Avatar: Promise or Fraud
By Jutka Halberstadt
The designer, the trainers and the students.
Source: Dutch magazine "Psychology"
Edition July/August 2003
Edited in English by Dr. Brian G. Crabb
In 1996 the American Harry Palmer set up Avatar. In the years before he studied psychology and philosophy, and immersed himself in Buddhism. Also, because of quarrels, he left the controversial Church of Scientology, in which he was active for ten years.
Palmer stresses that his self-evolvement course Avatar is not a religion and is not in any way connected with Scientology.
He succeeded in making a successful international organisation with delivering Avatar; every year twelve million dollars are earned. Avatar organises training in 66 countries, including Pakistan, China and Uruguay.
The course materials are translated into 20 languages and 60,000 people world-wide have done Avatar. In Holland, every year about 400 new students do the Avatar course, each paying 2,000 (excl. VAT) for this nine-day beginners' course.
Those who finish this course successfully can do the nine-day "Masters' Course" for $ 3,000. This gives students an opportunity to get a license to deliver Avatar themselves. For the tough ones there is the seven-day "Professional course" for $ 2.500 and the thirteen-day "Wizard Course" for $ 7,500. This last course is only delivered in the United States, and the course fee is, like any other training excl. VAT.
The trainers, called "Masters", recruit their own students. Some of them give Avatar courses with groups of from three to five people at their own home. Others take their students to a national course.
The Masters give, depending on their status, 15 - 20% royalties from the course fee to the organisation of Harry Palmer in the United States. In Holland about 50 Avatar Masters have a full time job as an Avatar Master and earn their living through it.
"Thanks to Avatar, I can dissolve stress
and I have become more empathic, understanding
and have become nicer."
"The organisation misleads people."
What is going on behind the scenes with this successful company surrounded by mystery and secrecy?
It is Monday evening in a room in Amsterdam. About 25 people, I think in their thirties and forties, are looking expectantly at Tineke van Der Klok. She opens this introductory Avatar meeting saying: "Avatar is the most powerful, purest self-evolvement program there is as their website proclaims. "I am glad"
she says, "that you want to invest time and energy in learning more about yourself".
Getting to the point quickly she asks, "What is the most important quality a human being can have?"
After a little hesitation the audience answers, "being authentic". Someone answers, "honesty"
; "to be flexible"
says someone else. The following question, says Van Der Klok, is a conscience question: "does it ever cross your mind that you find yourself a bad example of exactly that same quality? Right, huh? If we are honest we do".
Her colleague explains that everyone is being limited by "beliefs" which prevents us from being what we really consider to be important. With Avatar you learn to recognise and "discreate" these beliefs: in other words "to let go".
After that, you create new beliefs which are more in alignment with what you really want. You can, for instance, replace the belief "I am tired" with the belief: "I am happy and successful". According to the philosophy of Avatar, your beliefs determine the way you experience your reality, and you design your own future with the beliefs you choose. The attractive message of Avatar is that everything can be constructed: "Avatar give you the tools to shape your life the way you want," it says on www.avatar.nl.
The participants of this nine-day course are promised "a new view of yourself and your whole life." The student can count on "losing physical complaints" and "a resolution of personal conflicts." On first impression, this sounds very attractive.
"You don't get to know Avatar with reading about it for just an hour,"
stresses Tineke van Der Klok on this introduction meeting. That is why she invites potential clients this same evening to register for the Avatar Course. Whoever has doubts is strongly encouraged to talk with one of the ten "Masters" who are present at this introductory meeting this evening (a course-leader is called a "Master" in the organisation). They can help you to spot limiting beliefs such as: "I don't have the money" or "I don't have time,"
says Van Der Klok.
The following morning in the centre of Amsterdam, telephones ring and people from the organisation come and go. Meanwhile, Pieta van der Ham makes some coffee. She is the head of Avatar in Holland, and her big house functions as headquarters. The former physiotherapist tells that her discovery of Avatar, 13 years ago, was the answer to her questions about life. "I was reading self-help books ad infinitum with no result. To me, Avatar was a simple and practical tool which give me a lot of self-insight."
There seems to be a repeating pattern for followers of Avatar: they were not totally satisfied with their life, tried lots of methods, from Reiki and homeopathy, self-help books and groups, and finally they found luck. Avatar is the answer to all their questions.
They have no doubts about the expected results of these rundowns. The evidence of these results can be found at the American website of Avatar, says Van der Ham. In their guest book on this site many enthusiastic testimonials have been written by followers of Avatar.
There has never been any scientific research on these tools, admits Van der Ham. The effectiveness of these rundowns is depended on the intention of its users, she says. Van der Ham is aware that some people say that the Avatar Course is too expensive. But the positive side about the price, she says, is, "that if they are willing to pay that much, you know for sure that they are willing to change."
For an outsider, it is very difficult to get an overview of the Avatar rundowns because most of the Avatar materials are secret. According to the organisation this secrecy is a consequence of the necessity for licensed and well-trained Masters to transfer the rundowns successfully.
Before taking the course, students must sign a contract, in which they promise to keep the materials confidential. This secrecy is complete nonsense, say former Avatar followers. One of them, a psychologist who recently did a beginners course, says, "It is beautifully presented, but this course is just a compilation of general knowledge that you can read in many books about self-knowledge."
