DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Thoughts On “Thinking For Yourself”

Critics of personal development often assert that, rather than reading self-help books, we should "think for ourselves."  In fact, many critics even fear that personal growth products are actually stripping people of their ability to think independently.

"The self-help tradition has always been covertly authoritarian and conformist," writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.  "Merely buying a self-help book is an act of dependence."  Similarly, literary critic Stewart Justman writes in Fool's Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology that the self-help "genre seems inherently authoritarian, implying as it does that we live and act according to sets of instructions."

These criticisms certainly make personal development sound unnervingly Orwellian.   But do they make sense?

Is Advice Anti-Thinking?

It's true that many self-help books offer us advice on how to live our lives -- how to find inner peace, parent our children, and so on.  But this alone can't be enough to strip us of intellectual independence.  After all, books on origami, changing tires, investing in bonds, and so on also offer advice, but no one seems to be concerned that these books are "brainwashing" anyone.

Kaminer seems to recognize that the mere fact that self-help books give advice doesn't make them "totalitarian."  Thus, she says she's not interested in critiquing "practical (how to do your own taxes) books."  Instead, she is aiming at books with "a strong emphasis on individual, personal, or spiritual development."  In other words, it's only people who give advice on personal or spiritual development who threaten the cognitive freedom of their listeners -- not those who tell you how to fix your car.

I think the trouble with this distinction is that it neglects the vast amount of advice on personal and spiritual development that writers outside the self-help genre offer.  Philosophers, at least since ancient Greece and probably before, have wrestled with the question of how one ought to live.  The world's religions also have pretty clear ideas about how we should develop spiritually.  But I suspect Kaminer wouldn't claim that we shouldn't read books on philosophy or religion because they might control our minds.

Is Simplicity Sinister?

On some level, I think Kaminer is aware of this objection, and thus she tries to distinguish personal growth from philosophy and religion on the ground that self-help teachers' advice is overly simplistic.  Personal growth books, she writes, encourage an intellectual "passivity and search for simple absolutes."

I actually agree that much personal growth advice is simplistic.  I think the personal development blogosphere, for example, could stand to churn out fewer "50 Quick Happiness Tips"-style posts, and dive deeper into what really creates motivation and suffering in human beings.

However, the fact that some self-help advice may be simplistic doesn't necessarily render it sinister and manipulative, as Kaminer seems to believe.  In other words, another person's mere act of offering you simple advice doesn't turn you into a mindless zombie under their command.

Suppose, for instance, you come to me with all kinds of concerns about your relationship, and I tell you that you should leave your partner.  My recommendation in this example is certainly simple, and perhaps simplistic, because it doesn't address the underlying feelings and behaviors creating your relationship issues.

However, it would be absurd to claim that, merely by offering you simple advice, I've put you at risk of becoming my brainwashed slave -- just as it would be silly to argue that a book called "5 Simple Steps To Doing Your Taxes" threatens its readers' mental autonomy.  You're free to accept or reject my advice -- or, at the very least, my advice won't make you any less free to do so than your current cognitive capacities allow.  :)

Sometimes Simple Is Superior

What's more, in some cases, simplicity is a virtue.  The most complicated advice or viewpoint is not always the most helpful one.  I think there are great social advantages, for example, in simple moral rules like "rape is wrong" that leave no room for exceptions.  A society where people accept such a rule, I think you'd agree, is better off than one where the morality of raping someone depends on a nuanced cost-benefit analysis.

In other words, I think it's entirely possible to both "think for yourself" and read a book, or listen to someone, offering simple advice -- even if it's of the self-help stripe.  What's more, the simplicity of a message alone doesn't rob it of merit.


Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 4: A Postscript On Compassion

In the interest of clarity, I want to add a brief note summarizing what I'm saying in this series.

I believe there are two basic ways to think about compassion.  The first is to see it as a way of acting.  If you take certain actions in the world, in other words, that makes you a compassionate person.

People, of course, have vastly different ideas about which behaviors are compassionate and which aren't.  Some think of compassion in terms of individual acts, such as giving to a person begging on the street.  To others, compassion has more to do with a certain distribution of resources in society -- if we work toward a nation where people have roughly equal incomes, perhaps, we are compassionate people.

The second way of thinking about compassion is to see it as an emotion, or a sensation we experience in the body.  For me, when I am feeling compassion, I experience a warm, open sensation in my heart area.  Some might describe this in more mystical terms as a sense of "union with all that is."

Most People See It As A Behavior

It seems clear that, in Western culture at least, people usually take the first perspective -- that you are compassionate so long as you behave a certain way.  It doesn't matter how you feel while you are doing the act.  If you give to a charity, but only so that your name appears on the charity's website, you are being compassionate nonetheless.

I think this perspective is one reason why, in the West, we don't tend to see practices for cultivating a felt sense of compassion as particularly important.  Why bother doing practices like Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, we might think, when we can go into the world and actually help people?

I think the trouble with this perspective is that it renders the concept of compassion vulnerable to abuse.  It enables people who don't actually experience the felt sense of compassion to use the ideal of compassion as a weapon against others, for personal gain.

The Consequences

Look at typical political debates, for example.  Each side accuses the other, in venomous and belittling terms, of lacking compassion, honesty, morality and so on.  Ask yourself:  would they make such accusations against each other if they actually experienced compassion as a feeling -- that sense of warmth and openness in the heart I described?

