In 1986 my dad called me to see if I could skip my Friday classes to take a bus down to West Palm Beach. I was a student at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, a few hours’ drive north.
“Ken and his group are putting on a seminar in Miami tomorrow, son,” he said. “I think it’s really important that you attend. I think you could really use this right now. I’ve already registered us both. Come on, your girlfriend can spend one weekend without you. Trust me, son, this will do you a lot of good.”
My father always spoke as though he had access to workings of my psychology that were hidden to me. He was a New Age guru, my old man, and he professed to possess many supernatural abilities, including the ability to read minds. For many years I didn’t doubt his abilities. You see, I had been raised in the New Age movement. I first read Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi when I was in elementary school, and before I was a teenager I devoured them all: Carlos Castaneda, Richard Bach, Robert Pirsig, Hermann Hesse, and the rest of the gang. By the time I was in college, I was deep into D. T. Suzuki, Thomas Merton, Carl Jung, and Christopher Isherwood.
So I got on the bus, and with my dad I attended the first real self-help workshop of my (young) adult life: “How to Live Better by Loving Better.” The workshop was put on by a group of students of my father’s close friend and mentor Ken Keyes, whose 1972 book, Handbook to Higher Consciousness, was something like the Bible to me growing up—I carried it with me in my backpack for years, I had much of it memorized— and it followed the principles of Keyes’s “Living Love” method. If you’ve never heard of Ken Keyes, he was one of the great early American leaders of the self-help movement, and was highly praised by such leading self-help figures as Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Ron Kurtz, and even Bishop Desmond Tutu.
I don’t remember much of the seminar. That is, of course, one of the common and justified complaints we tend to make about self-help books and workshops: you’re inspired over the weekend, you come home bubbling with enthusiasm and energy and determination, you share your excitement with your cautiously supportive friends and family, you make a bunch of lists of resolutions, projects, and goals, and then, after a week or a month, you go back to your old self. But there was one exercise that will always stay with me. We were seated on the floor—there were 50 of us, the workshop was sold out—and the woman leading the afternoon session explained that we were going to dance with a partner.
“Choose a stranger, someone you haven’t even spoken to yet. Not someone you want to ask out on a date tonight.” Nervous laughter from the group. My dad raised an eyebrow at me. “And while you’re dancing, I want you to whisper to that person the secret thing that interferes most with you loving others. Make it concrete. Don’t say, ‘I’m afraid.’ What is a real thing that makes you bad at loving other people? It should be something that you really tend to hide, that you’ve never confessed before.”
The music started. More experienced workshoppers found their partners quickly, and I found myself looking at a 60- or 70-year-old man, about a foot shorter than I was. We started dancing. I can’t quite remember what he told me—I know it was something about his children—but I know exactly what I told him. “I’m very jealous,” I said.
He stopped us dancing for a moment and fixed his eyes on me. Then he said something that I’ll never forget: “Jealousy depends on the false belief that you can own someone else.” He looked at me very intently when he said it. I understood that he knew what he was talking about.
It’s been nearly three decades since I spent that “Living Love” weekend in Miami with my dad. Today, after almost 30 years of wrestling with jealousy, of trying to own and control the people I love, I think in the past few years I might be getting slightly better at letting go. Or maybe not. The point is that this stranger at a self-help workshop taught me something very important about my own psychology. He also helped bolster my resolve to improve myself and gave me a little push in the direction of that self-improvement.
Self-help literature reminds us of our spiritual needs and capacities.
We trace the origins of self-help literature, that odd grab bag of psychology, philosophy, and general how-to-improve-your-life writing, to an 1859 book called Self-Help, written by the Scottish social reformer Samuel Smiles. Smiles argued that many, perhaps most, of the problems that afflicted the English society of his time were a consequence of bad laws and social programs designed to maintain the power, wealth, and health of the rich. He was an early advocate of universal rights for women, for education and safe labor guarantees for the working class, and many other progressive causes that we now celebrate as the great moral advances of the 19th century. But he also argued—and this is what made him a celebrity— that every individual was not just a victim of her or his society, that we each have the ability, even the obligation, to consciously and deliberately improve our own lives and circumstances. He was Britain’s most prominent advocate of boot-strapping. These remarks from a speech he gave in 1845 to the Leeds Mutual Improvement Society, a kind of early English self-help and social justice group, are characteristic:
Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world dead to all pleasures, save those of the senses. Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish.
