Monday, October 3, 2011

TWO SELF-HELP MYTHS THAT MUST BE EXPLODED ONCE AND FOR ALL



Ring bells! Blow trumpets! Today is the first anniversary of this blogsite. I uploaded my first posts on 3 October 2010, and this is my 128th post.

I have always been interested in self-help literature, but there is a lot of rubbish, and even some very dangerous ideas as well, in many self-help books.

Now, the man Dr Norman Vincent Peale (pictured left), and his many writings, sermons and talks, have had an enormous impact on my life, but when I read some of his writings today, I recoil. Take, for example, the first chapter of his monumental best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking. The chapter is entitled ‘Believe in Yourself,’ and the first three sentences of that chapter are as follows:

BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.

I must have read those lines hundreds of times over the years ... and they seemed to make sense to me for many years as well. I have even quoted those lines to others including several former students of mine. Although I still endorse much of what Dr Peale wrote and preached in his long life, I no longer think we must ‘believe’ or ‘have faith’ in ourselves or our abilities.

Then there is the whole ‘self-esteem movement.’ Dr Robert H Schuller, whose own ministry and writings have been greatly influenced by the thoughts and writings of Dr Peale, wrote in his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, ‘A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem.’ Really? I’m not so sure. Please read on.

MYTH ONE: WE MUST BELIEVE IN OURSELVES

We are told that we must believe in ourselves, and have faith in ourselves. Why? How does believing in yourself make any difference to your ability to do X or Y? What you need is knowledge and insight – knowledge of what you can and can’t do, and insight into the person you are.

We are told – especially by proselytizing Bible-believing Christians – that even the most militant atheist has faith in something or someone. For example, we are told that when we board a bus, we are demonstrating that we have ‘faith’ in the driver of that vehicle or in his driving ability. Nonsense. We are simply acting on the knowledge that, statistically, it is more probable than not, but by no means certain, that we will arrive safely at our destination. We then make an assumption – yes, an assumption – that, all things considered, it is ‘safe’ to board the bus. Belief or faith is not required or involved at all.

As I have said, time and time again, people ordinarily believe when they don't know or understand something. Do you believe in God or Jesus? Buddha? Now, I have nothing against God (unless that God be a cruel, tribal or sectarian God) or Jesus, but why believe? Obey? Yes, if you like. Follow? Perhaps. But believe? No!

There is no need to believe anything ... and nothing to believe ... or disbelieve for that matter. Whether or not something is the case does not depend upon belief or disbelief. Forget all about believing and belief-systems. Beliefs are for ‘spiritual cripples’ ... for those who can’t, or won’t, think for themselves. Beliefs, by their very nature, take the form of prejudices, predilections and biases of various kinds. Shakyamuni Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils (āvarnas). In other words, beliefs distort reality. Indeed, they prevent us from knowing and experiencing things as they really are. In that regard, I have always found helpful these words attributed to the Buddha: 'Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don't believe.'

So, forget about ‘believing’ in yourself ... or in anyone else for that matter.

MYTH TWO: WE MUST HAVE A HIGH SELF- ESTEEM

This myth is closely related to the first one, if it doesn’t actually devolve from the first.

For years now, educators and psychologists – especially child psychologists – have spoken of the supposed need to boost children’s ‘self-esteem.’ We in the West have suffered for far too long under that dreadful system of 'self-esteem-based education'.

One of the greatest books ever written is Charles Sykes’ book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write or Add. If you haven't read that book, please do so. As a university lecturer based in Sydney, Australia, I taught law – which is all about the power of the written and spoken word – for almost 20 years, and I was simply appalled at how few of my law students over the years could write a decent English sentence. (The problem got worse as the years progressed.) It wasn't really the fault of the students. It was the fault of a number of silly people in high places in government and educational bureaucracy over the previous 2 or 3 decades who preached that literacy of the supposed 'old-fashioned kind' was unimportant. What was supposedly important was ensuring that every 'precious' student had a 'healthy ego' and was not 'stigmatized' in any way. So, the task of the teacher or lecturer was to 'jolly them [the students] along.' The result? Wholesale mediocrity and narcissism of an almost clinical kind.

