DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

27Sep/10Off

Can Politics And Science Cure All Ills?

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled, but I was inspired to write here again after my recent review, on my other blog, of Robert Augustus MastersSpiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters.

Spiritual Bypassing is about how we tend to use spiritual practice to escape from, rather than confront, our psychological wounds.  One thing that particularly struck me in the book was Masters’ statement that, ideally, spiritual practice is about releasing everything in our lives from the “obligation to make us feel better.”

The point is that spirituality is certainly far from the only thing people use to “take the edge off” their pain.  Drugs are another obvious example, but there are subtler and more “socially acceptable” examples as well.  I regularly notice instances of what I’d call “political bypassing” and “scientific bypassing” in our culture.

To illustrate the former, some people I know came close to hailing Obama as a messiah when he was elected — looking, for the next few days, like they were in a spiritually-inspired state of bliss, and their personal tribulations were healed or at least put out of their minds.  (Ironically, the same people usually scoff at the mere mention of spirituality, associating it with evangelical Christians and/or Republicans.)

Most importantly for our purposes, we can also see the embrace of political and scientific “bypassing” among critics of personal growth and spirituality.

Political Bypassing and Personal Growth

I’ve commented before on personal growth critics who basically claim — much like Marx — that the main source of discontent among human beings is economic inequality.  Personal development distracts people from this issue, by encouraging them to focus on their private achievements and relationships.  Thus, self-development is not only ineffective — it retards social progress.

These critics’ vitriol often obscures the wide-eyed idealism of their basic assumption:  that, if everybody only had equal material resources, nobody would suffer again.  No more loneliness, depression, or alienation for the human race, ever.

If the notion that spirituality can address all our “issues” is unrealistic, I think, the same can surely be said of the utopian notion that state-mandated “equality” will cure all human ills.

Scientific Bypassing and Spirituality

As for scientific bypassing, I think we can see this in the “New Atheist” critiques of religion that have been so popular over the last few years, by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  These critics say that spirituality and science/reason are in irreconcilable conflict, and we’d have a much better world if we only discarded the former and embraced the latter.

One problem these critics face is that science seems incapable of answering moral questions.  Some have no problem with this, and simply deny the existence of objective morality, because “there’s no scientific evidence for it.”  But this answer is instinctively unsatisfying for many people — to use a timeworn example, can we really accept the idea that Nazi medical experiments on prisoners weren’t objectively wrong?

Others respond that science can, at least, tell us what actions and policies will advance “human flourishing” — how to eat nutritiously, for example.  However, these critics need to explain why our actions should serve the goal of human flourishing at all — why shouldn’t kangaroo or algae flourishing be our priority?  Science can’t tell us why we ought to prefer the well-being of one species to that of another.

My point is that I think it’s important to be wary of “bypassing” — relying on one particular practice or institution to “make us feel better” — in all areas of human life.  The realm of spirituality and personal development certainly isn’t the only place where this happens.

7May/10Off

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.

Other Posts In This Series:

4May/10Off

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.

Other Posts In This Series:

24Mar/10Off

Personal Growth: The New Opiate Of The Masses?

marx

In this series, I'll talk about a common criticism of personal growth that casts it as a veiled form of socioeconomic oppression.  I'll spend a chunk of time describing the argument to make sure I do it justice, because I think this is one of the most important controversies surrounding personal development.

The argument goes like this:  people usually seek out personal growth books, workshops and so on because they're unsatisfied with some aspect of their lives -- their finances, relationships, stress level, and so on.

Yet, even if they achieve their goal, that same unhappiness, in some form or another, remains.  If I get a new relationship, I may still dislike my job.  If I get a higher-paying job, I may want more time to relax.  And so on.

Unhappiness Comes From Unfairness

In the critics' view, this is because personal development does not address the root cause of this unhappiness:  economic unfairness.  From this perspective, there is no defensible moral reason why there should be disparities in wealth between people.  People's talents and abilities largely result from luck, and thus it is immoral to allow those talents and abilities to determine people's economic situation.

