Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Self-Help Scam

The self-help industry is huge.  Although numbers are hard to come by, in 2008 Nielsen Bookscan reported that 13.5 millions self-help books were sold in the U.S.  The self-help industry is said to be worth around $11 billion annually, including seminars, DVDs, etc.

Obviously, lots of people are crying out for help.  They feel miserable or frustrated about their lives in various ways, whether it’s their relationships, work, family, or personal development.

And it’s no small wonder because we live in a culture which is extremely competitive and which is constantly sending us messages, whether through the media or through family and peers, that we need to be more than we are, we need to have more than we have.  We live in a culture which creates feelings of insecurity from almost day 1 after birth.  As insecure people, we cannot develop and maintain good relationships.  And we cannot be satisfied with anything we achieve; regardless how successful or powerful, we always want more in order to remain happy.  Our culture has created a collective monster.

This is the context within which the self-help industry thrives.  And it is the context in which it ultimately fails the people it supposedly is trying to help.  The problem is that as soon as you fall into the trap of feeling there is something about yourself that needs “fixing” or “improving,” there is no hope because you are buying into the culture’s hype.

And that is why, despite the tens of millions of people who read and are otherwise drawn to the advice of self-help gurus, nothing really changes in their lives or in the world.  Yes, a few “make it.”  But the vast majority get nowhere even if they faithfully follow the advice given.  If these books worked as advertised, the world would become far less dysfunctional and vast numbers of people would feel better about their lives.

No, the problem lies not with individuals, it lies with the culture and the way it impacts everyone in it.  No one can escape it.  We are all a product of our learned experience ... whether from family, peers, or the larger culture.  But it all comes back to the culture.

Our ego is the repository and protector of these learned experiences.  It drives our lives and controls our actions based on these learned experiences which at their core are based on insecurity.  As such it is the font of our neuroses that cause us so much fear, anxiety, anger, and general suffering.  It is the reason why few of us ever feel at peace or find true happiness.

Since you can’t change the culture, we have two options.  The one is to change ourselves in a way so that we have a better fit with the culture and thus do better in our interactions with it.  Succeed on its terms.  That is the basic tact of self-help books.  And it doesn’t work because our culture feeds upon and manipulates everyone in it.  And thus we can never find real happiness or peace going that route.

The other option is to change the way we interact with the culture ... to interact with it on our terms.  To realize with great clarity what it is and how it operates, how our learned experiences have impacted us and caused us endless suffering, and how we can step back from this manufactured ego and find our true selves ... strong, secure, happy, and at peace. Freeing ourselves from the cravings that our learned experience promotes ... that is the source of peace and contentment, happiness and yes, even joy.

And that, my friends, is the Buddhist path.  Ending our suffering not through the process of psychoanalysis or self-help improvement, but by understanding how our feelings and perceptions, while feeling very real, actually have no inherent reality and are just a product of our learned experience ... and learning that by freeing ourselves from this known, from our ego, we can discover again our true selves and see ourselves and the world around us as we and it really are, without the distorting filter of our learned experiences, our thinking mind.