This is a popular version of what had already been widely argued by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and then subsequently made world-famous by Bentham’s godson, John Stuart Mill, in his hugely influential work of ethics Utilitarianism. The central idea, shared by Smiles and Mill and the self-help movement to come, is one that would be nicely summarized by Jean-Paul Sartre: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” This is not to say that our environments are irrelevant to the kind of people we become—in his late interviews, Sartre often insisted that social and material forces have an enormous impact on the way individuals develop—but that no matter how difficult our particular lives may seem, we can improve them by improving ourselves. And how do we improve ourselves? That is where the self-help movement and its literature steps in, because so many of us in contemporary society no longer have a church or leader or spiritual community that can guide us in our efforts to become better people and to live better lives.
In fact, self-help literature did not truly begin in the 19th century: an early example of a self-help book is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (4th century B.C.E.), which describes in very specific terms how an individual can cultivate his virtues in order to lead a better and happier life. And before Aristotle, Confucius, Socrates, and the Buddha, just to name a few, all engaged in philosophy not because they were interested in unraveling the mysteries of the universe but simply because they understood and insisted on the urgency of helping people to live better lives. For all of these thinkers, the purpose of philosophy was therapeutic, in the sense of curing us of the disease of our mistaken ways of thinking. But it is these two ideas—that we can and should improve our lives, and that we will do so by revising our bad habitual beliefs and thoughts— that we routinely criticize in the self-help literature as naive or even exploitative.
True, M. Scott Peck is no Socrates and Tony Robbins is no Siddhartha. But why I think we should take self-help literature seriously—even when it verges on narcissism or the celebration of self-esteem at the expense of others—is that it reminds us of our spiritual needs and capacities. Soren Kierkegaard, another great philosophical champion of the importance of the individual and the therapeutic power of philosophy, once remarked that “the greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed.” In our increasingly materialistic world, where science and money occupy our imaginations and our time more than they ever have before, any voice that says “Slow down, ask yourself some tough questions about your life, think about whether you could be living it better” is, I think, welcome and necessary. Some self-help literature is puerile: when David Brooks waxes philosophical in the New York Times, as he increasingly does, he is often hard to read. But then one of his better columns will remind me that life is not simply a fact, it’s a project, and I’m encouraged.
For me, self-help literature is a bit like an A.A. meeting (I’m a recovering alcoholic). Many meetings are boring, repetitive, often self-congratulatory. You hear the same stories, the same jokes, the same complaints. You wonder: Why the hell do I go to these meetings to hear people whine about their lives or worse, pat themselves and each other on the back? But then I remember: Where else do you find a group of ordinary, busy people who will take an hour out of the day, often four or five times a week, to talk about what really matters? To help each other deal with the very ordinary, familiar frustrations of day-to-day living? To try to challenge and improve themselves for an hour, rather than just killing time on Facebook or replying to the endless stream of emails?
Self-help might be like writing, or marriage—you might go through long stretches of not trying, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t learned from your past efforts and failures.
But I’ve always been a sucker for this stuff. Not long after that seminar in Miami, I dropped out of Stetson and transferred to Baylor University because of a woman I’d met while traveling across the country with my dad. (In fact, we were driving to Coos Bay, Oregon, to meet Ken Keyes, but that’s a story for another time.) When I arrived at Baylor, I had my clothes and two boxes of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking in the back of my white Chevrolet Citation. I used to offer them to my fraternity brothers back at Stetson. I’d been president of my pledge class and I often used the book during meetings.
I remember when my new girlfriend first took one out and read it. She was a child of the eighties—she introduced me to The Smiths and The Cure—and easily wore that effective armor of skepticism and irony. I was nervous but felt convinced that she would see the good in it.
She said: “It’s funny. The guy I used to date gave out copies of Less Than Zero to his friends. And you hand out this.” In her eyes, I was relieved to discover, this was a recommendation of me. Our generation was supposed to be embracing nihilism, and I was distributing outdated inspirational books about self-improvement.
There’s something silly about people who worry too much about happiness. At the end of his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra—viewed by many in the 20th century, especially undergraduate philosophy majors, as a kind of particularly weird self-help book—Friedrich Nietzsche summarized this complaint nicely. “Happiness?” he wrote. “Why should I strive for happiness? I strive for my work.” And because much of the contemporary self-help literature is influenced by Martin Seligman’s positive psychology of happiness, we view it with a justified suspicion. “Yes, my happiness matters,” we want to protest, “but so does everyone else’s, and don’t we have much more important things to worry about? Like, say, the destruction of the planet by war, dogmatism, greed, and pollution?” There are more important things in life, in short, than our immediate personal satisfaction. We don’t believe in the Happiness Republic of New Age California.