On a larger scale, many political and religious ideologies have claimed to be rooted in compassion.  Christianity is said to be based on the compassionate teachings of Jesus.  Marx claimed that communism was a compassionate political philosophy.  And yet, of course, people have committed atrocities in the name of both worldviews.

Would these abuses have occurred if the people responsible had genuinely experienced the feeling of compassion, rather than simply believing in the abstract ideal?  (I don't mean to pick on Christianity or communism per se -- I think any doctrine or philosophy, in the hands of someone who isn't actually feeling compassion, can be used to justify destructive behavior.)

In other words, when we're in touch with the felt sense of compassion -- not just the philosophical abstraction -- we become far less inclined to hurt others.  This is why I think practices that help us actually experience the sensation of compassion are so important.

There are many practices aimed at this, and different approaches work better for different people.  In my own case, I know that heart-opening exercises in yoga are particularly helpful.  But the point is that these practices, far from being forms of "woo-woo navel gazing," are actually key to creating the kind of world many of us desire.

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Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 3: Compassion And Justice

We've been talking about the claim, commonly made by critics of personal growth, that self-development techniques are "selfish" because they only benefit the person using them.  As I noted earlier, there's a good deal of evidence that effective personal growth practices actually help us develop more compassion and generosity toward others.  So, it seems to me, personal development can actually serve as a source of positive social change.

Why don't the critics see it this way?  Why do they often treat personal development as, in fact, an obstacle to "social justice"?  My sense is that they, like much of Western political philosophy, think of justice as a set of abstract rules to follow.  Our society, in this view, will be good and just once it starts complying with the right set of rules.

For people who are usually called conservatives, these rules are mostly concerned with preventing forms of violence like killing and theft.  A just society, from this perspective, is one where that conduct is minimized.  For those who tend to be called liberals, the rules are more about how resources are distributed -- to them, a just society is one where the right distribution of money, medical care, and so on exists.

Justice:  Just A Philosophical Abstraction?

For all their differences, these models of justice have at least one thing in common, which is that they treat the way people feel about each other as irrelevant.  Even if citizens of a given society don't care one whit about each other, that society is nonetheless just if it follows the correct rules -- whether through preventing violence, equitably parceling out resources, or something else.

Given these typical ways of thinking, it's no surprise that critics of personal growth see self-development practices as basically irrelevant to achieving justice.  Meditating, for example, may well make people more compassionate, but that emotion alone does nothing to further the cause of a just society.  If anything, practices like meditation waste time that could be better spent fighting real-world injustice.  As Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in Bright-Sided, "why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?"

At best, if meditation causes people to be kinder, people may do more charitable giving, and thus advance the goal of equitably dividing resources.  But that's hardly the most efficient path to a fair distribution of wealth.  Why not simply have the government take some people's property and give it to others?  Meditation, from this perspective, is an inadequate and unnecessary solution to the problem of inequality.

Abstract Justice In A Non-Abstract World

In the real world, we can see this mentality in communist countries' approach to achieving justice.  To Marxist thinkers, practices for finding inner peace do nothing but distract people from the quest for equality.  Thus, Marxist regimes banned religious and spiritual institutions and practices, from the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union to the Falun Gong movement in China.

These countries' history, I think, illustrates the danger of seeing justice as nothing more than a set of rules for preventing coercion or distributing wealth.  These regimes treated abstract concepts of justice as more important than the lives of actual people, and killed and imprisoned millions they saw as standing in the way of their ideal society.  I think this history shows that, when compassion our inner experience is taken as irrelevant to justice, justice itself becomes a monstrosity.

Compassion Is Critical To Justice

It's important to realize, I think, that compassion is not only relevant to justice -- it's actually the foundation of justice.  Our rules of right and wrong stem from our instinctual concern and respect for each other.  The reason people want a society without killing and stealing, or with a certain distribution of wealth, is because they see such a society as the best vehicle for relieving human suffering.

Of course, as human beings, we are not always in touch with our sense of compassion.  We're also aggressive, competitive, and survival-oriented creatures.  When those drives completely take over, we're unconcerned with others' suffering, and we think only of our own survival and power.

When we're under the sway of these instincts, no abstract principles will keep us from harming others.  Reminding a mugger of the Golden Rule, for example, probably won't stop him from taking your money.  What's more, as in the communist regimes I described, concepts of justice themselves can be used as a weapon, justifying mass murder in the name of "equality" and "fairness."

How Personal Growth Can Help

This is why, I think, merely following the right set of abstract principles isn't enough to create a just society.  As legal scholar Robin West puts it in Caring For Justice, it's important to recognize the "injustice -- not the justice -- of divorcing the pursuit of justice from natural inclination, from the sentient, felt bonds of friendship, and from the moral dictates incident to the pull of fellow feeling."

Instead, we must experience -- firsthand, viscerally, in the body -- the emotions and instincts at the root of those principles.  We must actually feel compassion for one another -- not simply make and follow a logically consistent set of rules.

At their best, I think, personal growth practices help us genuinely experience concern for each other.  Techniques like meditation and yoga work to accomplish this goal at a level deeper than the rational mind, which is why intellectuals are often wary of them.  But I think they're worth taking seriously if we truly want a more peaceful world.

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