A while ago, my friend and I went to a meditation group. We were told to close our eyes and imagine a conflict in our lives. Then we were told to remember how we responded to it. Then we broke for “partner time” and if I hadn’t come with a friend it would have been over right then and there.
But I had brought a friend. So we did the things. We talked about the conflicts in our lives and how we handled them. We also talked about how we would prefer to handle them. And all in all, it truly was a healing experience. The rest of the week I pondered some of the things the meditation leader had said, and they were helpful to me.
But I would also never go back. For one: excessive use of the words “presence,” “awareness,” and “intention” start to get to me. But mostly, I wouldn’t go back because it had the same effect on me that all self-development practices do: it made me focus on me. And that’s really only good to a point.
There was a time when I relied on self-development practices to get back to baseline. I was severely depressed, anxious, and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a stalker tried to take my life, and I required therapy, yoga, and lots of episodes of Friends to get through that trial. But eventually I was through it, and I didn’t need to focus on myself anymore.
The problem, I believe, is when we continue to focus on ourselves at the expense of one another. Because while it can certainly be helpful to focus on ourselves when we need to heal from a traumatic experience, there comes a point where “focusing on yourself” becomes straight-up narcissism. And our culture doesn’t need any more of that.
That time I went full woo
Unfortunately, I’ve been there. By the time I healed from my PTSD, depression, and anxiety, self-development practices had become part of my life. So I just kept going with it. I got my yoga teacher certification, went to nutrition school, hired a health coach. You know, all the things.
Eventually, I rode that train all the way to the station. I had my own personal astrologer on speed dial. I paid lots of money to train under a meditation practitioner. I attended a past-life regression (I had none) and an angel reading (for the love). And to be honest, all of those things got me to a pretty weird place.
Under the guise of “self-development,” I had surrounded myself with a number of severely eccentric individuals whose influence on me was far too palpable. It felt like the beginning of the cult. You get in it because it heals something in yourself, but then there’s always something more to heal. So you get drawn deeper and deeper within.
Eventually, my husband was like “ok some of this stuff you are going to is weird.” And it was. At the time we were living in this hippie culture in northern California — we called the town we lived in “permanent burning man” — and we were surrounded by a bunch of really far out people who weren’t exactly hanging around in this astral plane. It wasn’t our scene.
As we’re big believers in the whole “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” concept, we didn’t like the people we would become if we stuck around much longer. So we decided to make it our mission to find our people. The ones we wanted to be like.
So we moved to Utah. I cut off my long hippie hair and dyed it blonde. I deleted my blog and closed the spiritual magazine I founded. I got rid of every Hay House book I owned, and every tarot card deck in my possession. I stopped going to yoga. I stopped meditating. I weeded out all that excess woo and wrapped myself in the warm comforting arms of my Catholic faith.
The problem with self-development
At some point, the healing practices that helped me get out of depression reached a tipping point, from helping me feel happy to helping me focus on myself and my own “spiritual journey.” And what is the point of that? So I can post pictures of myself wearing mala beads to Instagram and pair them with meaningful Rumi quotes? (Guilty.)
Sure, some deeper inner work might help an individual discover something about themselves. But inner work alone is a dead end. In my experience, it doesn’t lead to a person becoming a better friend, a more supportive family member, or a more generous giver. It just leads to an intense focus on the self. And what is the point of focusing on the self, on the inner journey, if it doesn’t make that self behave better toward the people around them?
I once read an article in Sunset Magazine featuring Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes. In it, he said that he wasn’t into self-development because it was much too focused on the self when what we should really be focusing on is one another. It’s why he has a tattoo on his arm that reads “for one another.”
“It goes back again to travel and why it’s sometimes hard for me to be home,” he says. “Because when I’m home, I’m focusing on my issues, my problems. But when you’re traveling, you have to engage with people — it gets you more in that ‘for one another’ mind-set.”
Exactly. Because self-development is all about focusing on the self. It’s about securing your own oxygen mask before you assist with someone else’s. It’s about focusing on your dreams. And worse, it’s about following your heart. And what business do we have following our hearts? Our hearts are inherently and inextricably selfish.
Circa the first through fifth centuries BC the Jewish people believed the heart was a treacherous thing out for its own selfish desires. It was deeply passionate. It wanted this thing and that thing. But it changed its mind. A lot. And it was not to be trusted. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander,” the book of Matthew illustrates (15:19).
That’s why the Jewish people had religion. Because religion doesn’t do that. It is a discipline. It’s hard. There are questions we are forced to ask of it. There are parts of it we want to disagree with. There are parts of it we want to throw out entirely. There are times it goes completely against what our “intuition” is telling us. There are times it tells us not to follow our hearts. In fact, it does that a lot. That’s because religion is not here to tell you to follow your heart. It’s here to put your heart in check.
