In California, everyone is spiritually enlightened. Everyone is on a path to nirvana. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are gurus galore; ashrams are at every street corner; and yoga has gone mainstream. Recently, the spiritual hype seemed to go national when CNN’s Anderson Cooper attended a mindfulness retreat.
With all this self-help going around, you would think that our country would be full of people trying to make the world a better place.
You would be wrong.
Research shows that the California movement to raise self-esteem among youngsters, initiated in the 1980s, has led to an epidemic of narcissism. So much so that in a poll, 75% of college students were found to believe that they were above average, a mathematical impossibility. The story reminded me of Garrison Keillor’s famous line from the Prairie Home Companion: “In Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average.”
Social scientists believe that tools such as Facebook, which encourage users to post photos and trivial details about themselves, have only exacerbated the tendency toward self-absorption.
Since the 1960s, so many self-help movements have cropped up that it is hard to examine the validity of each one.
Some offer workshops on “nurturing the inner child.” The idea is that when you feel unloved, you give yourself the tender care that your parents failed to provide.
The problem is not with the premise, but its implementation. Under the guise of “nurturing the inner child,” many adults are simply becoming obsessed with fulfilling their own desires with little regard for others.
Movements like the Landmark Forum go a step further, requiring the participants to “drink the Kool-Aid,” a term that was introduced to the American lexicon after nearly a thousand members of the Peoples’ Temple drank poisoned Kool-Aid and died at the behest of their cult leader, Jim Jones.
Although suicides are thankfully rare among self-help cults, the use of specific language and behavior is not. Followers of such movements often speak in coded language, soon believing that they are superior to others who cannot follow their jargon. Some use personality tests, like Enneagram, which allegedly help you to know yourself; others encourage you to get rid of your sexual hang-ups by entering polyamorous relationships and engaging in group sex. All develop their own slogans, like “Ask for what you want,” “Achieve a breakthrough,” or “Beingness in a personal form.” The trouble is, many of the dictates can be interpreted in several ways, with the result that they can be used to further one’s self-absorption.
One easy way to tell if you are in a cult or not is by finding out if they expect you to recruit other people or not. A few years ago, when a neighbor of mine persuaded me to go to an introductory program at Landmark, I met several people who had been lured there under false pretexts, such as invitations to dinners.
What I find most annoying about the self-help movement is the “holier than thou” attitude of its followers. They assume that if you don’t belong to a self-help cult, you must be unenlightened. But, in my experience, if you inspect their behavior instead of their words, you will find a lack of even the commonest courtesy or compassion.
Followers of cults are often unwilling to engage in a philosophical or intellectual debate. What they want is quite the opposite, namely, to be with others who think exactly like themselves. No wonder, then, that we are seeing political and social polarization in our country today.
The other troubling aspect of many self-help movements is that you will find them filled with women. Are women in our society led to believe that they are in serious need of improvement? Plagued by a deep sense of unworthiness, are they seeking self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement in seminar after seminar?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you cannot benefit from mindfulness or spirituality. I, myself, follow a practice based on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, which include detachment, meditation, training the senses, slowing the mind, and one-pointed attention, among others. But the trouble is that most people who get drawn into self-help cults do not possess the ability to discriminate and to pick the useful kernels and leave the brainwashing behind.
In search of happiness, people are taking workshops today to recover from childhood traumas, to find soul mates, and to live in the moment. What they are forgetting is that there are billions of people around the world in need of help. What they are not being told by the money-making promoters of the self-help movement is that it just might be more fulfilling to get away from their inner selves and go out and live for others.
The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who, based on his brain scan, was recently pronounced “the happiest man in the world,” has one simple recipe for happiness: “If you are unhappy, go help someone else.”
Now that is the kind of self-help philosophy I can get behind.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.