Changing The Way I Look At Wayne Dyer
Is it OK to only believe part of a man's message?
by Don Stradley
“You have an angel right behind you,” Olivia told me one afternoon.
“Yes. An older woman.”
“What is she wearing, so I recognize her.”
“You’ll never see her,” Olivia said. “But she wants you to cheer up. There’s a grey fog all around you, and she wants to help you see past it.”
I sensed I was about to be charged for fog removal, so I eased the conversation in another direction. Still, I know all types. There’s a woman who comes to the neighborhood every summer and sits in the corner of Olivia’s shop and draws pictures of people. She uses a plain white sheet of paper and a crayon. You sit and pose for her, and she draws. She draws like a fifth grader. Then she squiggles some lines above your picture, says that your aura looks great, and charges you $60.00. She talks about angels all the time. She cornered me once and talked my ears off about it. I think she was trying to get me to sit for a picture. I didn’t take the bait, but I ended our conversation by saying, “I hope I see an angel someday.”
Then why was I so disappointed when Dyer mentioned his romps with Eykis and St. Francis? It was as if he’d taken a useful, straight forward memoir and shoved it clear into the twilight zone.
We couldn’t escape Dyer in the old days. His first book, Your Erroneous Zones, hit the country like a megaton bomb. I remember seeing it in grocery stores, stacked next to L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I didn’t know what his book was all about. I thought it was about female body parts. Later I learned it was a self-help book, groundbreaking in its day for being written in simple English. It was, Dyer writes, “a guide for cutting through a lifetime of emotional red tape.” The best part of I Can See Clearly Now is the chapter about Dyer’s Herculean effort to promote Your Erroneous Zones. He traveled the country, booking himself into any little radio station that would interview him. He’d buy up any available copies of the book to force the publisher into a second printing, then a third. Dyer was a tireless self-promoter, filled with astonishing self-belief. His New York publisher told him he was nuts. Dyer forged on, unstoppable. He’d given up his private counseling practice, and would eventually walk away from what appeared to be a thriving professorship at St John’s University. “I know what I am compelled to do,” he writes of that giddy, inspired time. “And I cannot entertain any other vision.”
See, he hadn’t become St Francis yet. He was still very close to being the scrappy Detroit kid who grew up in orphanages with his two brothers while his mother dealt with being abandoned by her husband, who by all accounts was a drunk and a bum. Dyer despised his mysterious old man, though he later felt his upbringing taught him self-reliance. He eventually found his father’s grave in Biloxi, Mississippi and had a meltdown, complete with weeping and screaming. Then, inexplicably, he felt better. After forgiving his father, he felt “a soft mist of infinite love rather than the storms of fierce rage and angst that previously typified my thoughts of this man.” Such a turning point, Dyer believed, had to be “Divinely arranged.”
And so the book goes on and on, each chapter describing some kind of key event where Dyer cries uncontrollably, comes to some sort of realization, and emerges a better, more enlightened, more spiritual man. The book was written to chart his progress from practical to mystical, to the point where he allegedly cured himself of leukemia a few years ago. And it sort of explains why he started to have the same glazed look in his eye as the old gypsies I once saw at a carnival. He was creeping up on the otherworldly, and he believed it, or played the part, to the hilt.
It’s the 1980s, and I'm at the Brockton fairgrounds with two friends. We're having our palms read. This is a few years before the carny workers would refuse to come to Brockton because the city had become too dangerous. Not even carnival workers want to deal with crackheads and street gangs. Right now, though, the carny is a peaceful place, full of tents and rides and kids having fun.
The women in the tent, who look like the fortune tellers I’ve seen in old werewolf movies, think my friends and I are just wiseasses. One of the women seems kinder than the others, so I go to her. She doesn’t read my palm so much as she just holds my hand. Her hand is warm. She speaks to me in a pleasant voice. She tells me things that a young man likes to hear. I walk out of the tent feeling pretty good. I think I paid her five bucks.
Years later I’m living in Boston, and these sorts of women are everywhere. Even during the rainiest days, they’re prowling the sidewalks, handing out flowers to people, offering to say a special prayer for you and your loved ones. Five bucks, still. No inflation. People speed up when these old ladies approach, shake their heads NO without looking at them. But some do stop. Sometimes I see the old ladies huddled together in an alley or an alcove, counting their money. There are some on these crowded city streets willing to pay for the old ladies’ services.
It’s not fair to compare Dyer to these old ladies, but he was selling what they were selling: confidence. As early as age 10, Dyer knew he could get people to go along with almost anything. “When I speak with confidence and kindness,” he writes, “I’m listened to.”
Dyer become a regular talk show guest during that halcyon period of the late 1970s. Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Phil Donahue, all sat back and listened to this gentle teddy bear of self-help give his spiel. Give up your ego, Dyer said. There’s a plan in place for all of us. He was a dynamic speaker, and while his PBS specials tended to be overlong, his soothing voice and his beatific smile must have been perfect for those 10-minute talk show slots, convincing viewers that there was more to this power of positive thinking than they’d ever imagined. "Do you not die with your music still in you," he often said. People ate it up. He sold millions of books and made millions of dollars.
