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Teaching people how to take control

Life rarely goes according to plan. THEO PANAYIDES meets a public speaker who helps people overcome problems and bad memories by the power of positive thinking

 

Robert G. Smith has a number of stock phrases as a speaker. All public speakers do, using them as punctuation marks to pace themselves and keep the audience attentive – and Robert has to do a lot of both, leading a roomful of about 60 people (most of them female) through a weekend-long “experiential course” titled ‘The Secret to All Great Relationships’ – but one phrase in particular leaps out as I watch him at work. As he talks about “imprints” and “affirmations”, holding the room in a steady gaze, he’ll share some tidbit from his own life or relate some revealing anecdote (often folksy, like the tale of a woman with a fear of junebugs) in his slow Oklahoma drawl – then pause, let the info sink in, and ask the audience before moving on: “Am I making sense?”.

Thousands would assert that he is, judging by the videos on his YouTube channel ‘HealingMagic’. There are demonstrations of “tapping”, and detailed explications of Robert’s patented method FasterEFT (EFT stands for ‘Emotional Freedom Technique’). There are testimonials, many with titles like “How I freed myself from the horrible pain of my husbands [sic] death” or “I am no longer bipolar and I solved my own issues by using what worked” (“1996. Curled up in a corner, rocking, wanting to kill myself,” begins the middle-aged woman – a former manic depressive – in that video). During a break in the workshop I ask a few of the attendees how they heard about Robert, and most turn out to be familiar with the YouTube videos. Andreas Mesarites, one of two FasterEFT practitioners in Cyprus (the other is Myroulla Malloupa), says he spent the whole of August 2013 glued to the videos, and credits them with saving his life. Andreas has Parkinson’s, but FasterEFT – he says – has arrested the disease, and even rolled it back a little.

Robert has been training people since 2001, as the man himself explains when we talk a day earlier at the Cleopatra Hotel in Nicosia. “I went from making nothing, to almost a million dollars last year,” he declares, nursing a double espresso. “And that is just by teaching. Teaching people how to take control. I lived in a mobile home for 26 years, now I live in a very big, 450-square-metre house – and it’s almost paid for. And all this stuff is because I want to help people. Show ’em that, y’know, life can be easier.”

Is he making sense, though? Robert is a beefy 55-year-old with a square, ruddy face, close-cropped greying hair and clear blue eyes with a touch of icy calm; he could plausibly pass for anything from a CEO to a truck driver to a James Bond villain. He actually worked as a used-car salesman before discovering, as he puts it, “the mind’s ability to transform itself” – initially through legendary guru Tony Robbins in the mid-90s, then shifting to the EFT system founded by Gary Craig before developing his own system a few years ago. Which is what, exactly? “FasterEFT is a thinking system that helps you change your thinking,” he explains. “Change it in a way that’s more positive.”

“See, the deal is that your life is a product of everything you’ve experienced,” he goes on. “So what we do is we address the memories and references of what you consider unpleasant. And then what we do is we change the memories”. Not the past itself, of course – the past is over – but how you view and respond to it. “I understand the mechanics of thought. I understand how you create your problems, and it’s all built on internal references.” Robert has worked with all forms of trauma, people scarred by memories of rapes, beatings, addictions – “and we just go back and change the memory references, change the emotions, change how they represent themselves and how they see themselves. Then the outcome of their life will be changed too”.

Tapping helps as well, but “the thinking is the biggest part,” says Robert, “the tapping is a sideline”. Tapping depends on lightly touching the body’s “meridian points” – the temples, the collarbone, under the eyes and so on – to ease out bad feelings, but of course one has to rise above those feelings first. The brain is a computer, he says, everything depends on how you programme it. “If you’ve got a bad memory, and you change it, you can never feel bad about it again, even if you try”.

But memories don’t exist in a vacuum, I point out; they’re reflections of things that really happened. Is he telling us to falsify our memories?

He shifts in his chair excitedly: “But see, look, every memory is a false memory”. Memory is selective and, as he puts it, “adjustable”. Have you never sat around with your family and recalled something from childhood, only for your parents or siblings to remember the same thing totally differently? Or how about this: think of the front door of your house, then change its colour and visualise it in a new colour. It’s the same door, but now you think of it differently.

But nothing’s really changed, I protest. It’s just a mind game.

“That’s the point! Your memory is just a mind game.”

Listen, says Robert, noting my doubtful expression: “When I was 11 years old, I was beat with a hammer by my dad”. Another boy chased him up a tree, then his father arrived and young Robert ran to him – but Dad “had a bad day apparently, and he beat me with his hammer”. For decades, the story used to trouble him: “Matter of fact, I wouldn’t even tell you about it” – but now he’s able to recall it without resentment, without emotion. “It’s like, is it really my story? Before, it was always real”.

The story of that childhood beating has changed in his mind. Now, when he thinks about it, he thinks of a different story – one where “my dad put his arm around me, we went inside, we went fishing and I caught the biggest fish. That’s my real story. I can see the fish, I can feel it. The other one, I don’t feel it, I don’t see it… What you need to do is experience [FasterEFT], really,” he adds, probably noting that I still look unconvinced.

I’m sure his method works, I say uncertainly, it’s just – well, shouldn’t what really happened be more important?

