From Ambition to Meaning: Reviewing Wayne Dyer’s “The Shift”

Years ago, if you tuned into a PBS pledge drive, you might have seen bestselling writer and lecturer Wayne Dyer sharing his teachings. His “Forever Wisdom of Wayne Dyer” became a popular series on that network.

Wayne died on August 30, 2015, at age 75. Personally, I admired him. Not all his thinking resonated with me, but he seemed sincere, trying to practice what he preached. So, when a friend suggested that I watch The Shift, a movie featuring Dyer and his teachings, I streamed it online.

The setting for the film is the beautiful Asilomar Conference Grounds on the northern California coast, a place I have had the good fortune to visit. The story follows various individuals as they near a turning point, or shift, in their lives: a young mother selflessly attending to the needs of her family, a filmmaker driven by his need for success, a wealthy couple at a dead-end in their relationship.

As a backdrop paradigm for the film, Dyer gives a simple outline for our human journeys that makes great sense.

Born as tabula rasas, we face immediate programming. The dominant forces of family, society, and religion teach our egos to evaluate our lives in three basic ways: 1) We are what we do; 2) We are we have; 3) We are what others think of us.

Who can deny that in both subtle and blatant ways, these are overriding themes in our culture?

Some of us, as we begin to see the hollow futility of these definitions, intuitively move towards a shift from ambition to meaning. This is found in our passions, our deepest desires, our true rather than false selves. Dyer called it a return to our divine identity, releasing ourselves more fully into the Tao of the present. He exhorts us to make the shift, adding some urgency by saying, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”

This shift isn’t contingent on our age. It comes earlier for some, later for others. And it’s not universal. Many will resist the freedom their spirits long for, going to their graves with their songs unsung. During my years as a pastor, I presided at hundreds of memorial services, and I can say this with certainty: the unexamined life often ends in regret.

The characters of the film (yes, it’s a bit Hallmark), embrace the shift in different ways. The harried mother who had always neglected her own needs, resurrects her passion for painting; the filmmaker, after facing rejection, begins to use his art for service rather than self-promotion; the couple, originally committed to having no children, welcomes pregnancy with a new sense of hope.

My wife, whose reading habits vary widely from mine, has said, “Self-help books and movies are a dime a dozen.” OK. I agree. And Dyer is a clearly an example of the syncretism we find in the human potential movement. He borrows from a variety of writers, psychologists, religious traditions, pasting them together and stamping them with his own tag lines.

So what? Superhero movies, crime dramas, pop singers, sports stars – these are all a dime a dozen and, in my estimation, far less meaningful.

If I’m going to read a novel by Robert Crais, George Pelecanos, or William Kent Krueger, I balance it with a book on self-exploration. If I’m going to watch Bosch, Breaking Bad or Longmire, I put a film like The Shift in my queue.

Why? It’s simple. I don’t want to die with my music still in me.

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