Some popular self-help myths

Over the last few years I've heard many of my friends and clients come out with little nuggets of self-help wisdom they've heard from others. I've come to realise that these statements form a kind of New Age dogma that often end up doing exactly the opposite of helping. In this article I'll mention some of the most popular ones and why I think they're worth challenging.

Some or all of these statements may be true and useful to you along the way. If something resonates with you, that's great. However I see them often used by people as ways to bypass difficulties, judge others or beat themselves up about what they're not doing.

Remember: you're always your own best judge!

Jump and trust that the Universe will catch you

This is one of the commonest New Age myths around. Time and time again I see people 'just jumping' and then finding themselves paralysed by fear. It's not really surprising, since it is very rare for 'just jumping' to be the right thing to do.

I believe that the place of growth is the edge of your comfort zone, not way beyond it. Often 'just jumping' takes us way beyond our comfort zone into a place of terror. And trust is something that builds, not something that miraculously appears through faith and foolishness.

I favour taking a step at a time, discerning what's realistic for us right now and going there as quickly as possible. Step by step we conquer our fears and become braver, without going too far too fast and freaking ourselves out.

Be in the moment

Another common piece of dogma is that if we simply were in the moment, everything would be OK. I see this used to justify a lot of unconscious behaviour. Why? Because most of the time it means acting on instinct at the expense of sense and reason. This is definitely NOT being in the moment, but since most of us can't be in the moment most of the time, the teaching is used to justify our rash behaviour.

I have no doubt that being in the moment is the most spiritual way of living, and it's something I wish for myself and everyone else. The question, for me, is how to be in the moment and what is stopping us from living from that place. Because if it were really that simple we'd all be doing it, wouldn't we?

Follow your intuition / body wisdom / felt-sense above all else

I've seen some staggeringly unethical behaviour justified with this one. Our intuition, or felt-sense, is undoubtedly a valuable aspect of our knowing and can help us to see beyond the limitations of the mind. This is particularly true in a disembodied mainstream culture that prizes the mind above all else and doesn't give enough credit to body wisdom.

However, as Steve Bearman coherently argues in his excellent article Don't Trust Your Feelings, the somatic approach is only part of the overall picture. Often our bodies give us a lot of valuable information and guide us towards what's right for us; but they are also a place where many issues are held and it's very hard to discern where intuition comes from. Is this the Divine speaking to us directly, or is it an instinct that comes from our wounding?

Our bodies are also, often, inherently selfish and pleasure-seeking. The body does not have an in-built ethical sense - ethics are governed by the mind - nor does it have the capacity to keep the big picture in mind. People who follow their body in all things are often selfish and unaware, and rarely holistic or transpersonal in their approach.

The mind is the enemy

We mostly have dear old Osho and his followers to thank for this absurd idea. Osho said countless times that the mind is the problem and that once we overcome it, we'll be OK.

We won't. The mind undoubtedly needs to be placed within a wider framework and not allowed to run the show on its own. Ultimately the mind is concerned with analysing risk and uses the past as its reference point for decisions about the future. But this isn't always a bad thing, and often helps us to make good decisions and avoid obvious mistakes.

Most often people who disrespect the mind and focus on making decisions from elsewhere fall foul of the pre/trans fallacy, mistaking childish pre-personal ways of behaving for trans-personal states of being. The transpersonal includes and transcends the mind. In order to do this we first need to make friends with our mind and learn when it's useful and when it isn't.

A key aspect of this is learning to take control of the mind and not let it run the show on our behalf. I love Goenka likening the mind to a wild elephant: untamed, it is a hazard; tamed, it is an asset. This makes much more sense than treating the mind as an enemy and regressing into pre-rational states.

Back to nature is better

As a born-and-bred city dweller, I have a personal beef with this myth. There's definitely something for us to learn from living closer to nature and being less driven by the crazy pace of urban life. However this should be kept in balance and the many benefits of urban living should not be overlooked or ignored. People choose to live in cities for a reason - mainly because living close to nature has historically been very tough. There's no doubt we've gone too far this way and can learn a lot from being more in touch with nature - but there's nothing inherently superior about rural life.

Importantly, most people's idea of 'back to nature' depends on an infrastructure that brings many of the advantages of the urban life to the country - the best of both worlds. I have no problem with this: in fact, I think it's great. However, it feels naive and short-sighted to me that people want everyone to get back to nature when the nature they are talking about is only sustainable when there's a balance between urban and rural lifestyles.

Love is all you need

That's a song lyric, isn't it? Like a lot of New Age dogma, the catchiness of this line belies its unhelpfulness as a guide to life. It's used to justify all manner of unconscious behaviour and bypass the very real struggles and pain that arise on our quest to live from a place of love and acceptance.

Like many of these statements, this may be an expression of some kind of ultimate truth. However, very few of us live in connection with ultimate truth most of the time. Our truth right now might be "life is full of struggle" or "love is conditional". If this is what you believe then start there. Just because someone described the view from the top of the mountain doesn't mean we should pretend that we are standing there and enjoying the view ourselves. Be real and you'll make faster progress on the journey to where you want to be.

Everyone's doing the best they can

Again, this is probably true at a very subtle level. But in my experience most people (including me) spend 90% of our time resisting change and not doing what's best for us or for others. More often than not this statement is used to justify laziness, lack of awareness and resistance.

If you really feel you are doing the best you can, that's great. But be honest with yourself and ask the question again and again: is there more I can be doing to help myself grow? If you find a quiet yes, even in the deepest recesses of your mind, then dig a little deeper and find out where you're not doing the best you can.

Think positive and everything will be OK

This is another of those myths that only helps if we know how to apply it. There's no doubt that being negative is immensely unhelpful: it's a drain on our energy and the energy of those around us. Trying to keep a positive outlook is definitely helpful, but it's only the starting-point and not the end of the story.

Often when people think back on their journey, they see everything happening in a beautiful flow that seems inevitable, perfect and easy. This is the beauty of hindsight. In the moment they were subject to fear, doubt and negativity as much as the rest of us. Probably they overcame these challenges through a combination of positive thinking, determination, good judgement and a little luck.

Like most things, positive thinking is a key aspect to achieving the life we want - but it needs to be kept in balance and not depended upon as the be-all and end-all.

The most important thing to do is to find out what is true and right for you as you progress on your journey to greater depth, wisdom and understanding. In this process it helps to have the support of people who care about you and are able honestly to mirror what you can't quite see yourself. This can be a psychotherapist, a life coach, a loving friend or a partner: basically anyone who's brave enough to hold the mirror up even when it's uncomfortable and compassionate enough to deal with the fall-out.

So approach New Age maxims with the same caution you'd apply to any other teachings. Use them when they are helpful and ignore them when they are not.

Or as the elegant maxim goes: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. You are your own best teacher - now and always.