"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion."
Avatar and Scientology
-- L. Ron Hubbard, 1949.
Avatar is a new age type course developed by Harry Palmer that promises the ability to change one's beliefs. Throughout the promotional materials and many testimonials it is implied that course takers will experience more or less an enlightenment, kind of a Zen master in one week. People who complete the first three sections of the course are known as "Avatars."
Although fairly skeptical, I was still in a bit of a "seeking" mode when I took the Avatar course. I was profoundly disappointed. I took the course from a woman (Virginia Downsborough, now deceased) in Santa Barbara who was actually the first Avatar "Master" (franchisee), i.e. licensed to train people to become Avatars.
At one point she was working with me and referred to a Scientology text (and this was not something you could find at a bookstore). I don't mean to imply that it was part of the Avatar materials, it was just something she had handy that brought something to bear on what we were working on at the moment, and I gave it no further thought.
Years later it clicked when I heard that most of the initial Avatars were from a Scientology background. Later still, this connection was absolutely confirmed when I stumbled across Harry Palmer's name in a court deposition by a high ranking Scientologist.
I became aware that there were a number of similarities between the two methodologies, and I'd like to explore them here. I don't mean to say that Avatar is exactly the same as Scientology, or is necessarily as malicious (although realistically, it doesn't look like the apple has fallen that far from the tree), but it is clear that Harry took the basic Scientology framework and reworked it in a more streamlined way, with a simpler belief system at its core.
At the franchisee level Avatar seems to be fairly well meaning, although the $1500 that they keep is somewhat egregious. At the level of Harry Palmer and his Stars Edge accomplices/sycophants, the organization seems to have almost the same "take 'em for their last dollar" attitude that Scientology has become famous for.
While I was never into Scientology, I have thumbed thru a few books, read a few websites, read court statements by both current and ex-Scientologists, and have seen the mass media reporting on Scientology.
In Scientology, Hubbard proposed that the ultimate goal of a Scientologist is to achieve the "clear" state. However, after completing this (and every) step, there would invariably be yet another (and more expensive) step. It is not uncommon to hear of people who have spent tens of thousands of dollars, even a hundred thousand dollars, on Scientology.
Avatar follows a similar structure. Section I is available as a book which you can study on your own, or you could participate in a workshop with an Avatar "Master." Supposedly, once you've completed Section III, you have all the Avatar teachings, yet for some reason, there are additional levels.
At one time there was only the additional IV level for people who want to become franchisees, but for some reason the course now known as IVa was added for those wishing further understanding (and a $3000 reduction in their net worth). Later the mysterious and expensive Section V was added, previously known as the "Wizard" course.
Typically, Sections I, II & III are offered together in a week long format. You have to spend a minimum of $2000 to really learn what it's all about. From what I've read on the web, the people who took Section V seem to be really disappointed and I'm not sure the course was even offered more than once.
Comments: Similar in the progressive nature of the pricing. Once hooked, the subject is led to increasingly secret, "important" and expensive knowledge.
Harry Palmer and Scientology
It seems that Harry Palmer, the inventor of the Avatar materials, was heavily into Scientology, to the extent that he ran a franchise or "mission." According to a deposition in a court case, a Scientology spokesman said that Harry had "split off his mission," meaning he was teaching the Scientology materials without paying headquarters, and was thus considered to be a "competitor" of Scientology. This was said to be around 1984-1985. The first run through of the Avatar materials was in late 1986.
Obviously, by this time Harry had some experience with selling belief systems, as well as with the extremely entitled and self-centered behavior of breaking agreements with people in order to serve his own needs. Ironically, now it seems people are doing the same thing to Harry.
At some point, Section I was released to the public as a book called Creativism. This book was set up in a style with wide margins that contain definitions, very similar to some of Hubbard's books. Some of the jargon is similar, such as "rundowns." At the higher levels, course materials are simply photocopies in a binder. This is the same way that the higher levels of Scientology materials were produced.
The actual course materials for the higher levels can only be viewed after signing a confidentiality agreement, and they don't even give you a copy of the agreement. You cannot take any of these materials with you. I don't know if that's the same setup with Scientology, but in any case I am sure that the higher levels of Scientology are confidential. Similarly, my understanding is that in many groups such as the Forum (EST "light"), you are not allowed to take notes.
Avatar's given reason for confidentiality is that the materials must be presented properly, i.e. you must work through and truly experience the exercises for full effect. However, it also seems clear that the air of magic and secrecy around the materials intrigues people and the fact that the materials don't solve all their problems leads them to yearn for the next and yet higher level of revelation, that will surely be the "it" that they seek.
I hardly need to mention the disgruntled ex-employees of Scientology -- they've been seen on prime time television disclosing the levels of abuse and harrassment they went through. As for Avatar, in the book Creativism, a timeline mentions that less than year after the first Avatar was trained, a few disaffected former employees, envious of Avatar's growing success, choose to explore aspects of betrayal and launch a broad publicity campaign to denounce Harry and his Star's Edge Organization.
"Choosing to explore aspects of betrayal" is Avatar-speak for showing how un-enlightened these former employees were. Doesn't this sound a bit like something a Rajneesh-style guru wannabe might say? Notably, this timeline was left out when Creativism was re-vamped as the more salable Resurfacing.
What is amusing to me is the level of narcissism Harry had to even include this in the first book. Ultimately, what this whole scenario says to me is that the Avatar course must not be all that great at creating enlightened people, either in its leader or its followers.
