Apparently, the self-help movement is alive and well. It generates a great deal of profit by serving dollops of advice, along the lines of: Follow your dreams.
One hesitates to say that it never works. One suspects that it provides something of a spiritual solace for people who have lost their faith and are looking for a substitute religion.
One must also note that the nostrums of self-helpism are easier to believe in than are those of organized or even disorganized religion. Since they are amazingly simple-minded, you can think you are following them, almost no matter what.
You know what it means to follow your dreams. You know what it means to make your dreams come true. Undoubtedly, it doesn’t happen very often, but at least you know what it all means. I suspect that you also understand what it means to say Yes to life. But, have you noticed that the the notion is empty. Whatever does it mean for a living, breathing human being to affirm that he is alive?
Obviously, self-helpism is a pseudo-religion, a cult-like organization the holds prayer meetings and offers spiritual experiences. Surely, its principles arefar more simplistic than the notion that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
The greatest minds in all civilizations have expounded on the golden rule. No one has ever used up very many little grey cells explicating the idea of following your dreams.
Where the golden rule is designed to regulate human relationships and to produce social harmony, Saying Yes to life is meaningless cant that will never be used to conduct human relationships.
In fact, if you look closely at the maxims of the self-help movement, summarized by one Sarah Alexander you will notice that they are, unsurprisingly, completely self-centered. They have next-to-nothing to do with other people. Self-helpism is a religion for the self-absorbed, self-involved, self-indulgent. It is also a religion for the powerless and for the disconnected. It will get you into your mind and will tell you that, if only you tap into your mind’s resources you will enjoy extraordinary success. If it sounds like snake oil, that’s because it is.
Self-help principles and precepts are all about self. And, they are all in the mind. They are mental tricks and gadgets that tell you nothing about getting along with other people.
By contrast, the principle of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you defines the way you ought to behave with other people. All useful ethical systems are about getting along with other people. If a philosophy does not teach you how to get along with others, it is nonsense designed to seduce the gullible and to enrich the gurus.
Alexander summarizes the dogmas of self-help well. They begin with the notion that you should follow your dreams and then move on to the notion of making life happen and saying Yes to life. Everyone thinks they understand this perfectly, but I defy anyone to tell me what it means to make life happen.
Even better is the notion, as Alexander explains, that the universe is responsive to our mental state. I bet that you feel more important already! To be less glib, this means that when we send out positive energy or brain waves, the universe will necessarily reciprocate and send back positive results.
In another context, this says that wishing makes it so. It also implies that if life is not as you wish, then you are at fault for not wishing hard and long enough.
Next, Alexander says, self-help gurus tell us that we should focus (like a laser beam) on what we want, not on what we don’t want. In order to actualize our best selves, we need then to get into mindfulness meditation, set goals, have a plan, and work hard.
Again, all of these principles will send you scurrying into your mind. They imply that if you learn how to think as the gurus would have you think, the world will reciprocate and you will achieve unthinkable success.
By implication, if the world is not quite so accommodating to your wishes, hopes, dreams and laser-like focus, the fault must lie with your impure thoughts and your defective thought processes. If you focus on what you don’t want, the fault for not getting what you want is yours.
One suspects that if it were all that easy, someone would have thought of it before. Surely some have, but it all feels like a rather sophisticated con, designed to prey on insecurity and to allow people to blame themselves whenever anything goes wrong.
Nothing about these principles tells you how to go about getting along with other people. And all successful enterprises involve people working together and getting along with each other.
Of course, the gurus suggest that if you achieve the right state of mind, using your dreams as your guide, saying Yes to life and focusing on what you want… you will not only achieve great success but will collect a coterie of wonderful friends.
While Alexander does well in identifying the basic principles of the self-help movement, her solutions are, unfortunately, more of the same.
Instead of teaching people how to direct their attention to the reality and other people that surround them and to learn how to negotiate with all of it, she invites them to get further into their minds:
The answer lies in a completely different approach, which taps into our own intuitive wisdom and guidance.
This inner knowledge is a constant presence within us, one that can be experienced as flashes of insight, inspired thoughts or a strong gut feeling.
It seems almost other-worldly in the information it imparts, and keeps nudging us towards what we are inherently meant to be, do and have.
Such wisdom can see the very best in us, and takes into account all of our skills, talents and abilities. It knows what we can and will achieve, if we follow its precise direction.
So, learn to use this as your guidance system and let it give you the projects and ideas that you are meant to focus upon this year.
Let it also guide you through your daily routines and ‘to do ‘lists so that you achieve each day what you are meant to achieve.
Your guidance won’t give you information about the long-term future, but if you follow its inner promptings, it will give you an accurate step-by-step plan that you can follow and evolve so that your life can align with your personal evolution.
If you are going to follow your inner guide, why would you need any advice? Perhaps your guru will help you to access your inner guide, but often you are too inexperienced or too trusting or too caring to evaluate a situation objectively. You do best not to trust your inner guide but to trust an outside adviser who is older and wiser. If you are younger and more naïve your inner guide will have limited usefulness.
I will spare you Alexander’s instructions. They say very little, if anything, about your relationships with other people, about being a member of a community, about getting along with other people. Moreover, they give you very little sense of what it is like to negotiate with a recalcitrant reality or to adapt to changing circumstances and conditions.
One might say that Alexander, like the self-help gurus, is providing therapy lite. It’s a bit like therapy, at considerably less expense. But it is also more obviously a cult.
And yet, as long as it insists that you get into your mind, to find your inner wisdom or to follow your bliss or your dream, it will blind you to reality and make getting along with others that much more difficult.