Monday, June 20, 2005

Penn & Teller Skewer "Self-Help" Workshops

There was a brand new episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit! on Showtime tonight [links in sidebar], about the ridiculous things people spend money on for grooming, coloring, concealing, removing, or replacing hair. However, I was more interested in the re-run from Season 1 that they ran after the new one. (You can rent the DVD. Look for the Season 1 disc with "Self-Helpless" on it.) That episode was about "self-help" workshops, specifically including some in which participants walk barefoot on hot coals or broken glass, or else break an arrow by placing the point of the arrow against the base of their throat and pressing. [Please do not attempt any of these cheap parlour tricks unless you really know what you're doing. Although they are all fairly easy for most people to accomplish, they are also fairly easy to do incorrectly, possibly causing serious injury. When considering performing these stunts, it's also a good time to reflect on the old saying, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."]

The hucksters workshop ringleaders try to pass off their cheap grade school talent show tricks as some kind of magical, mystical, probably Native American because they're so spiritual just because they didn't have gunpowder, whiskey, horses, or a cure for smallpox spiritual breakthrough. Penn & Teller pass them off as nothing more than cheap stunts. Thing is, both sides are right and yet they're both full of bullshit.

The reality is, there are two levels involved in each of these tricks, and the trick only works with both of those levels reaching harmony.

Firewalking Scientifically, as Penn & Teller's real expert David Willey (not only a scientist, but a science teacher) explains, the wood and the dead skin on the bottom of your feet are both pretty lousy conductors of heat, so, as long as you keep moving, you'll be fine. [Again, please do not attempt this stunt without qualified adult supervision.] Psychologically, the participants are presented with an apparently impossible task. Conventional thinking does not provide for nonchalantly walking across a bed of hot coals. Firewalking isn't really impossible, but it plays impossible on TV. The lesson, and the potential for self-help, lies in learning to question the inner voice that says, "No, I can't do that." Sometimes that voice is right, and it's important to honor and respect the inner voice when it is right and true in saying no. I can't really use the power of my mind to make bullets stop in mid-air, no matter how many times I watch The Matrix.

However, what about other things in life where inner doubt holds us back? I could never get that attractive person to like me. I could never have a job where my work is appreciated and valued. I could never have a healthy relationship with my parents because they have so much trouble accepting my homosexuality. I could never make a real difference in other people's lives. Those kinds of messages from the inner voice should be questioned — given a third-degree interrogation, if you will — rather than meekly accepted.

Does that mean that just by your having finally realized that something might be possible, it suddenly becomes easy? No, of course not. Earlier today, I outlined why I believe that it is possible to achieve peace in Palestine/Israel/Pisralestine, but that still leaves you the question of how to actually do it. Just saying that somehow somebody will like me and want to leap into the perfect relationship doesn't make him instantly appear. Just saying that I'm an adult and my parents are adults and 17 years after I came out to them they might somehow suddenly deal with it, doesn't make that happen, either. Just saying that I can clean up my cluttered apartment doesn't make the magic elves perfectly organize everything while I'm asleep. I told a friend of mine who wanted someone to hold his hand while he came down off a 4-day methamphetamine binge that I know full well it's not nearly as simple as "Just say no!," but all the same he's got to figure out a way to stop saying yes. Maybe that's 12-step, or maybe it's preaching the gospel of Ron Popeil's rotisserie oven, or maybe it's quitting cold turkey and not hanging out with the people you used to tweak with, or maybe it's something else entirely. His answer might not match someone else's answer.

Okay, just to finish the list, let me give you quick summaries of the science behind the other two tricks.

Walking on glass Very similar to firewalking. The sharp points of the glass mostly point sideways, and with suitable care and supervision it's reasonably easy to avoid having a single sharp point jab directly into your foot. Additionally, the thick skin on the sole of your foot is fairly difficult to cut.

Breaking an arrow with your throat Your throat has a tough, sturdy tube made of cartilage for your airway. It has evolved not to be obstructed or crushed easily. Again, with suitable care and supervision it's reasonably easy to break a cheap wooden arrow or even bend a long piece of rebar with your throat.

Let me recommend a self-help seminar that I personally found quite transformational. I did a week-long trapeze seminar a few years ago with Peter Gold. The seminar was billed as a "circus workshop," in which trained instructors would teach me how to perform on a trapeze; the self-help interpretation was entirely my own. I'm not exactly acrophobic (extreme fear of heights), but I do clutch the railing when I peer down from a bridge or tall building, even if I'm in an enclosed observation lounge. Leaping off of a half-inch-thick (13mm) polymethyl methacrylate (Plexiglas®) platform 24 feet (7.3m) above a brick floor (with a net and other safety equipment, of course), was not in my previous repertoire, but I broke through the inner voice of doubt and did it and had fun. There's no great mystery to trapeze: you jump off the platform at just the right time, and then perform other moves at just the right time, and then you hope that you're strong enough and nimble enough to push off hard enough and then catch the bar or the other person's arm or whatever. Most of all, you practice until that sense of timing seems innate and the strength and agility are proven. I think that with 20 or 30 years of daily practice I could get good enough to be an understudy to a trapeze artist at a crappy county fair, but that wasn't the point. I didn't go to a seminar to learn how to think about doing something different in my life, I went to a workshop to actually do something different. It's still up to me to take that back to my everyday life.

I also watched a PBS show with "self-help" guru Barbara Sher. She had a remarkable and revolutionary approach: first, figure out what you love to do and what you want to achieve. Then figure out how you can achieve it, probably with lots of help from friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It's far from the only step, but the first step is to have the confidence and determination to pursue your dreams.

To put it in scientific terms, faith in yourself is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for sustained success.