The Basic Avatar Premise
Avatar's foundation is that you experience what you believe, and that you can change your beliefs and thereby create whatever world you want. Similarly you can "dis-create" any beliefs you don't want.
Actually, in terms of "you experience what you believe," I think this is true, within certain limits. At a surface level, our perception of the world is certainly affected by our personal and cultural beliefs. I think most of us can see that a certain belief system, say, liberalism or conservatism, causes the participants in that belief system to experience and interpret the world and its events quite differently from those who do not share that belief system. For a rational discussion of the impact of our personal and cultural beliefs on ourselves and society see Csikszentmihalyi's 1993 book, The Evolving Self.
At a deeper level, since our experience is in fact created in the mind, you can in theory create any kind of fantasy world you want. The problem is that there is some real world stuff that kind of gets in the way, like those annoying laws of physics, the need to eat and pay the rent, etc.
As it turns out, Avatar takes this insight to a level almost beyond religion, insisting that actual physical properties can be changed and/or manifested, in other words, that magic happens. For example, Harry makes a claim somewhere in the promotional material that he miraculously healed a deep to-the-bone cut in his thumb.
The Belief Systems
In Scientology, my understanding is that at a basic operating level you are simply going over uncomfortable old memories until they are comfortable. At a much higher level it is revealed that these troublesome memories or "engrams" are in some way caused by ancient Aliens, called Thetans
. Umm, yeah.
In Avatar, the basic premise of "you experience what you believe" becomes part of an overall philosophy that the entire universe is said to be the product of beliefs. The idea is that there is nothing but consciousness, and that at a very deep level, the "one" consciousness divided itself (via beliefs) into galaxies, planets, and eventually conscious beings. This is basically the same as Hubbard's view that "everything that exists is a product of consciousness," and really is not anything different than good old fashioned eastern religion.
Avatar's stated mission is to "integrate" belief systems. That is, our personal acts of discreating personal and cultural beliefs are in harmony with the idea of returning the universe back to the "one."
Actually, as far as people getting rid of non-functional or invalid personal and cultural beliefs, I'm all for it. But by globalizing the simple idea that beliefs affect perception, and imagining that one can perform magic, Avatar has made the typical new age mistake: confusing subjective internal experience for objective external reality.
As to things that even Harry can't seem to change, like perhaps the existence of the earth, these are explained away by being said to be created at "deeper" levels of belief, and the theory is that you can't change a belief unless you exist at or below the "level" at which it was created.
Harry's logic for the all-encompassing truth of "you experience what you believe" is that if you believe this statement is true, then it is true. And if you believe it is false, then you experience the statement as false, therefore it is true. Lookout Descartes!
The Avatar Materials
Without giving away the specifics, which in my view are unnecessary anyway, the essence of the Avatar materials is ... if you want to believe something, believe, if you don't, then don't.
Besides the sheer emperor's-new-clothes stupidity of it, this is very, very similar to a lot of psycho-spiritual doctrines, from the "just let go" philosophy of Ramana Maharshi to the feel-it-and-let-go-of-it of the Sedona Method, etc. The entire gist of the course could said to be more or less contained in the 1983 book Vivation, for example. The letting-go-of-a-belief part of the course, known as the "Creation Handling Procedure," is the central part of the Avatar course. It turns out that this procedure, for which they charge $1500 along with a few bells and whistles, was taken almost verbatim, with no credit given, from a Tibetan Buddhist text, Hidden Mind of Freedom: Meditation for Compassion and Self-Healing, by Tarthang Tulku (1981).
This type of plagiarism reminds me of Eckankar, another cult religion that in their case cribbed extensively from old Hindu texts. Of course, that's a pretty old tradition. For example, in the Gospels, many of the details of Jesus' life were borrowed from Mithraism and other middle eastern religions.
Well, yes, we do live in a world where there are an abundance of overpriced seminars of all types. But none that I know of overpromise, underdeliver, and overcharge to the extent that Avatar does. No legitimate seminar that I know of prevents you from taking notes, or taking home or discussing the course material. The result of Harry's actions is that he has created a tremendous amount of resentment towards himself.
It is possible that Harry and his gang really do believe their own line of bullshit, in the sense that narcissists and similarly entitled people do believe that they are due more than their fair share. They want all of theirs, all of yours, and some adoration as well. They actually have admitted that their "belief" is that they should be paid a LOT of money for their services. They may even have at least some satisfied customers, but then again so does Scientology, or any other belief system. The key point -- large amounts of money are extracted from people for secret doctrines, with no more to show for it than the information contained in the essence of a new age paperback.
Beware those who claim to have "the answer," particularly when they ask for large sums of money.
I originally wrote this page based purely on my own suspicions. Later, these became validated as I came across various sources on the web, and I have made a few updates to this page as a result. The most notable source is the lengthy article, The Wiz of Orlando, by Eldon Braun, a former Scientologist who became involved in Avatar early on. Despite his criticisms of Palmer, Braun himself has tried to market what is in essence a copy of Avatar, albeit without the egregious pricing.
Also see the comprehensive Awareness Page which covers all types of large group awareness training (LGAT), including Avatar. Another resource is the offbeat newsgroup, alt.clearing.avatar
, where many people who have "seen through" the Avatar myth somehow seem unable to let go of it. They remain entrenched in their belief that magical mental processes exist.