Friday, April 18, 2008

A Matter of Distraction

Throughout the years I have learned that if I do not have clear objectives in mind I would certainly be susceptible to involvement in someone else’s plans as opposed to my own. On a few occasions in the past I really felt I was part of someone else’s dreams and that was not the greatest feeling I ever had. By living life without a clear purpose I was exposed to all sorts of distractions. At some point I realized I had to drop everything and start over to give my life a new direction. That was particularly true at a time when I was much younger and facing many adverse circumstances in my life. Today I have a different view for what was once considered important. Maybe this comes with age. As I grow older I tend to be more selective and make decisions based on mistakes of the past.

I arrived in this country in August of Nineteen Eighty Four with one thing in mind: I would take any opportunity possible to make a better life for myself and to help my family if I could. I did not really have a defined plan on how I was going to do that. I did not have a recipe to achieve success. I just had a gut feeling that being a person of good character and morals would eventually lead me to become successful if I had the right attitude and worked hard enough. I was not exactly sure what I was going to do to support myself during that time. I had a very difficult task ahead of me. I needed to get used to the new land’s language, customs, and rules. I also needed to acquire different skills to make a living. I had to reinvent myself literally. I did not know what the future would hold for me but I trusted my instinct. I would accomplish something better than the opportunities I had before. Shortly after I arrived I went to Winston Salem, North Carolina where I spent one year then I moved to the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. After that, I moved to Boston where I have lived for the past twenty years. The last eight years I spent with my brother Ad and another friend of ours Mike. I shared with a three bedroom apartment in the East Cambridge area with them. Life was good in Boston, but far from great. I was not particularly happy with what I was doing for a living and wanted to do something else. Ever since I landed in this country I made a living doing the kind of work that I was not really proud of. I was a shuttle driver for a while. Extremely boring! I also did construction work for sometime. The money was good but unpredictable and intellectually degrading. Then I had an opportunity to work for a small publication firm selling advertising space for business targeted at the Brazilian communities. Eventually, I landed in the Biopharmaceutical Industry where I have worked for the past fourteen years. Today I live a decent life and really enjoy what I do. In that regard, I consider myself successful. But I had to face many challenges along the way. I have had up and downs in the course of my personal and professional life. But I tend to look at the bright side of things. There is always a lesson to be learned from every single experience I have had.

Throughout the years I have had a collection of stories. I have been through all kinds of different situations. Some were good and some were regrettable. I wish they never happened. The event that follows is something I did because I was distracted .enough not to see that a dear friend would expose me to a disturbing situation. The event happened in the summer of 1992 while I was living in Cambridge. It highlights how it is possible to get into danger even when in the comfort of my own apartment. By saying yes to a friend, I put myself in a very odd and regrettable situation. I just wish I had never been there. I would have been spared of all the trouble if I had simply said no to an invitation. The event started when I got back from work. It was almost six o’clock. My brother Ad was already home with our roommate, Mike. They were sitting in the living room drinking beer and chatting. The TV was on but no one was really watching anything at that time. I greeted them, dropped my stuff in my bedroom and walked straight to the kitchen. I opened the fridge, grabbed a beer and went to the other room to join them in the conversation. We joked and laughed and talked about different things for a while. We seldom sat down together and talked due to always being on the run taking care of personal things. Something about that night was different. We were all relaxed, laughing and really enjoying ourselves. I was drinking my beer slowly and a momentary silence fell over us as we did not have much more to talk about.

Ad was staring at the TV screen as something caught his attention. Mike broke the silence by talking about a workshop he and his girlfriend Justine had taken recently at a hotel in Danvers. He described it as a very exciting experience. It offered key elements for him to become a better citizen and enhanced his interpersonal relations. It also helped him to become more organized with his personal life and increased his performance at work. In general his life had improved dramatically, by his accounts. He kept on and on and on with that conversation. This guy was really changed. I had never seen him so motivated and excited. Now I was listening to his experience with interest. This training must have been something really significant to transform him that much, I thought to myself. I was very receptive to his talk and decided to pay close attention to it. Who knows this might also be a good opportunity for me. Often I would interrupt and ask questions as I wanted to learn more about it. He patiently clarified all the doubts I had. It took me a while to realize that he was pushing for me to go to that seminar. He invited me to go see a presentation. It sounded something very positive so I accepted the offer. He said there was a group of people joining them for the next session. The fact is that Mike used all the words that I was dying to hear to persuade me to be part of that thing. He knew exactly where and when to push the buttons. He knew exactly how to conduct the conversation to make me interested. The fact is he was trained and prepared to convince people to show up for that workshop. Naturally, if I was told the plain truth I would change my mind very quickly and would have declined going there. I agreed to go to the seminar with him. But then, there was a little problem. Up to that moment I had not heard anything about cost. Suddenly I became hesitant and told him I would make a decision in a couple of days and would get back to him with a definitive answer. I went to bed that night kind of intrigued as I could not stop thinking about the conversation we had that night.


