Some years ago when a friend of mine was going through a very painful divorce, a neighbor dropped off a basket of items with a gift tag marked “For Self-Care.” I happened to be visiting when my friend discovered the basket on her doorstep, and I watched as she opened the accompanying handmade card: “Take a bubble bath,” she read aloud. “Sip a glass of wine while watching the sunset. Curl up with a good book. Meditate—”

Somehow I knew the next word was going to be “Masturbate,” and when I spoke it before she did, we both burst out laughing.

Though I myself have found both comfort and counsel in the realm of self-help, there’s often something in the language that makes me cringe—and it was present in the gift basket. As my friend read the list of tips, I recognized that utterly bland yet emphatic voice of authority, dispensing its one-size-fits-all advice without any regard to a hierarchy of value, as if getting a brow wax or a pedicure really was equivalent to forgiving your enemy or volunteering to work at a homeless shelter. Feeling blue? Pamper yourself. Get a facial. Treat yourself to a new set of towels. Organize your closet. Join a walkathon to help combat a disease of your choice.

It’s no coincidence that lists have a special place in the literature of self-help. After all, the very ground of self-help is a Can-Do approach to life, and if you’re a Can-Do kind of a guy or gal, then you’ve got to go around and collect your strategies. Once you’ve collected them, it’s like being a child with a bag of Halloween candy: you’ve got to sort through your stash, counting out the Tootsie Rolls, the gummy worms and licorice coils. Even the titles of a lot of self-help books entice us with their magical numbers: the Seven Habits, the Four Agreements, the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Once my sister and I discovered a book that had been left behind in a rented cabin in the redwoods, and we read it avidly from cover to cover. The book was about finding your soul mate, and it included a list of some 100 ways to conduct your search. Of all the tips (“Take your laptop to the local coffee shop,” “Strike up a conversation at the laundromat”), our favorite was “Organize a parade.” Now, whenever one of us is feeling stuck, she is apt to tell the other, “Why don’t you just go out and organize a parade?”

Stuckness, in its myriad forms, is the raison d’être of self-help. Whether you’re stuck in the muck of low self-esteem, addiction, dysfunctional relationships, financial insecurity, or a chronically cluttered house, you can reach for the ladder of a list and pull yourself up, rung by rung. Meditate, masturbate, organize a parade. . . . There’s something in the very nature of a list, with its simple trust in the power of addition, its optimistic belief in mobile, open-ended experimentation (“Try this! Now this!”) that offers itself as antidote to the fixed, consistent nature of stuckness.

It’s easy to make fun of the fluid, flexible approach that is so apt to yield a willy-nilly list of tips. But it’s sobering to contemplate the other end of the spectrum. Whenever a friend of mine complained of boredom as a child, his mother always gave him the same response: Gey klop kop af vant. Go bang your head against the wall. It was a Yiddish phrase that his mother’s parents had recited to her and that doubtless her grandparents had recited to them, for who knows how many generations back in the old country. Perhaps, in its origins, it was meant to shock an idle child into realizing that in the harsh conditions of the shetl, boredom is a luxury. Whatever the case, in its resignation, its blunt refusal to generate any more than one utterly futile, self-punishing strategy—which is really not a strategy at all but rather a comically absurd gesture of frustration—it represents the very opposite of self-help. Feeling stuck, are you? Then make yourself stuck-er. Feeling bored? Then stand in one place and bore your head into the wall. The wall is hard. Your head is hard. Life is hard. Get over it.

In the face of such steadfast helplessness, why not reach for a ladder of strategies?

Then again, before reaching quite so quickly for the nearest rung above, we might choose to pause for a moment. And in that pause we might discover or remember that when we feel stuck in the muck of our lives, there is another approach we could take. It’s the one evoked by William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which ends with these lines:

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

The lines are so beautiful, with their stately rhythm and perfect rhyme, but their dose of truth, if we really try to absorb it, is actually quite galling. To lie down in the foul shop of the heart is to abandon all strategy, all effort to exert control over the muck of our experience. Could there be anything more terrifying—not only to sink into the muck itself but to refrain from our habitual attempts to rescue ourselves, and instead let ourselves feel its distinct texture, weight, ooze, and odor?

Yet if only we don’t rush too quickly to pull ourselves up and out, there’s an extraordinary joy that can come to us here, a most rare kind of comfort. It’s the comfort of coming into contact—if only for a moment—with the unconditioned, with life as it is without all our fears and preferences, our compulsions to make it conform to some image that we hold in the mind. Isn’t this what meditation is really about?

Long ago, at the start of my Zen practice, a young monk told me: It doesn’t really matter how happy we are. It was evening, and we were standing under a circle of pines in a monastery in the mountains of northern California, and I’ve never forgotten the explosion of happiness that I experienced in that moment. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mother often asked me: “Why can’t you ever be content?” My whole life I’d been striving to manipulate my experience in order to achieve some set of conditions, some state of mind that nearly always eluded me. Now I felt I could let go of that effort. I still remember looking up at the face of the monk, and seeing through the pines the white gleam of a volcanic peak that suddenly looked as though it too was about to explode with happiness.

As the poet Antonio Machado tells us, there are four things that are no good at sea: rudder, anchor, oars, and the fear of going down. Upon hearing the monk’s words under the circle of pines, I think that’s what happened: at least for a moment, I stopped groping for any possible list of tools or strategies and simply let myself be at sea. That might be the flaw that afflicts much of the literature of self-help: an inability or refusal to acknowledge the sea, the utterly untameable vastness out of which we emerge and into which we inevitably return, no matter how rich, gorgeous, successful, powerful, and clutter-free we’ve managed to become in our earthly lives. Which is to say: no matter how many oars we’ve managed to carve for ourselves, impelled by our fear of drowning.