“Only if you want to be depressed. Only if you want to beat yourself up. Only if you want to be tormented”. He’s not denying the beating happened: “I know it happened – but it’s not true anymore”. He’s moved on, he no longer feels it; he has no hatred of his dad anymore. “I love my dad, my dad was my greatest teacher. He helped me to do this job I’m doing today. Now granted, at that time, growing up – well, even the day he died [in 2001] I said ‘The bastard got what he deserved’. I was angry at him still, because I never worked on it”. Later, however, he realised that “my dad loved me the best way he could. He too was beaten, he too was abused”. Changing the memories opened his mind to the bigger picture.

‘Dad’ was actually Robert’s stepfather, part of a rough and unpromising background. His mother ran away from home at 14, came back pregnant and gave birth to him; “I don’t know who my father is”. Mum remarried, and had three more kids (there were six overall) by the time she was 19; his stepfather did odd jobs, always coming home tired and grumpy. “We were poor. Very poor”. Robert listened to his parents fight every night, and did badly at school. “We were a bunch of kids,” he recalls. “I mean, we were poor! Our parents didn’t show us how to write or read. We rode a small bus to school, that was the kids with learning difficulties”.

Was he in trouble with the law, growing up?

“Oh yeah, I been arrested before, of course, several times. Stealing…” He tails off, shaking his head. “I mean, I’d go to church camp and bring alcohol with me, and we’d all get drunk. Get saved, get laid, all in the same weekend.”

Did he ever feel crushed by this hopeless environment?

“See, here’s the deal,” he replies. “When you’re growing up in this stuff, you don’t feel like you’re unusual. It’s normal. I mean, it’s normal to be miserable. It’s normal to be angry”. He did meet people who tried to help, from an early girlfriend to a high-school wrestling coach. He started reading “the Book” and ended up going to Bible college, planning to become a minister – but dropped out in his early 20s, finding himself with a wife and two kids. (A third, Matthew, was born in 1990 and experienced a whole other dad, Robert having changed as a person by that time.) Just before they got married, he recalls, his wife dropped the bombshell that she’d been sexually abused as a child – and in fact that’s why Robert first became interested in EFT, hoping to find the tools to exorcise her memories.

Two decades later, those tools have profoundly (not to mention profitably) changed his reality. He bills himself on Twitter as an inspirational speaker and “stress expert”, and is hugely in demand as a self-help guru: just this year he’s been to Spain, Australia for almost a month, now Greece and Cyprus and next month Hawaii, to train practitioners at a drug rehab clinic. It should also be noted that Robert has enemies, or at least people who don’t appreciate him: you don’t have to go far on Google to find detractors (including Gary Craig, founder of EFT) calling him a charlatan – a charge he calmly dismisses as professional jealousy, pointing out that Craig has launched similar attacks on other EFT “masters”. He seems calm, I note, but surely it bothered him when he read that article. How did he deal with the anger? “I tapped a lot.”

Tapping, you’ll recall, is a way of relaxing the body – but only as a way of solidifying what’s already happened (or concurrently happening) in the mind. “Your mind is the creator of your pain,” claims Robert; most problems are essentially psychosomatic, even those that seem uniquely physical (I think back to Andreas Mesarites and his Parkinson’s). FasterEFT seems designed to encourage “being at peace” – though of course that could also be a mixed blessing, the emphasis on not being “tormented” also implying a certain detachment from the world, and over-attachment to oneself.

Robert doesn’t follow current affairs, for instance, nor does he plan to vote in the US elections this year. “Honestly, I don’t watch TV. I know there’s a presidential race with three people involved. That’s all I know”. Watching the News is “a great way to worry yourself. And it’s not worth it”. He refuses to let others’ problems affect him, nor does he fret about wars and hunger in the world: “Is there any benefit to you being tormented and can’t sleep at night, and does it fix anything or change anything?” He says he’s spiritual, but doesn’t know if there’s life after death and doesn’t particularly care; why should he, when he can’t do anything about it? Robert’s method seems like an excellent way for troubled people to regain control over their lives by fencing off the things that might trouble them. Haunted by bad memories? Turn them into good memories. Worried about the world, your friends, your kids? “Don’t be tormented”: you can’t fix them anyway.

Isn’t there a recipe for apathy here, though? Isn’t there a recipe for narcissism? Narcissism doesn’t mean despising others, he points out; Jesus Christ himself urged his followers to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”. Jesus knew that loving yourself means you’ll like your neighbour better. “So He was a narcissist too,” he adds cannily.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Robert G. Smith. Like all public speakers, he seldom departs from his public persona (unsurprisingly, a couple of lines from our interview also turn up in his seminar the next day). He does claim to be shy as a person – and also seems a bit slippery, stumbling over details like how many grandchildren he has (seven, apparently) or whether he is in fact an ordained minister, like it says on his website. Still, it’s hard to argue with the basic truth that unhappiness, low self-esteem – even, perhaps, physical pain – have their roots in the mind, and positive thinking inevitably breeds greater confidence.

Life can make people feel helpless, but not Robert. “I don’t feel helpless,” he says. “I feel feelings, and I tap and I change them. This is a coping skill that I’ve learned, and this is what I teach.

“Life always changes without your permission. If you learn how to adjust and release and let it go, and not let it bother you – not ignore it, not pretend like it didn’t happen, but change how you respond to it – [then] the world changes”. Is he making sense? I think he is.

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