Before he got all serious and entered politics, Senator Al Franken, as you likely know, was a Saturday Night Live comedian. His most unforgettable character was self-help guru Stuart Smalley, whose catch phrase—breathlessly sputtered out—was “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
The skit was funny and wildly popular because, in its desperate plea to be convincing, it captured perfectly the trick and the trap of most self-help: there’s too much self. The genre invites you to be self-involved, self-serious and usually overly self-critical and ultimately self-defeating.
The self-help aisle screams out for your attention with promises of a new and better version of yourself. You will be lighter, calmer, fitter, less stressed, less angry, smarter, and more prosperous. You will have achieved the New You!
A big drawback of this whole approach is that it operates from the outside in. It takes us out of ourselves. And from that vantage point, we are judged to be wanting. We lack something. We don’t measure up. The next step is to set up goals and expectations for ourselves, and how we are going to change. Then begins the program of striving to make that change.
It’s ironic, then, that mindfulness, meditation, and body-mind awareness practices are so often painted with the self-help brush. The ingrained belief that something is wrong with us that needs to be fixed is one of the main things meditation begins to unravel. In an unhurried space, we get to see how much of life is geared to encouraging us to engage in teeth-gnashing struggles. Meditation definitely doesn’t need to be added to that list.
Goals are fine, until we fixate on them, and forget how uncertain the future is. By constantly placing carrots in front of ourselves, we rev up the very stress we’re trying to free ourselves from.
By working from the inside out, mindfulness practice asks us to simply spend time with ourselves and see what we see, to quietly observe what’s actually going on in our body and mind and environment. And so often what we see is that we’re hard on ourselves, and that we’re trying too hard.
Goals are fine, until we fixate on them, and forget how uncertain the future is. By constantly placing carrots in front of ourselves, we rev up the very stress we’re trying to free ourselves from. When life is a perpetual destination, we never take time for the journey, to simply let things happen rather than always trying to make things happen.
At the same time, there is a valid reason to label meditation as self-help. We all need help. And, we want to help ourselves, to take responsibility for our own “improvement.” While the actual outcomes of meditation are largely out of our control—they’re complex, and they happen organically, and in their own time—what we can control a bit more is whether we take the time to be with our own minds. But nurturing that commitment can be hard without help from friends. In the end, help is a mutual thing. Others help us, we help them, and together we see what happens.