Wayne Dyer, 1940-2015

Did best-selling self-help author Wayne Dyer sell snake oil or good advice?

Posted Sep 30, 2015

The best-selling, self-help book author, Wayne Dyer, died about a month ago, August 29, 2015. When I first heard the news, I searched the Web for details, but I found only a couple of postings other than the announcement from his family on Facebook. It took the mainstream media several days to start publishing stories about Dyer's life and death.

One of the early postings on Dyer's death contained a number of positive comments about his work, but also contained a few negative remarks. I can no longer find that early post; it may have been a YouTube video tribute that was taken down due to copyright violations. Here are two of the negative comments that I copied at the time.

"Dyer belonged in Granola land because he was a fruit, a nut, and a flake."

"I found this guy really annoying... reiterating a few simple basic ideas over 30 books and duping people while making him millions."

What is it about a best-selling author's work that prompted such a negative reaction? Today I offer my own thoughts on what we might make of Dyer's work

I won't recount all of the major events of Dyer's life, as those can be found easily on the Web. And a complete, detailed account of his life is available in his autobiography, I Can See Clearly Now. He arose from humble beginnings, spending much of his childhood in an orphanage. His biological father left soon after he was born and his stepfather was an alcoholic. He worked at various jobs throughout childhood and his teenage years, and joined the Navy for four years after he graduated from high school. He read voraciously during his military stint. He returned home to complete his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Wayne State University. He was employed as a high school graduate counselor as he earned his Ph.D.

Dyer took a position at St. John's University and played the academic game for a while, teaching, supervising graduate students, working on committees, and publishing. (I read some of his publications from this period; they are mediocre at best.) Dissatisfied with academic writing, Dyer got a contract to write a popular self-help book titled Your Erroneous Zones.  The book is based on well-established principles from cognitive-behavior therapy, but is written in a very accessible style. I used the book in a mental health course I taught 32 years ago because it is easy to understand.

Sometimes Dyer has been "accused of appropriating and simplifying other thinkers' work for a general audience" (NBC News Report, 2015). Well, you know what? That is what we teachers do sometimes for a general audience of non-specialists. One of my challenges as a professor was sifting through the mountains of psychological research out there, deciding which ideas were worth conveying to a group of freshman and sophomore students who might be taking no more than this one psychology course, and finding ways to talk about the psychological concepts—without distorting these concepts—in ways they could understand.

In my opinion, Wayne Dyer had a talent for recognizing and communicating useful psychological ideas to the general public. In graduate school he realized the power and value of cognitive-behavioral concepts, Abraham Maslow's view of human motivation, and Viktor Frankl's thoughts about meaning in life. These ideas informed his first few books. Dyer so believed in himself that he eventually quit his position at St. John's to write full time. In a pre-Internet age, he promoted his work by travelling from town to town, talking on local all-night radio shows, and providing local bookstores with copies of his book. His persistence paid off as he eventually received an offer to promote Your Erroneous Zones on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. To date, that book has sold over 35 million copies. It was just the first of 21 books that made the New York Times best seller list.

As I indicated, I used Your Erroneous Zones in my mental health course for a while. I also used portions of his second book, Pulling Your Own Strings, which is about a central theme in my course: autonomy. Dyer recognized the importance of getting along with others while remaining true to yourself and resisting attempts by others to manipulate you. His early work was all solid, practical, self-help psychology.

Continuing to follow Dyer's publishing career, I noticed he seemed to undergo a change from traditional psychology to what is sometimes called "New Thought Philosophy."  I thought he had gone off the deep end. The core principle of New Thought is that aligning one's thoughts with divine intention can create miracles. Positive, constructive thinking can cure disease, solve problems, and manifest goodness in your life. New Thought lies at the core of religious movements such as Unity and Christian Science, as well as popular classics such as Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. New Thought principles abound in Dyer's You'll See It When You Believe It, in Real Magic, and in his all-time best-selling book, The Power of Intention.

I have a confession to make. When I noticed the change in Dyer's books, I initially rushed to judgment about them from reading only summaries of what they were about, not by reading the books themselves. I figured that divorce, health problems, and other mid-life issues had addled his brain. Or maybe he was just jumping on the New Age bandwagon that would eventually include the enormous following of books such as Rhonda Byrne's The Secret and Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. (A reading of Dyer's autobiography reveals that he was not changing course to jump on the New Age bandwagon. As a teenager he had fallen in love with the transcendental writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work inspired the New Thought movement. On his tours he was often invited to speak at New Thought churches. So what we are seeing in his latter books is the "real" Wayne Dyer.)

My attitude about Dyer's latter books changed when I received as a gift his book Living the Wisdom of the Tao. I need to explain that when I first read the Tao Te Ching as a teenager, I was immediately captivated by its poetry and penetrating thought. It struck me as the wisest book ever written, and I maintain that opinion today. That's why my wife gave me Dyer's book on the Tao as a gift. Although I did not see eye-to-eye with Dyer on all of his interpretations of each of the 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching, it was clear to me that he "got" the heart of Lao Tzu's message, and this opened me to actually read The Power of Intention.

I was intrigued to find that The Power of Intention begins with a quote from Carlos Castaneda, whose books I had read years ago. One of my first blog posts for PT concerned the Mesoamerican worldview of Castaneda, which has seen a revival in more recent books written by don Miguel Ruiz. In that post, and in a related post on fringy, snake-oil self-help techniques, I suggest that it isn't necessary to buy into the entire metaphysics underlying a self-help philosophy in order to receive practical benefits from applying the philosophy. That is to say, it does not really matter if God has a purpose for us. And it does not really matter if "God's will flows through us" or we "become God" by practices such as gratitude, optimism, compassion, mindfulness, and respect. We know from empirical research in the field of positive psychology that certain practices do have salutary effects on the mind, body, and relationships. And Wayne Dyer was insightful enough to recognize sound practices for healthy living. If you practice what he recommends in his books, your life will probably change for the better. Or at least you will better perceive what is good in your life, no matter what.

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