DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


MLK And Why I Write About Spirituality

Surprisingly, through all the talk about MLK we've heard today, there's one aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we aren't hearing that much about:  the fact that he was a Christian.

Yes, believe it or not, he had that "Dr." at the beginning of his name because he had a doctorate in theology.  Yes, he spent some time leading civil rights protests, but he spent much more time being a preacher.

Okay, maybe you knew that part.  But what we really don't hear about often is that King's Christianity was rooted in his personal spiritual experience.

When discussing his spirituality, people usually say King was influenced by Christ's or Gandhi's "philosophy" -- as if, based on a sober assessment of their logic and evidence, King concluded their ideas were sound -- but they don't touch on what King saw as his firsthand encounter with the divine.

MLK's Epiphany

I've read and listened to a lot about King, but I only recently heard this story.  One night in 1956, King's struggle was taking its toll, and he was feeling tired and defeated.  Sitting at his kitchen table, he started praying out loud.  Suddenly, he "experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before."

"It seemed as though," he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, "I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying:  'Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.'  Almost at once my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything."  This experience convinced him to stay on his course, and become the leader he became.

When reading about this event, it struck me that this would be a great story to tell the people I know and read who scoff at spiritual practice, and say it's a waste of time.  "Why spend all that time meditating or praying?  Why not go out and do some good in the real world?" they ask.

Some Crazy Ideas

Here's a controversial thought:  what if the very idea of "goodness" has its roots in spiritual experiences like King's?  In other words, what if we wouldn't even have any sense of what it means to "do good," without the guidance of people who have had personal encounters with divinity?

The founders of the great religious traditions -- Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and so on -- are all said to have had life-changing shifts in their consciousness that convinced them of their calling.  These figures' spiritual experiences inspired the teachings and behavior they brought into the world, which in turn created much of what we now call "morality" and "ethics."  At least, so some say.

And how about another crazy idea:  what if the very purpose of spiritual practice -- meditation, prayer, chanting, and so on -- is to bring about that same state of consciousness?  To give the everyday person access to the compassion, inner strength, and sense of universal interconnectedness that drove people like King to accomplish what they did?

If spiritual practice can do that for us -- and, in the interest of full disclosure, I believe it can -- I think it's actually one of the best uses we can make of our time.


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.

Other Posts In This Series:


Is Self-Help Selfish?

Critics often put down personal growth practices on the ground that they're selfish, or at least self-absorbed.  The time people spend meditating, saying affirmations, taking workshops, and so on, according to the critics, could be better spent helping others.

"The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all," writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided.  "Why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?"  Similarly, in The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, Paul Pearsall writes, in questioning the value of much self-help literature, that "most of the problems we think we have stem from too much self-focus rather than too little."  The phrase "selfish help" has also become popular on blogs that are critical of personal development.

This criticism may have some appeal on the surface.  After all, when I meditate, I'm the only one who gains calm and clarity.  My meditation practice doesn't cause food to appear on the tables of impoverished people.  Similarly, if I see a therapist, that can only help resolve my mental health concerns -- it does nothing for catatonic people in psychiatric hospitals.

But if we look a little deeper, I think it becomes clear that this critique has some flaws, and I'm going to discuss them in this post.

Does Self-Help Mean No "Other-Help"?

I think the most obvious problem with this argument is that it assumes that a person can't do both personal growth work and charitable work, or at least that people involved in personal development are less interested in helping others.

Clearly, the first of these is not true.  It's surely possible for me to lead a life that includes both, say, meditation and volunteering at a homeless shelter.

I suppose one could argue that the time I spend doing personal growth activities detracts from the time I could spend being generous to others.  But if we take that argument seriously, most of what we do in life -- apart from, I guess, eating and sleeping -- becomes "selfish" and unacceptable.

After all, every minute we spend hanging out with friends, watching a movie, hiking, and so on is one less minute we could spend serving others' needs (whatever that may mean to you).  This argument holds people to an impossible moral standard that I doubt even the most generous critic of personal development could meet.

Nor have I seen any evidence that people who do self-development work are less inclined to help others.  I've yet to see a study suggesting that, say, people who have read The Secret are less likely to give to charity.

