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One. Hundreds of people followed James Arthur Ray across the country, paying thousands of dollars to attend his events and to claim him as their self-help teacher. He was very much a larger than life character, just full of confidence and vigor and energy and passion. When I looked at James, I saw a teacher.

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James taught his followers how to live in harmony, practice spirituality, aim for growth and success. He also challenged them to step out of their comfort zones and push beyond their physical limits.

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You need to play full on because what he sees in you is more than you're seeing in yourself. So if you play full on, you'll probably reach the potential that he feels you can do.

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So don't hold back, don't play small, don't hide out. To me, it felt like he was, you know, the drill sergeant.

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But on October 8th, 2009, in a makeshift tent he called a sweat lodge, James Ray pushed his attendees way too far.

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In this episode, we'll hear Ginny Brown, Laura Tucker and I in conversation at the Guru premiere event. The online event was hosted by Laura Beil, host of the wonderous podcast Dr. Death and Bad Batch. And we talked about James Ray, Spiritual Warrior and the perils of the self-help industry. We are pleased to have simply safe as our presenting sponsor, simply safe does home security. Now, here's the thing about home security companies. Most of them trap you with high prices, tricky contracts and lousy customer support, but not simply safe, simply saves.

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Death and Bad. This is a conversation I hosted for the premiere of Garu. Joining me is Matt Stroud, Laura Tucker and Ginny Brown. Thank you all for joining me. Thank you, Laura.

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Yeah, thanks for having us. Thank you for inviting us to this table. One of the things I want to start with with Laura is that startling incident where you shave your head. I have to say I'm listening to that in horror and fascination as to how you can do that. Can you tell me? I mean, obviously, there was a great physical change that occurred with that event, but what mental and emotional changes took place when you shaved your head?

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Well, thank you. Thank you, Laura, for starting with something easy.

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One thing that I think is is relevant is that the whole dialogue from that first night when the shavers were kind of thrust in my face to the moment where I decided, oh, oh, no, I have to do this, that was two or three days long. And the the journaling was continuing to happen throughout the retreat. What pushed me over was that I knew that at the end of the month I was flying back to Toronto to see my family and I had arranged to meet this guy who I went to high school with for a quote unquote date.

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And I was running through what would he think if I did this and I hadn't even had a single date with the man and was already making decisions based on what his perception would be? I was like, this is ridiculous. And you're clearly it would seem to me to be like the proof that I was leading from the superficial and not from what was inside of me. And so right from that point of view, I think that's why it was such a relief that I did it.

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And then I had to do damage control afterwards and say, well, my appearance has been altered and and we just celebrated nine years married. So it didn't bother him with that same guy. Yes.

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So I just learned that since this occurred, you yourself have gone into the self-help industry. What have you learned both from outside as a participant and inside as a practitioner about what it takes to be successful in the self-help industry? Well, after Spiritual Warrior and all the subsequent events that play out, I turned away from it all. I just walked away completely. I couldn't I couldn't even do yoga or meditate or anything that I had learned about. You have read the books.

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I just couldn't have any more of those inputs. But it got to be about five, six years later, we were moving back to Toronto and I realized that I really wanted to get back into the coaching. That's something that I picked up during those years. And it helped me to support my consulting clients through the recession.

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But coming into the industry and having had the experience that I've had, I find it very difficult to do the things that seem necessary to grow any kind of business to scale. There's a difference between a coach and, say, the speaker from the stage, that guru figure. But it just hasn't been something that I have found that experience to be rewarding. It just sometimes doesn't feel like I can feel good about going out and pitching the work and getting the buy in.

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One of the things that I learned, maybe, Jenny, you can speak about this, but I write about science a lot, and that's my focus. And and over the years, just watching a lot of these self-help businesses, one of the things that they rely on is a lot of pseudoscience and scientific sounding terms and that are not actually backed by science. I mean GenY. Maybe you can talk about this. I mean, what are some of the typical claims that are made that sound great?

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And and what are the red flags that you say? But if you could just kind of give examples of of what we should be on the lookout for if we're considering one of these self-help, it was one of the things that is concerned.

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Is when the Upsala so heavy duty, you know, there's a short break and the kids are in the back and there are vents and you only have 10 minutes to sign up and you want to be there and then they throw in scarcity. Oh, we only have five more slots. Meanwhile, just sold 20. But there's a no refund policy. Once you sign up and you give them your credit card. That's it. Like your life is over.

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It's like it has kind of that timeshare vibe to it.

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Yes. Yes, it does. It does.

