How Self-Help Can Help The World

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Many meditators, yogis, and other spiritual practitioners will answer this question with a resounding yes. Critics – ranging from religious studies and management scholars to serious Buddhist practitioners – may disagree.

Mindfulness meditation, which has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years, is commonly associated with a wide-ranging set of contemplative practices aimed at training oneself to pay “attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally,” as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society.

Early leaders in the mindfulness movement, many of whom came of age in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, had a more activist bent; they hoped that mindfulness would lead to a wave of self-actualization, increased compassion for others, and democratic decision-making. With these tools, humanity would be able to collectively address the many complex social problems we collectively face, such as racism, overconsumption, economic inequality, and environmental degradation.

To investigate the spread of mindfulness across powerful social institutions in science, healthcare, education, business, and the military, I travelled around the country from 2010-2012, and again in 2015, talking with leaders of the mindfulness movement. The passionate, inspiring mindfulness advocates at top Ivy League and flagship universities, at Fortune 500 companies like Google and General Mills, at K-12 schools, and the U.S. military had personally benefited from meditating and felt bolstered by a wave of scientific evidence which has supported the practices’ beneficial effects on well-being, memory, attention, meta-awareness, cognitive flexibility, and emotional regulation. Above all, by sharing mindfulness, meditators believed they not only transformed themselves, but the world around them.

Yet, most meditators I spoke with revealed more self-centered effects from spending time in quiet contemplation. This was not surprising to some of mindfulness’ leaders.

Sitting in his office at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society in January of 2015 in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Executive Director Saki Santorelli told me that people loved to do mindfulness because they learned about who they were, and through the practice, they transcended who they previously were, and who they had thought they were. This process was intrinsically rewarding and exhilarating.

People come to their mindfulness program, he said, because they have “a Real. Life. Problem. Something is just not right,” he said. “And what keeps people engaged is . . . the most interesting topic in the world.” He paused and turned toward me.

“What is this most interesting topic in the world?” He paused again, waiting.

“The most interesting topic in the world,” he responded, “is me.” He continued, “People come here because they are interested in me. Meaning themselves. And something’s not quite right about me or I want to learn more about me including “how am I going to live with this condition for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years?”
In teaching mindfulness at the Center, they seek to “draw out,” rather than “pour in” knowledge. They seek to ignite “a fire with people to know more about ‘who’ or ‘what’ I actually am,” he said. He explained:

They start with practice. Practice reveals not because I say so, but because they discover it. They discover that they have a breath, they discover that it feels a particular way, they discover something about the relative present moment, whatever that is. They discover something about what happens in their viscera when they have a particular thought or a particular emotion . . . They discover the ways that they’re conditioned or limiting themselves or living today out of yesterday’s memory, about whom or what I am or what I’m capable of. And they love it. . . . And whenever people discover a little bit more about who they are, they transcend. And ultimately, I think that’s what’s transformative—is that sense of transcending. Transcend some idea about who you think they are, even if it’s a tiny little idea, and then you feel more room.

Others found meditation useful for different reasons. Neuroscientist Ravi Chaudhary (pseudonym used upon request) thought mindfulness practice provided him with a critical cognitive distance that enabled him to pause, reflect, and ultimately, have greater self-control in facing the challenges that arose in his life. He has learned “not be super reactive to unpleasant situations,” he said. “There’s difficult situations no matter what,” but with mindfulness, he now can take “a moment, sit back and accept that . . . I am not part of it, but rather it is there and I am here.” This helps him make decisions “as if it’s a presumed situation,” and he feels less entangled with difficult situations.

These effects of mindfulness meditation are no doubt important: they help people learn about themselves and, hopefully, engage in more thoughtful decision-making. Mindfulness meditation can also have a therapeutic effect for many people, helping them de-stress, calm themselves and provide openings to experience a sense of peace.

However, mindfulness’s impact off the cushion of the larger organizations and communities where it is practiced largely remains to be seen. Most mindfulness programs have never gotten around to confronting the many larger-scale social problems we face as a society; in fact many newer practitioners might be surprised to learn that founders of early mindfulness programs had sought out such activist-minded ends. In speaking with dozens of program leaders and mindfulness teachers, only a handful had any evidence at all that their programs’ impacts extended beyond the program’s direct participants and into the larger organizations they were a part of.

The impact of mindfulness practice, even among top CEOs and corporate leaders, is largely not trickling down into their larger companies and causing them to cut down expected work hours or loads or increase wages, which are the fundamental causes of the stress many Americans face today. While meditation practices may individually improve the lives of practitioners, and perhaps even those they regularly interact with, it is less clear how the practices lead to the collective action needed to address the complex social problems we face daily in our workplaces and in our democracy.

