You Can Self-Help By Justine Parkin
Ben recently shared with me some recordings and videos of some of his inspirations: Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra. I admit I approach much of the socalled field of “self help” with skepticism or at least dismissal. After spending four years studying at university, I found that I, like many other students, had come to partition knowledge, creating from it a hierarchy, placing the deep, rigorous philosophy—which attempts to thoroughly contemplate the whole of things—above all other forms of knowledge, the ‘journalistic’ forms of knowledge perhaps, which all too often cannot step out one’s own immediate situation and emotions to critically challenge some of our deepest and longest held beliefs.
Unlike much of what is often considered philosophy, I am deeply interested in what it means to actually live in the world, amongst others, with others, and with ourselves. I can understand how for some philosophy, though perhaps deep and thorough, is often inaccessible, out of reach, or perhaps most pejoratively, elitist. It seems to give us little in the way of how to actually live. So I can understand the appeal of more simplified or concrete prescriptions or methods for how to live our lives and be happy. I cannot deny that there can be some real benefits from the method and teachings that Deepak Chopra and Anthony Robbins offer, so I really wanted to more critically examine myself what it was about these discourses and approaches which most often seemed unpalatable to me.
What self help does well I think is that it seeks to privilege wisdom (in the sense of a deep knowing of oneself and others), while philosophy, when sectioned off in its own discipline and confined to the university, can be seen to privilege only knowledge. I admit that some of my skepticism about “self help” approaches to living is based on my experience at a weekend forum when I was a teenager. In many ways, it was an important experience for me. It gave me a certain kind of language to understand the different issues going on in my life; because I could understand my frustrations and struggles better and I had a new language with which I could speak about them, I was able to let them go.
Such is the power of language—sometimes all we need is a word for something, to bring it to light, so that it may not ever again make us feel so heavy with its uncertainty. This is something important I think that Anthony Robbins shows in his work. He emphasizes the importance of communication, of language. He gives his audience language with which they can understand struggles in their own lives, and gives them tools to communicate and understand their relationships with others. I can only imagine that a conference or meeting with him allows many people to heal themselves and develop better relationships.
But is that enough? Does it just end with one meeting or weekend conference? What happens when it is over? As for me, while my own experience was powerful at the time, I feel so distanced from it. From afar I am again skeptical of the particular form and content of the course.
These types of courses sometimes produce their own kind of “knowhow,” in that they give participants particular language to understand themselves and others, but can often use that as a weapon against others who are not attuned to that particular discourse. Thus, it can often be a tool to drive us farther apart, giving us new understanding so that we may place ourselves above and apart from others. Or we simply soon forget what we learned there. We forget the words, the practices; in memory, it seems only like a series of ridiculous and embarrassing exercises in which we cannot believe we actually participated.
It was this world of idealized communication and actions which could never really be carried over into our actual lives. I realize that the reach towards happiness cannot be achieved in one course, and that it requires persistence. But is the only solution to continuously spend money on conferences to help me to be happy? How can we learn from these experiences but not be dependent upon them?
I wonder if the key is to connect our immediate situation to the bigger pictures. Happiness I believe is more than just realizing how all our struggles and barriers to well being are largely selfcreated and through overcoming them, we find “success.” I worry that this approach does not address the larger human story. Does simply following what makes us happy, or what we think makes us happy, have the potential to have negative effects on the world?
It is here that I cannot get away from my tendency to privilege certain forms of knowledge, to say that philosophy can do something here that a more psychological approach cannot. Though first I feel I must broaden philosophy beyond the confining sphere of academic philosophy.
Philosophy, in its greatest essence I believe, is the attempt to reach beyond one’s own immediate, historical, or emotional situation to assess the larger frame of human existence. Philosophy attempts to at least approach some understanding of truth, even while recognizing that that approach may be only partial. In doing so, I think, there should not be a break between these two levels of existence—the immediate and the all-encompassing—but there should be a possibility to bridge them. Looking towards the bigger picture though is not about simply acquiring historical facts to help us understand how our own actions may have consequences we cannot foresee.
We cannot of course know everything, and of course, knowledge is not wisdom. Though philosophy in our day is often understood as the pursuit of knowledge, I believe it is truly about both knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge in this sense is a means towards wisdom, without ever privileging a certain level or body of knowledge. In this understanding, philosophy is more than just all the texts or words of Ancient Greeks, mystic sages, Enlightenment philosophers, or even modern thought. It is literature, poetry, dance and more.
Much of the world of selfhelp I believe is inspired by Eastern thought and it is an attempt to bring that thought into a more Western discourse. However, in some ways, I think that selfhelp often does not critically scrutinize its concepts as a more philosophical examination would. It often takes for granted the meanings of “success,” “happiness,” “ambition.” It of course gets beyond the notion that happiness is equivalent to success or the achievement of an ambition, but I think at times it makes the links between moments too easy, too simplified. This is not to say that a proper course should one which is overly complicated and convoluted, only that our existence happens in a space of often terrifying complexity, and running away from that complexity and multiplicity is not the answer; reducing such plurality to one, I believe, is a dangerous oversimplification.
This bridge between the grand story of human existence and our own individual stories can happen, I believe, in the realm of politics. By politics though, I do not mean the often unpalatable rhetoric of campaigns and parties. Politics, in this common understanding, is the very entity and structure which we want to run from; we believe that it is only when we unbind ourselves from politics that we are truly free. However, I understand politics as a more essential being together, speaking with each other—a being in the world with others.
This kind of politics engages with the notion of what Jean Luc Nancy calls “being singular plural.” Hannah Arendt, a favorite political theorist of mine (who herself eschewed the title of philosopher) wrote much about this kind of politics. The ubiquitous fear of politics, she says, leads to what she calls the “modern growth of worldlessness.”