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One thing I want to be clear is the people who like Laura or like your daughter who buy into this, these are intelligent people. I mean, we may be listening, thinking, well, I would never do that, but. But you are drawn, but you are drawn in because they're good. Maybe because you're vulnerable and maybe matter any of you can talk about, like, why are people who should know better, you would think, drawn in to this industry so heavily?

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I think the other thing is he was on the secret, the book and the DVD and on Oprah on all the morning talk shows. So in addition to kind of trusting what he had to say, I think someone who has that kind of backing also is another level of trust that you give because you're like, oh, these are these are other people. I really admire him. And they've done great, unquestioned, great things, you know. So, yeah, man, if she thinks she's really something, I'm I'm in, you know.

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So I think that's that's a tease. When you're in a situation where there's clearly sensory deprivation going on, very little time to eat, very little time to sleep and discouraging to sleep, those those kinds of things. I'm not sure that people understand how that impacts your rational decision making.

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Matt, I wanted to ask you why you wanted to tell the story. This is an incident that happened a decade ago. I'm just curious why you wanted to tell us the story now.

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One of the main ideas is what you brought up, Laura, which is that when you tell people about this story, their first reaction is like cold. When you tell them the story, their first reaction is typically, well, I would never really get involved with that. When I spoke to the people who were there, these were smart people. These were not people who you would perceive as being easily manipulatable. There are doctors that are lawyers or people such as yourselves who are successful business people.

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And so that was something that I wanted to tell and something that I didn't think was told in many of the media appearances and Jameses media appearances following the event itself.

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I mean, there's been a lot of podcasts and a lot of documentaries about cults. Here's another documentary about about a cult. What distinguishes this story from yet another cult story? And it sounds like one of the points you're making is that this is not a cult. It's it's a manipulation that is somehow distinct. Could you could you talk about that?

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Yeah, it's not a cult. We spoke to a gentleman by the name of Rick Ross, Rick Allen Ross, who is not the rapper, but he he talks about how a cult is built around a personality and a spiritual higher calling that is typically involved in faith and in God. James's cult of personality, if you want to call it that again, is not participating in a cult is built around money and that I'm going to help you make more money and all you have to do is follow me.

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I see that kind of stuff all the time on the Internet, on social media and in proposals from advertisements that are very similar to the ones that that James is pitching. But, Laura, I would ask you about that. Do you see this kind of pitch happening in other media or is James a unique personality now?

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I don't I don't think James is is remotely unique when it comes to how the how the promotion was and or is and and just the inner workings of building a self-help business. It is very legitimate. But what happens is that, first of all, to be fair, I do believe there are a lot of people doing very good work in the self-help industry. I think this story can stand as an example and and a reason for people to learn to be more discerning when they're going into that type of relationship.

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Whether that's with you could say the same thing with any practitioner body practitioners or therapists if you're not comfortable with. Things that are happening, you need to move away, even if it means moving away from the group. And, you know, Jenny and I have had many conversations where this is we talk about this is not a cult, but there are some cult like characteristics. And these are the grey areas that it's really important to bring awareness to.

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And I'm here to say that you could be having a great experience, like I was having a great experience up until I wasn't, you know, right to the end. One thing I'm not clear about, I mean, you all that the podcast gets into James Ray's background, but do you have to have any kind of special training or could become a self-help guru, a self-described self-help guru, or can I just declare myself that? And I think this started making my pitch.

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I think there's a big difference between a motivational speaker, someone who has a great personal story that's very motivational, and they don't need to necessarily have a big background. They're just a good speaker and they're sharing from their heart this sharing their life. And that can be very motivating. So I think there's a place for just a motivational speaker. But when you start asking people to believe you because you have knowledge that they don't have and then you use all these kinds of tactics to create a situation so that they were not in a cult, but the person who was leading the event was using cult like tactics to create the ability to get people to follow and maybe impede their their personal, rational decision making.

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And just one thing I'd like to say about that, that's kind of interesting. I think this parallels to the Metoo movement that when people are harmed, whether they're harmed emotionally, which I know has happened or financially, they're they're reluctant to come forward to reveal that.

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Is it because they're reluctant, because they don't think people believe them, or is there a certain amount of shame that you were taken in? And I think it's interesting that the survivors of these experience, you know, they were taken advantage of, are reluctant to talk about it.

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Definitely. And I think that that's awful because people need a voice. They need to be able to have a voice. I'm so glad that Laura has such a clear voice about this. It's very, very important.