Yet, the myth that mindfulness will lead to a more progressive, utopian world continues to linger, as a mirage, that might appear just around the bend.

Featured image credit: “Take a seat photo” by Simon Wilkes. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Self-Help In The Age Of New Technology

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I witnessed it gradually unroll from the 1990s. It started with The Learning Annex catalogues of courses where you could attend a local one-day class to “get in touch with your inner child” and to “be your own boss” among hundreds of other courses. It used to be a habit with friends that while at a Village diner having breakfast, we would read the titles to these classes and invariably break down in laughter. There was something entirely amusing, yet absurd, about the plethora of classes with courses entitled “Walking Crosstown” and “How to Do Your Laundry by Hypnosis.” Little did we know that this culture of self-empowerment was just beginning.

From local, in-person courses, The Learning Annex had expanded its offerings to online classes and alongside many other similar businesses. Alongside such learning centers a new class of profession called the “life coach” has also foot into this market. While self-help culture rose in the 1970s, proliferating in the 1980s largely through books such as Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns (1980) and The Power of Now (2004) by Eckhart Tolle, self-help publishing industry expanded massively into the realm of the motivational coach on tour and on television and to the more local entrepreneur who advises business executives how to deal with stress or how to approach public speaking, among many other niche specialities. With new technology, these self-help gurus have moved onto the Internet and into app territory in order to expand their audience while giving the appearance of a one-to-one experience.

Calling himself a “life and business strategist,” Tony Robbins is now one of dozens of celebrity self-help gurus who relies more than ever on new technology for his business. With his Wealth Mastery and Breakthrough apps among many others, Robbins is targeting profits through mobile phones for people on the go. There is no shortage of personal development advice today. From Armand Peri who shares “secrets of success” to career counsellor Barbara Scher, this industry is taking in a whopping $9.9 billion annually in the United States alone. And a huge chunk of the profits are today derived from online and app-based revenue. Even Oprah’s spiritual advisor has cashed in on new tech and offers online courses and lecture series in addition to a guided meditation app. She also announced that she is running for president which might be the biggest claim to glory for this trade.

Why are so many willing to sink money into what was once an industry focussed on interaction with a live motivational speaker for an inspirational afternoon? Given that people come to use apps as a replacement for the workshop experience of learning, I remained skeptical that an app could ever replace the social and live interaction of speaker to audience member? In essence, if I am going to invest in an area of my life that I think I need help in, why would I pay for an app over a local life coach?

Some journalists have written about their experiences using these self-care apps with varying results, most noting that the end goal of better mental health or finances is a bit more complex than any app can undertake. But couldn’t the same be said for the books published on this subject and the lecture tours by the most prominent in this field? Where we expect apps or an online course to “give us motivation” shouldn’t we be seeking more complex solutions that might include a longer-term commitment with a live human being in the form of therapy? In essence, I wonder if we ought not to make a return to psychoanalysis or what is referred to as bibliotherapy (self-help books) given that there is strong evidence in favor of these methods, such as the University of Nevada study which found that depressed people thrived when they read Feeling Good (1999) as much as those in the control group who received cognitive-behavioral bibliotherapy (CBT) for dealing with depression. Can the same conclusions be made of technological therapies through purely computers or mobile phone interactions?

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For depression, high tech solutions are catching on which involve CBT and these apps have been reviewed for their efficacy quite recently in the “Review of cognitive behavioral therapy mobile apps using a reference architecture embedded in the patient-provider relationship.” In this review, Alice Lan et al focussed on upon 35 mental health (mHealth) apps claiming to provide cognitive behavioral therapy. Their conclusion was that these apps did not “enhance the patient-provider relationship, improve patient accountability or help providers support patients more effectively between visits,” noting that there is room for improved mHealth apps which might be better integrated into existing healthcare systems. However, another study last Fall led by Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces conducted a “meta-regression analysis” of 21 studies where it was determined that Internet-based therapy platforms effectively alleviate depression. So much for my skepticism on new tech, but the jury is out if these apps work in areas of wellness, other areas of mental health outside of depression, or if these apps might not be creating more anxiety than they alleviate.

Still, the positive outcomes tend to be limited to a very narrow set of criteria and areas of self-development such that there is no evidence to show that self-help apps are useful outside of CBT or certain treatments for depression. Can we learn how to find our inner child with an app? Or is this a search that is meant to be forever “in progress”? Perhaps time and many downloads later we will have better answers. Or, maybe we will simply perpetuate the culture of self-perfection, wanting more, and never being satisfied with the self?

