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The Toxicity of Self-Help Spirituality

To live your best life, begin by caring about the lives of others.

Time and time again, our human nature attempts to find meaning in personal and collective suffering. Pain without purpose is a cruel and difficult ideology to embrace.  In times of great suffering and strife, we face two options – wallow in it and let it break you, or use it as a platform for progressive change, for yourself and even better, for others. Personally, I have always tried to choose the latter (often, after a lot of wallowing).  

So what about self-help spirituality? The market has exploded over the years with coaches, gurus, guides, all poised to teach us how to transform our lives through different means with predominantly the same message – “Visualize what you want and you can have it”. Granted, that’s an oversimplification, but in essence, exactly what it boils down to – a “you are God incarnate” belief that tells us we are entitled to anything and everything our minds can conceive of. Yet, despite the sweeping popularity and monetary success of purveyors of this narrative, people are still lonely, sick and poor. (I won’t even begin to discuss the larger, even more devastating global issues).

Why is that? Are some people just not doing it right? 

Truthfully, I’m all for a good self-help book. 

I’m all for the power of positive thinking and creative visualization. I believe whole – heartedly that it can cultivate an optimal internal landscape that creates fertile ground for growth, expansion and success. 

However, I struggle deeply with the idea that this is a form of spirituality that has the ability to lead us toward any type of lasting change much less evolutionary consciousness.  If anything, it often exacerbates the anthropocentric mentality that has led the world to its current state of spiritual, ecological, and socio-political affairs. 

I like to refer to this as the “spirituality of privilege”. A philosophy that tells us that we are of the utmost importance and can will anything we desire into being. This of course, is not limited to relationships, money or material things.  I know quite a few well meaning folk who truly believe they can manifest global change through their “intentions”. While I think that’s a great place to start, I’m hard pressed to believe that by itself, it’s going to bring peace to the Middle East. The danger of this type of thinking is that it perpetuates an idea that we are actually doing tangible work that’s creating change. Call me crazy, but I’d like to see realistic, sensible action follow this type of “visioning”.  

Much like prayer, it’s a great tool for personal transformation, but to believe we have real control over anything outside of ourselves, is somewhat unrealistic and perhaps slightly delusional. 

This leads me to the concept of a collective consciousness. Those considered to be on the cusp of science and spirituality attest to its existence and influence, and it’s a belief I hold loosely as well. We are small segments of an individual, universal body, something theologian, author, and activist Matthew Fox refers to as the Cosmic Christ. However, whatever subtle influence we may have on each another on a potential quantum level must be supported by genuine, consistent, real- life effort. 

Spirituality, in my humble opinion, is an opportunity to find meaning or existential truth, be it in our own lives or in the world around us. This can only be done through exploration, reflection, sincere practice and selfless service. 

I say all of this as an Interfaith minister who has been a seeker since childhood. I’ve quietly immersed myself in this work both personally and professionally for over 30 years.

This has provided me numerous wonderful opportunities to familiarize and align myself with different religious, spiritual, even political organizations and see them for who they really are. 

There are some exemplary groups that are doing magnificent work in the world –  others, not so much. The desire for tax shelter, fame as a “celebrity” minister or pseudo “thought leader” is far more appealing than actually serving the most underserved communities around them. This demographic tends to engage in a tremendous amount of congratulatory back patting and self – adulation for doing much of nothing.

Frustrating as that may be, it only bolsters my deep respect and admiration for those clergy and lay people who dedicate their lives to making the world a better place – for everyone, not just themselves.

I’ve seen self-help spirituality as a starting point for personal and philosophical exploration for many people. Bad things happen, we want to know why – and it can be a helpful, healing tool in that process. However, if we don’t dedicate ourselves to the real work, both inner and outer, we’ll never progress beyond the egocentric worldview, or shift from the “me to we” mentality, which is what the world desperately needs right now. Our very existence depends on it.

I’m not suggesting you abandon all things self-help. I’m simply inviting you to step into something deeper. Our consumerist society that profits on peddling illusion tells us more money, stuff, fame = more joy… and maybe that’s true to an extent. Who doesn’t want to be prosperous and enjoy nice things? But there will likely come a day when something inside you will want more and when it does, you should know where to look. There is an entire universe just outside your front door that is begging for your attention. A small, sincere and selfless gesture can lead to seismic shifts. I’ve seen it happen many times in the most surprising and serendipitous ways. Dream big, but don’t lose sight of the existing reality – and be generous and inclusive of others. Familiarize yourself with the needs of the world around you– justice, equality, sustainability to name a few – and see where you can contribute. 

This is the sacred place where deep, meaningful, transformation happens – the kind that money can’t buy.  

Ultimately friends, the older I get, the more I realize that truer words have never been spoken:

 “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  

If we could only heed Gandhi’s words of wisdom, we would unequivocally move towards a better existence not only for ourselves, but our entire planet. Now that’s an intention I can get behind .

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