I spoke recently to someone who arranges workshops for one of the leading new age organizations. He shook his head sadly when I brought up the high prices. The problem, he said, is that nearly everyone insists on being well-paid; even relatively unknown and inexperienced workshop leaders ask for $1,000 or $2,000. And the more popular ones want more than that.

How much? I asked. You wouldn’t believe it, he said. He told me about negotiations with one human potential luminary who, for a weekend workshop — one weekend, Friday through Sunday — wanted $25,000. She said she was worth it; clearly, she’d considered her own potential. They settled on $17,000 — not bad for a weekend’s work, given that the work was mostly talk. Not cheap talk but still, just talk.

Talk is valued these days, especially when it’s called something else. Not too long ago, people would gather at night in auditoriums or church basements or someone’s living room to hear how to improve themselves; this was called a lecture, and was usually free, or cost very little. A workshop, on the other hand, was where many of these same people had spent the day, sawing boards or shaping clay on a potter’s wheel, making things, working. (As in, “Let’s stop talking and get to work.”)

What a curious evolution: workshops are now usually held in thickly-carpeted conference rooms in deluxe hotels or perhaps at rustic country lodges, amidst the swish of tall pines and the gentle lapping of hot tubs. The idea, I suppose, is that this encourages more profound contemplation of the matters at hand; after all, sitting on a hard folding chair in a stuffy basement on a steamy Summer night is enough to make some people question why they’re there in the first place; they may wind up at the ice cream shop and never get around to considering their potential.

Not to mention the money. Having paid twenty-five or fifty or a hundred dollars to listen to someone talk, one is presumably less inclined to wander away. One listens, one weighs, one appreciates what is said. Or so it’s been explained to me, the idea being that we value most highly that which we’ve paid for most highly, rather than what we get for free. Free. It’s like a dirty word — a concept that’s suspect, really; rather passé. Free love got us herpes, remember? There’s no free lunch. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Occasionally there’s a free lecture listed, but it’s almost always an “introductory” talk on the Friday night preceding a weekend workshop, for which there’s still time to sign up. (My father used to work for a company that advertised tremendous savings on an inexpensive set of encyclopedias — but it wasn’t the same set the salesman offered when he arrived. The cheaper edition was available, if a customer insisted, but he had to understand that compared to the deluxe set it was a disappointment: an appetizer, not a meal.)

 

Perhaps I’m being small-minded and unfair. Along with the obvious hucksters, there are thoughtful and compassionate people giving workshops. It’s a wonderful thing for them to be so available; often their very presence is healing or inspiring. Would I deny them a comfortable living? Aren’t they as valuable to the rest of us as airline pilots or advertising executives or lawyers who earn $100,000 a year? Spiritual healers, massage therapists, psychotherapists, meditation masters — these are our guides through the labyrinth of the Self, and what a dark and winding maze our lives can be! We need a little help, God knows. (In another day, that help was perhaps more readily available from neighbors or relatives or friends; from elders who were teachers by virtue of having survived their own troubled lives; from artists too filled with visions and weirdness to fill out an application for a grant — I mean the intricate and often invisible web of fellowship we have traded in for “networking” and workshops and appointments. Neighborhood help and family counsel sometimes carried their own price tag, of meddling and bad advice, the tyranny of do-goodism, indeed all the human sins. But have those sins been eliminated because we’re paying in cash now for our “growth?”)

To learn who we really are, to learn how to care for other people, how to sort out true from false, how to go down into our lives sure of nothing but the grief at the bottom of the stairs — this is important. But how much can we ever learn about this from another person?

I’m struck by those teachers who seem to capitalize on this very ambivalence — that is, who say quite openly that they can’t really teach anything, only life can do that, yet want to be paid for this reminder.

But what’s the real reminder? Are they living examples of what they teach? Is there any other way to teach but by example? What sort of example is it to turn self-knowledge into a commodity, for marketing?

Yes, they can still put on an exciting workshop, which sends people away momentarily inspired, giddy with their own possibilities. But what happens when the high wears off, as it must? What essence of the teacher remains, after the memory of the weekend — like the memory, really, of any excitement: a brief love affair, a visit to a foreign city — has turned to ashes, and the wind of a new day, a new problem, scatters the ashes totally? What’s left then? What’s been taught?