The seminar was going to happen in two weeks. I had to pay five hundred dollar for it, half of that amount up front and the other half on the day of the seminar. I was a little turned down as I did not have that kind of money to spare. I felt like not joining specially because of the cost. He then used all the tools he had available to prevent me from giving up. He showed up with his girlfriend the next day and she used her charm to ensure I did not back off. They used all kinds of arguments to prevent me from changing my mind. I agreed to pay half of the money upfront and then pay the remaining balance at the office the day I was going to take the seminar. With that, I was locked in and had no way to back out. Mike agreed to give me a ride to Danvers the first day to make things easy for me. Once I learned the way to get there I would drive my car.

I was a little nervous as I did not know what to expect at that first training. I also had no clue what Lifespring really was, except for what I was told by both Mike and his partner. I later learned that Lifespring was a large group awareness training program. Still, that did no help me much. I was also told that the workshop was going to be presented in the form of lectures, discussions and a whole lot of group exercises. In short, I was not really sure what I was paying for but I had already decided to take the risk. I trusted Mike very much and we had been friends for a number of years. In fact he was one of the very few friends that I really trusted. I just bought the plan that the seminar was going to be a very educational experience in my life. I had no doubts it was going to be beneficial in many ways.

I showed up at about 8:30 am on the day of the training in the company of Mike and Justine. The seminar was going to start at 9:00 am. I was introduced to one of the staff members at the reception. She was very friendly to me and put on her best face to make me feel welcome. “You are going to have one of the best experiences of your life”, she said. I hope so, I replied to her as she was preparing a name tag for me. She also asked me to sign an agreement waving any action for damages in result of that training. That was just a standard procedure according to her. I thought about what she said before. What does she mean by “the best experience of my life”? I just had to wait and find out for myself. This is very powerful stuff. Just be patient, and have your mind open for the ride. Soon all my questions were going to be answered, I was told. All of a sudden my stomach started to get a little upset. I was getting a little scared actually. Despite people pretending to act as normal human beings, something was a little odd about that place. It was not just the way they talked, it was the whole scenario. There was an effort on part of people to show that this was a very exciting place to be. I saw a group of men nicely dressed in black suits and ties. They looked serious and polite but were not engaged in conversations. They seemed cold as statues. They acted like security guards or maybe they were something of higher order, who knows. Some people were hugging and kissing and whispering in each others ears, but not like lovers do. It was more like friends who love each other dearly. The trouble was I was not used to seeing this kind of behavior everyday. There is nothing wrong with people hugging and kissing. Whatever was happening there was a little beyond the limit of what I would usually see on a regular basis. Maybe it was just me. I was probably over reacting, I thought. “C’mon, just relax”, I thought to myself.

Mike seemed to know everybody. He talked to a whole lot of people. He seemed very comfortable in the environment. I was holding back from him and everyone else because of what was going through my mind. I had already paid the remaining balance right after they checked me in. After a few minutes I was escorted to join a group of people who were already waiting by the door on the furthest side of the room. They all were going to take the workshop. My friend and his partner had no access to that area at all so they left right after I passed through the reception area. We were all standing in that room. The time was 8:50 am. I noticed a group of people talking as if they were very intimate. I was not sure if they were staff members or if they were former participants in the program. They were talking very enthusiastically. The room got filled very quickly as all the registered participants were instructed to approach the area. I could tell there were fifty people or more. One of the staff members walked to the front of the room and started a brief introduction by thanking everyone for taking the courageous decision to be there for what she described as one of the most important resolutions of our lives. At that time we were introduced to all the ground rules. Among a few things that were considered not acceptable was arriving late for each training session. Under no circumstance a participant was to walk in that room late. Unless he or she had a very justifiable and convincing reason for doing so. Every day of the training we were supposed to enter the room in a very methodic way. We would form a single line outside first and then after an alarm sounded, we would be escorted in by staff members. We were told to fill all the seat rows starting from the first one by the stage. This was supposed to be the routine every day of the training. No empty spaces between one participants and the next was allowed. This also meant that none was supposed to save space for another person. No cell phone, chatting, smoking or chewing gums during the hours of the training were allowed. She asked that if anyone would like to go to the restroom at any given time, one would have to lift his hand and wait to be escorted out by one of her assistants. No one was allowed to be wondering around during the whole training. These were all part of the ground rules and everyone agreed to follow them unconditionally. Once we “willingly” agreed to them, they became official and were referred to as “our rules”. We were then escorted to the main training area. We did it as orderly and respectfully as we were told. We quickly filled all the rows of seats. That reminded me of a group of jurors entering a court room before the session starts.

