Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

We'd like to welcome you to 'enlightenment'

Avatar claims its self-improvement course can fix life’s struggles but critics say the mumbo jumbo comes at a cost

A university student racked up a $20k debt attending Avatar courses. Relatives say that after attending the courses her personality changed. Photo / Doug Sherring
A university student racked up a $20k debt attending Avatar courses. Relatives say that after attending the courses her personality changed. Photo / Doug Sherring

Perching on a plastic chair flanked by two whispering Avatar masters, my induction into self-empowerment begins.

Sean, a smiling Australian in his 30s, goes first, reading an introductory spiel into my left ear. Then it's over to Jen from Hawke's Bay on my right, who reinforces the message.

"Would you like to rise above the sorrows and struggles of the world and see them as they really are?" Sean is saying.

"Would you like to experience the state of consciousness traditionally described as enlightenment?" Jen asks.

By this time, I'm not quite sure which way to turn.

Welcome to the world of Avatar, a controversial self-development training programme originating in the United States.

Its headquarters are in Orlando, Florida, and it's led by former Scientologist Harry Palmer.

It is run by his privately held company, Star's Edge Inc, and now it's in New Zealand.

The organisation is believed to have more than 100,000 followers worldwide and has a presence in more than 50 countries.

But it has faced heavy criticism overseas and allegations it uses multilayered marketing techniques to recruit young newcomers - many of whom go on to spend many thousands of dollars attending courses all over the world.

Some opponents go so far as to use the words "cult" and "brainwashing".

Watchdog NZ Cult List marks Avatar as "dangerous" and warns the organisation is keen for large Kiwi companies to adopt its training methods.

There are similar warnings from the World Cultwatch organisation, which brands it a Scientology spin-off.

Avatar's New Zealand organiser, Simon Townsend, rejects these criticisms.

"There has been some negative publicity about us but that mainly stems from a disgruntled former master in America who was an alcoholic and has since passed away," Townsend says.

"People who have been on a course and are negative or critical generally do so because there is generally something they have not wanted to look at responsibly and feel like blaming something else. This is a misunderstanding.

"We do not recruit people and this is not multilevel marketing, and nothing says anyone has to go on all of our courses," he adds.

Last week, Avatar brought its courses to New Zealand.

On offer at the Mercure Hotel, in Auckland's city centre, were two main training courses - a nine-day international programme costing $3050, or a two-day workshop, called ReSurfacing, pitched at $402.50.

On Tuesday evening, I joined an hour-long free introduction. To ensure an objective experience, I used a pseudonym.

First contact was made with Avatar via email the previous Thursday. After my initial message was received, I was asked for my telephone number and informed someone would be in touch.

The next day, Townsend called. We had an amicable chat, with a view to me attending a two-day course, as the nine-day one was already under way.

Townsend, who said he was from a medical background, also invited me to attend the free, one-hour session, which I agreed to think about.

At 6.30pm on Tuesday, I took the plunge. At the Mercure a young German woman called Simone handed me an Avatar info pack and showed me to a seat. Soon a pony-tailed, smiling Townsend appeared and explained what would happen.

First was a half-hour film featuring a talk by Avatar leader Palmer. It was shown on an iPad on a table adorned with Avatar literature.

Then Jen, the "master" from Hawke's Bay, arrived. Wearing headphones, together we watched Palmer address thousands of "Avatars" at a conference in Florida.

I noticed that Jen, a quietly spoken woman in her 50s, was in the Florida audience too, near the front.

Palmer's talk was mainly stuff about self-enlightenment and personal empowerment.

"I'm going to tell you about impressions," he began, before launching into a tale about dinosaur feet imprints found in a desert creek alongside others left by early humans.

"Let me now tell you a story about two frogs stuck in a pit," Palmer continued. This was followed by another yarn about a lion cub that had been adopted by a flock of sheep.

The Florida crowd seemed to lap up every word.

Palmer has a controversial reputation in the US and has been the subject of a number of lawsuits relating to his activities.

Before forming Avatar in 1986, Palmer and his partner ran the Elmira Church of Scientology for more than a decade before the church sued them for trademark infringement.

In 2005, the Florida Department of Health investigated Palmer's academic credentials. It found he used the term "psychologist" illegally and made him sign a cease-and-desist agreement.

Palmer's supporters on the About Harry Palmer website, however, insist he is a sensitive individual who dresses simply, lives simply, and "remembers to open the door for the ladies".

"This simple man's writings are creating a movement that is sweeping the planet," his supporters note.

Dr Jackie Hunter, lecturer in psychology at Otago University, says he can understand the initial appeal of an Avatar course, particularly to young, intelligent and idealistic people.