Emotions Influence Actions

More importantly, I think the claim that "self-help is selfish" misses the deeper point that our emotional state affects how we act.  If my personal growth practices put me in a happier or more peaceful state, that's likely to change -- for the better -- the way I relate to others.

It may be that, while I'm in the process of meditating, I'm the only one gaining peace and clarity.  But when I'm done meditating, I take that peace and clarity out into the world.  Doesn't it stand to reason that, if I'm feeling more peaceful, I'll behave more peacefully toward other people?

This idea is more than just common sense -- there's substantial research supporting it.  You may remember that, in an earlier post, I pointed to several psychological studies suggesting that happiness actually causes people to be more giving toward others.  I've also discussed the evidence showing that people who believe they're responsible for their life circumstances -- a belief often promoted in personal development -- behave more generously.

However, there is also research bearing more directly on the relationship between self-development practices and qualities like kindness and compassion.  One study, "Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement," found that couples who meditated reported more satisfaction with their relationships.  Another found that Buddhist metta meditation "increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals" in study participants.

On a subtler level, the way we feel affects those around us, even when we aren't doing or saying anything.  Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence, for instance, describes how our bodies instinctively detect and mimic the emotions of people we're with.  Goleman, for example, points to studies of couples showing that one partner's anger or sadness induced the same emotions in the other person.

In other words, because humans are empathic creatures, it makes sense that the emotional benefits we get from personal growth would "rub off" on others.  This is why, I think, one of my mentors says that "the greatest gift you can give to others is to work on yourself."

So, I think it's important to look not only at how a personal growth practice benefits its immediate "user," but also how it affects their actions toward others and the way they show up in the world.

The Promise of "Stealth Transformation"

I can imagine a critic of personal growth responding that I'm painting an unrealistic picture of self-help methods and the reasons people use them.  People don't get involved in personal growth to cultivate compassion for others, they might say.  They do it because they want more money, better relationships, improved health, and so on.

I think this actually points to one of the great social benefits of personal development -- what's sometimes called "stealth transformation."  Yes, some people may meditate because they want to be calmer in business meetings; some may do yoga because they want a more attractive body; and so forth.  However, no matter what their intentions are, the peace and happiness they gain from their practices can positively affect their behavior toward others.

In other words, even if people go into self-development practices for purely "self-interested" reasons, they may find their relationship with the world changing in ways they didn't expect or intend.  I know this happened in my own meditation and yoga practices.  I didn't begin them with serving others in mind, but the composure I got from those practices has helped people feel more relaxed and open around me.

Other Posts In This Series:


Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work Of Happiness


Last time, we discussed the argument that some personal growth techniques put people at risk of being, basically, too happy.  Practices like meditation and yoga, in this view, generate "artificial happiness" that can blind people to genuine problems in their lives or with their society.

In this post, I'll turn to a similar argument often made against the "positive thinking" strain of personal growth -- i.e., the idea that thinking optimistically is a good way to deal with a seemingly bad situation.  For some, positive thinking is a futile enterprise, because pushing negative thoughts or feelings away is impossible.  For others, it's doable, but it takes a lot of work.  And if it takes so much work to be happy, is it worth the effort?

In Bright-Sided, for instance, Barbara Ehrenreich derides positive thinking because it seems to require "a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and negative thoughts."  In The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, psychologist Paul Pearsall writes that "striving to keep your hopes up at the worst times in your life can be exhausting."

I'll do something unusual for this blog and agree with this argument, at least partly.  In my experience, some people seem to love deliberate positive thinking.  To them, saying affirmations, visualizing success, and similar techniques don't feel like "work" at all.  But to others -- myself included -- making an effort to think happy thoughts or generate positive emotion can feel draining.

However, I think critics of personal development go astray when they suggest that, because positive thinking feels draining or self-deceptive to some people, no one should practice it.  Another common mistake is to equate all personal development with positive thinking, and then dismiss it all as "feel-good fluff," when in fact many personal growth techniques take a very different approach.

