Thursday, April 14, 2016

WHY MOST SELF-HELP BOOKS DON’T HELP

‘Who is the “I” that is going to change it? The “I” is also a habit,
the “I” is a series of words and memories and knowledge, 
which is the past, which is a habit.”
J. Krishnamurti, The Impossible Question.


Go into any book shop, or look online, and you will find self-help books galore. I have bought quite a few of them myself over the years. Most of them are a total waste of money. They don’t work. Why? Because most of them rest on an assumption that is completely false, namely, that what we call the self can change the self. It can’t.

We use the word ‘self’ in two different senses. First, we use the word to describe the ‘person’ each one of us is---the ‘real you,’ so to speak---and that is a most legitimate use of the word. However, we also use the word to refer to what we mistakenly perceive to be our real identity. Let me explain.

We perceive life through our senses and by means of our conscious mind. Over time, beginning from the very moment of our birth, sensory perceptions harden into images of various kinds formed out of aggregates of thought and feeling. In time, the illusion of a separate 'observing self' emerges, but the truth is that our sense of mental continuity and identity are simply the result of habit, memory and conditioning. Hundreds of thousands of separate, ever-changing and ever-so-transient mental occurrences—in the form of our various likes, dislikes, views, opinions, prejudices, biases, attachments and aversions, all of them mental images—harden into a fairly persistent mental construct of sorts. This construct is, however, nothing more than a confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’ or ‘selves’) which are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way that appears to give them a singularity and a separate and independent existence and life of their own. The result is the ‘observing self', but it is little more than a bundle of remembered images from and out of which further thought and new imagesyes, more of themarise.


As mentioned, this ‘observing self’ consists of hundreds of other selves, each of which is an image that we build in our mind over time and in time. There is, for example, the angry false self (‘I am angry’), the jealous false self (‘I am jealous’), the fearful false self (‘I am fearful’), the unworthy self (‘I am a miserable sinner’), and so on. These selves—lots and lots of psychological ‘I's’ and ‘me's’ that collectively manifest as our ego-consciousness) are called false because they are not the real person each one of us is, but we mistakenly believe that one or more of these false selves---which are nothing more than self-images in our mind---are the real person that we are. In truth, all of these 'I's' and 'me's' have been created by thought. Indeed, they are thought--thought images, if you like.

Now, these false selves are illusory, not because they do not exist--for they do indeed exist as images in our mind--but because they have no separate, distinct, permanent identity from the person that we are, the latter being a mind-body complex that is ontologically real (the 'physical "I"'). Only the person that you are---a person among persons---is ontologically real.

We are self-conscious beings, and not only is there this ‘observing self’ in our mindalong with many other mind-invented selvesthere is also an ‘observed self,’ in that the observing self (a subject) is able to ‘split,’ so to speak, and become an ‘observed self’ (an object). So, we have the ‘I’ subject and the ‘I’ object. But that’s not the end of it. Every like, dislike, view and opinion hardens over time into a little ‘self’, so we have hundreds of these selves in our mind at any one point in time. The ‘observing self’ can easily morph into the ‘judging self’, deciding which likes and dislikes we will keep, and which ones we will discard. Ditto views and opinions. The ‘observing self’ can and does also morph into an ‘analytical self’ which analyses our other false selves. At the risk of repeating myself, none of these little selves, has no separate, discrete, or independent existence apart from the person each one of us is. In that sense the ‘observing self’ is false and illusory. Worse, it is the very same self—any other false self---that is being observed. This is what it means to be trapped in the illusion of self---a false self, lots and lots of them, in fact. Listen to what the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti [pictured right] has to say about the matter. These lines come from chapter 12 of his book Freedom From the Known:

One image, as the observer, observes dozens of other images around himself and inside himself, and he says, 'I like this image, I'm going to keep it' or 'I don't like that image so I'll get rid of it', but the observer himself has been put together by the various images which have come into being through reaction to various other images. So we come to a point where we can say, 'The observer is also the image, only he has separated himself and observes. This observer who has come into being through various other images thinks himself permanent and between himself and the images he has created there is a division, a time interval. This creates conflict between himself and the images he believes to be the cause of his troubles. So then he says, "I must get rid of this conflict", but the very desire to get rid of the conflict creates another image.'

So, I hope you can see by now that self is indeed the problem. The self that wants to change is the very same self that doesn’t want to change. The self that observes is the self being observed. Self is always self and nothing else but self. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple [pictured left], pointed out, ‘no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’ The self that wants to get rid of the self that is causing problems in one’s life is the same self as the one causing the problems. Self cannot change self. The only way self can change is by morphing into some other self, but you still end up with a self, and what good is that, I ask you? In any event, a self, being nothing more than a mental image in our mind, has no power in and of itself in any event. That is why we need to rely upon some power-not-oneself.

Let me say it again. Self can’t change self, and that’s where most self-help books go horribly wrong. However, the person that you are can change, but where does the power to change come from if it doesn't come from one's negative, conditioned ego-self? Is it some person, some god or god-like figure who will step in and change everything for us? Well, there are some who assert that is the way out, but I beg to differ. One of the many things I like about Buddhism is that it says, in effect, ‘Only you, the person that you are, can get yourself out of the mess you have created for yourself.’

Here’s some more wisdom from Krishnamurti, again taken from chapter 12 of his book Freedom From the Known:

Any movement on the part of the observer, if he has not realized that the observer is the observed, creates only another series of images and again he is caught in them. But what takes place when the observer is aware that the observer is the observed? … The observer does not act at all. The observer has always said, 'I must do something about these images, I must suppress them or give them a different shape'; he is always active in regard to the observed, acting and reacting passionately or casually, and this action of like and dislike on the part of the observer is called positive action -- 'I like, therefore I must hold. I dislike therefore I must get rid of.' But when the observer realizes that the thing about which he is acting is himself, then there is no conflict between himself and the image. He is that. He is not separate from that. When he was separate, he did, or tried to do, something about it, but when the observer realizes that he is that, then there is no like or dislike and conflict ceases.

For what is he to do? If something is you, what can you do? You cannot rebel against it or run away from it or even accept it. It is there. So all action that is the outcome of reaction to like and dislike has come to an end.

Then you will find that there is an awareness that has become tremendously alive. It is not bound to any central issue or to any image -- and from that intensity of awareness there is a different quality of attention and therefore the mind -- because the mind is this awareness - has become extraordinarily sensitive and highly intelligent.

The answer is self-awareness—choiceless, non-judgmental awareness. You look. You observe. You are alert and aware. When you truly come to see—and know—that all of those false selves in your mind are illusory and have no power over you except the power you choose to give them by identifying with them—note carefully that word ‘identify’—you, the person that you are, will have become free of their grip upon you. 

Yes, you can and will be relieved of the bondage of self when you come to understand that you need no longer be a slave to self. Stop trying to change or eradicate your false selves. Freedom comes when you are no longer for or against whatever self is the supposed problem at the partiuclar time—that is, when you are no longer fighting against that self being in your mind nor are you trying to hold on to it. This is what is known as letting go. Others call it acceptance. Krishnamurti calls it ‘choiceless awareness’. The words don’t matter, only the reality behind those words.

So, what is the ‘power-not-oneself’? It is you—the person that you are—when, to quote Krishnamurti once again, ‘there is an awareness that has become tremendously alive’.

That, my friends, is the only kind of self-help that works.


Freedom From the Known.
J. Krishnamurti. Edited by Mary Lutyens. New York: Harper & Row.
Copyright © 1969, 2010 Krishnamurti Foundation Trust Limited,
Brockwood Park, Bramdean, Hampshire, United Kingdom.
All rights reserved.



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