Further thoughts on why self-help does not help the self
When I was a kid, maybe 11 or 12, I remember listening as my mom sat on the stairs and talked to her friend on the phone. She was disconsolate, maybe even crying, and I remember very clearly her whispering into the phone: “Is this all there is?” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, only that my mom was upset and I didn’t know what to do about it. It scared me a little bit, but then she seemed to feel better after that and life went on.
I read a lot about psychology for my job, and also for personal reasons. I bought my first self-help book when I was ten years old, and now I edit self-help books. I’m a curious person and a voracious reader, plus I’ve never been particularly happy, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “figure things out” with respect to how to reach this mythical Shangri-La of happiness, goodness, and contentment, this “Good Life” of which everyone speaks.
Even after 27 years of seeking, and even though I know better by now, I find myself still hoping for some tidbit of wisdom, some new technique, some earth-shattering research to come through and show me how to be a happy, content, connected, laughing, popular person with an actual romantic life, somebody who always says the right thing for the situation, has a beautiful, sparkling home, a perfect garden, and can dance AND cook. Someone who doesn’t overindulge in cocktails, cookies, coffee, or, for that matter, CSI. Someone who meditates, yogas, volunteers, and, as a result, has a great body, great health, and exudes waves of compassion. Somebody who doesn’t get annoyed at people who think they know all the answers, or people who don’t have any answers. You know. The perfect person.
Recently I’ve been toggling back and forth between “self-improvement” blogs, psychology research, and books on Buddhist thought and human consciousness. I’m finding it all extremely frustrating, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why that is.
I’m also just finishing up reading my book club book, “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen, about his trip through Tibet seeking the elusive eponymous beast, not to mention enlightenment. I’m almost at the end, and he’s coming back into civilization, bad-tempered after his blissed-out mountain trek, and feeling bereft at having lost that sense of peace he had reached while wandering the trails of the Himalayas.
As I was reading on the bus this morning, about Matthiessen’s grumpiness and despair after coming off the mountains, I found myself smiling, not because I was enjoying his discomfort, but because THAT’S reality. That grumpiness. That wanting to go back to where you felt safe and at peace. That feeling of disappointment: “ Where did my enlightenment go?” THAT’S what you don’t see in self-help and self-improvement blogs and books, what I’ve been missing in my readings and seekings: the truth that no matter what enlightenment you reach, you still have to come back to life, the muddy slog with the occasional bright moments. And sometimes, it just sucks, and that the suck is as part of life, as valuable and true, as the glorious moments.
Lying in bed this morning, I was musing on whether Wayne Dyer has ever had a job in an office, a 2-hour bus commute, and trouble finding someone to date. Or whether Sharon Salzberg has ever spent hours at work - bored because after nearly 5 years doing the same thing, you just get bored, you know? - clicking through websites killing time before it was time to go home, and feeling guilty for it. Or whether Jack Kornfield ever had anxiety about how to tackle “The STD Talk” with a potential new lover, since potential lovers are so few and far between. Or if any of them ever worried that they were wasting their lives, that they were in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, making a mess of it all. Maybe they have. Or maybe they don’t need to experience those things; maybe bodhisattvas are beyond that. But to the rest of us, that’s the reality.
Peter Matthiessen is upset with himself, in the book, that he can’t keep the feeling of spaciousness that he had in the snow fields of Tibet. He can’t keep it because it’s not reality – or maybe it’s part of reality, but not the whole. He was separated from his life up there, but life is here, inescapable and persistent; sometimes glorious, sometimes awful, and most often just kind of…here.
To answer my mom: Yes, this IS all there is. This waking up in the cold and not wanting to get out of bed, but then feeling transfixed on the walk to work at the clear gladness of the cold sky and the bright birds. This drinking too much coffee and feeling crappy the whole rest of the day, but ummmm…that first sip of warmth and cinnamon. So good! This getting pissed off at a friend who shows up late, and then the gratitude at having a friend who can forgive you some crankiness, as you can forgive her some lateness. This not wanting to take the time to search for coins to give to the panhandler, and the jingle of coins in your pocket that you put there so that the next time someone asks, you DO have some spare change. This being so tired after work that watching TV is the only thing you have energy for, and the purr of the cat as he rests in the crook of your elbow. This not answering peoples’ phone calls because, well, you just don’t feel like talking to them at the moment; and the joy of talking when you DO feel like connecting. This hearing about a friend’s imminent wedding, and feeling a sinking sensation in your chest and a deep sadness; and the way you appreciate the loved ones in your life even more, knowing how rare love is. This wondering if this is all there is; and knowing the answer.
For me, the constant seeking, the constant trying to change, the search to be better, happier, healthier, more content, a better citizen, in these things lies discontentment. I’m tired of feeling like I should be different, like I should change who I am. I’m tired of seeking. I’m tired of people telling me to be less mediocre, be more “in flow”, meditate more, kill your TV, don’t eat meat, do more yoga, try these supplements, they really worked for me!
Life is here. Now. At this computer, in this chair, on the bus, in the stuffy meeting room at work. In meditation and in alpha-wave stupor. In the bars and in yoga studios. We will change our habits, or we won’t, but life doesn’t care. How do I describe the fact that, to me, THAT is comforting? That I don’t have to be perfect? That there is no God or universe or great globe of light judging me for watching a rerun of ‘House’ when I could be calling my friends or volunteering to feed the homeless? Or for drinking my third glass of Prosecco instead of green tea? Or for reading an escapist novel instead of meditating? For me, the challenge is to just be okay with ME. My flawed, non-meditating, frustrated-with-yoga, TV-watching, cocktail-loving self who has a crooked sense of humor and the urge to say inappropriate things. I know this, and yet it’s still so hard to let go of this idea that the next book, the next blog, the next therapy technique, will make me happy and content and fulfilled, and I’ll really have arrived in my life, after 37 years. Finally. And it will all make sense.