By John Gray
HarperCollins, 244 pp.
Eight years ago, in his huge bestseller, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus," psychotherapist John Gray found a compelling hook on which to hang the differences between men and women in relationships, and launched a self-help empire. Adding 10 more bestsellers, including titles like "Mars and Venus in Love," and "How to Get What You Want and Want What You Have," the Mars-Venus universe includes an institute, a counseling system with specially-trained Mars and Venus counselors, workshop series, videotapes, web site, advice columns, and, beginning in October, a television show starring Cybill Shepherd.
Gray's enthusiasm, along with his optimism, sincerity, and sheer good-naturedness, partially explains his success. It's hard to argue with someone who is so strenuously wishing you well. He seems to honestly believe that "everyone now has the power to create practical miracles in their own lives," as he says in his new book. He promises immediate results, furthermore, with little effort and he appears equally genuine.
After 150 pages of you-can-do-it cheerleading, "Practical Miracles" finally divulges that he has developed nine techniques for creating positive changes. These steps, some drawn from his previous books, include exercises in breathing and meditation, focusing, articulating needs, and thinking positively. For the most part they do indeed seem to be practical steps that can be incorporated into a person's life fairly easily and most likely with a beneficial effect--whether or not you call them "miracles" is up to you. For some readers, these techniques will be old hat, but newcomers attracted to the self-help genre by Gray's reputation may find them helpful.
Gray's dedicated readers will find more in "Practical Miracles" than just relationships: he talks career, weight loss, and sexual vigor. A "practical miracle" is Gray's term for a positive change that might once have seemed impossible, such as falling in love again with your partner, overcoming addictions, or finding satisfaction in your work. Like other New Age enthusiasts, Gray believes that we now live in a time when anything, including these practical miracles of personal and global change, is possible.
Still, Gray is at his strongest when giving advice on relationships, and several of his steps--the positive response technique, the blockbuster (to overcome mental blocks), and the attitude adjustment--offer ways to meet your own needs and improve your emotional well-being without imposing undue demands on the other people in your life. According to Gray, much of the trouble between lovers and friends stems from miscommunication and false expectations between the sexes.
Impatient readers, like this one, will complain that Gray takes too long to get to the practical stuff advertised in the title. The first nine chapters, though earnest and peppy, begin to feel like a muddy swirl of circular logic, meaningless cliches, and contrived reasoning. The number nine takes on special significance: Before outlining his nine techniques, Gray introduces nine primary needs as well as nine guiding principles, which, if applied to your life will have nine corresponding benefits. He then applies those nine needs and principles to nine stages of human development and to nine stages of American cultural history, managing to fit in Elvis, John Travolta, and Madonna. To borrow a phrase from Gray, it's a dizzying piece of spiritual algebra.
Gray's enthusiasm, even when it points us in the right direction, tends to oversimplify. One technique for creating practical miracles is the Natural Energy Diet for maintaining health, well-being, and proper weight. At first glance, Gray, a Ph.D., not an M.D. or even an R.D. (registered dietitian), might seem out of his element suggesting a diet. "The Natural Energy Diet is easy," says Gray. "Eat more good and healthy foods. Eat as much as you want of the foods that you like." But his aim is true: eating disorders, including overeating, are often based in psychological issues; people use food for filling needs other than hunger. Gray implies as much when he encourages us to restore our bodies' "natural thirst and hunger," but his language is so vague he comes off sounding absurdly superficial.
At its best and its worst, any pop psychology takes complex psychological theories about human behavior and commits them to formulations anyone can understand. This translation always involves a loss of complexity and integrity. But at least it gets the information out there, offering some measure of understanding to a great number of people. To apply its own circular reasoning, one could say, "Pop psychology is popular because it is simple, and it is simple because it is popular." That's the best and worst that can be said of "Practical Miracles for Mars & Venus."