It was a spacious and nicely arranged conference room. Chairs were placed in semi-circle formation facing the stage. The room was a complete silence. Some of us made some funny looks but no one dared to chat. I man frowned his face. I though he meant to say, now what? I looked at the stage area and then all around the room looking for the presence of the trainers. No one was there except for us and those people nicely dressed in suits. They were all aligned along the wall by the main entrance behind us. These were the same cold looking people I saw outside. There were five men and three women. Their expression did not change a bit. It was clear now that they were there to assist on the training. But why are there so many of them, and why they seem to be so indifferent. These were some of the questions were going through my mind at that moment. All the suspense started to give me the creeps. Beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling called my attention. As I was looking up I almost did not notice someone walking to the stage from a side door. I looked at my watch. It was five past nine.

A nicely dressed woman approached the stage and introduced herself as Nancy O’Connell. She was the person who was going to guide us throughout the three day workshop. She was probably in her late forties. She talked about her education background and all the experience she had acquired throughout the years. She held a PhD in psychology and had very extensive experience in giving seminars to groups of people all over the country, before she joined the Lifespring organization. She had a pleasant character and was highly articulate. She also presented the group of people in the back as the “guardians”. She told us they were there to help us keep our ground rules and also to ensure we were all comfortable. She told us funny stories and some of us laughed hysterically. Gosh! This lady is in the wrong business. She would have made a great comedian. She really had the ability to entertain people, I thought. That was an ice breaker for me. I was really feeling kind of intimidated in the beginning and not knowing what to expect. By irradiating the audience with such positive energy, she really made me feel more relaxed. By the end of the first day some of us already showed signs of tiredness even though the activities were highly interactive. I would imagine that one of the objectives of the first day was to make us identify with one another and feel comfortable. That would set the ground for the things to come in the next couple of days. I learned from Nancy that we were a group of seventy five people from different walks of life. There were lawyers, teachers, construction workers and college students among us. While she hoped that all the participants would make it to “graduation day”, she guaranteed that not all of us would succeed because the training was very demanding. That had very little to do with academic background. The success of it depended highly on each person’s ability to concentrate and absorb the material being presented, according to her. We were encouraged to cooperate to the fullest extent to take advantage of the program. She briefly touched again on the ground rules subject and reminded us that it was extremely important that we followed those rules.

The workshop started out with a lecture on human behavior and then it was followed by a game that always led to the next lecture. All the activities touched on the psychological aspect of human behavior and people were systematically challenged to participate in the discussions. Initially the focus was on failures and disappointment but later in the training it turned into self glorification. Some of us were very confrontational and uncooperative to the process. I saw some people being escorted out of the training floor for behaving “inappropriately”. Some people started to crack down psychologically. There was an instance in which a couple of people arrived a few minutes late after the break. They were humiliated in front of everybody. A lady broke down in tears. Each one of them had to speak into the microphone and explain why they were late and answer other embarrassing questions. Somebody else in the audience did not contain himself and laughed. I do not know why someone would laugh in such circumstance. I believe he did not mean to make fun of anyone. It was more like a manifestation of anxiety. “Why are you laughing about?”, “Do you think this is funny?” In the end that person was also embarrassed. “I am not just talking to him. A lot of you have the same habit”. Do you realize how not being on time can affect your life negatively? She would turn to everyone else as if there was no difference between the late comers and the any person sitting in the audience. The point was we all had failures no matter who we were. This kind of scene was a common setting throughout most of first and second day. Nancy sounded very mean at times. I was sure that was a purpose for her to treat people in such a harsh manner. I was momentarily uncomfortable and tired and felt like dismissing myself from the training. But leaving the floor was not that simple. I would probably be asked to go to the stage and explain in front of everybody the reasons why I was leaving. I did not want to go through that discomfort either. The best bet was just to go through that thing all the way to the end. There were good and bad things about it. I can not deny that some of the messages from the lectures were highly motivational and helpful. But I was intrigued on how our emotions were manipulated so easily. It was clear that in order for the workshop to be successful the trainer needed to fully capture the attention and imagination of the participants. During those sessions there was an atmosphere of law and order. Time was critical for anything we did I realized the training was a highly controlled exercise.

