Many personal development gurus posit that you can and should have it all, that every area of your life can be perfected without any need for compromise. Consider this quotation from personal development guru James Arthur Ray’s website:
“You really can enjoy total abundance financially, relationally, mentally, physically and spiritually…” ~James Arthur Ray, Master of Hyperbole
The total abundance James Arthur Ray is really enjoying is an abundance of total bullshit. Not surprisingly, Ray’s tagline is “As seen on Oprah, Larry King, and The Secret,” sources not exactly known for their journalistic integrity.
Nothing real exists in “total abundance.” Not atoms in the Universe (approximately 1080), not the amount of money in circulation, and not even “abundance mentality”–which is sometimes present and sometimes not, no matter how often or intensely you visualize your goals. Perhaps Ray is referring to mathematical abstractions? “You really can enjoy counting a total abundance of integers. The possibilities of multiplication are unlimited!”
The Ubiquitous Matrix of Lies in Personal Development
The personal development world is full of such lies, exaggerations, and hype–what is remarkable is that we haven’t gotten angry about it, and that folks like James Arthur Ray continue to stay in business. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of “the ubiquitous matrix of lies” our consumerist culture exists within, as Charles Eisenstein eloquently called it. But the difference between “Coors rocks Harrisburg” and “You really can enjoy total abundance financially, relationally, mentally, physically and spiritually…” is that nobody believes the first is true. The Coors slogan is an “obvious and unremarkable lie, beneath the threshold of most people’s awareness,” but we want to and often do believe gurus like James Arthur Ray. We want to believe that we can indeed have a perfect life, free from pain and suffering, and full of wealth “in all areas of your life”–especially financially.
“Isn’t it remarkable that lies are still effective even when no one believes them?” says Eisenstein, and it is worth considering here. Even when we don’t believe the lies of the personal development gurus, we still spend more than $8.5 billion dollars (as of 2004) every year in the U.S. alone on “self-improvement books, CDs, audiocassettes, infomercials, motivational speakers, videos, multi-media packages, public seminars, workshops, holistic institutes, personal coaching, and more.” We clearly believe we can improve our lives dramatically–and perhaps even totally–or else why would we be spending so much on these products and services?
The Ultimate Aim of Life: Getting Stuff?
James Ray says that you can have it all, and this is a good thing. In other words, the ultimate aim of life is to have everything you want–including all the money and stuff you want.
This is a very different view from the current positive psychology paradigm. In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky claims that getting what you want externally in life has little to no effect on happiness, and that indeed even our happiness–the ultimate aim of life in her view–is only 40% in our control.
Which is it? It can’t be both. Either external circumstances affect happiness or they don’t. I’m more likely to believe the research than the master of hyperbole on this one. So if getting everything that you want in life is not a critical factor at all with regards to happiness, then Ray and his followers value getting what you want more than happiness! In terms of classical economics, this pursuit would be defined as irrational, and indeed the pursuit of what we want despite our happiness is all too common in personal development culture.
Personal Development Junkies and their Drug Dealers
It is so common as to be an archetype for an individual to become “hooked” on personal development products, sometimes spending upwards of $2000-5000 a year on Life Coaching, live seminars, weekend workshops, special diets and supplements, books, CDs, “mastermind groups,” etc., never reaching the ever-receding horizon of total abundance. The initial offering is usually free or cheap–a free CD, an email newsletter, a $15 paperback. The free or cheap thing sells you on the intro seminar, often a few hundred dollars for a weekend, but still within reason. Then at the emotional peak of an incredibly intense workshop, the $18,000 “advanced” seminar (with all the same material as the $400 one you’ve just taken, but in Maui and for 7 days instead of 3) is pitched using psychological tactics as if designed by the CIA to interrogate prisoners of war.
When I was deeply hooked–spending all of my disposable income and time on audio programs, information products, and seminars–part of the justification for my spending habits was that I felt I was so close to “getting it,” and that once I did, I would be rich almost overnight, freed from debt and work–just like the stories of the other gurus. I thought maybe I was alone in this delusion until the personal development blogosphere, and now the Twitter-o-sphere exploded. I’ve now seen so many examples of self-proclaimed gurus of abundant living who consume and produce a deluge of personal development media as to almost suggest a DSM V category: Narcissistic Personality Disorder with Delusions of Grandeur and Cyclothymia, subtype “Personal Development and Social Media Marketing Guru-itis.” (I consider my writing here as part of my recovery program.) If your financial goals include making over a million dollars a year and you are currently middle or lower class, you might already have this disease, which by the way, is infectious!
