Yesterday public television in Seattle celebrated their decade-long relationship with the just-deceased self-help writer Wayne Dyer, and to honor the author the station was replaying one of his final talks.
The theme of his presentation alludes me; it was something about Five Steps to Something or Other, the secrets of which were contained in his new book, which was touted tastefully throughout his talk.
I decided to give the show a try, despite the fact that I’ve a strong aversion to listening to other people talk or write about ‘how’ life should be lived or experienced.
Prior to the advent of the Internet, this phenomenon of people giving advice about living was always buzzing in the background of life, but not in the omnipresent way it does now.
The Net has mutated what used to be a semi-contained industry (the self-help, how-to world) into a bacchanalia of yapping gurus and guides — billions of bromides pinging back and forth across blogs, YouTube and social media every hour.
The world, as the Net depicts it, is divided into distinct camps: Those with electronic devices doing nothing. And those doing nothing but writing or talking about doing stuff and then selling that information on an electronic device to people that aren’t doing anything.
While watching the PBS tribute to Wayne Dyer talking about Wayne Dyer and Wayne Dyer’s new book about doing stuff to be a better person like Wayne Dyer, my fascination and agitation landed not on Dyer, but on the audience.
Their eagerness and willingness to be told how they could improve their lives felt heartbreaking. Because the camera would periodically cutaway to random scans of the crowd, I was privy to dozens of eyeholes dilated in moist receptivity as Dyer spoonfed them a list of dos and don’ts for a ‘better life.’
Dyer had conveniently crafted these pointers into a list that was transformed into an illustration of a ladder with five distinct steps. And because our culture is obsessed to the point of mania with lists, the childlike image of the ladder remained projected behind Dyer as his proverbs tumbled forth.
I squirmed. Each ‘pointer’ or step on the ladder was related to Dyer’s personal existence — as if I were interested. (I write this flatly, not from a place of mean-spiritedness but fact, I wasn’t intrigued, though I’m sure many in the audience were.)
Dyer’s peculiar mix of humility and hubris was incredibly distracting. I kept thinking, “God, this is so brilliant. You missed your calling (and million$) by not starting a church or movement.” And yet my eyeholes were bone-dry.
Too, this interweaving of the promise of a secret to be revealed (to better oneself or reach a financial goal), with Dyer’s insistent desire to give it to me was just weird.
I’ve long suggested that no one follows the how-tos of self-help books. Books of this ilk are akin to talismans that people keep on their nightstand to remind them of something or other that is supposed to make their life better while they continue to do what they’ve always done because in the end the only person anyone is interested in hearing from is oneself.
Gurdjieff‘s student, the writer O.R. Orage wrote: “Imagination as we use it, is simply an excess of desire over ability.” Self-help books allow for a kind of imaginary ability that turns out to be nothing more than a hybrid form of procrastination. This deluded state hovers about in the mind for a couple of weeks and then the book begins to gather dust on the nightstand.
Finally, perhaps, maybe, you get your shit together and act from some kind of gumption. Often this comes via desperation or is tied in with eleventh-hour providence. But whatever: “Yay, you’re off of your ass!”
Moving in life, doing things, takes courage and I’m fascinated by how and why humans have lost so much courage, the scale of which you can track by watching the bestseller status of various self-help and how-to books.
Or just listen to the predominate message within politics, which goes something like: “Vote for ___ and she’ll guarantee that you and your family will survive this weird post-industrial society you’re struggling to survive in.” But why must I wait for Bernie Sanders to make my life better? (I think Bernie’s great by the way — but why displace my courage and faith unto him?)
So, the point of this post isn’t to make fun of self-help books but to act as a reminder or a spirited nudge. A reminder to pay attention to the impulse to buy books (or listen incessantly to TED talks about things you should be doing yourself) that are stand-ins for your goals and the kind of focus and exertion of will required to fulfill your purpose.
What is the solution to escaping the tyranny of the how-to-self-help-yourself stuff?
