back of the form I found a physician/therapist’s release to be signed, with instructions to consult one’s psychological counselor before beginning the training. The course would take place over five days, 6:30 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
The day before my class began, a young man called to see if I was “fired up” and ask whether I had any last-minute questions about Lifespring. I was beginning to wonder what I’d gotten into.
MY FIRST EVENING WITH L1FE-spring has all the electricity and dread of college registration. Dozens of people are milling in the hallway of a North Dallas Hilton Inn, looking uncomfortable and nervous. It’s a WASPish group with one black and a few Hispanics out of 110 people. Most appear to be middle-class, white-collar types who range in age from late teens to early retirement.
We check in, pick up our nametags, and file into a ballroom where rows of folding chairs face a small stage. The only decoration is a sign with black lettering: What Am I Pretending Not To Know?
At the stroke of seven, we meet Michael, our Lifespring trainer, who could easily pass for a GQ coverboy with his Italian shoes and boyishly handsome good looks.
Over the next few days, we glean that at one time, despite an exciting and enviable job, Michael was unhappy. Then he found Lifespring, and his life changed. Now, in his mid-thirties, he is happily married, expecting his first child, and traveling across the country spreading the good word of Life-spring to others.
Michael emphasizes that we are not really to think of him as an instructor-he is just here to guide us along in our training. First, the ground rules: no sitting with friends, no eating in the room, no alcohol or drugs during the five days, and no tardiness. Just to remind us that we are not to be late, Michael explains, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey will play a few minutes before the beginning of each session and at the end of our break. When the last thunderous notes sound, we’d better be in our seats.
The session falls apart when we get to the rule that says we must complete the entire training, including the advanced course interview the following week and the post training/guest event a week later.
“Anyone not understand this rule?” Michael asks. Haifa dozen people raise their hands to explain why they cannot possibly make it to the follow-up events, and one by one, Michael rips their arguments to shreds. The bottom line is that if they are committed to taking the training, then they must be open to finding a way to make it possible, no matter what stands in the way. AH they have to do is agree with Michael to get him off their backs, but these people insist on arguing. It goes on for more than two hours, to the distress of those of us who are hoping for a bathroom break.
In the end, most of the complainers comply, with the exception of one older woman who is asked to leave the training. She does. The rest of us are subdued, and we zip through the remaining ground rules in what must be record time.
The mood in the room is changing.
“Some of you are probably wondering when we’ll get through all this bullshit so the training can begin,” Michael says, pacing on the stage in front of us. “Well, friends, this is your training.”
On Wednesday, we begin sharing. We are expected to stand up in front of the group and tell them why our lives are not working. “Get it out there in the open,” Michael says, “so you can stand back and take a look at it more clearly.”
Sharing is strictly voluntary, he assures us. But over the next few days, those of us who’d rather not bare our souls to a roomful of people are made to feel like sinners unwilling to repent. It is fascinating to watch Michael at work during these sessions. “Confrontation by the trainer is intended to provide an opening for you to move out of your comfort zone,” the Lifespring literature warns. “Therefore, you may experience resistance to change, anger, challenge, or the risk of dealing with the unfamiliar. The trainer’s perspective is black and white. This produces anxiety for some participants.”
Michael, evidently, is a pro. Like a snake waiting for the right moment to strike, he draws out each sharer with probing questions until he finds an area of weakness. Then, zap! He reduces them to tears.
And people are paying for this.
Sitting in the hard chairs, we listen to lectures about how our lives have drifted into ruts, never reaching full potential because we are afraid to take risks. We play games, We rely on “avoidance mechanisms.” We experience “grungies.” We look for “payoffs.” These words and phrases are drilled into us night after night. On the wall in front of us, the sign saying “What Am I Pretending Not To Know?” gets larger.
And then there are the exercises. Our first is a mingle. We are told to wander through the room, randomly bump into people, establish eye contact, and then greet them by saying one of four things: “I trust you,” “I don’t trust you,” “I don’t know if I trust you,” or “I don’t wish to say.”
