|For-profit, private company|
|Founder||John Hanley Sr.|
|John Hanley Sr.
The company, which promoted itself through books and word-of-mouth advertising, was the subject of investigative reports by the media, and was criticized by a few former staff members and participants. At least 30 lawsuits sought to hold Lifespring responsible for participants' deaths or their mental damages. The company paid to settle some of the suits before trial and in other cases lost jury decisions.
John Hanley Sr., Robert White, Randy Revell, and Charlene Afremow founded Lifespring in 1974. As of October 1987, Hanley owned 92.7 percent of the company. Prior to Lifespring, Hanley worked for the company Holiday Magic. He and the other founders also worked for Mind Dynamics with Werner Erhard, the founder of est, which became the basis for Landmark Education.
Lifespring concentrated on how people experience each other, whereas est dealt with changing the way people experience themselves. However, there were many similarities between the two.
The former Director for Corporate Affairs of Lifespring, Charles "Raz" Ingrasci, also worked with Erhard, promoting an est mission to the USSR and the Hunger Project. Ingrasci is now President of the Hoffman Institute which offers programs such as the Hoffman Quadrinity Process which some regard as similar to Lifespring.
Though Hanley denied that Lifespring was a duplicate of est, in their 1992 book Perspectives on the New Age James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton describe the similarities as "striking." They note that both Lifespring and est used "authoritarian trainers who enforce numerous rules", require applause after participants "share" in front of the group, and deemphasize reason in favor of "feeling and action". The authors also pointed out that graduates of both Lifespring and est were "fiercely loyal", and recruited heavily for their respective groups, reducing marketing expenses to virtually zero.
The Lifespring training generally involved a three-level program starting with a "basic" training, an "advanced" breakthrough course, and a three-month "leadership program" which taught the students how to implement what they learned from the training into their lives.
Studies commissioned by Lifespring in the 1980s by researchers at Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSF, including Lee Ross, Morton Lieberman, and Irvin D. Yalom, found that an overwhelming majority of participants in this training called it either "extremely valuable" or "valuable" (around 90 percent). Many described the training as among the most profound experiences of their lives and claimed they were able to produce substantial results in their lives as a result of their participation.  Less than two percent found them to be "of no value". Graduates were often eager to share their own experiences in the training with family, friends, and co-workers, although they were precluded from sharing fellow trainees' experiences. There was never any compensation for assisting in enrolling others into the workshops. However, another, independent study found that, "The merging, grandiosity, and identity confusion that has been encouraged and then exploited in the training in order to control participants is now used to tie them to Vitality (Lifespring) in the future by enrolling them in new trainings and enlisting them as recruiters".
The basic training was composed of successive sessions on Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday day and night, Sunday day and night, a Tuesday night post-training session ten days after graduation, and a post-training interview. Evening sessions began at 6:30 pm and lasted until 11:30 or 12 or later. Saturday sessions started at 10 am and lasted until approximately midnight. Sunday sessions started at 9 am and lasted until approximately 6 pm. The trainings were usually held in the convention facilities of large, easily accessible, moderate priced hotels (i.e., mid-town New York). A basic training was usually composed of 150–200 participants,while an advanced training was composed of 75-100 participants. Approximately 50 percent of advanced training graduates participated in the leadership program. Training also included alumni volunteers who served as small group leaders, several official staff, an assistant trainer, and a head trainer.
The training consisted of a series of lectures and experiential processes designed to show the participants a new manner of contending with life situations and concerns and how other possible explanations and interpretations may lead to different results. Some individuals complained that they felt harangued, embarrassed, or humiliated by the trainer during the training. A few individuals choose not to complete the training. Additionally, the trainer used many English words in a manner different from their usual meaning. "Commitment", for instance, was defined as "the willingness to do whatever it takes". "Conclusion" was defined as a belief. Also, words such as "responsibility", "space", "surrender", "experience", "trust", "consideration", "unreasonable", "righteous", "totally participate", "from your head", "openness", "letting go" were redefined or used so as to assign them a more specific meaning.
Lawsuits were filed against Lifespring for charges ranging from involuntary servitude to wrongful death. The suits often claimed that the trainings placed participants under extreme psychological stress in order to elicit change. Lifespring was ordered to pay money to participants who required psychiatric hospitalization and to relatives of members who committed suicide, or otherwise died.
The Washington Post published an article about the company in 1987. In it Hanley is quoted as saying, "If a thousand people get benefit from the training, and one person is harmed, I'd can it. I have an absolute commitment for having this training work for every person who takes it."
According to the Post, however, by 1987 Hanley and other Lifespring executives had known for more than a decade that some people sustained serious injuries from its training. As evidence, the Post cited:
- A deposition in which a former Lifespring vice president said that in 1977 there was a discussion among company executives about participants who suffered ill effects and that such people were referred to as "casualties," "wackos" and "basket cases"
- Talk among top company officials about how to make the trainings less harsh while maintaining their effectiveness
- Dozens of incident reports submitted to Hanley in the late-1970s and early-1980s by Lifespring staff about participants who variously became panicky, incapable of making decisions, or incoherent and nervous. Others landed in psychiatric wards, had visions, regressed to the womb, or became deeply depressed
- Six participants who died.
The Post also reported in the same article that Hanley had been convicted of six counts of felony mail fraud in 1969, and was given a five-year suspended sentence.
Soon after the conviction, Hanley joined Holiday Magic. The Wisconsin Justice Department sued him and others over a pyramid scheme involving the company. Hanley paid the state $1,750 to settle the case, but told the Post that he did so only to avoid the costs of hiring a lawyer, not because he had done anything wrong.
In 1980, a federal judge rejected Hanley's request to have the felony conviction removed from his record. His request for a presidential pardon was also denied.
The Skeptic, a newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics, reported in 1989 on criticism from a participant and former staff volunteer who said the trainings were too stressful and disruptive, and that the program was "an urban cult".
One prominent critic of Lifespring is Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Mrs. Thomas asserted in an interview with the Post that she chose to seek counseling after her decision to stop participating in Lifespring. In order to avoid phone calls from fellow Lifespring members, urging her to remain in the course, she chose to hide in another part of the United States. One explanation for the criticisms and actions taken by roughly eight percent of all Lifespring graduates comes from clinical psychologist and Lifespring graduate Bronson Levin. Levin said, "people who are not prepared for the intense emotional experience of Lifespring or who have hidden traumas tend to become overwhelmed as childhood memories come thundering back to them during training." Virginia Thomas went on to speak on panels and organized anti-cult workshops for congressional staffers in 1986 and 1988.
While Lifespring no longer delivers training, 75 independent companies offer replicas or training employing many of the company's methods, in the United States and in nine other countries, according to Hanley. These include "Discovery" in Texas and in Southern California, and "WorldWorks", also in Southern California.
"Mastery In Transformational Training", in Marina del Rey, is one out of five of the 75 independent companies that have established a formal relationship with John Hanley, Sr. by purchasing an official license.
"Choice Center" in Las Vegas, Nevada, bases its methods on the Lifespring model.
"Gratitude Trainings in Charlotte, NC and Florida" bases its methods on the Lifespring model.
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"Large-group awareness training refers to programs that claim to increase self-awareness and facilitate constructive personal change. Lifespring, Actualizations, the Forum, and similar commercial programs are examples. Like the smaller groups that preceded them, large-group trainings combine psychological exercises, confrontation, new view-points, and group dynamics to promote personal change."
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