The ex Avatar-followers who were willing to be interviewed for this article see many similarities with various disciplines such as Scientology, Buddhism, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Rational-Emotive Therapy, and works of "psycho-gurus" like Deepak Chopra and Byron Katie.
The ex-Avatars have even more criticism. Some of them find it irresponsible that the only education Avatar Masters have are the Avatar courses themselves. This isn't bad, says a psychologist. During the course you can choose which Master you want to work with. But some ex-Avatars who took several courses don't agree with this. They have seen people become psychotic during the Avatar Course. This does not prove that psychosis is caused by Avatar; what is alarming is rather that many masters were totally unaware that a student was about to go psychotic, and the Masters didn't know how to handle such crisis situations.
Pieta van der Ham from Avatar Netherlands says that, in case of an emergency, they always contact a doctor for professional help. Besides that, says Van der Ham, most of the Avatar Masters are highly-educated professionals who, for instance, worked in businesses or in the medical world. New Masters are under the supervision of more experienced colleagues.
Lots of attention
People who are involved in Avatar tell enthusiastic success stories about the effectiveness of the course materials. Some say that their work has become more successful because of Avatar.
For example, the Engineer who, after doing Avatar, finally found the courage to set up a company on his own. He is now director of a successful company in the petrochemical industry, and he uses Avatar daily, "for instance, if I am nervous because of an important speech I have to give."
In addition, the Engineer says, "I have become more empathic, more understanding and nicer by doing Avatar."
Also some former Avatars say that despite their criticism of the organisation, they benefited from doing Avatar. As an example, a psychologist learned to control her thoughts with a sort of meditation technique which she applies sometimes when she is at home. But others say frankly, "Avatar doesn't work."
One of the former Avatar Trainers is Mieke van der Linden-Van Heusden. She is the woman who introduced Avatar in Holland in 1990. Five years later she left the organisation. "I was shocked by the abuse of power at the upper levels of the organisation I was part of myself. Often it happened that someone didn't have the money for the next course. The organisation would say it was such a pity, because he had so much talent - and then proposed that the student take out a mortgage on his house." "The organisation misleads people"
says Van Heusden.
Of course she has also seen that people feel better during the course. But this positive effect is not the result of the Avatar rundowns. "They just get a good feeling because of all the attention they get from the Masters and other students. For many people, it is nice that someone finally listens to them. But once they come home the euphoria disappears, and they fall into a black hole."
Another former Avatar Master makes the comparison with the fairy tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes", and says, "it is hard for a student to admit that it doesn't work and that he was so foolish to pay so much money. Because of that, the student denies that his problems are not solved, and starts doing the next course."
She says it is high time that someone said out loud, "Look! The Emperor is naked!"
Much is promised, but the goods are not delivered. That is the feeling coming from most of the critics. "And if it doesn't work,"
says Mieke van der Linden-Van Heusden, "they say it is because of your own thoughts and beliefs. So always the solution is: You need another course."
Inside the organisation there is no room to criticise the method of operation, say several former Masters. Van Heusden tried to criticise the way the organisation persuades people to do new courses by calling them at home; but the organisation rejected her criticism. Pieta van der Ham, head of Avatar in Holland reacts: "we are a professional and commercial organisation, so acquiring and trying to keep contact with customers is part of the policy. But if someone tells us that he definitely does not want to participate in the next course, we don't keep calling them. A critical attitude is not rejected"
, says Van Der Ham.
Another former Master disagrees with this. "The moment you criticise the organisation, they label you as malicious,"
he says. "The designer of Avatar, Harry Palmer, has gathered around him a group of disciples who worship him as a guru, and they don't want to hear anything negative about Avatar. It is a very scary form of evangelism, that reminds me of the Reformed Church."
In this atmosphere it is difficult to leave the organisation, some Masters say. "I am glad I am out of it,"
says a former follower from the first hour. "When I decided to leave, they accused me being disloyal. At home I got nasty and threatening phone calls. It was really sectarian."
Pieta van der Ham says she is aware that the organisation is controversial. "But,"
she says, "a lot has improved in recent years. That is why a lot of the criticism from former Avatar-followers is outdated,"
The creator of Avatar, Harry Palmer, is also aware of critical gossip. In his best-seller, "Resurfacing," he says, "we are not trying to create a new cultish religion or to create devout believers. We don't have a hidden agenda, and we don't feel ashamed for being prosperous and strong."
He warns his followers about the accusation of "brainwashing" coming from the critics. And he tells them not to worry too much about "the rumours and gossips our enemies spread,"
because "the truth always conquers."
Becoming a Master yourself
Amidst this chaotic jumble of facts, opinions and emotions it is difficult to draw an unequivocal conclusion about Avatar. If you take the leap into the world of Avatar, you'll find happy people, but also angry people, and above all, great secrecy about the rundowns.
The organisation doesn't say much about its financial structure. The method of acquiring new students is quite aggressive. And for many people who decide to do more courses, it becomes more difficult to stop. The prospect of becoming successful Masters themselves to earn back the money they have spent is almost irresistible.
Students pay a lots of money to be supervised by a Master with little education. These are laymen who promise a better life, with the book of Harry Palmer in their hand. It's possible there is nothing wrong with the course materials themselves. But people who are unstable and susceptible to extreme promises may end up feeling they have been deceived.