Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D.
I was first introduced to Avatar at an evening workshop at a metaphysical bookstore in Bangor, Maine in the summer of 1997. Avatar, founded in 1986, is Harry Palmer’s New Age spiritual, philosophical, and psychological organization. There were only three people (including myself) attending this event, and one of the people described what he heard as the “new est,” Werner Erhard’s popular New Age, large-group experiential organization prominent in the 1970s that merged Western psychology with Eastern spirituality.
Harry Palmer—known to all Avatar students as simply Harry—is a psychologist, ex-hippie, and ex-Scientologist. He professes to not be a guru, but I’m afraid that I do not entirely agree with him on this point, for Palmer’s impact upon his followers is quite similar to that which Erhard had upon his followers in est.
And Palmer is an exceptional businessman who has made a fortune with Avatar. The costs of doing Avatar are quite high: My tuition for the 1997 course was $2,300, not including costs for traveling approximately 1,000 miles in my car over the nine days. The workshop leaders are called Avatar Masters, who all spend an additional $3,000 (not including the extra travel, motel costs, etc.) for an advanced Masters’ workshop. The Avatar Professional course is $2,500 plus extras. And for the supreme experience to be with the “most enlightened beings on the planet,” the Avatar Wizards’ course costs $7,500 plus extras. Approximately 100,000 people have taken the Avatar training, and it is being offered in more than 60 countries all over the world. So, as you can see, Harry Palmer is quite the businessman.
Palmer has not written very much, and his writing style is quite terse—but it is also quite high impact. His books have been translated into a number of different languages. His primary book is Living Deliberately, and his follow-up book is Resurfacing, which describes the first section of the three-section Avatar nine-day training course. A few years ago Palmer wrote The Masters’ Handbook, which is presently available only to Avatar graduates (I am considered to be one of these enlightened beings). The Masters’ Handbook is chock full of excellent business advice on successfully selling and becoming a professional Avatar Master.
Palmer’s marketing and salesmanship abilities remind me of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology (in my opinion a cultish organization, which I experienced for two years in the 1970s). Hubbard and Palmer share many philosophical, spiritual, and psychological similarities, as well.
In July 1999, two years after I had done the nine-day Avatar training (without quite completing it) in the summer of 1997, I did a review and completion of the Avatar course. Avatar graduates commonly do a review of the training, and the review costs are reasonable—in the neighborhood of $200.
Both my original Avatar course and my review course were quite meaningful to me. In particular, I like the way the Avatar masters encourage, support, and train you to not give up on your dreams. They call these dreams your “primaries,” and if the course goes well, you end up feeling as if you are capable of attaining your life’s deepest goals, dreams, and desires. The emphasis in these courses is very much upon going into your deepest spiritual self, referred to in Avatar as going into “source.” This concept is not very different from the notion of empty mind, or Buddha consciousness, achieved thru meditation. The Avatar techniques to achieve this state of mind are actually quite simple and pleasant, having to do with feeling and noticing what is in your environment through a series of exercises called “feel its.” Once you achieve this state of calm and relaxation, it is time to learn how to put total intention into overcoming the barriers to attaining your cherished goals. These barriers are called “secondaries.” So the Avatar process can be described as going into source to eliminate your secondaries, in order to attain your primaries.
The bottom line of Avatar is that you decide how you feel and what you experience. In other words, you have the capability to control what you experience in life by coming from a place of source and visualizing what you want. This basic Avatar technique has remarkable philosophical similarities to the essential beliefs in both Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God philosophy (see my essay “On Conversations with God” in ICSA’s E-Newsletter) and Helen Schuman’s Course in Miracles But the nine-day training ground of Avatar is tremendously powerful and high impact, and extremely intensive.
