January 16, 2013

The Self in Self-Help Literature

Alex Caring-Lobel

In New York Magazine's new self-help issue, journalist Kathryn Schulz examines how we can improve ourselves and why it's so damn hard. You might know you shouldn't watch the next episode of that serial television show on Netflix (those new countdowns don't help) or eat that deep-fried, bacon-wrapped Twinkie (or five), but that doesn't mean you won't! Exploring this dissonance between the prudent, "better" you and the troublemaking mortal sinner leads Schulz to grapple with the thorny question, "Can self-help work if we have no idea how a self works?"

Shulz's article, "The Self in Self-Help," attempts to parse out the self that begs for improvement and the better self that makes it move—or doesn't. In doing so, Schulz uncovers the conceptual motor that makes the self-help dynamic work. She calls it the master theory of self-help, which requires at least two selves: "one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking."

All self-help literature offers is a kind of metaphysical power of attorney for our putative better halves. But if you identify with the above-mentioned Oreo-eater or healthy-­relationship saboteur or procrastinator, you yourself are evidence that this is a nonsolution. If giving your better half executive control by fiat could change your life, sales of self-help material would plummet overnight. It is a somewhat beautiful fact that the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence.

Toward the end of her essay, Schulz points to both the virtue and contradiction within Buddhist self-help literature:

God knows we all need more help, but possibly we need less self. That has long been the political response to the self-help movement, and it is also, in a different sense, what Buddhists believe. Curiously, Buddhism is simultaneously a burgeoning influence on the Western self-help movement and entirely at odds with it: anti-self, and anti-help. It is anti-help insofar as it emphasizes radical self-acceptance and also insofar as it emphasizes remaining in the present. (Improvement, needless to say, requires you to focus on the future.) It is anti-self in that it treats thoughts as passing ephemera rather than as the valuable products of a distinct and consistent mind.

Buddhist philosophy might then act as something of a panacea to the pitfalls of the self-help movement. At the same time, however, we commonly see Buddhist practices (exercises, really) presented as mental workouts which only serve to bolster the narcissistic self-help engine.

Schulz ends on a note we can all get behind, suggesting that "perhaps we should start looking beyond the constraints of the master theory of self—and, indeed, beyond the self entirely—for ways to improve our lives."

Read the article in it's entirety here.

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dhRma4all's picture

Thanks for the article. The teachings on Right Effort are the first items which come to "mind" after briefly reading this article. In contrast with the Dharma, most of the self-help stuff I've seen seems dedicated to making changes without much effort, which seems to bring corresponding results.

The Buddha's teachings would include the Four Great Efforts (D33:4), namely, Developing worthy mental states which are not present in the mind, Maintaining worthy mental states which are present, Restraining unarisen unworthy mental states, and Abandoning unworthy states which are present. I wish there was a pill you can take to make you want to do all this but I haven't found any method that easy, and these all take work and cultivation. Other teachings worth investigating are Determined Effort (M 101.27), and Two DIstinct Approaches to Effort (M 101). One of my favorites is the teaching on Eight Occasions of Laziness (D 33:8) -- a person who wants to achieve something can find a good attitude no matter what the occasion, while one who wants to find an excuse to not get up off the couch can do the same.

Years ago I attended a lecture given by the person considered the foremost technical rock wall climber of his time, who mentioned he had seldom prepared for a difficult climb without some degree of fear. I had always been fearful when getting ready for any climb, even the easy ones, and, wondering how he "helped his self" overcome that fear, I asked him how he made the effort to overcome it. His answer, from an expert, was that he approached climbing just like he did putting on his pants in the morning. It was not a question of wanting to do it, or why, but just doing it. This has seemed a good attitude for approaching right effort, too.