Tony Robbins Probably Won’t Be Your Guru

But even non-believers will find it impossible not to cry

It’s really hard not to cry during the Tony Robbins documentary. You should try it. Sit down with a glass of something comforting and turn on Netflix’s I Am Not Your Guru, and attempt, through soaring music and Tony’s stirring speeches, to keep your eyes from watering up. The opening scenes feature a scene in which Tony is talking down Matyas, who confessed a desire to end his own life, in front of hundreds of people at one of his seminars. Tony makes the kind of eye contact most Americans would consider rude. “If you give yourself just a little bit of time, and if you’ll be a little bit more loving to yourself, I think you’re going to find, you’ve got a lot to give,” he tells Matyas. The chorus of Snow Patrol’s “Light Up” begins to swell dramatically in the background. Suddenly, Matyas is in Tony’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably.

Matyas crowd-surfing after a pep talk from Tony Robbins.

I, too, was sobbing uncontrollably. And we weren’t even ten minutes into the documentary.

I didn’t watch the film as a believer. Tony Robbins—for myself, and for plenty of others—typifies the kind of highly commercial vself-impovement schmaltz you find on the discount shelves at Barnes and Noble. Most people are either familiar with his late night infomercials, hawking $200 motivational CD sets, or from his appearance as himself in Shallow Hal, where he lectures Jason Alexander’s character on the illusions of beauty with a sincerity that comedy finds distasteful. “The brain sees what the heart wants it to feel,” Robbins says in Shallow Hal. Jason Alexander blusters in protest.

That wasn’t just a movie line. That kind of banal platitude in pretty common in the Tony Robbins universe, where everything could be fixed with some tough love and a pep talk. But that’s the cynic in me speaking, and this documentary is not for cynics. Tony says so himself. “You’re never going to convince a cynic,” he told the The Guardian. “There are too many that want help to worry about those that don’t.”

And the people who come to Tony are people who are in dire straits. We meet Dawn, who experienced horrific sexual abuse as a member of the Children of God, a religious cult. He holds her in his arms, tells her she is a miracle to have survived the ordeal. And then he told her to pick some people in the room who she connected with. She picks two men. Tony tells her they will be her spiritual “uncles”.

We meet Tammi and Lance, a couple who’ve been together for nine years and experiencing difficulties with intimacy. “How often do you guys make love?” Tony asks them in front of hundreds of other seminar attendees (twice a month, answers Tammi). He asks Lance if his father was a “feminine man”. Lance says yes. “So his wife dominated him, and he dominated you,” Tony says, already arriving at a conclusion nobody in the room quite understands.

Tony is not interested, he said, in political correctness. When a woman tells him that her boyfriend doesn’t open up to her, he explains it away thusly: “Because he’s a man.”

This is what Tony does best, and what makes him so successful: He gives his disciples a personal narrative, one steeped in the myths that construct our social realities. Tony is not interested in deconstructing these myths. Why would he? Narrative is better. Where there is narrative, there is denouement, there is resolution, there is a happy ending.

Myth-making, in fact, is part of the Tony Robbins brand, and he’s only a few words shy of admitting it. “I constructed Tony Robbins,” Tony tells his audience at the beginning of the seminar. “I created this motherfucker standing here.” This is an easy admission. If Tony Robbins can lift himself up from the muck, dust off a beleaguered childhood, cast off the legacy of an absent father, why can’t we? “This is not some bullshit positive thinking seminar,” he says. Tony Robbins wants us to change our habits, to break away from the patterns that hold us in the thrall of our own victimhood. And it is so easy to believe him, so easy to fall under his spell. With an easy smile and enough charm to make even Harrison Ford blush, he’s the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of the self-help world. Tony Robbins is the successor of our own absent fathers, a tough-love daddy who generously sprinkles obscenities in his speeches to break us out of our stagnant thinking. For two hours, I believed in Tony Robbins. I believed in his religion. I wanted to drink what he was drinking.

But here’s the problem: like most motivational speakers—and Tony, it should be noted, hates this designation—he stops shorts of naming the bigger-than-us forces that produce and shape our circumstances. When Tony explains a man’s emotional unavailability as a natural characteristic of his gender, he takes these problems for granted. He fails to acknowledge the role patriarchy plays in hardening men to women, or in socializing women to tolerate neglect or abuse. That is, after all, a harder problem to solve, and certainly not one that could be cracked in a six-day seminar.

Going to a Tony Robbins seminar won’t change the material conditions of your life. Finding a “personal breakthrough,” as Tony calls them, won’t give you a raise, or make your job better, or pay off your student loans or credit card debt (especially since his seminars can cost $5,000). “Igniting your passions” won’t get you out of an abusive relationship, especially if you share an apartment with that douchebag and can’t afford to move out on your own.

But it will make you feel better, briefly. It will remove you, if for just a moment, from the pain you are living in, and allow you to imagine, if for just a moment, a life that is better than the one you are living. In I Am Not Your Guru, what Tony Robbins gave best was emotional catharsis: a space where his believers could be less lonely, and more vulnerable and be honest with themselves—even if for just a moment. And this is why you will probably cry during I Am Not Your Guru. Because you want to believe, really badly, in what Tony Robbins is selling. It’s ok if you do.

via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

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