Do as Anthony Robbins says at his Unleash the Power Within self-help seminars and you too can put all your fears behind you.
“Cool moss! Cool moss! Cool moss!”
The mind-over-matter chant rises from a crowd 3,000 strong as it snakes toward the fire pits. There is a crackle as fresh fuel is raked onto the glowing lines already radiant with red-hot coals.
“Cool moss! Cool moss!” The chant gets louder as I approach the burning embers. Then suddenly it’s my turn. “Step up!” the leaders command. I step up to the firepot and look down. The 10 feet of smoldering coals stretch into yards, the heat on my face feels like serious Fahrenheit, but there’s no turning back. They take my outstretched arms. “Make your move!” I do. Taking five short steps, I cross the coals and achieve my goal: I am a Firewalker.
The Firewalk is the dramatic highlight of Unleash the Power Within, the introductory three-day seminar given by personal development guru Tony Robbins. Designed to be both a challenge to the participants and a symbol of the change they can make to their lives, it also serves as a very effective marketing tool for Robbins’ pricey products and seminars. The question of whether there is any substance behind the pyrotechnics was something I tried to find out by joining the show here in Los Angeles.
The scene upon my arrival at Staples Center was suitably uplifting. A small army of volunteers from the Robbins organization were on hand to greet newcomers with big smiles, high fives and the kind of bright-eyed enthusiasm you find jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.
The prospective Firewalkers who were milling around were reassuringly normal. They tended to be in their 30s and the ones I met were single, but other than that, they ranged across the demographic spectrum: There was Mindy, an Indian immigrant who works in high tech and wanted to explore the next stage of her life; Michael, a rock band production manager who wanted to quit smoking; and Jennifer, an attorney from Colorado who had run 18 marathons and was looking to improve her best time.
It was surprising to find how successful and focused they all seemed to be, but as we entered the lobby surrounding the show hall, it began to make sense. Inside were tables loaded with Tony Robbins merchandise, where volunteers offered invitations for Platinum Partnerships and Passion Projects, and packages of everything for sale from videos to vitamins. It’s all part of a high-priced, hard-selling enterprise that wouldn’t survive if its audience were a bunch of couch limpets. No, Robbins is a success because he sells success to the successful.
That flattering thought made it much easier to participate, which was a good thing because at that moment music started thumping and the hyped-up volunteers began whooping up a storm. It was showtime, and soon we were all clapping along to “Fergalicious” and whipping ourselves into a frenzy that carried us into the hall like shoppers at an after-Christmas Wal-Mart sale.
The excitement continued for a good 20 minutes more, with bright lights, dancers and music keeping us pumped up, until finally Robbins came bounding onto the stage looking every inch a modern colossus. He is seven feet tall, fit as a drill sergeant and has a chin like a Russian ice-breaking ship. But what really strikes you is his level of energy. It is extraordinary. It never let up from the moment he stepped onstage until we were led out to the Firewalk some nine hours later. Nine hours of nonstop talking and nonstop performing delivered without slipup and without a script. It was a truly bravura performance, and my skepticism nearly crumbled under the onslaught.
However, the truth is that he does have a script, and it’s one that he’s honed over 30 years. Its origins lie in a psychological theory called neuro-linguistic programming, which enjoyed a brief spell of acclaim back in the ’70s. Robbins developed that into what he calls neuro-associative conditioning. Put simply, he believes that by changing your body’s physiology, you can change your emotional state, and by doing that, you change your behavior and therefore your life. To this, he adds a mixture of well-established techniques you can find in just about any book on self-improvement: Set goals, make a plan to achieve those goals, take action on that plan, measure the results, rinse and repeat. None of this is rocket science; in fact, many people are familiar with the strategies, but translating theory into action is harder than it looks. It requires motivation, and that’s where Robbins excels.
He had us jumping up and down, pumping our fists into the air and shouting “yeah!” for about four of those nine hours. It was exhilarating, energizing and probably completely brainwashing, but I can testify that by the end of it, I was ready to make that fire pit my bitch and then stomp on its coals for looking at me.
In between the ramping up, Robbins outlined his philosophy, regaled us with anecdotes from his life and gave examples of people who had used the techniques he teaches to change their lives. He is a very polished speaker and clearly believes every word he says. His stories touched upon his emotions and his tears were genuine.
The Firewalk was the highlight of the first day and was preceded by an hour-long buildup of Vangelis music and images of flames that could have been exhumed from an era when Duran Duran roamed the earth. It was almost interminable, but finally we stepped outside and marched barefoot toward a dozen burning fire pits while the late-night denizens of downtown Los Angeles watched curiously from the shadows. By the time it was over, it was hard to know if it was a life-changing experience or simply a giant crowd scene in a theater of the surreally absurd.
The second day of the show was led by Joseph McClendon, a chief trainer at the Robbins organization who doesn’t have Tony’s physical presence but certainly matches him on the Energizer Bunny scale. It was a day of confessional sharing, with all of us being encouraged to open up, and we matched every call of Joseph’s with a full-throated response. The day was filled with warm-and-fuzzy moments that were clearly part of the design. Robbins himself appeared on video to tell long stories in which an act of kindness created a chain reaction of karmic effect, and then encouraged us to do “something good for someone unknown.”
It was a very effective presentation. Unfortunately, this was immediately followed by a pitch for everyone to sign up for Robbins’ multipart Mastery University plan — and was absolutely shameless in its emotional manipulation. After all, it is your life that we’re talking about here, right? Buy now and it’s only $11,000. Buy later and the price will more than double. Isn’t it worth $11,000 to be able to say, five years from now, that as a result you had soared to financial, romantic and social success? Such is the marketing that is persistent throughout the Robbins organization and ultimately undermines the message he is trying to put across. It’s hard not to be cynical when a man preaching the Gospel has “I Love Mammon” tattooed on his forehead.
It’s also healthy to be skeptical about someone who exploits crowd psychology. There were times during the show when we were swept up in emotion like 12-year-olds at a Jonas Brothers concert. This is not always a bad thing, and Robbins likes to draw inspiration from the U.S. Marine Corps, which has made good use of the technique in, say, taking Iwo Jima. But it’s heady stuff, and once a crowd starts applauding, it’s hard to maintain rational thought.
The culmination of this phenomenon came on the final day of the event, which, in contrast to the warmth and fuzziness of day two, was an exploration of the dark side of our souls. It was once again led by Robbins, and it was a process designed to rid us of all the fears and doubts that were holding us back from positive change. It was a powerful and moving experience. Not just because we had been taken to the dark side of ourselves and then whipped into a frenzy again, but also because it was the final stage in a journey that had taken three long days, cost a lot of money and demanded considerable soul-searching. By that time we were all so invested it would have taken a rare individual to deny the transformational experience.
Whether it was worth the endeavor, though, is a hard question to answer. The obvious truth is that change does not happen overnight. As any Marine will tell you, Iwo Jima was taken inch by bloody inch. The less obvious truth is that the motivation to change has to be continually renewed. So while a Firewalk might be fun, it might not change your life. If you really want to do that, you should head for the nearest recruiting station.
GOING TO THE GURUS GUIDE
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Phone (toll free): 1-800-466-7111
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