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So this particular event was as well as you can imagine, if you didn't witness it firsthand, was splashed all over the news all around the world. And and it was portrayed as as a cult. And and there was a lot of what I even I grappled with understanding this now, because sometimes I think it's very easy to forget that there were 50 some odd people who would qualify as victims. And and so there was a lot of there was victim shaming and there was a ton of shame associated with being there.

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There's no shame in having been there. And it's important for people who have experienced tragedy and and trauma to not let themselves out of the Congress, the very conversation that is going to help them to heal and move forward. And I, I, I feel sometimes that, you know, every time I hear of another person who was there that is willing to speak to it, I do.

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And I celebrate that because it means that those of us who are we're not on our own.

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But also it could also mean that they're not feeling like they're pushed out onto the margins like we were. And the more this event stays pushed out on the margins and seen as the outlier, the less likely change will happen.

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Try simply save today at simply safe dotcom. Suguru, you get free shipping and a 60 day risk free trial. There's nothing to lose that's simply safe. Dotcom, Suguru, G.U., are you. We talk about race all the time. We do as a Puerto Rican Iranian, a Persian Rican and as a black man trying to navigate life in the U.S., who we are has a huge impact on every aspect of our lives. I'm Shereen Marisol Merici.

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And I'm Gene Demby, and we're the host of NPR's Code Switch.

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Our weekly podcast explores race and identity from all angles history, politics, relationship, sports, pop culture and more.

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So come through, find code switch wherever you get your podcast. After the premier finished, we stayed on to keep the conversation going, and I began by asking Laura Tucker about her own career in self-help. I decided that I wanted to to coach and I had gone through coach certification, a huge coaching certification program, twice at that point. I did it in two thousand and eight and nine, and then I did it again in two thousand fourteen. And that particular program that I was in, that's hundreds of hours of training on how to coach someone like there.

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And I think that's one of the one of the red flags actually that I would love to put out there is that if you're a motivational speaker, guru, rock star, all that stuff that's different from the work that people do, working one on one with people. But no matter who it is, if that coach or that mentor, particularly if they're calling themselves a coach, if they don't have a methodology, if they cannot describe what it is that they do when they're working with their clients, then that's not coaching.

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And and and also, you know, coaching is not consulting, it's not telling people like I was in my original role how to run an optimal service department in a car dealership. That's very tangible, that's practices stuff.

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So you implied that you may be getting out of it. Yes. So why is why is that so?

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The greater context is that 15 years ago, as of right now, 15 years ago today, I arrived in Cologne. I drove across Canada with me and my dog and all of my belongings. And I relocated because I wanted to live in the Okanagan Valley. It's beautiful wine region. My real passion is photography and writing. And I was writing my memoir on the weekend and I was writing about the 15 year anniversary. And as I was writing it, I was writing things like my real dream was never to be a coach.

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My real dream was to take photographs, make beautiful things right, and and really live the life of a creative. And as I was reading it, I'm like, oh my gosh, that's I've been helping people for the last five plus arguably 10, 15 years to design the businesses that support their dreams. And I had this other thing and very much got drawn into the self-help way of life. And and I love a lot of it, but I'm seeing that I was using all of my best skills in service of growing the coaching thing.

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And I feel like I'm kind of done. I just wanted to know from Jenny what you've learned, what you've learned, trying to make the industry safer and what needs to happen.

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I think when you ask what has to change, I think we have to educate. I think there's a lot of power and knowledge. I really think maybe if Kirby had understood sensory deprivation, maybe if she had understood some of the things that happened over the course of that week, she wouldn't she wouldn't have lost her life.

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Maybe she would have been willing to leave if she had those feelings, that maybe something was a little bit off and encouraging people to pay attention to that inner voice that says, yeah, I don't know, this this doesn't feel right.

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May I speak to that for a second of the inner voice piece? Because that's something that came loud and clear, the call to the the podcast. One of the things that I hear a lot of in the podcast that's shocking to me now is the instruction to ignore what your body is telling you when your body is actually just such a huge source of wisdom. That's where a lot of our instinctive wisdom plays out. And and in fact, over the course of the last 10 plus years now, a lot of my journey on the way back was to learn how to tune back into my body in order to be thoroughly present and grounded and and and to to access all of all of that.

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And one thing that I mean, we come back to this question about distinguishing between a cult, which I ask in the live event. And I think the reason that we want to conflate these things is because both. These self-help gurus and cult leaders, the one thing that they have in common is a very charismatic leader at their center, and that's why we conflate the two, I think. And and and any of you could answer this, but there's something about that personality of somebody who needs to be adored and needs to be in control of people that I don't understand really.