We all feel the impact of this unfairness, the argument goes, regardless of our circumstances.  A man in dire financial straits obviously feels it, because he's constantly worried about paying the bills.  But a wealthy man feels it as well, though perhaps in a subtler way -- maybe because he's nagged by the feeling that he doesn't deserve what he has.

Personal growth ideas, the critics say, obviously don't address this basic unfairness.  Even if I get richer, I'll still envy those with more, and I'll still feel guilty because some have less.  Even if I learn how to reduce the stress of my job, I'll still feel the stress of knowing I live in an unfair society.  The solutions offered by personal development, then, are temporary at best and useless at worst.

Personal Growth:  Part Of The Problem

Worse still, the critics charge, self-development ideas actually help maintain this inequality.  By encouraging us to seek happiness through meditation, making money, improving communication in our relationships, and so on, personal growth distracts us from the real source of our unhappiness -- economic unfairness -- which only government redistribution of wealth can ultimately solve.

Thus, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King write in Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, contemporary spiritual practices "seek to pacify feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress."

Similarly, as we saw earlier, Micki McGee writes in Self-Help Inc. that personal growth teachings trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

Marx Redux

We've seen that, to the critics, economic inequality is the real cause of the unhappiness that prompts people to explore personal growth.  If this is true, we should expect that doing away with inequality would get rid of the unhappiness -- and thus that, in an economically "fair" society, no one would care about personal growth.

This, of course, is not a new idea -- Karl Marx had pretty much the same to say about religion.  As he famously wrote, "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people."  In other words, people's reliance on religion to relieve their suffering is misguided.  The real cause of their suffering is "oppression," meaning economic inequality.

Only a fair distribution of wealth -- to be achieved, for Marx, through communism -- can alleviate that suffering.  Under communism, because wealth would be equitably distributed, people would have no need for religion.  Similarly, if the critique of self-development we've been discussing is correct, eliminating economic inequality should also eliminate people's desire for personal growth.

A Brief Detour Into The Real World

Is this true?  Not, it seems, in real-life communist countries.  There, even though -- at least, in some people's view -- inequality runs less rampant, people still seem interested in activities that, in the West, we'd probably call "self-development" or "spiritual" practices.

In the People's Republic of China, for instance, tens of millions of people -- despite government oppression -- practice Falun Gong, a form of what we know as qi gong in the West.  In North Korea, again despite persecution, the underground practice of Christianity continues.  Back in the USSR, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out, "positive thinking" was mandatory -- if someone appeared to lack optimism about communism or the future of the Soviet state, they could get in serious trouble with the government.

Marxists might object that modern communist countries don't practice "pure" communism -- Marx, after all, envisioned people peacefully organizing into small communes, not the oppressive regimes communist nations have become.  That's the kind of society, Marx might say, where religion, personal growth and similar "opiates" would naturally fall away.  Personally, I question whether Marx's utopian scenario is realistic, but let's put that aside for a moment.

A Thought Experiment

Suppose we lived in a society where the government mandated total economic equality.  Everyone lived in an identical house, drove an identical car, and had an identical income, regardless of what they did for a living.  In this society, would anyone be interested in personal growth or spiritual practice?

For several reasons, I suspect the answer is yes.  First, I doubt that total equality of resources would affect many common human problems.  What about, say, conflict in people's relationships?  Can we honestly believe that the unfair distribution of wealth is the sole cause of, for instance, divorce and child abuse?

Second, a longing for spirituality and the transcendent, in one form or another, has existed in all societies throughout human history -- from hunter-gatherer tribes, to classical Greece and Rome, to communist countries as we saw, to modern capitalist nations.  It seems unlikely that total economic equality would reshape human nature so profoundly that it would erase this tendency.

I'll stop here in the interest of keeping this brief, but there's definitely more on this issue in the pipeline.

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development and the "War on Envy"
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness" Cuts Both Ways
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
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