Some of this $8.5+ billion market would surely exist even without the hype and lies in marketing, but how much? To what extent is the personal development and self-help market inflated due to the addiction to products and services promoting an impossible ideal?
The Necessity of Compromise
When you focus on one area of life, or when one area forces you to focus on it (as in illness, the birth of a child, or job loss), you necessarily must compromise focus on other areas of your life. While these challenges may draw out unseen resources, they also force difficult choices. Sometimes that means the other areas of your life run along just fine, but in many cases, you must make sacrifices. This is good news when you accept it, for it releases you from trying to conform to an impossible ideal of perfection.
If you have a newborn and think you should still be having wild sex every night with your wife, you will suffer needlessly. When you can let this unrealistic expectation go, you’ll still not be having any sex and you might be sad about that, but you can more easily accept that this situation is (hopefully) temporary, and focus back on your beautiful baby. Accepting current reality is a kind of abundance that can be experienced even in contexts when your power to get what you want is very limited.
The Logic of Addiction
Let’s continue with James Arthur Ray, as he is such a clear example of the excesses of personal development culture. If you click the pyramid marked “begin your journey” on Mr. Ray’s website, the headline on the next page asks…
“Are you 100% totally and completely happy with your life?”
The implication is twofold:
1) that Mr. Ray is the first person ever to answer this question “yes,” making him either a pathological liar or a narcissist (or both).
2) that Everyone on Earth needs to purchase his products, forever, until they too are as perfect as him.
The biggest irony is in the video clip on this “squeeze page” (a marketing website that aims solely to get your name and email address and then send you a series of autoresponder sales emails dragging you into the “sales funnel”). Ray begins by talking about the “large amount of stress and fear lately” due to the global recession. “Who could imagine that some of the largest banks in the United States could go belly up?” He then implies that we are not in a global recession but that this is merely media scaremongering, and then says “but stop, just suppose I could show you a way to use the Law of Attraction, as well as the six other Laws of the Universe, to rise above all external circumstances?” Uhhhh, say what?!?
The Secrets of the Universe Were Revealed to Me in this $47 Ebook that I Read In A Vision When Drinking Ayausaca with the Peruvian Shamans…
Ray goes on to explain that when you understand the secrets of the Universe (which elsewhere says he learned from Peruvian Shamans amongst other spiritual teachers and gurus), you can succeed no matter what external circumstances. Implied is that he too used to be a loser like you, until he discovered the Laws of the Universe. Now he’s a winner, his life is perfect, and your life can be perfect too…and best of all, the first hit of his happy drug is free (heh heh)–just provide your name and email and begin your journey into addiction….
James Arthur Ray is suggesting that to solve the problem of the global recession, we should do exactly what caused it. He’s recommending that we deny reality and inflate our expectations–exactly what happened with the housing bubble, the subprime mortage crisis, the crisis on Wall Street, the credit crunch, and all the other aspects of the U.S.-lead global recession we are now experiencing. How many people do you know were interested in buying homes, fixing them up, and flipping them to make a quick buck 5 or 10 years ago? I can list many–including myself, my best friend from my home town, his father, my brother-in-law, and many others. The late night infomercials and expensive seminars advertising getting-rich-quick in real estate had the same tone and exaggerated promises as James Arthur Ray or any of the personal development gurus. (In a future article I’ll discuss the entangled nature of get-rich-quick schemes and personal development culture.) The American tendency for ego-driven inflation is largely understood to be the cause of the global recession by Europeans, and the techniques of most personal development literature are literally the cultivation of inflation.
The Law of Saturn Trumps the Law of Attraction
Hung over with a hangover, the alcoholic reaches for a beer to get rid of the pain. The pain is soothed, but guilt arises, which is addressed with another beer. As the personal development gurus always quote, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.” The irony is that insanity and addiction define the primary tendency of most popular personal development literature.