Next we are to find one person and silently stare at that person for several minutes. After what seems like an eternity we are asked to share, telling each other our first impressions. I find myself babbling like an idiot, explaining that I really don’t need to be here and asking this guy who looks so nice and normal why he is taking the training. He tells me that he is an attorney living in another city. He says he no longer knows how to relate to people who are not criminals. Lawyer burnout. He becomes my Lifespring buddy, the person I am to touch base with periodically through the training.
Then we form our small groups, led by one of the volunteers in the Lifespring leadership program. In my group, I meet one woman who had been abused by her father when she was a child. Later she married a man who abused her children. Now she is divorced, the kids are in counseling, and she is trying to sort out her life. And there’s the college coed who has just broken up with her boyfriend; a wealthy businessman from Mexico; and two middle-aged housewives who want the old fire back in their marriages. By the end of the Wednesday session, I am drained but wired. I don’t really want to go back, but it’s like watching a bad movie-I have to see how it turns out.
On Thursday, the exercises become more complex. In one, we sit face to face with another person. We are to take turns telling a true story about some circumstance in which we were a victim, be it a divorce, a crime, an illness, or whatever. We are to tell the story with such conviction that the other person totally believes every word. After that round is finished, we must relate the same story, this time telling it objectively. And we must be just as convincing.
The point, Michael tells us, is that there are no accidents in our lives. We are in control and we have a choice in everything that happens to us. A bit sobering for the woman whose husband died in World War II, I imagine.
And then there are the yelling exercises. One of my favorites is a dyad with a partner who is supposed to scream “What do you want?1’ at me while I probe deep into my psyche to answer the question truthfully. I’d swear he practiced this one at home. No matter what I say I want, he screams “Bullshit, what do you really want?” Finally he grabs my shoulders and shakes me.
But the exercises that really seem to shake people up are the ones that have anything to do with parents. In one dyad, we are to pretend the other person is our mother and we are to tell that person all the things we’ve never told that parent. We are to hold hands, close our eyes, and talk at the same time. Then we repeat the exercise, this time aiming our comments at our fathers. Willie Nelson croons “Always On My Mind” in the background.
Less than halfway through the dyad, my partner is weeping and his hands are sweaty. Lifespring staffers walk through the room offering Kleenex. When the lights go up, we have a chance to talk about our emotions. My partner tells me mat his parents beat him every day from the time he was four years old. By the time he finishes telling me his story, I am blubbering, too.
Friday is the evening of the infamous red-and-black game. Michael explains that the only purpose of the game is to win. He repeats it several times.
Meanwhile, we peruse what appears to be a game of strategy. Each team must fill in a set of boxes with either red or black. If one chooses red and the other chooses black, a certain numerical value is scored and soon. Michael sends our group to another room so we can vote on our color choices in private. Our team is really organized. We pick a leader, we debate strategies, and, in the end, we feel victorious. When we return to the ballroom after fifteen minutes, the other team has not even completed their scorecard. It looks like we have won.
But in a disapproving tone. Michael announces that no one has won. The purpose of the game was to win, not to beat the other team. In our strategy, we have accrued a negative point total to outwit our competitors. Some people are angry, some are near tears. Others seem confused about the whole thing. As a parting shot before the Friday session ends, Michael tells us: “How you participated in the game is exactly the way you show up in your life.”
So Saturday morning, the cloud of the red-and-black game hangs over us. As the session begins, dozens of hands wave in the air to share. Most people who get up to speak confess they did not sleep Friday night, pondering the red-and-black game and how they participated.
“I just sat back and judged,” one woman sobs. “And that’s what I always do.” Others reveal that they wanted to crush the other team and didn’t care how they did it. It seems a fitting beginning for a day that will be packed with emotion.
At midday, we are told to look around the room and find one person we dislike. When Michael gives the word, we are to go to that person and tell him or her: “My experience of you is. . .” and offer specific criticism. What makes it more interesting is that while someone is trying to find a certain person, that person is trying to approach someone else. When we all finally stop, at least a third of the group is standing in front of one woman who has been rather obnoxious.
No one has singled me out. (“That should tell you something about how you show up in life,” Michael scolds.) When the commotion settles, we have to return to the same person and tell them three things we like about them-not so easy when you have just berated that person. Then we repeat the whole thing and find the person in the group we most admire.