Julian Vigo is a freelance journalist and writer. Follow her on Twitter or send her an email.

– by Wes Colton, Introvert Unbound Those of us interested in doing “inner work” have two conflicting schools of thought to choose from. The Self Help school teaches us to tackle our weaknesses while the Self Love school wants us to accept ourselves for who we are, flaws and all. Pretty much all of us […]

via The Paradox of Self Love and Self Help — Introvert Unbound

7 New Self-Help Books That Are Actually Helpful

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By Lizzy Francis

We live in busy times. Burnout is real. With the advent of remote work and the connected work place, people have less of an opportunity to disconnect than ever. Parents are over-worked and trying to be there for their kids and wonder how to make time in the day when they can’t even leave their office behind at the end of the day. Authors and experts have made note of that, and there’s been a bit of a cultural shift of self-help books that focus on helping people, you know, chill out a little. But which are worth checking out? We think that these books, each tailored at making more out of your life through simple steps, paring down distractions, figuring out what you need, and by accepting who you are, are worthwhile. They don’t ask you to give 110 percent all the time and learn to love the office like a family. In fact, the vast majority of them ask the opposite and they have some pretty poignant advice to help keep burnout at bay.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown
In Essentialismauthor Greg McKeown, a CEO of THIS, Inc., and business consultant, makes a case for a more decluttered life. This book could have a lesson for anyone, but Essentialism’s questions: “Are you stretched too thin? Do you feel overworked but unfulfilled? Are you busy but not feeling like you’re getting anything done?,” are particularly trenchant for the modern parent. McKeown asks the reader to engage with what he refers to as a “systematic discipline” in order to get ‘only the right things done.’ This book is helpful for readers who just want to make their lives less busy but more meaningfully full.

Digital Minimalism: The Case for a Focused Life in a Noisy World,Cal NewportIn Digital MinimalismCal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown and author of Deep Work, makes a case for a ‘digital detox.’ He argues that smartphones, apps, and screen time have greatly diminished our quality of life, not just because we’re looking at screens and engaging in a non-physical social world, but largely because of what he refers to as a ‘fragmenting’ effect — that the 10 seconds it takes for you to look at your phone greatly diminishes the quality of any in-person experience you may be having at that time. In Digital Minimalism, Newport offers a 30-day plan where followers pare down all non-essential technology, and after those 30 days are over, begin using tech again with intention. It’s something from which all of us can benefit.

10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help That Actually Works, Dan Harris
Although 10% Happier is one of the older entries on the list, having been published some five years ago, it deserves a spot simply because of its measured approach to meditation and happiness. Dan Harris, the author of the book, had a panic attack on national television. This book takes the reader on his journey deconstructing Harris’ own, harmful thought processes about incessant workaholism and explaining how he found meditation that helped him chill but still remain productive. For any parent on the boiling point, a reasonable approach to meditation could be seriously helpful.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown
The desire to be the perfect parent, employee, partner or person does not serve you, argues Brene Brown in The Gifts of ImperfectionTrying to be the ‘perfect’ parent or employee is only going to leave you frustrated and let down. So Brown offers ten “guideposts” that will help the reader accept their imperfections and live a more honest and happy life.

#Chill: Turn off Your Job, Turn on Your Life, Bryan Robinson
#Chill is the book for the guy who knows that they can’t really change overnight. For those who bring the office home with them at night and over the weekends, and would rather spend that time relaxing with family and friends, this book gives a bit of a guidebook to engage with a monthly program to “stop the cycle of over-work.” Bryan Robinson largely employs the use of mindfulness and meditation practices that help the over-worked take a deep breath and remain present.

Off The Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, Laura Vanderkam
Time management guru Laura Vanderkam managed to deal with feeling overworked and overbusy by letting go a little bit and telling herself that she has ‘all the time in the world.’ In short, she changed her outlook. And that’s the heart of Off The Clock, a book about personal attitude that employs readers with real tools for dealing with stress from the days where you feel too busy or stretched too thin, requires some brain-training. It also utilizes examples of real people, which helps the concepts feel less abstract and helps the reader see what this looks like in practice.

Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
If you lack focus at work, feel like you waste time on social media, or feel like you’ve been busy all day with nothing to show for it, Make Time might be helpful. It’s written by two former creators of Google’s ‘design sprint’, which is known as a period where a lot of work gets done in a lot less time than required by a lot of people working together. Make Time obviously draws on their experiencing “sprinting” by optimizing to-do lists, focusing professional energy, and designating time appropriately. It doesn’t ask for people to go 100 percent at all times — in fact, it asks quite the opposite. Engaging in productivity isn’t the same thing in being healthily productive. This book delineates the difference.