I must also give credit to Avatar for not interfering in what a person decides his or her “primary” to be. As for me, at the time of my training, I was in the midst of wanting to believe that the new relationship I was involved in was going to be the beautiful life-long relationship I so much wanted to experience. The Avatar masters at first tried gently to convey to me that the lack of communication in this relationship was a very poor sign for attaining my primary—in this particular relationship. But I was so stubborn and persistent that I refused to be open to what they were seeing, obviously more clearly than I was. However, true to Avatar form, they let me continue to work on making this goal my dominant primary and finding ways to attain it, though they did convince me to leave a little room for openness, in case this relationship turned out not to be the one for which I had been praying for such a long time. When the relationship did finally end—about six months later—for many of the reasons my Avatar masters saw in advance, I felt a strong appreciation for Avatar for allowing me to experience the relationship—i.e., “choose” to experience it, in Avatar language—in the way I apparently wanted to.
But what happens after the nine-day Avatar training ends? Well, there are the regular mailings of the Avatar journal every two months or so; the journal is full of inspirational writings by Harry Palmer and various Avatar graduates, Masters, and Wizards. And there are new books and tapes put out by Harry Palmer. But the real emphasis is on the Avatar graduate taking the next step: to do the Avatar Masters’ course and become an Avatar Master himself/herself.
Aside from the extreme expense involved in the Masters’ course, my basic feeling after having completed the Avatar review course was that I already had what I wanted to get out of Avatar. There are some valuable tools in the Avatar training—make no mistake about this. But the follow-up courses in Avatar are financially exorbitant, and I could see the dangers of becoming addicted to Avatar if I were to succumb to these temptations. However, it was also true that I had gotten a jolt from Avatar that I had not experienced from anywhere else in quite the same way. This high-impact jolt, coupled with a smooth sales pitch from one of the Stars’ Edge trainers (the elite of Avatar) at a vulnerable time in my life, persuaded me to go to California in May 2001 to do the Avatar Masters’ course.
The Avatar Masters’ course was held in a luxurious hotel in the plush surroundings of the island of Coronado, outside of San Diego. I spent approximately $5,000, including hotel and transportation, and maxed out my credit cards to take this training. Why did I do it? I suppose I was ready to take a plunge into something uplifting and self-supporting after having gone through an extremely upsetting personal experience in a romantic relationship that involved losing important aspects of my self. And it was most certainly a plunge: 200 people, many of these Avatar masters reviewing the course, from all over the world. Six Stars’ Edge trainers and three assistant Stars’ Edge trainers—the elite of Avatar—were running the course. And we even got a surprise visit from none other than Harry Palmer himself and his quite-intense wife, Avra.
I ended up completing the course with only an Assistant Avatar Masters’ license, however, which meant that I could not teach Avatar to others. I would have had to do a review of the Masters’ course to upgrade my status, which would have meant a few thousand more dollars for hotel and transportation, even though the review course itself would be free.
What actually happened on this course? Well, I got myself into a great deal of trouble with the Stars’ Edge trainer who appeared to have the most power and influence over who was given the privileged status of becoming an Avatar Master and allowed to teach Avatar. I was quite outspoken in my concern over the expense of Avatar and the emphasis on selling Avatar to find my own students, and I freely questioned the Stars’ Edge trainers about how much money they were making for delivering the Masters’ course. The particular Stars’ Edge trainer with whom I had my difficulties took offense at my brazenness and became suspicious that I was taking the course for fraudulent purposes. He even asked me if I was a reporter for The New York Times. He gave me various “self-repair” processes to work on, but I have no doubt that, in the end, he was not willing to trust me to deliver Avatar to others.
In fact, I was being open to becoming a truthful and bona fide Avatar Master, and I had even formulated a plan to codeliver Avatar with a woman who was a professional sales/marketing director from Cincinnati. She was going to do the sales/marketing part and I was going to lead the actual teaching. We had planned to do the Section 1/Resurfacing part of the course in Cincinnati on a weekend in August 2001.
But all of this fell by the wayside once the course trainers gave me my Assistant Master status. It is true, as they tried to explain to me, that my status could have been lower: Some students got no license at all. The only benefit of my status compared to having no license was that I was allowed to “assist” a Qualified Master (official status with many Avatar requirements) on an Avatar course, which I would need to pay for unless I brought my own students. I was one of the first ones to finish the actual course (which, in terms of content, was little more than the original Avatar training course). I received many compliments on how I was working with other Avatar students and masters, and many people who were not completing the training as quickly as I were given the higher licensing status of Intern Master, which enabled them to teach the Section 1/Resurfacing weekend.
