“Ten steps to lasting happiness; The path to a better you; Personal growth and beyond”. I just made these up, but they could easily all be contemporary self-help book titles. The sad reality is that so much of self-help reminds me of those get rich quick scams. They seduce you with the promise of instant results, but it is just snake oil self-help.
Better to subtract than add
The danger with snake oil self-help is that it falsely claims to offer you something new. The secret that has thus far eluded all of humanity. Such discoveries are certainly possible, as we sometimes find in the physical sciences. However, when the thing in question is as old and complex as the nature of the human condition, one can’t help but be suspicious. What 10 steps has the next self-help salesman discovered that has eluded Socrates, Nagarjuna and Jesus of Nazareth?
A far more robust approach is to simply start by observing. Observing yourself and the nature of your mind and how often we create our own problems. So, rather than taking positive action, liberation, if anything, is a lot about not doing — getting out of the way. This is why via negativa exists in ancient theological traditions — the approach to knowing God by eliminating what God is not.
Siddhartha Gautama in his own philosophy emphasised removing avoidable psychological suffering, rather than positively creating happiness. The idea here is that when unnecessary psychological tension is relinquished, you are automatically left with a state of inner freedom. Once again it is via negativa, rather than via positiva — letting go rather than adding more.
Beyond snake oil self-help
The whole idea of self-improvement has within it a hidden, erroneous assumption. That there is something more to be done before you can be a ‘complete’ human. Some mountain top to be reached before you can experience real happiness. For, it is not very saleable to say that you are just fine the way you are, if only you allowed yourself to see that!
Because this idea is at odds with the global paradigm of more and better, progress and success. Only that we are seeking, but never really finding — running faster and faster just to stand still. Modernity is so obsessed with externally-focused fantasies of bigger, better and brighter that it fails to notice the centrality of the human mind in how we relate to all things. How liberation is much more about self-understanding and self-enquiry.
However, all this requires you to take real personal responsibility. Responsibility for your own inner state. Even noticing the allure of snake oil self-help, in and of itself can teach us much about the mind. For, it is only a reflection of our deeper tendencies, both individual and societal.
What it takes then is the courage to look within.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.