Michael explains that the point of these exercises is that we tend to find people with personality traits similar to our own. When we pick out arrogance to dislike, it is because we are arrogant, and so on. Aha. The guy I found seemed like a pompous, know-it-all type. Turns out he is a former journalist who has been through Lifespring basic training four times before.
One of the final exercises on Saturday wins the tear-jerker award. We stand in two lines, facing each other. We are to look at the person across from us and decide whether we want to ignore him or her, establish eye contact, shake hands, or hug. We vote our preference by raising one, two, three, or four fingers (four being a hug).
I remembered Steve’s telling me about this one. In his group, most people started with handshakes until the theme from Ordinary People started playing and his trainer read a wife’s letter to her husband in Vietnam. By that time, he said, people were hugging and crying. Our group was hugging from the beginning. So by the time the sorrowful music started and Michael was honing his acting skills, most of the group was weeping profusely. The woman next to me cries so ferociously, I have to support her shoulders or she’ll crumple to the floor. I’m sobbing and I’m not even sure why.
IT IS THIS KIND OF EMOTIONAL UP-heaval that worries psychiatrists about the Lifespring experience. “For people on the edge, people too naive or too desperately seeking a sense of support and belonging, this can be very dangerous,” says Dr. Kenneth Altshuler, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “What appeals to a lot of people is letting their guard down in front of other people. They are releasing some very powerful emotions.”
What makes it work, Altshuler says, is the cult-like atmosphere. The long hours in one room, the fatigue and discomfort and the sharing all make the trainer seem more credible. “They are teaching omnipotence,” Altshuler says, “that you are in control of your life. That you are perfect when in fact, the reality is that we are really helpless in the world.”
But the verdict is not unanimous. A Dallas psychologist, who prefers not to be identified by name, says that he thinks groups like Lifespring are probably constructive. “The impact is usually short-lived,” he says. “You have a few weeks of good feelings and then it wears off. Does it stimulate psychosis? I don’t think so. I haven’t heard anything like that in a long time.”
By Sunday, our group has reached a level of intimacy not unlike that developed by kids in summer camp. We greet each other with hugs. We know each other’s names. We promise to write and stay in touch. And many people admit they can’t imagine splitting up. So what better time for Michael to talk about Advanced Lifespring, a course that begins a few weeks after ours ends.
Michael describes the advanced session as the “ultimate high.” In fact, he says, advanced is really the true Lifespring experience; basic is just the preparation for it. The $900 fee is well worth it, he assures us. When we break into our small groups one last time, I discover that most are planning to sign up for the advanced-even the college student, who is waiting for a government grant so she can pay her rent.
Sunday evening we graduate. We hold hands in one big circle, the lights dim. John Lennon is singing “Imagine.” Our loved ones enter the room and stand in front of us. Michael warns them that they may not recognize the person. “They have changed.” I hear my four-year-old son’s voice interrupt our moment of silence. “Hey, Daddy! I found Mom!” he screams. “Now can we get out of this place?”
But there’s a postscript. Perhaps the most interesting part of the basic training is my follow-up interview, when two Lifespring staffers do everything possible to convince me that I should sign up for the advanced. “Wouldn’t your husband be surprised?” one asks. They seem genuinely bewildered that I don’t want to take my life to another plateau. Even more disturbing is our post training/guest event eight days later. When we are asked to share our experiences during the past week, a few of the most vocal participants say life in the real world was like a roller coaster. “I’m just so glad to be back in here with y’all,” one young woman says. “I couldn’t wait for the door to close.”
I find it ironic that the same seminar thattaught us to break down our comfort barriershas become a pacifier itself. For some,Lifespring has been a healthy experience.Like Steve, they talk about the positivechanges they will make in their lives. Othersseem to be more confused than they were inthe beginning. As for myself, I never experienced the transformation. And Steve,I’m happy to report, quickly returned to normal. He hasn’t used the word “commitment”in weeks, and he’s back up to two packs aday. Thank God.
MY CURIOSITY ABOUT LIFESPRING BEGAN THE NIGHT MY HUS-band came home transformed. Steve had just finished a twelve-hour personal growth seminar and he was acting like a kid who’d just discovered he could tie his own shoes.