And yet . . .

I doubt there’s ever been a single sea-, river-, or lake-faring people on earth who didn’t treat the paddle or the oar as an object of grave consequence and great reverence. We do need our tools, our strategies, our tips for successful living. And if we don’t properly collect them and organize them, then we become like Silly Jack in the fairy tale who gets everything wrong, who can’t see that every context requires its own method, and who thus creates waste, chaos, and suffering for himself and others as he melts the butter that he tries to carry on his head in the sun and kills the puppy that he wraps in cool, wet leaves. As Chögyam Trungpa says, “don’t put your shoes on your head as a visor.” To live with skill and grace in the phenomenal world requires exquisite precision. For the great equation has two halves: Form is emptiness. And emptiness is also form.

Driving to work some time ago, I turned on the radio and my car filled with a male voice, speaking in a language that I couldn’t even begin to recognize, in syllables full of breath and urgency. Somehow I could tell that what he was saying was a matter of life and death for him, and at the end of the program, I learned that it was a recording of Ishi, known as “the last wild Indian,” the man who, in 1911, had stumbled half-naked and starving into the light of day near the town of Oroville, California. In the voice that had suddenly entered my car, he was describing how to carve an arrowhead.

I don’t know if I can put into words how this moved me. He was imparting the most necessary means of survival for his people, though his people had been wiped from the face of the earth, and though even the language he spoke was on the brink of extinction. He who has ears to hear, let him hear, his voice conveyed, as it uttered the words without waver or wobble. The sound of his voice reminded me that in ancient traditions, there’s no room to be snobby about practical knowledge, and there is awe for the most humble instruments and techniques that sustain life: the digging sticks bequeathed by the god of corn, the recipe for corn cakes passed on by the corn maiden. When scholars deciphered the Dead Sea Scrolls, they found inextricably interwoven in its theology a trove of tips for maintaining personal hygiene in a land with little water. And at a bar mitzvah I once attended, when it came time for the 13-year-old boy to recite his passage of Torah, we listened to the Hebrew words of an ancient building code that gave us precise directions for setting stones and spacing lintels.

Render unto God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, the New Testament tells us in the parable of the coin. But isn’t it amazing when the two sides of the coin merge, when God turns into Caesar and Caesar into God so quickly that you can’t tell which end is up? I’ve had moments when the most apparently metaphysical, even radically esoteric teachings have become like the most down-to-earth instructions, when the words of the Heart Sutra turn into a GPS saying “Go right. Now go left.”

Between banging one’s head against the wall and rushing out to organize a parade, there is a middle way. Walking this middle way, I need to remember that for all of us there comes a time when oars fail, when there is nothing left to do but surrender to the great unknown. When this time comes—if we’re lucky enough to find a friend at the threshold with a basket of gifts—who can say what will matter most: a lighted stick of incense, a massage, an ice chip for our lips, or a voice chanting, “No suffering! No death!”


The Best Self-Help Tip Ever

By Amy Gross

Go Bang Your Head Against the Wall1
Illustration by Brett Ryder/Heart Agency

Someone asked me recently if I had any tips for maintaining calm and adapting to change, “even if I can’t meditate frequently.” This reminded me of one of my big questions in life: “How can I get fit and strong without exercising?”

The moment was an epiphany. I saw, in a flash, the lure of the self-help culture—the promise that everything can be made easy, a piece of cake. All you need is the right tip.

But here’s the catch with tips. If you want to improve your golf stroke, or buy a cheaper airline ticket, or find the best tacos in town—go ahead, ask around for a tip. If you’re attempting something more ambitious—say, how to adapt to change—a tip isn’t going to cut it.

Think about the weight loss wing of the self-help industry. The tips keep coming, the industry flourishes, we lose some pounds, gain back what we lost plus a few more, and go back for the next tip. How we eat, how we react to life’s pinpricks and tectonic shake-ups—these are well-worn grooves in our minds and we can resist them for only so long. We expect the power of will to—poof !—make us perfect, yet willpower is an unreliable and limited source of energy. We return defeated to the old ways, with deeper disappointment in ourselves.

The truth is that changing a habitual way of being is a huge challenge. Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither is calm. Rome wasn’t built with twigs; calm isn’t built with tips. It’s not that we can’t help ourselves: We can learn to maintain calm, to roll with change when change rolls in. We just have to acknowledge, even honor, the scale of the adventure before us. It requires nothing less than rewiring our own brain. Or rather, allowing the mind to be rewired by mind training—by meditation. It untangles us. Gradually it replaces ancient patterned reactions with fresh and appropriate responses. This is why it’s called practice. It takes time and effort, but to an amazing extent we find ourselves helped.

Practice changes our relationship to what would otherwise be upsetting. Facing change, we see how futile and painful it is to try to hold on to what is passing—which is everything. Compassion washes in with a kinder, truer understanding of why people do what they do (and that includes you). Things seem simpler, easier.

The self-help mentality is a matter of shopping, accumulating tips. We don’t have to go shopping. We just need to sit back and let practice work on us. We don’t need tips; we need patience, we need equanimity. How to develop these qualities? I have a great tip for you: Meditate! Start now, continue forever!

Read the rest of the Special Section on Buddhism and Self-Help, “Let it All Go”

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