The "Art" Vs. "Drug" Models Of Personal Growth

Positive thinking may feel false and self-deceptive to some people, but that doesn't mean that, objectively, it is false and self-deceptive.  It won't be controversial for me to say, I think, that different behaviors feel authentic (or false) for different people.  For example, I would feel inauthentic speaking with a Portuguese accent, because I'm not from Portugal.  However, a native of Portugal wouldn't feel that way.

Similarly, perhaps thinking optimistically in the face of adversity causes some people to feel better, but not others.  But it doesn't follow that positive thinking "doesn't work" or is "fake."  For instance, suppose I happen to enjoy looking at Monet paintings, but you don't.  No one would claim that, simply because our opinions differ, the pleasure I feel when looking at Monet's work must be "false."

Yet, when attacking positive thinking, critics often make this kind of argument.  They treat optimism as if it were a drug that we shouldn't take until clinical trials have proven it's safe and more than just a placebo.  If some people react negatively to it, you shouldn't use it.  But I don't think that analogy works, because -- unlike drugs with dangerous side effects -- people don't physically hurt themselves simply by thinking.

I think what I've said applies to many forms of personal growth.  It makes more sense to think about these techniques as if they were pieces of art or music than to liken them to harmful drugs.  Because everyone's mind and body is unique, it stands to reason that each technique "works" for some but not others, and each person must do their own exploration to find out what "works" for them.

The "Change" Vs. "Acceptance" Models

As I mentioned last month in a post on my other blog, when I talk with people about meditation, they often tell me they "can't meditate."  This is because, they say, they can't seem to force their minds to empty, or compel themselves to feel peaceful.

It struck me recently that these people's understanding of meditation is completely different from mine.  I don't see meditation as being about "forcing" anything to happen.  To me, it's about allowing whatever thoughts and feelings arise to be there, without resistance.

I think this mirrors a distinction between two schools of thought in personal development.  I'll call one of them the "Change" model.  On this view, personal growth is about seeking positive experiences or emotions, and avoiding negative ones.

I think positive thinking, as it's usually understood, falls in this category -- as Norman Vincent Peale, the father of positive thinking, put it, "whenever a negative thought concerning your personal power comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive one to cancel it out.”

Let's call the other model "Acceptance."  From this perspective, the purpose of personal development is not to seek the "right" kind of experience, but to drop our resistance to the experience we're having right now -- even if, in this moment, we're feeling sad or angry.

The end goal of the Acceptance approach is to find what Buddhists call "equanimity" -- when we learn to allow all of the experiences life has to throw at us, the distinction between "positive" and "negative" feelings disappears, and we are always at peace.

Why This Matters

This distinction is important to our discussion because critics of personal development often neglect it.  In Artificial Happiness, for instance, Ronald W. Dworkin criticizes meditation by citing the example of a patient who "escapes her own consciousness through meditation, and keeps her unhappiness at bay," but thus "also postpones any serious analysis of her situation."

True, some people may use meditation from what I've called a "Change" perspective -- to repress or transform their grief, anger, and so on.  But this certainly isn't the only way people use meditation (nor do I think it's the most helpful way).  As I noted, many forms of Buddhist meditation have the goal of "Acceptance" -- that is, learning to simply allow the anger and grief to arise and pass away.

So, in a nutshell, even if you aren't a fan of the "never let a negative thought enter your mind" approach, I think personal development still has much to offer you.

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 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?
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    Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards Of Happiness


    In my last post, I looked at a common critique of personal growth that goes like this:  personal development can't create lasting happiness, because it doesn't address the underlying cause of the unhappiness it's trying to address—which, the critics say, is the economic unfairness of our society.

    In this article, I'll examine a related but distinct argument, which basically says the problem with personal growth—at least, in some forms—is that it works too well.

    This argument focuses on personal development techniques aimed at transforming our inner experience—to make us happier, more peaceful, less stressed, and so on.  Examples include meditation, yoga, and saying positive affirmations like “I love myself.”

    Does Contentment Equal Complacency?

    By helping us feel content, some critics claim, these techniques may have us neglect problem areas in our lives.  Suppose, for example, that meditating gives me a deep sense of calm.  On the surface, this sounds wonderful.  However, let's say I'm deeply in debt.

