The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wayne Dyer, best-selling self-help guru and friend of Oprah, dead at 75

Wayne Dyer and Oprah Winfrey in 2012.

In 2012, not far from a waterfall, Oprah Winfrey sat down with an older man. The man, clad in open-toed sandals and jean shorts and bald as a cue ball, had advice to offer. And, in gentle tones, self-help guru Wayne Dyer proceeded to offer Oprah his version of the truth.

The talk quickly got mystical.

Winfrey: What is the soul?
Dyer: The soul is the birthless, deathless, changeless part of us — the part of us that looks out from behind our eyes and has no form.
Winfrey: Are we in the soul, or is the soul in us?
Dyer: The soul is infinite, so there’s no in or out of it. It is everywhere. There’s no place that it is not.
Winfrey: What is your definition of god?
Dyer: God is the highest place within each and every one of us — it’s our divine self.
Winfrey: What do you think will happen when we die?
Dyer: I don’t think we die. I think our bodies leave, but we can never die. That which is never born, can never die. And that which never changes, can never die.
Winfrey: What do you know for sure?
Dyer: I love you.

All this, possibly, before lunch.

Now, Dyer — who has died at 75 as NBC and other outlets reported — is gone. The news came from his family via his Facebook page, which did not specify the cause of death.

“Wayne has left his body, passing away through the night,” their post read. “He always said he couldn’t wait for this next adventure to begin and had no fear of dying. Our hearts are broken, but we smile to think of how much our scurvy elephant will enjoy the other side.” (What’s a “scurvy elephant”? Keep reading.)

But Dyer’s advice — dispensed to countless talk-show hosts over decades — lives on.

“The world has lost an incredible man,” Ellen DeGeneres tweeted. “Wayne Dyer officiated our wedding & was an inspiration to so many. Sending love.”

Dyer offered a self-actualization philosophy. It was Christian-y. It was Buddhist-ish. And it all began with a hard-luck childhood on the streets of Detroit.

“My mother had three small children under the age of four; and an alcoholic husband who walked away without ever providing any support,” Dyer once wrote on his Web site. “She placed one of my brothers and me in a series of foster homes, while my other brother lived with my grandmother until I was ten years old. This is not a story of pity or blame; it’s precisely what had to take place in order for me to learn about self-reliance firsthand.”

Dyer turned his life around. And, after serving in the Navy and studying counseling at Wayne State University in the Motor City, he proceeded to help others turn theirs around as well. His debut book — “Your Erroneous Zones: Step-by-Step Advice for Escaping the Trap of Negative Thinking and Taking Control of Your Life,” published in 1976 — sold 35 million copies. And he went on to write about 40 more.

“The next time you are contemplating a decision in which you are debating whether or not to take charge of yourself, to make your own choice, ask yourself an important question, ‘How long am I going to be dead?’” Dyer wrote. “With that eternal perspective, you can now make your own choice and leave the worrying, the fears, the question of whether you can afford it and the guilt to those who are going to be alive forever.”

One of the pillars of this philosophy: being a “scurvy elephant.” Though others have used the term, Dyer made it his own, saying it was how he misheard a teacher who called him a “disturbing element” at an orphanage in the third grade.

“‘Scurvy elephant,’ that’s the term I’ve used as long as I can remember,” he said in 2007. “… There are some people who have a sense of who they are and what they are going to be and they really are, very early in their life, independent of the good opinion of other people. I was one of these people.”

Dyer sought to make scurvy elephants wherever he went and through whomever he visited: particularly the likes of Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael and Merv Griffin.

“I couldn’t get past the past I had created for myself,” he told DeGeneres in 2007 of his attempts to overcome his poor academic record and gain admission to college. “But I’ve always believed a brick wall is just there for people who don’t really care enough or don’t really want something badly enough. And I wanted this very, very badly.”

Married three times with eight children, Dyer lived large — but did not prove a welcome guest everywhere. His long-standing relationship with PBS — where he would often appear for hours at a time during pledge drives, and for whom he claimed to have raised $250 million — sometimes drew fire.

“They reveal mostly a trend that those viewers who wrote find disturbing,” PBS’s ombudsman wrote of letters critical of Dyer in 2006, “a sense that PBS might be seen as lending its prestige to Dyer’s spiritual views and aligning itself with his teachings.”

Dyer was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2009, but claimed to have been healed via the power of positive thinking and “psychic surgery” by an unconventional Brazilian doctor.

“It’s a remote surgery,” Dyer told Winfrey in 2012. “It was 12,000 miles from where I was. I don’t know what happened. These are entities. They don’t have any form. These are just spirits that enter his body.”

“This sounds crazy,” Winfrey said — though she later interviewed the doctor. Dyer agreed. But he had a thought.

“Here’s a line from Jesus: ‘With god all things are possible,'” he said. “What does that leave out? … Nothing. So it doesn’t leave out this either.”