Well, if I told you that you’d be in the same cycle I’ve outlined above. Instead, I’ll offer some insights and observations that seem closer to (and are germane with) the universal. These are suggestions for you to poke at and entertain in passing. Lightly.
• Bring more of whatever generates inspiration in your life into your life. The sky’s the limit. And only you know what these subjects are. I have no specifics other than suggesting an increase. When you find yourself drawn to something, research and study it like a scientist or artist would do. Really dig into it.
The filmmaker John Waters once said something that sounds outrageous but contains volumes of truth: “Life is nothing if you’re not obsessed.” Take a bite of the apple. Don’t just read lists about it or what somebody blah blahed with it in her life. Who cares?
• Learn astrology from someone who has studied and practiced astrology for, like, decades. Notice I said learn not “Get your horoscope read.” Or work with an astrologer like myself that practices inquiry, not prognostication. And also notice the word decades — as a chronologic vetting.
Astrology, once you begin to decipher what’s actually happening within its world, offers up significant clues about your essential nature.
These clues are like acorns that you gather together and mull over, wondering about the quality of oak tree that will grow while also planting and growing and tending the actual trees. The tree’s ultimate form remains a mystery but at the minimum you have this collection of acorns to do things with; some trees in various stages of development.
Life is a wild mixture of experimentation and uncertainty. And really, that’s the nut of it. Reading about it or hearing someone talk about it will never ever quell your innate desire to create within it.
When I write the word ‘essential’ it’s done very simply. No esoteric theories or spiritual dimensions are implied (though it could be read that way if you like).
The essential within you is what’s, well, essential. It is what is of your bones, brain, heart, and blood. The essential you was present pre-birth, through your neonatal development, post-birth, through your livingness and will be present at and through and beyond your death. Unscathed.
The essential you is distinct from the fake you which is the you that self-help books are aimed at because self-help books are written from a place of generalization intermixed with the author’s narcissism. This is a harmful combination because you have someone blowharding about something that is supposed to be applicable to everyone when really it’s just applicable to the author — and, well, ultimately, again: Who cares?
In short: Self-help books are filled with solutions or suggestions or whatever that worked for the author (yay!) and may have nothing to do with your unique style or expression (boo!)
Astrology, when you learn the art for yourself, can, over time (note this phrase: over time) offer pointers, clues, hints about your essential nature. But that sort of insight takes time to weave together, to synthesize.
Again, these insights are intimations, they are not etched-in-stone. And besides: As soon as you feel you are stuck in a too-tight astrological box (a description of you as this or that) that means you’ve outgrown that particular representation — and something else is beginning to develop.
The planets are always moving, moving, moving — the progressed chart is always progressing. Life is evolving, evolving, evolving. Your horoscope of ten years ago has nothing to do with your horoscope of right now. Align with someone who understands astrology from this perspective.
• Contemplate your death. Not in a morbid fashion, but just check-in with this reality now and then. This practice is bracingly sobering and will keep you on the right track, at the right pace, with whatever aims or plans or goals you have set for yourself.
The ego, with its origins in childhood, thinks like a child and considers its time on earth as unlimited, that everyone else will die — except for you. Find out for yourself if this is true or not.
• OK, so we are at the end of this list and this is a tricky one, but here goes: Develop a spiritual practice or devote time to a philosophical school of thought to see what you think about it.
Borrow from those practices that have a long line of experimentation and/or tradition behind them. Tried and true spiritual teachings with some gravitas. In other words, not New Age nonsense that’s the equivalent of net porn as an expression of human sexuality.
As my friend the writer Don Shewey wrote in his essay Get a Life — An Inner One:
These spiritual windowshoppers,
who idly ask, How much is that? Oh, I’m just looking.
They handle a hundred items and put them down,
shadows with no capital.
What is spent is love and two eyes wet with weeping.
But these walk into a shop,
and their whole lives pass suddenly in that moment,
in that shop.
Where did you go? “Nowhere.”
What did you have to eat? “Nothing much.”
Even if you don’t know what you want, buy something,
to be part of the general exchange.
Start a huge, foolish, project,
It makes absolutely no difference
what people think of you.