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And maybe you can help me with that and and talk about the distinctions between what makes a cult leader and what makes just a charismatic person. I would love to share something that I read recently. And it was it was that no one ever believes that they're joining a cult. Nobody goes out of their house and says, I'm going to join a cult. Today. That a cult is a broken promise and the broken promise is around the trust between the cult leader and the cult follower.

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And I can hear that coming out of my own mouth and I and and cannot ignore the similarity between that and what happens with these with the guru model of self-help. And it's one of the reasons why I believe that it's time for that model to go away and for people to be able to explore and discover and become self more self aware.

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In the absence of the guru, we all have things to learn from each other and teach each other. And certainly some people have more knowledge and have made more study, which makes them excellent teachers. But we're all human beings. And as soon as you start putting somebody on a pedestal like that or they leap up on their because that's the model for success. It's problematic, period. I think there are always going to be charismatic leaders or our government is built around it.

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But when you elect an elected official into office, you're ostensibly electing a leader that is going to represent you. I think in this industry, the only solution that I can see for people who might be lured into something like this is simply education to understand some of the tactics that might be used. I have expressed in our interviews there are Q&A here that I don't believe that James was running a cult. And I've given my reason. His if he's going after anything, it is it is is money.

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It is his own money and the promise that he can make you more money. Do you think that that James was was running a cult? And if so, why or why not? No, I don't think so, because the very thing that he was promoting was full self-expression and and spiritual growth, and he had put together a very diverse curriculum. And the whole point of it was to like make more of yourself. And that's an attractive principle.

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I think it's fairly well known that at the time I wasn't there because I was necessarily looking to make more money. That's not my compass. And yet a large part of the compass of the industry does very much seem to be around making money. And we did touch on this matter. But I believe money is a terrible compass and it has to be more about, you know, empathy and growth and the difference that you're making. And they can be the money is the measure of what you're doing, if that's if it's in a business forum.

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But it's not the be all and end all. And I've had a number of conversations with various coaches and figures where that's what people want because it's the tangible result. And that's a bit of my frustration with the whole industry, because people are not interested in the process or in the journey. They just they want the end result. We get support from ship station, it's easy to forget, but podcasts are businesses, too, at wondering. We do all kinds of businesses stuff accounting, payroll, shipping, but sometimes all that can take up way too much time keeping track of things like who gets what, which shipping carrier you should use or whether or not you're getting the best rates can be tough, especially now that businesses are adapting to this changing world to meet the demands of our new delivery culture.

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They even offer the same postage discounts usually reserved for Fortune 500 companies. Right now, listeners of Guru get to try ship station free for 60 days. When you use offer code guru, see for yourself why ship station is rated number one by online sellers. Just visit ship station dot com. Click on the microphone at the top of the homepage and type in guru. That's ship station dot com offer code guru ship station. Dotcom make ship happen. I'd like to switch gears, I was a little shocked to to hear that he's trying to make a comeback and that there are still people who show up for his events despite all that's happened.

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I mean, Matt, you you went to one of these events in Phoenix, I believe. What? Who are the people who were there, why do they still gravitate to him? So that was a long time ago, that was right when he was beginning to try to start his business up again and to be clear, his first public address after he was released from prison was on the Piers Morgan show on CNN. And in that show, he referred to himself as a reformer, referred to the self-help industry as his former industry.

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And so he seemed to be trying to hint that he was going to move on, that he might move on to some other business, but he did. And so when I heard that he was putting on events for the public, it was something I definitely wanted to participate in. And I went and to your question, it was it was a small group. You know, I I can't remember the exact number, but you're talking much less than 40 people, maybe twenty five.

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Thirty people who showed up. And a lot of the people who showed up were a lot like Dr. Glenn Doyel, who is featured in our Episode six, who thought that James Ray had put together some really interesting amalgams of teaching and thought that he was a good self-help leader. I mean, Dr. Doyle, who is very critical of James in Episode six, talks about how harmonic wealth is one of the best self-help books he's ever read. And so you had people like that who still clung to the ideas that James Ray put out there.

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A lot of them were friends of his who had gone to his events before Sedona and felt that there might be something more to get from him. But it doesn't seem that he's been able to build a huge following.

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But again, talking about the draw, we've touched on this, how really smart people are still drawn to these personalities. And and I'd just like you to address what is the draw like? Are people there clearly in a place of seeking? Are they are they vulnerable to this or are they looking for messages like this? And then someone comes along and tells you what you want to hear. I just if you could just kind of crystallize for me why why Kirby or Laura, why you were so drawn to James or why anyone is drawn to the Tony Robinsons of the world.