What we need now is not the Law of Attraction but the Law of Saturn, Saturn being the grumpy old god that reminds you of your mortality, the limits of things, your aching back, and the finite nature of manifest reality:
Astrologically Saturn is associated with the principles of limitation, restrictions, boundaries, practicality and reality, crystallizing and structures. ~Wikipedia
Our reality check bounced. Time to get practical, fess up to our previous irrationality, and accept our limitations. The Law of Saturn is the same as Buddha’s first noble truth–life is suffering. When we come to face our situation fully, there will be a time again for visions, dreams, and ideals, but this time more grounded and realistic. It’s time personal development embraced Saturn as well as Jupiter, god of “growth, expansion, prosperity and good fortune…and a person’s inner sense of justice and morality and their ideals and higher goals.”
The Good News of Our Limitations
I share Siddhartha‘s view on this one: to live is to suffer. That’s the first noble truth, but not the last one. In particular, the acceptance of suffering tends to lessen “suffering about your suffering.” This noble truth is denied in the words and actions of personal development gurus that sell a life culminating in perfection. Since perfection is impossible, we become addicted. Nothing can fully satisfy. Nothing can make you “100% totally and completely happy with your life,” and in the moments when we fully surrender to this truth, we are free from the compulsion to anxiously develop ourselves. We also become free from anxiously purchasing personal development products from the sleazy salesmen that overpromise and underdeliver while claiming to do the opposite.
The news that we can’t have it all and be totally satisfied is good news, because it liberates us from the illusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with us that could be fixed with a new beer or a new seminar. We might still enjoy a beer or a seminar, but with a non-anxious presence, without any illusion that we will someday be totally rid of all suffering and pain.
And no need either to get anxious about the fact that you are anxious, to worry that you are not enlightened or perfectly accepting. Just STOP, imperfectly notice your experience as it is, and allow it to be. “I imperfectly accept my imperfections.”
How Do I Accept the Truth of Suffering?
Everyone’s path to acceptance is somewhat unique, even though acceptance is really pretty universally the same. I could not possibly answer this question adequately for all, nor do I have anything resembling a perfect realization of this truth. That said, I find the Core Transformation process very helpful, as well as Vipassana meditation, and a strange form of spontaneous movement called Shaking Medicine. (If you use Core Transformation, try searching for any parts of you that want you to develop yourself, that want to be enlightened, or that otherwise believe that life should be perfect.) But follow your own heart and find what fits for you.
Be wary of the anxious search for the perfect technique, guru, or community, as this too can be a manifestation of the desire for impossible perfection. Go with good enough. If something works pretty well for you–whether a formal practice or an informal exploration–I’d recommend just sticking with it and figuring out the subtleties of the technique or path you’ve found, allowing your understanding to deepen and evolve over time.
I also try to remind myself of the truth of suffering with the affirmation “I imperfectly accept my imperfections,” but feel free to write your own affirmations that make you smile and remind you of your humanness. A Christian might pray the serenity prayer, something I contemplate often: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” If you feel uncomfortable with the word “God,” try rephrasing it as “May I have the serenity…” or however else would suit your metaphysics.
If you’re a personal development junkie, try noticing the impulse to purchase a personal development product without acting on it, or take some time off from reading personal development blogs and listening to tapes and sit patiently with the feelings that arise. Or give up even trying to notice the feelings too–take a total break from improving your life in any way whatsoever. You can always come back to the elements of your former life that you want to keep. However is right for you, I encourage you to question and to challenge any compulsive desire to improve yourself so that you can find a non-anxious presence and an ever-deepening acceptance of your fundamental OK-ness, even as you grow and change.
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Please add your respectful and intelligent comments below to begin the community dialogue. Here are some potential questions to stimulate discussion: What did I miss or overemphasize? What would be an antithesis to my thesis? What other examples are needed? How else can we find balance and accept suffering? Are there contexts in which we can in fact have it all? Is James Ray not nearly as bad as I’ve portrayed him to be, or is he not a good example of personal development thought? Is this tendency for inflation actually worse than I’ve portrayed it? Does this inflationary tendency also extend to other areas, like popular American Buddhism, or nationalism? Does accepting reality sometimes or often lead to despair or passivity? If so, how can we account for this tendency? What is the relationship between consumerism and the having-it-all philosophy? Feel free also to ask your own questions related to this article.
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