As the workshop progressed into the third day the sessions became more intense. It was almost impossible to sit there just like an ordinary observer and not being affected by what was going on. It felt as if we were being hypnotized and people were acting a little odd. Most of us became extremely vulnerable as people would share their most intimate secrets. Experiences shared by other members would shake everyone down. Some people would hug intensely to demonstrate support. This was a moment where we were walking on a psychological thin ice. One of the participants jumped on the stage and confessed in front of everyone that he was gay and he wanted us to be the first to know. He suffered enormously by being in the closet all his life. All of a sudden he had a sense of relief. Then the racial issue came up when another person shared that a number of occasions he was mistreated because of the color of his skin. He shared that he once reacted violently when someone called him “niger” at a club. A bad fight was started and just ended when the police arrived. That brought him some trouble. I could tell he was still resentful over that. “You know what, said the trainer, you are a nigger”. “You were born and will die a niger!”. “You niger”, Said the trainer very loudly. The black guy just froze and had no immediate reaction to that. Suddenly he put his hands on his face and sobbed like a baby. My god, this is crazy, I am out of here, I thought to myself. But despite of what my mind wished my body would not cooperate. The trainer went on with her lecture. “It does not matter what other people call you John. “Do not allow other people to dictate how you should live your life”. “Keep on walking on that path you always going to feel miserable and small”. Stop that thinking right now”, she demanded. “Do not let the color of your skin to prevent you from achieving greatness”. Many people would go and hug him while he was still drying his tears. It was obvious that all the exercises were designed to expose people’s grudges, break them psychologically and then reward them with nice words of encouragement, hugs and kisses.

There were two incidents that affected me the most during that training. While doing one of the exercises, I fell and hit my face violently on a chair. I lost consciousness momentarily. I was taken outside by an assistant to wash my face and have some fresh air as I felt a little disoriented. I looked my face on the mirror. I had a bad bruise on my left eye. I was offered to go to the hospital to be checked on but I did not feel it was necessary and declined the offer. I was escorted back to the training floor holding an ice pack half an hour later. Half way through the third day something clicked on my head and I began to observe that the whole program was a parallel of the Christian Gospel. I had a Christian education in my early years and that realization shocked me. I looked back to the previous exercises and I could see it clearly now. They all mimicked some important biblical events. The only aspect that differed from the bible was the fact that while it preaches eternal life and glorification to Christ and God, the Lifespring program gave emphasis to glorification to life and self. At that point I realized that this thing had to be a cult. If I was a little defensive all along the training that realization made me totally shut down. After that moment I basically dragged myself to stand there until the end. I became disturbed with those findings but I never disclosed to anyone what I saw and how I felt from that experience until now.

Soon after I took the basic course I was contacted several times by the Lifespring people to sign up for the level II workshop. I declined immediately and gave no explanation why I would not join. The truth is even though I played along with the training, in my heart I never accepted those teachings as a role model for my life. I was not able to see how I was going to be able to apply any of that in real life. I learned later that during the Level II, I would have to make stronger commitments to the organization and bringing new participants to the circle was a must. Someone insisted I went back. “Man, what a waste of talent”. “You could have made a great leader here, but if you insist in living inside your old box no one is going to force you out”, he told me. The conversation was left there. I never heard from them again. Recently I was browsing the net and found this statement from a writer who had taken a seminar very similar to Lifespring;

“…Most people assume they would know if they were being brainwashed. They think it involves great force, or some obvious, epic struggle in which the mind slowly and grudgingly succumbs. But mind control only works when the subject cooperates. And cooperation requires that a reasonable person not know what's happening. You have to lead her where you want, but she needs to think she's going someplace else”

While some of the Lifespring teachings contained positive messages, the approach was wrong and misleading. By signing up to the program I put myself in a situation of danger and discomfort. It took me quite a few weeks to recover from some of the psychological burden of the training. Overtime, it became obvious that once people were committed to the Lifespring way, they would be instrumental in bringing revenues for the organization. As they became psychologically locked in the system, they were forced to enroll as many people as possible to the program. After that experience I became very suspicious of any invitation to go see any kind of presentation especially from people that I consider friends. If it is something I am not looking for, it is probably something I can live without. Whether there is a product or good idea behind the concepts someone is trying to impose on me, it is certainly a distraction that I can prevent from becoming a very disturbing experience.

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