Fortunately, the tide has turned somewhat ... but not, so far as I can see, in teaching. However, there is a strong counter-movement – led by psychological giants such as Dr Martin Seligman (pictured left) – against the supposed need for ‘self-esteem.’ All too often in practice, efforts and appeals by psychiatrists, psychologists and motivational speakers and preachers, as well as educators, to 'enhance' or 'boost' the so-called self-esteem of their clients, listeners or students are little more than paternalistic attempts at imposing their own conception of so-called truth upon their hapless 'victims.'

But back to this expression 'self-esteem.' ‘Self’ what? The ultimate, fundamental and bedrock objection to the whole 'self-esteem movement' is this – as I have written so many times before, there is simply no such thing as ‘self,’ so please forget all about such things as so-called ‘self-awareness,’ ‘self-consciousness’ ... and ‘self-esteem.’

True, we have a sense of continuity of a so-called ‘self’, but it is really an illusion. It has no ‘substance’ in psychological reality. 'Self' is simply a mental construct composed of a continuous ever-changing process or confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’) which are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way which appears to give them a singularity and a separate and independent existence and life of their own.

Having said that, I certainly do not deny that there is such a thing as 'esteem.' Let's proceed to look at how 'esteem' and the person that you are are connected or related. We will see that any connection or relation is neither dependent upon nor constituted by the supposed existence of what is otherwise a non-existent 'self.'

Now, how well do you know the person you are? I am not talking about ‘self’ knowledge, but knowledge of, and insight into, the person – note that word person – that you are.

Know this about the person you are. You are a person of inherent worth and dignity. Know that, and never forget it. You are a person among persons. You are a vital part of the interdependent web of all existence. You are, therefore, a person of esteem ... no matter what others may think of you. (And what they think of you is none of your business, anyway.)

I repeat, you are a person of esteem. It is part and parcel of being human ... and part of the very livingness of life. Is that not amazing? Esteem is something you are. It is not something you 'have' or must 'develop.' Now, having regard to those facts, know that you can truly be the person you want and will to be. Note, I have not used the word ‘self’ or 'ego' (heaven forbid) in any of that ... because there is simply no need to.

The whole concept of so-called 'self-esteem' is fundamentally flawed in more than one respect. Even if it were not, I would still reject the concept on the basis that it is far too focused on 'thoughts' and 'thinking' as opposed to such all-important things as awareness (cf mindfulness) and action. The cure for so-called 'low self-esteem' is this – act as a person of esteem. We have William James (pictured left) to thank for the 'act as if' principle. In his words, 'If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.'

Yes, I am aware that there are such things as 'learned helplessness' and 'self[sic]-defeating behaviour,' but they are things which can be overcome – over time – by means and as a result of the regular practice of mindfulness and associated disciplines and, in some cases, with the assistance of professional help from persons trained in the psychological sciences.

Now, mindfulness meditation is also referred to as ‘insight meditation.’ That’s what we need above all other things – insight. Mindfulness, as a way of being and living, gives us insight into the person each one of us is ... and insight into our respective thoughts, feelings, memories, images, bodily sensations, and so forth. Of course, insight alone never changes anything, but without insight you can’t change for the better. Armed with knowledge of the person you are, and insight into the workings of the person you are, you will be both successful and happy ... provided you get rid of your ‘self’ ... and your 'ego-itis.'

'Self-esteem'? There's really no such thing, and that means there is also no such thing as 'good' or 'high' self-esteem. Now, this is all you need to know – you are a person of esteem ... no matter what you have done, or not done, in your life. Know that ... and act accordingly ... but please don't believe.



RELATED POSTS





No comments:

Post a Comment