Modern psychology, for Arendt, is linked to this development of worldlessness. “Modern psychology,” she says, “is desert psychology…Insofar as psychology tries to ‘help’ us, it helps us ‘adjust’ to those conditions, taking away our only hope, namely that we, who are not of the desert though we live in it, are able to transform it into a human world.” Modern psychology, in Arendt’s understanding, takes as its grounds that all of our difficulties are only within ourselves; we cannot change the world, but we can only change ourselves. Arendt’s critique of psychology is that it makes us complacent to a world we cannot change; it “adjusts” us to life in the desert, rather than show us the ways that the world too can be recreated.
Arendt worries that this complacency to an unchangeable, desertlike world makes people susceptible to “sandstorms of the desert,” which cause people to blindly follow the crowd and not think for themselves, leading to the worst of totalitarian and authoritarian movements. This complacency can also cause one to escape from the world, escape from politics, from being with each other and retreat into a hermitic life because they cannot find a way to live among it.
Like Arendt, I believe the challenge is to not escape the world, but to live and participate in it. The question then becomes: is there a way to focus on healing our own individual lives through understanding that our barriers to happiness are selfcreated and also look towards the collective human story to engage intimately and powerfully with the world at large? In other worlds, can we integrate both the benefits of selfhelp or modern psychology but also philosophically examine our individual actions on the greater human world?
Deepak Chopra I think does much to combine elements of both. Engaging with some of the best of ancient philosophy (Lao Tzu, for example) but also more modern Western literature (William Blake and Walt Whitman), Deepak Chopra speaks profoundly yet simply. He shows how our own immediate struggles are largely of our making and how positive thoughts and presence can release us from the seemingly inescapable aspects of existence.
He also looks towards larger concerns and admits that simply thinking positive thoughts is not enough to change every situation. Rather he emphasizes connecting the inner and the outer, how shifting the consciousness of the inner self is crucial not in and of itself but because through unearthing our most essential being, our actions in the world too change. Thus he is interested not just in changing our individual selves, but the relationship between ourselves as individuals and the actions we as individuals have upon others and the world. Chopra understands that even global issues, seemingly beyond our reach and comprehension are the results of individuals making decisions, often because they believe it will bring greater happiness in some mode or another.
People simply following what makes them happy in any given moment can be a part of serious, negative consequences; thus blindly following one’s own image of happiness or success or ambition, if not critically reflected upon can have unintended effects. Even some of the grandest of global issues, of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, for instance, were done under the pretense of what was believed to preserve happiness, in this case by stabilizing the world order. But of course it was predicated upon an antagonism; it caused much destruction and instability—in essence, unhappiness.
This is not to say that we should feel guilty for all of the terrible things that have happened in the world, but rather that even the biggest issues are within our grasp, in that they too were the result of individual decisions. What Chopra shows well, I think, is the ability to connect our personal selves to the larger human story. He shows well how they are not mutually exclusive but intimately related. In essence, he shows how focusing on one’s own individual self does not necessarily mean resigning oneself to “life in the desert.” Rather fully probing to the depth of our being ensures that our actions in the world reflect this part of our selves in a deeply authentic way.
I am reminded here of a moment in the Bhagavad-Gita where Krisha tells Arjuna about the concept of “action in inaction.” Through cultivating our deepest source, we are unmoved by that which surrounds us and unattached to the fruits of our actions; yet because we are unmoved and unattached, we are acting in a more aware and more profound manner. Action, is this sense, is not just mindless, constant activity, but is thoroughly engaged and authentic action, which connects our inner selves and the outer world. Connecting our own selves to the larger whole of human existence I believe is a crucial task. The challenge is not to sacrifice ourselves for the world or sacrifice the world at the expense of ourselves. Rather it is to understand how we can do both simultaneously, to harmonize our inner and outer worlds.
At the end of all this, I find myself less antagonist towards what is often termed “self help.” Perhaps it is just having some distance from college that allows me to relax some of my more perhaps elitist thoughts that there are some forms of knowledge above all else. I realize that sometimes the simple practices and words you can gather from these works are more immensely helpful. While human life I believe happens in a space of plurality, I do think there are moments when we overcomplicate things.
Sometimes simplicity is what we need, which is something I believe we can learn quite well from children. I also realize that if I am too caught up in larger human or global issues, I will sacrifice my own energy for myself and thus not be grounded enough to engage with and seek to remedy these larger issues. However, I also do not think happiness can come from a ready packaged model of therapy, self help, or psychology.
While these discourses may help to give us understanding of our own lives, I think it is only when we deeply understand ourselves, our relationship to the world, and create our own language of understanding that we can truly find happiness. This is not something we can gather from one book or from one leader. It is a deep wisdom that we create for ourselves, through all of our studies and books we read, through our own experiences and relationships, through speaking with others and with ourselves. It is a process of becoming, in which we are constantly reevaluating and critically reflecting upon our own truths, constantly widening our understanding of truth through our deeply rooted actions in the world, actions to whose end we are not attached. It is not enough to simply take one system of thought and believe it is the solution to all of our problems.
We must also translate these teachings into our own understandings, otherwise we will be filled only with the language of others, unequipped to think for ourselves. We must integrate the teachings from other systems but also make our own within them so that we can find the familiar in the unfamiliar and so we will not just blindly follow ideas because they are presented with words which we too know. It means developing a critical mind, but one which is not separated out from life and experience (like academic philosophy often is) but intimately tied to experience as well.
This is a deeply personal kind of scholarship, a deeply personal kind of thinking in which you engage with the world, help create the world, but also create a world for yourself.
Silence and Astrology