It’s like the relationship between a parent and a child. Left to its own devices, a child may want to eat ice cream, steal a toy from another child, and cut off another child’s hair. But the parent keeps the child in check. Because though the child may have many fleeting passions throughout the day, the parent sees the overall picture of who that person will become, and teaches the child how to overcome temporary whims in favor of long-term growth and maturity.
This is what makes us into people of integrity. And integrity is one of the things I value most in a person. It means defining your own moral boundaries. And upholding them. It means doing right by other people, and yourself. Rather than play into the narcissistic longings on the heart, integrity forces us to consider the selfless leanings of the mind. The ability to discern what is best for those around us in the long term. Rather than what we would love to do for ourselves in the short term.
The antidote to self-development
Now I’m not saying religion is the antidote to self-development. But religion does offer a great alternative: charity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines charity as “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” It does not mean “donating to a charity” or “volunteering for a charity.” It means focusing on others instead of yourself. And it is the most important virtue according to Catholicism.
As an example, imagine that the husband of one of your friends suddenly passes away. Self-development would teach you to be careful. That you don’t want to spend too much time with that widow and her sadness because it could start affecting you and it could start making you feel sad. You need to protect yourself after all, and that means setting boundaries. Being there for her when you can, but making sure that you are not affected by this tragedy. And remember, this didn’t happen to you.
Charity on the other hand, would tell you to do the opposite. It would tell you to go move in with your friend, cook her meals, watch her favorite movies, and be there for her. You might get sad. You might have to get down in the trenches with her and feel her heartache yourself a little bit too. But charity is about being in it with other people. And not worrying so much about yourself when you do.
And let me ask you something, if your husband passed, which friend would you want to have? The former or the latter? That’s what we are here for, I think. Not to self-preserve, but to serve. Not to focus on ourselves, but to focus on one another.
And sometimes that means we have to get sad ourselves. And sometimes that means we have to get depressed ourselves. And sometimes that means we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, just because someone else is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and they need one person who is willing to walk with them through it.
The parts of self-development I still really like
Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of things I love about self-development. And since my husband and I moved to Utah four years ago, we have found a much healthier balance of it. In fact, we frequently spend dinner discussing the inspiring articles, books, podcasts, and videos we took in during the day and the important takaways we learned from them.
My husband is really into Impact Theory and the Tim Ferriss Show, and I listen to the RobCast and Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations religiously. He likes to ride his trainer bike while watching his, and I listen to mine while getting ready in the morning, and on my commute to and from work (when I’m not memorizing 2 Chainz lyrics or belting Les Miserables, of course). We both also read a lot of self-development books. He’s currently reading Tools of Titans and just finished The Alchemist, and I’m currently reading The Miracle of Mindfullness and rereading Love Wins.
I’m still not really into guided meditation or yoga — I don’t want someone else leading me — but I do go for a long walk every day during my lunch break and I stretch most evenings for one to two hours while my husband and I watch inspiring documentaries. Some of my favorites included Tom vs. Time which completely revolutionized how I take care of my body, Won’t You Be My Neighbor which changed my perspective on humanity, and Walk With Me which was one of the most deeply peaceful things I’ve ever watched.
I also understand the effect movement has on my body and mind, so I’m adamant about taking my ballet classes, going for my walks, and stretching out my hips — where all the results of my past trauma, and thus manifested hip pain have ended up. I’ve even been known to go to a psychic on occasion, though there’s only one psychic I’ll see, and mostly because it makes for a fun girls night.
But I rely on these things for inspiration. And sustenance. They are self-care more so than they are self-development. They are to sustain me for what I have the capacity for, and they are to remind me what I am here for. Not to guide me. Not to instruct me to follow my passion/heart/bliss. But to remind me to give/serve/be generous. Charity. To me, that is the end all/be all of this life. And the only thing I want to focus on moving forward.
Sure, I did a lot of things to get out of depression and find happiness again, but I’m there. I crossed that threshold long ago. I am a very privileged person living a very privileged life, and if all I do with that privilege is go on ayahuasca journeys and attend Tony Robbins seminars then I’m missing the point. The thing I’m supposed to do with all that privilege.
As Michelle Singletary says in this amazing book, “What good is it for you to have money to buy a C-Class Mercedes Benz if you won’t give someone else a ride? Or to selfishly take up two parking spaces because you don’t want to get a ding on the door of your Benz? Why have a lavishly decorated home with multiple bedrooms and refuse to take in a relative or friend in need?”
Exactly. Instead, I want to use my energy and resources not for myself, but for others. As David Goggins says in this must-watch episode of Impact Theory, one day, at the end of our lives, God will show us a list of all the things we could have accomplished while we were here. And I don’t want to say that I spent my time focused on myself, on my inner work, or on my own “spiritual journey.”
I want to say that I lived up to that list. That I served this world in some way. And that I did a hell lot more with my time on this planet, then enjoy it all for myself. Especially when there are so many who won’t ever have that opportunity. Or that privilege. Instead, I’ll focus my light where the darkness is. Because lord knows I don’t need to hoard any more of it for myself.
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