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I think in today's world, people have lost faith in the places where they found faith, where they found faith in life and in themselves. So whether that's what churches or even things in professional circles. So I think that's one of the reasons why self-help grows and. There is something about that desire to really change something in my life, to change how I feel and to and and to really be more that is very strong within the individual and will draw them to a person who sounds so incredibly convincing and appears to have been able to accomplish.

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Laura, would you agree with that? I agree with that. And I want to say and and not have but I to this day still struggle with the label of vulnerable for the self-help consumer. In the first episode, you hear about my describing myself as undiagnosed depression. That's one thing I do think that. I mean, well, depression is so rampant everywhere. But I also think one of the reasons and I know one of the reasons that people often turn to self-help is that they feel like they have exhausted other alternatives.

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So whether that in my case, I took antidepressants for a number of years when I was working in corporate sales and I had gone to various therapists and nothing was really doing it for me, and I found more success taking charge of it myself. And it's an approach that I still use today. So I don't want to let the people who feel like the self-help is empowering for them out of the conversation. I don't want them to turn a blind eye and say just like everybody else does, oh, that's not me.

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And it's like, yeah, it is. You know, you're you're there for something. And and it could be to go from strength to strength where it could be to go to explore a certain part of your life. There's one question that I asked earlier from the tape. You can hear James talking about ignoring the signs that their bodies are in distress. Why do you think he stressed that? There is a lot of neutrally I'll call it energy, but you could also call it hype to get people revved up so that they will then go and attach energy and emotion to their their breakthrough.

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So it was for me sitting in that room, I wasn't taking anything that he said literally.

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You know, I thought naively that we were all going in for the equivalent of a sauna. And and so I wasn't even fully present to what he was saying because I just was I was taking it as more build up, more hype. And part of me thinks that's what it was. And that's dangerous. Clearly.

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Matt, what do you want people to take away from this podcast?

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You've got to educate yourself. I mean, the question that you asked about the difference between a cult and what was happening here is, is pivotal and there are different kinds of manipulation that can emerge that might not appear to be like that, that are still potentially very dangerous. And the more you know, the more you understand about this particular industry and related fields and forms of media, the better prepared you will be to actually improve yourself and do the things that you want to do when you approach this kind of leader.

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Jenny, what do you want people to to feel when they when they're done seeking is important.

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We all want to grow. We will want to expand. That's part of the thirst of the human person. But we want to do with our eyes open as well as an open heart and really, as Laura said, carefully discern the situation that you're in to make sure it's the right teacher for you, because also what might be harmful for one person might not be harmful to somebody else. So, you know, really being very self aware within yourself as you're going through, especially if you're making a big investment of money and time.

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And Laura, what's next for you? Do you think you'll return to self-help as a coach or a seeker? So what's your next chapter? Well, my chapter is to continue to to write and take amazingly beautiful pictures and create. Your conversations on my podcast, I started that three years ago, and I have to say, like, I would not have it if it weren't for this experience, it was very integral to reclaiming my voice afterwards. And I really enjoy bringing people on the show who I think are really exemplary leaders, but also people with fascinating stories.

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And because we can have a lot of inspiration and see ourselves in the story of somebody else. And I think to what I said earlier, I think I've just come to a point where I realize I I don't feel like I can have a significant impact in the self-help industry from within it. As a coach, I think that I can do more good sharing this story and some of the subsequent learning and insight and way of approaching self-help. So it's going to be a hybrid model for me, but that's what I love.

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Well, thank you all so much for a great conversation. I appreciate your talking to me. It's just really an eye opening experience. Appreciate all of you sharing. And thank you so much.

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Thank you all. Thank you. Thank you very much. From one tree, this is a special bonus episode of Guru, a story about the dangers and the dark side of enlightenment. If you want to help us spread the word, please give us a five star rating and a review on Apple podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify, the Wonder Free App or wherever you're listening right now. Join Wonderous Plus in the one to react to listen ad free.

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In the episode notes, you'll find some links and offers from our sponsors. Please support them. Another way you can support the show is by filling out a small survey at Wonder eCom survey. If you have a tip about a story you think we should investigate. Email us at tips at thundery dotcom. That's tips at wondering. Dotcom Guru was written and reported by me.

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Matt Straub, associate producer is a CEO. Kipe story editor is Casey Miner. Sound Design by Jake Goreski, managing producer is Kapanga and executive producers are George Lavender Marshmallowy and Hernan Lopez for wondering.