Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Why are so many self-help instructions so useless?

What supposedly helpful, calming, centering, growthful, beneficial, mindful practices do you pursue, or have in mind pursuing?

Without enrolling in a three-year course, locking yourself away in some retreat, or spending thousands of pounds, what kind of practice might work for you?

I have just spent some time - I’m hesitating to say: waste - on researching various self-help and mindfulness practices that are available out there, on the net. I’m trying to find something that I can actually responsibly recommend to my clients.
I must say, it is becoming a rather upsetting and frustrating endeavour.

I can't find much I can wholeheartedly get behind. So here is my first blog post of my own, with a simple set of instructions at the end that will change your life (naa, just kidding!).

The upsetting thing about these positive, superficial, teachings - 19.95 for a DVD on Enlightenment or Realizing Your True Self - is that they are facile; they don't work the way they make out. They do not deliver what they appear to promise. Most of the time, most of us see straight through them. But just once in a desperate while, we try them. We fail miserably, and then we get disappointed. That’s not a big deal. But more importantly, we become cynical, which means we stop trying stuff like that. Which is a shame, because there is, of course, a kernel of truth in all of it, which is why we tried it in the first place.
But how do you access that kernel of truth?
If I could tell you that, then the people who want to sell you their clever stuff in the first place would be able to tell you; and then we wouldn’t be having this problem.

The uncomfortable truth is: whatever the clever practice, typically the teacher or instructor cannot even quite get you into the starting blocks. Or they cannot get you through the initial eye of the needle.
Because there is no generally applicable procedure or trick for that crucial first step; no ‘one-size-fits-all’ instruction that can be mass distributed - it’s an individual thing.

So the best I can do here is try and give you a general handle on: why general instructions don’t work, and cannot work (at least not on their own, and in and of themselves).
So rather than telling you how to make the instructions work (whatever the instructions are that you are attracted to), we need to also focus on: how you cannot help but sabotage them. So we need to somehow find a way of accessing and becoming aware what your individual way of ‘sabotaging’ the general instructions may be.

Because this is one reason why we mistrust most of those goody-goody sets of instructions: because they are focused on positive intentions.  And they imply that if only you focus properly on the positive intention, results will follow. And if the results don’t follow, then it’s your fault for not bloody doing it right. It’s never the fault of the instructions (apparently, these have worked for millions of people all over the world, as you can see from all the grateful testimonials), so you are the one single dumbass who didn’t do it right. Or maybe you are just too messed up. And it was such a simple thing to follow and they made it all so plain and simple; so if - in spite of that - you did not succeed, you must be a real dork.

That is upsetting. If it did not work for you, it is because the instructions were a) flawed, b) incomplete or c) they just cannot be mass produced.

So let’s say, to begin with, they were flawed. One regular and typical flaw is to only focus on the positive intention. Who are you kidding? If it was just a question of a positive intention, I would have figured it out by now. I want a beer, I go to the fridge - I make a decision. Please don’t tell me I’m dumb because I haven’t decided properly or determinedly enough to make myself happy.

Most of us know that there is an internal devil somewhere, interfering with our best intentions. Some little saboteur is structured into the fabric of our decision-making. Some fiend is eroding our discipline. Please don’t tell me I just have to have better intentions. That’s insulting my intelligence (or whatever shred of it I have left, after failing your wonderful instruction).

So instructions that are mainly focussed on positive intentions (and the determination and discipline to stick to them), we wisely mistrust. We think they are facile. And right we are.

Most of us know that to get liberated even from some minor psychological hiccup normally takes some work; not necessarily huge effort, but some kind of attentiveness, some determination and mainly: some discomfort.
Not all change works by “no pain - no gain” (development can occur gracefully and through pleasure, not to say: love, which most of us to find much more threatening than pain!), but generally speaking things don't drop away easily once they have become ingrained. 
More than 30 years of being a psychotherapist seem to confirm that (but maybe I am pre-selecting a non-representative subsection of the population).
But generally speaking, when people have good intentions, they don’t just get put off by external circumstances. There is an internal mechanism that sabotages them. We need to factor that in when we give instructions towards a happier life.

Unless whatever instructions you are attracted to include that little detail, they have a fundamental flaw right there – so let’s not put ourselves off with facile simplistic bullshit.

For example, it is no good going on about how precious and unique your individuality is, and how important it is to get in touch with that. The thing about individuality is that it is not just your talents and gifts and virtues that make you you (as you will have noticed); the amazing thing about individuality is that also your fuck-up is uniquely, extraordinarily YOU. Yes, you are idiosyncratic and unusual, specifically in your creativity. But creativity works both ways: your inner saboteur is also creative and makes use of your one-in a-million qualities, to sabotage you in an entirely unique way.

Which is precisely why general positive guidelines about thinking positively, or doing little practices here and there, ain't going to work (at least not in terms of the hype that gets promised around it).

So let's put something substantial in place: there is a character.
‘Character’ is something that psychotherapists - in their weird, contrary way - have come to define in just the opposite way that the rest of the population does.  But in their weird way, they have a point, as we will see.

Normal people define ‘character’ as something positive, we think of strength of character; as something that  traditional education was supposed to foster and hone; as something that other people can rely on in times of crisis. Character is all the good stuff that makes you you.

Well, not so psychotherapists:  for about 80 years now, there is a well established definition of ‘character’ as a defensive armour that we put on,  or more precisely: that gets put onto you via conditioning and  socialisation. It is all the  outer stuff you have acquired, the trappings, the front, the masks we wear, everything that is precisely not you.  Think of Pink Floyd and ‘The Wall’ -  that wall is ‘character’.

‘Character’, in the psychotherapists’ definition, is a set of well-worn, partly defensive, partly creative adaptations whose main purpose in life is to shield you, to protect you, to restrict the realm of possibilities (in terms of hurting yourself further than you already are).
Now, whatever practice you are being taught to do (to take yourself closer to salvation), the thing is most of us, most of the time, cannot help but …
a)   hear it via our character,
b)  misunderstand via our character, and
c)   apply it via our character
By the end of that, nothing much helpful is left.

To Be Continued ...

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