If Socrates or Buddha or Jesus had charged, if Gandhi had asked for a few rupees at the door, if Van Gogh had signed up for health insurance before cutting off his ear, would that have changed anything? Are such questions ridiculous? Was it ridiculous for a therapist friend of mine, unsure whether to raise his rates to $55 an hour, to pay another therapist $55 an hour to discuss his dilemma?

 

What’s need and what’s greed? What’s a fair price for something as intangible as growth? In a democratic society what are the consequences of creating an aristocracy of the psychologically fit, or of a new age movement that trades salvation for pre-registration? These aren’t easy questions — at least, I don’t have easy answers for some of them — but why aren’t they asked more often? Why do we allow greed to masquerade as altruism? Why do we glamorize certain teachers — and, as an editor, I’m guilty of this, too — while ignoring others: say, the ones who work in public schools for less than $25,000 a year, let alone a weekend, but who surely perform no less valuable a service? Indeed, what is a teacher? How do these healers and guides and helpers, having placed themselves in the hazardous and questionable role of leading the rest of us toward a better world, figure out not only what to charge but whether they’re not creating more harm than good? For even with the best of intentions, don’t they subtly reinforce the myth that the words of others are more important than our own beliefs and our unique, untranslatable reality? Don’t their very livelihoods depend on the dependency of others?

 

We live in a culture that encourages us at every turn to satisfy ourselves. It’s good for business. Besides people don’t need much encouragement; such abundance as most of us enjoy has been the dream of countless generations. My grandparents were grateful for the chance to spend a month in the stinking, overcrowded hold of a North Atlantic freighter so they could make a new start in America. My mother, who shared an overcoat and shoes with her sisters during the Depression, still stocks up at the supermarket on things she doesn’t need, because a full pantry suggests the security she never had.

Karl Marx imagined that the workers, given the opportunity, would overthrow the system that oppressed them, but American history suggests that the workers, given the opportunity, are more likely to fight for a raise than a revolution.

Accustomed to getting so many of our needs met, it’s no surprise that we soon imagine we can get all our needs met, not just for food and clothes and entertainment but for affection and understanding and spiritual enlightenment. Is it any surprise that growth has become a growth industry? It’s as legitimate a response to consumer need as this year’s new line of swimwear — and for reasons that are not so different, after all. The boredom and restlessness that drives people out of their homes and to the mall for a night of shopping is the same ache that drives them to Esalen and Omega and the wholistic health center down the block. It can be argued that writing out checks for workshops rather than new swimsuits more directly addresses the unhappiness; sometimes, I think this is so; often, it is not. The point is that there’s somebody on the other end to take the check. America provides.

So, why am I fussing about the high price of workshops? I’d do just as well to complain about General Motors’ earnings last quarter. It’s just one more inequity in a system based on inequity. Che Guevara said “the true revolutionary is motivated by great love,” but it doesn’t follow that everyone who talks about love is a great revolutionary. In fact, the ones who talk about it the most, for the highest pay, are all too often defenders of the status quo. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass stated it succinctly:

 

I have to ask myself what it is that I want. And I have to be honest with myself that I want happiness, I want peace, I want joy for all beings, yes, but I also want my security, I also want my little piece of the Rock. I want maintenance — a little bit of the status quo. I want some things that are covertly reinforcing Secretary Haig’s position. I have to fully expand to realize that who I am is all of it, not just some of it, not just the good guys. And that’s a little hard to do, to see the way in which I am covertly reinforcing the paranoia that results from the economic disequilibrium of the work at this moment.

 

Which is to say, they’re human, these teachers, with their pride, their insecurities, their investment portfolios. If we pretend they’re something they’re not, that’s our own anguish talking, needing to make heroes of some people and diminish others. I know the pain of looking to someone else for proof of my existence, of making their experience legitimate and mine counterfeit. It’s a bad deal and it’s costly and not just in money. The price of freedom is something else entirely.

— Sy