I agree. There’s more to life than happiness. But there are times when life is so overwhelming that we have to find guidance and consolation somewhere—when, frankly, we are so close to the edge that it really doesn’t matter what they’re saying on CNN or in the New York Times. When I was going through my last divorce the one book I had to read every day was Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart—and I later learned that my ex, now a divorce attorney, gives that book out to her clients. More important, there’s a lot more to the literature we associate with self-help than we often give it credit for. While researching this essay I discovered that the teacher who really set Ken Keyes on his path, that now-forgotten self-help writer who was so important to me when I was younger and to my father until he died, was none other than Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who taught so many of the best minds in the self-help and New Age movements of the seventies. And indeed I remember seeing Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior on self-help shelves in bookstores as I was growing up. I never read it because of the word “warrior” in the title. I thought it must be something like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, another book I disapproved of without having read.
But then I met my own teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and because of his reverence for Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche I began to read those Shambhala books. Here is a short “self-help” passage from the opening of Trungpa Rinpoche’s classic work The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation:
We must allow ourselves to be disappointed, which means surrendering of me-ness, my achievement. We would like to watch ourselves attain enlightenment, watch our disciples celebrating, worshiping, throwing flowers at us, with miracles and earthquakes and angels singing and so forth. This never happens. The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher. It is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult.
The passage reminds me of my wife Amie’s complaint about self-help literature: it doesn’t work. (A quick biographical note: Amie was the one who really insisted I read both Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.) And it’s true, as I said earlier: we go to the workshop or read the book and we come away glowing with enthusiasm, only to find that after a few hours, days, or weeks, we’re back to the same old me. But self-help might be like writing, or marriage—you might go through long stretches of not trying, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t learned from your past efforts and failures. The only way I eventually came around to dealing with jealousy was by disappointing myself in my attempts to deal with it over and over again. Some alcoholics never stop drinking, but many others do, and that’s not because they just quit and that’s the end of it. You suffer relapse after relapse, but you learn from each one.
“We must allow ourselves to be disappointed. . . . It involves insult after insult.” This doesn’t sound like self-help, we might protest; rather, just the opposite: one of our complaints about self-help literature is that it reassures us that “I’m okay; you’re okay.” But what I want to insist is that the desire to improve ourselves—which is, at bottom, what has always created self-help literature and teachers of every kind—will of course result in frustration, disappointment, and discouragement. It is always easier and safer to be the cynic in the corner who mocks the seemingly naive optimism of a person who is trying to change her or his life for the better. And there is a kind of narcissism, a kind of unfortunate me-ness, to the self-help literature. It is not, after all, an other-help literature. So when the person who tries to help herself fails, it is that much more satisfying to the rest of us, the ones she wasn’t trying to help. It’s fun to see that stack of self-help books sitting on the shelves or coffee table of a person who is just as messed up as ever.
But it’s important to remember that until we straighten up our own lives, we probably won’t be that much help to anyone else. And I think that without the desire to improve ourselves, we can degenerate into the worst kind of nihilism. We wind up like Nietzsche’s last man: “‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’—so asks the last man, and blinks. The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small.” The self-help literature is an effort—yes, sometimes misguided or amateur, like any literature—to remember that the earth is not small, that we are not small, that we have to remember how large and important life is.
Until we straighten up our own lives, we probably won’t be that much help to anyone else.
When I was discussing this article with a dear friend who has been a Buddhist for about 50 years now, she said, “Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say that even if your motivations for getting on the path were wrong, it didn’t matter so much, because the path was right. But I guess you’re arguing the opposite.” Yes and no. I am arguing that dubious motivations— such as merely improving one’s personal love life, say—may well take one very slowly to the right path. I believe that’s what happened, happily, in my own case. But I am also arguing that the motivation to improve oneself is in itself praiseworthy, difficult, precious, and that even if it doesn’t take us to the right path—even if we only get as far as Martin Seligman’s positive psychology—it is far better than the alternative, which is to resign ourselves to the idea that we need not, cannot, indeed should not bother trying to improve ourselves. Would we be culturally superior if we believed that we didn’t need to better ourselves? If there were no self-help literature? Or would it just be a sign of waxing nihilism, of a dangerous, dogmatic arrogance?
Related: Saving Vacchagotta
A Buddhist, too, can mistakenly adopt the stance of a last man, when she or he frowns with superiority on the modest but earnest struggles of someone else to better her- or himself. Much of the self-help literature—probably most of the self-help literature—is only a baby step. But it’s a baby step in the right direction. And I read somewhere that that’s where the journey of a thousand miles begins.