I felt extremely hurt, embarrassed, and dejected when the leaders told me my status, and my efforts to persuade them to reconsider fell upon deaf ears. But deep down I knew that there was a good, higher reason for this. My limited status was a signal to me that I was not supposed to take the easy way out and become a bona fide Avatar Master, feeling the comforts and camaraderie of being part of a New Age spiritual organization, learning how to be a successful New Age businessman, selling Avatar to the world, and so on. I had chosen to be myself at the Avatar Masters’ course, and I got what I got. I had chosen to not sell the ideas of Harry Palmer to the world because I had so many problems with the financial ethics, and I also felt uncomfortable with some of the philosophical beliefs and practices.
I think back to my essays on Scientology, described in my book Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis and Expos, in which I discuss the problems with the 100% mentality—that is, in the case of Scientology, following 100% the ideas and techniques of the person in charge, L. Ron Hubbard. And I realize that Avatar is essentially no different from Scientology in this regard. Harry Palmer has come up with some significant and effective ideas and techniques to help people actualize their dreams. But the procedures are to be repeated verbatim according to Palmer’s instructions, from Source List, to the Creative Handling Procedure, to the Initiation Session. This verbatim repetition most certainly reminds me of the Dianetic Auditing sessions of Scientology, and I have no doubt that it is far more than a mere coincidence that these similarities of procedure exist between Scientology and Avatar, given that Palmer himself is an ex-Scientologist.
So the viewpoint I choose to adopt (in Avatar language) is that my low status of Assistant Avatar Master enabled me to make a narrow escape from yet another New Age spiritual organization. I had spent roughly $8,000 on Avatar, and there was an intensive sales pitch at the Avatar Masters’ course to sign up for the next Avatar Wizard’s course, the 13-day training in Florida that costs $7,500 plus all the extras.
But I have learned so much—both about Avatar and about the dangers of New Age spirituality in the 2000s. To paraphrase the first statement on the Avatar Source List: I am happy to be who I am. And this “I” has been telling me that it is time to go back into action—not do any more course work on Avatar, and not teach Avatar officially to others. Instead, it is time to offer to others what I have learned about Avatar and all my other New Age spirituality studies, and to facilitate heartfelt dialogue and discussion concerning the search for authentic spiritual truth.
See, for example, Adelaide Bry, Est: 60 Hours That Transform Your Life (New York: Avon Books, 1976); Steven Pressman, Outrageous Betrayal: The Real Story of Werner Erhard, from est to Exile (Emeryville, CA: St. Martins Press, 1993); and my est essays in Elliot Benjamin, Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis and Expos(Swanville, Maine: Natural Dimension Publications, 2005).
See Harry Palmer, Living Deliberately (Altamonte Springs, Florida: Stars’ Edge International, 1994) and Harry Palmer, Resurfacing (Altamonte Springs, Florida: Stars’ Edge International, 1994).
See Harry Palmer, The Avatar Masters’ Handbook (Altamonte Springs, Florida: Stars’ Edge International, 1997).
See, for example, L. Ron Hubbard, The Modern Science of Mental Health (Los Angeles: The American Saint Hill Organization, 1950, 1975); Joe Atack, A Piece of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics, and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1990); and my Scientology essays in Modern Religions(book information in endnote 1).
For more personal information about my experiences with Avatar, see my Avatar essays in Modern Religions… (book information in endnote 1).
See Foundation For Inner Peace, A Course in Miracles (New York: Penguin Books, 1975, 1996); Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue: Book 1 (New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1993), Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue: Book 2 (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 1997), and Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue: Book 3, (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 1998); Elliot Benjamin, “On Conversations with God” (ICSA E-Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2004 at http://csj.org/infoserv_articles/benjamin_elliot__conversationswithgod.htm); and my Course in Miracles Conversations with God essays in Modern Religions… (book information in endnote 1).