    If meditation takes away the stress of my financial situation, I may not be inclined to get the help I need.  Perhaps I'll just sit there, blissed out in a lotus position, until my landlord throws me into the street.  In this example, meditation has actually harmed me, because it has removed the anxiety that would have spurred me to take action.

    In Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, anesthesiologist Ronald Dworkin raises this concern.  Dworkin mostly focuses on the pacifying effects of antidepressant drugs, but he argues that meditation and similar practices pose the same threat.  The “artificial happiness” created by these practices, in Dworkin's view, can make people dangerously complacent about problems in their lives.

    Critics who focus on the political implications of personal growth sound a similar note.  Jeremy Carrette and Richard King write in Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion that modern spiritual practice is "the new cultural prozac, bringing transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation, but never addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice."

    In other words, if meditation, positive thinking, and similar techniques really can make us happier, that may be a bad thing, because we may lose the righteous indignation that would have us seek political change or help others.

    Are Happy People Uncaring?

    As we've seen, some critics worry about personal growth's effects on an individual level, while others focus on self-development's political impact.  However, their arguments share a common assumption, which we might call “happy people don't care.”

    That is:  if you feel happy or peaceful, you'll lose the desire to improve your own situation, or that of others.  In other words, you won't work toward personal or social change without some amount of anxiety, anger or despair.

    At least in American culture, people seem to take various versions of this idea as common sense:  people who don't worry must be lazy, “if you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention,” and so on.  Perhaps these are vestiges of the U.S.'s dour Calvinist heritage.  But can they be proven?

    In the critical books and articles I've reviewed, I've seen no evidence that, say, unhappy or anxious people are more "successful" in life by some measure, or more generous to others.  Nor have I seen evidence that people who pursue sources of so-called "artificial happiness," such as meditation and qi gong, make less money, get divorced more often, or "fail" more frequently by some other standard.

    In fact, this study argues that "frequent positive affect" actually causes "favorable life circumstances" -- that being happier leads to better job performance, income, and so on.  In other words, perhaps happiness actually "buys" money, rather than the other way around.  Barbara Ehrenreich, to be sure, disputes studies like this one, arguing that all they prove is that employers in the U.S. are irrationally biased in favor of happy (or happy-looking) employees.

    More importantly, I've also found psychological studies suggesting that happier people are actually more compassionate.  One study found that children who felt pleased about having accomplished a school task were more likely to help a fellow student.  Another concluded that people with a greater sense of “subjective well-being” were more inclined to give to charity.  (For a great summary of the research on happiness and generosity, see page 4 of this paper.)

    I think these studies are actually consistent with common sense.  Unhappy people, at least in my experience, are more likely to criticize or avoid others than to help them.  If we feel okay about ourselves, on the other hand, we'll feel more secure turning our attention toward others' needs.

    What Is "Real" Happiness?

    There's another interesting assumption behind the critiques we're looking at, which is that happiness brought about by personal growth practices somehow isn't "real" or "legitimate."  Thus, the inner peace I may find through meditation -- no matter how wonderful it may seem to me -- is somehow "fake."

    "In real life," Dworkin tells us, "people succeed if they are rich, famous, powerful or glorious."  Happiness brought about by other sources, to Dworkin, is "artificial."  I think Dworkin correctly states the conventional wisdom about what creates happiness for people.  However, I don't think he gives a satisfying reason why we should take the conventional wisdom at face value.

    If I feel happy when I'm meditating, that experience is certainly "real" to me -- no less "real" than the happiness I imagine Donald Trump experiences when he closes a real estate deal.  Even assuming the average person gets no happiness from meditating, that doesn't make my experience "false."  To say that would be like arguing that, if I like an underground form of music such as Christian death metal, my enjoyment of the music is somehow "artificial" because the genre isn't popular.  This is a logical fallacy called "argumentum ad populum."

    In short, I think the critics overstate the danger happiness allegedly poses to society.  In my next post, I'll ask a deeper question:  are the kinds of practices I'm talking about in this post -- meditation, yoga, and so on -- simply intended to "make people happy"?  Or do they have a greater purpose?

    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
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?