What the Buddha Never Said . . . about Self-Help
Many popular quotes erroneously attributed to the Buddha have a self-help flavor to them, but their message often departs significantly from the dharma. Here are a few common examples.
1. “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.”
This quote, which is actually from an 1895 talk by the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, exemplifies the ubiquitous self-help trope that there is some “secret” or “key” to life. The Buddha did indeed say that the teacher “reveals what is hidden” and “makes plain what is obscure,” but he doesn’t seem to have suggested that there is any one “secret of existence.”
2. “Happiness does not depend on what you have or who you are, it solely relies on what you think.”
The elevation of thinking as the most important and central part of who we are is one characteristic of the modern self-help movement. Change your thoughts, and happiness, wealth, and success will follow! While the Buddha did consider it important for us to cultivate skillful rather than unskillful thoughts, our happiness largely depends, he points out, on how we act—on our karma. The original source of this quotation is the well-known self-help guru Hilary Hinton “Zig” Ziglar, who was in turn paraphrasing a sentence from Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
3. “Since everything is a reflection of our minds, everything can be changed by our minds.”
This very Law-of-Attraction-esque quote, found all over the Internet, suggests that the external world is a creation of the mind. A number of mistranslations of the opening two verses of the Dhammapada would have us believe likewise. The historical Buddha did not claim, however, that the mind creates the world. Certainly, changing the mind changes how we perceive the world, but that’s a very different thing.
4. “Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.”
The historical Buddha specifically refuted the view that “Whatever a person experiences . . . is all caused by what was done in the past.” The idea that everything that happens to us results from our karma is an orthodox Hindu position, not a Buddhist one. And in fact this quote comes from the book Bliss Divine, by the Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda (1887–1963).
Does Self-Help Help?
by Vaddhaka Linn
While browsing the Internet, I came across these self-help book titles: 50 Golden Rules for a Happy and Fulfilled Life; 100 Ways to Be a Better Man; and 925 Ideas to Help You Save Money, Get Out of Debt, and Retire a Millionaire.
But the self-help industry hardly invented the notion of enticing numerical lists. The Buddha came up with his own considerably shorter lists two and a half millennia ago: the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the twelve links of dependent arising, and so on.
What distinguishes the self-help prescriptions from the Buddhist ones, however, is that the former are bent on external acquisition while the latter promise internal transformation. The Buddha deems the former symptomatic of what he calls anariyapariyesena, or the “ignoble search,” the restless and fruitless itch to satisfy desire with conditioned and impermanent things. In its subtle form, self-help advice even advocates emotional development, but with the sole intention of producing a better version of oneself. It therefore remains bound by the qualities of anariyapariyesena.
The Buddha, meanwhile, offers an alternative. He teaches adherents to channel their tanha (thirst) into a desire for deep, long-lasting fulfillment, the pursuit of which he calls ariyapariyesena, or the “noble search.” According to the Buddha, the way to end suffering entails a very different form of self-improvement: cultivating a pure mind and acting ethically.
The second verse of the Dhammapada states: “Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.”
Actions conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion bring a heavy burden of suffering. On the other hand, actions conditioned by generosity, lovingkindness, and wisdom lead to a light and happy sense of well-being.
Simple as that.
Thus, the Buddhist path to happiness requires a long-term perspective—the realization that what gives immediate pleasure is just as likely to lead to unhappiness as it is to happiness, depending on its ethical quality. This is not to say that choosing the ethical option forecloses the possibility of short-term rewards. It can bring new friends, deeper intimate relationships, an attractive sense of self-confidence, and even wealth.
When considering a layperson who by virtue of ethically rooted actions gains financial rewards, the Buddha points to four elements of happiness the lay practitioner can accrue: the happiness of acquiring wealth by one’s own effort, the happiness of using this wealth to give pleasure to oneself or others, the happiness of being free from debt, and the happiness of blamelessness, the ability to live a faultless and pure life.
But it is the fourth type, blamelessness, that brings the greatest benefit. “Economic and material happiness are not worth one sixteenth part of the spiritual happiness arising out of a good and faultless life,” he asserts (Anana Sutta 4.62).
Self-help, at least of the type driven by selfishness, will not lead to lasting happiness. The best kind of self-help is, ironically, selfless: the cultivation of generosity and lovingkindness toward others. There’s a chance it’ll make you rich, but it probably won’t. What it will do is bring a fulfilling life of calm and contentment.
I’d complete however many steps it takes to get that.
Read the rest of the Special Section on Buddhism and Self-Help, “Let it All Go”
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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