He mentions in I Can See Clearly Now that he occasionally struggled with his own ego during that first crush of fame. Later he references a drinking issue, and an ugly divorce or two. He doesn’t dwell on this side of his past, but gives just enough detail to suggest that he may not have been a peach to live with. Still, he plowed forward with his “Divine mission.” There was a nobility to him. He didn’t mind if you recorded his lectures, and when bootleg copies of his books started appearing in Europe, he didn’t care that he wasn’t receiving royalties, so long as his message was being spread.
Dyer had a knack for being one step ahead of the zeitgeist. Not only did he ride the trends, he helped create them. When the self-help genre began to seem too clinical, and “New Age” churches and stores sprouted up with talk of angels and crystals, Dyer was there. An encounter with Mother Teresa, he writes, “pushed me to look into the world of the miraculous and examine the possibilities of real magic.” Within a short time, Dyer is spending the weekend at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, assuring the King of Pop that magic is real. Can you imagine conversation?
“Have you met Bubbles, my pet chimp?”
“No, I haven’t. Have you met my friend Eykis?”
We’re all linked, Dyer liked to say. And there are no accidents.
Two things made Dr. Wayne Dyer notable. The first was his knack for taking the works of people ranging from Jesus to Lau Tzu to Buddha, and translating them for the masses. Dyer could untie the tongues of the past so you and I could understand.
The second was his belief that it was “everyone’s birthright” to attain a higher understanding, to become a “self-actualized person.” He didn’t cater to the rich. He didn’t focus on the poor. We’re all tied together, he said, by one Universal mind. We affect each other. We're all in this together. When we forget this, when we follow our ego and stray from our “Source”, we get into trouble. It was a nice message. He delivered it with passion. There are dozens of Wayne Dyer imitators out there spinning the same message, but they’ll never match him. He was the best, partly because of his outsized intelligence, and partly because he never stopped being amazed at his own story. His was a very American tale, from the orphanage to Johnny Carson, from collecting tin cans in the street, to performing wedding ceremonies for celebrity lesbians. He was also a rebellious character, constantly fighting the dreary dictates of high school teachers, then the Navy, and finally the world of academia. Even the world of publishing raised his hackles now and then. One publisher threw down a ton of money for Dyer to write a Dr. Ruth style sex book, but Dyer refused. He wouldn’t be boxed in by the dictates of unimaginative publishers and agents. The human soul, Dyer said, needed room to grow. This is the Dyer I admire, and his presence is still strong in I Can See Clearly Now.
Yet, this memoir feels odd to me. At one time I saw Dyer as someone who bestrode the entire self-help industry. In the motivational biz, Dyer was Elvis; everyone else was Frankie Avalon. Yet, when Shirley MacLaine wrote about past life experiences and angels we dismissed her as a daffy eccentric. Why should Dyer get a pass? And what are we to make of the chapter, which is obviously written as a kind of climax to Dyer’s spiritual quest, where Dyer describes a full on close encounter with St. Francis?
The scene: He’s in Assisi again, in 2011. He’s been outfitted with a brown robe just like St. Francis used to wear. He’s giving a lecture at the Church of San Pietro, speaking under an ancient statue of Jesus on the cross. As he reads aloud from a biography of St Francis, he begins to feel that St. Francis is there with him. Then, as he gets to the part where St. Francis kisses a leper, Dyer loses it. “Tears are flowing down my face,” he writes, “and I feel Francesco as if he has merged with me…We become one.” Unable to speak, Dyer simply holds his arms out to the audience. They sit in silence. The moment was, Dyer writes, “truly a Divine appointment arranged by whatever invisible forces handle such celestial matters.”
Did Dyer actually join with St. Francis? Did he simply have an emotional experience and interpret it as something supernatural? The cynic in me thinks he'd gone as far as he could go as plain old Dr. Dyer, the friendly guy on PBS who talked about "Excuses be gone!" He wanted to up his game. He wanted to prove you could come from a broken home and eventually mingle with long dead saints. It wasn’t enough that he was a millionaire living in Maui. He wanted to be like the “ascended masters” he idolized. He wanted it so badly that he convinced himself that he was merging with St. Francis. Or, at the least, he wanted us to believe it.
I don’t underestimate Dyer’s seriousness as a seeker of enlightenment. He was zealous, and he practiced what he preached. Yet, I also sense he was a calculating businessman. He slipped things into his books that would eventually, sometimes years later, make their way onto his PBS lectures. Would he have tried this bit with St. Francis in a future PBS fundraiser? Would you donate your money and receive a complimentary brown robe, just like the one Dyer wore at San Pietro? Would he eventually go for the whole enchilada, and achieve stigmata on public television? I have to think he had some big plans for the future, ideas that might have surprised viewers, or at the least, drawn some controversy. We’ll never know, because Dyer died last month at age 75. He left us, presumably, with none of his music still in him.
Does it matter whether or not Dyer actually saw metaphysical beings and spirits? I don’t know. But recently I find myself wanting to know more about St. Francis of Assisi. How about that? I may have changed the way I look at Dr. Wayne Dyer, but he's still working his magic.