"On the surface, Avatar looks very warm and fuzzy," Hunter explains. "There is a lot of talk about world peace and enlightenment and it promises a feeling of inclusion.

"I can see why it could be attractive to some people, who are perhaps a bit lonely or feeling vulnerable."

Hunter expresses reservations about many of Avatar's general philosophies and training techniques. "When you delve a bit deeper, it is all largely based on a concept of 'me, me, me'," he says. "Focusing almost solely on oneself, however, is unlikely to bring anyone much true happiness; just the opposite.

"There is also a lot of talk in there about people finding their 'inner wizard'. This is something that does not exist in the field of psychology."

Hunter says, in his opinion, there is no real real scientific credibility attached to the Avatar programme.

"It is very old-fashioned and appears much like the kind of self-realisation mumbo-jumbo that was popular in the 1970s."

Cultwatch director Mark Vrankovich says people should be suspicious of organisations that encourage people to engage in multiple self-improvement courses.

"Typically, the way groups like this work is they tell people they have problems. Then, when these are addressed while on a course, using a pattern of peer pressure, they are then told they have more problems and need to do another course.

"The more time and money people invest in these types of courses, the less likely they are to back out because they do not want to realise they were wrong."

Back at Tuesday evening's introduction, I was aware of the sound of loud music and intermittent clapping drifting from an adjoining conference suite. There were, I was told, about 30 people already signed up for courses.

Then Sean, the Australian "master", suddenly showed up in the seat on my left.

After a brief talk about what changes I might like to make to my life, he and Jen took it in turns to read their introduction. This was swiftly followed by a "Compassion Exercise".

I was asked to read to myself five steps printed on a card and imagine I was directing it to someone I know. The objective was to "increase the amount of compassion in the world".

It was also explained that the exercise could be done on strangers such as at airports, malls, parks and beaches "unobtrusively, from some distance". After further questions about my life goals from Sean and several invitations to take up a two-day Avatar course - which I said I would go away and think about - an offer to attend another, free, two-hour session suddenly was on the table. At that point I made my excuses and left.

However, my contact with Avatar wasn't over yet. The following evening Townsend sent me another text, asking, "What do you feel is your next step".

My next step was to call Townsend on Friday morning and reveal my true identity. I asked him about the organisation he represents. He admitted he worked for Avatar fulltime but insisted he was not on a salary. He refused to expand further on how he was paid when asked if that might be on the basis of being a self-employed contractor or results.

Townsend indicated he simply felt compelled to spread the message of Avatar to others.

"When I discovered Avatar I was enthused, " he said. "I was like a bull out of the gate. I just want to share it."


'When she came back she was a completely different person'

A distraught Kiwi couple say they felt "helpless" watching a close family member rack up tens of thousands of dollars of debt after being introduced to the Avatar programme.

The Auckland couple say the female relative -a student in her 20s -underwent a significant personality change after being taken to a two-day course in New Zealand by a friend.

Within weeks of being inducted, the student made the first of many expensive trips overseas for separate nine-day Avatar courses. "We never knew about her plans until it was too late and the damage was done," the couple, who asked not to be named, say.

"When she came back she was a completely different person.

"She looked like someone who had just had a mental breakdown or was sedated. Beside some obvious changes in her behaviour, her critical thinking was non-existent. She was acting like a robot.

"When she spoke, it was like her words were coming from someone else - like a new personality had been implanted into her brain.

"We were shocked and very worried. We just didn't know what to do."

The student told family that by following Avatar she would contribute to the creation of a new and enlightened population.

"She couldn't answer questions about how would she support herself on that path or paying off her debts, which totalled more than $20,000.

"She told us money was not important and that we were just materialistic people."

The couple believe their relative had been exposed to methods that changed her way of thinking.

"Whatever was not connected to Avatar and whoever was against it wasn't worthy of her attention anymore."

In desperation, the couple contacted local authorities for help, but they could do nothing as no laws had been broken.

"We couldn't go to the police and couldn't get her to see a psychologist, either."

The couple accuse Avatar, which calls itself "the most powerful self-development course in the world", of effectively brainwashing their relative.

They described it as a quasi-religious cult which they believe is dangerous.

The Auckland couple say a work colleague also became obsessed with Avatar, also with negative consequences.

They couldn't believe how widespread this phenomenon was.

"He was soon in massive debt and his marriage was disintegrating.

"Like our relative, he had become confused about life and was in a vulnerable spot."

The couple say their relative has now left Avatar and is recovering from her experience.

They urged anyone considering signing up to Avatar to be careful.

"We have had many challenges in our lives, like most other people have had.

"This has been one of the most difficult.

"We were losing someone we love and there seemed little we could do."

- Herald on Sunday

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