There’s a ton of self-help literature out there, it’s the most popular section of the bookstore (in the US at least). Yet it’s relatively rare to see people make conscious, positive change to their thinking, their habits, attitudes and lifestyles. And it’s even more rare to see change that sticks for the long-term.
Why? What are the difficulties? I see two levels of difficulty, two boundaries that we have to cross. The first is a problem of access to the right information and the motivation to delve into it and the second is overcoming our natural resistance to turn theory into practice.
The invisible route
Imagine we’re all looking out on a landscape that we know we need to cross. Down the middle there’s what looks like a line of least resistance —it looks flat, smooth and simple to navigate. We can only see a portion of the path before it disappears around a bend but the part we can see looks ok, it’s right there ahead of us and it’s popular. Off to the side there’s a mountainous route. It’s rocky, rough and steep, climbing to the highest point we can see. It doesn’t look nearly as simple as the lowland route so the majority pay it no more attention and set off down the flat path. But so far into the distance we lose sight of the flat path and we know nothing of what will follow. The path could get rocky and steep somewhere down the line, it could run into a dead end altogether. And you see much more from the mountain that you ever could from the valley — if we were to climb to the high point, although it comes with challenges, we’d be able to see the rest of the landscape laid out ahead and choose the best path forward.
We can see the mountains of historic literature and scientific research that lay out a path to ’the good life’. But from the bottom of that mountain face it looks like a difficult route to navigate, one that takes skill, patience and determination. The majority haven’t ever climbed a mountain like that and they don’t even consider it, they take the line of least resistance without even entertaining what might come down the road.
Philosophy has a strange place in the western cultural psyche. It’s so commonly seen as a niche academic subject with no practical use or as a mysterious ancient discipline that has no place in modern life. As a teen I’d spend hours thinking about the meaning of life and wondering whether it's all a product of my own mind. I'd peer beneath the established moral order and question right and wrong, high and low, meaningful and empty. No one was talking about this stuff and it certainly wasn’t being taught in my school so it blew me away when I finally discovered that this was the essence of that mysterious subject called philosophy. Similarly psychology and neuroscience are confined to academia with only the odd book breaking through into mainstream consciousness. Plenty of us discover these subjects and take great pleasure in hoovering up the literature and indulging in conversations and debates but for the most part, it doesn’t permeate the mainstream. But these subjects are absolutely central to living consciously, understanding the human condition, forming morals and cultivating good relationships.
Chances are, most people reading this are already interested in ideas like these, they are already climbing the mountain. The biggest challenge we have is getting this stuff off the sidelines and into our everyday culture. Not everyone is going to devour the books, articles and studies and not everyone that does will find a way to build what they read into their lives in any meaningful way. But that shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle. Go into a gym and you’ll find plenty of people who aren’t experts on exercise and nutrition. Personal trainers package up the knowledge, learn from their own experience and translate it to their clients. Health and fitness inspiration finds its way into social media streams and popular media and those that find a way to package it up in exciting, digestible forms attract new audiences and launch people on a journey towards better health and fitness. The same should apply to training the mind, embracing philosophy and living consciously. In ancient times, people would visit a physician for ailments of the body and for ailments of the ‘soul’, they’d seek out a philosopher. We have to find a way to bring philosophical thinking back into the mainstream and reinstate it’s place in everyday life.
We all need to become comfortable with the mountainous route and the best way to do that is to lean on each other. Those that have gone before can pass on their knowledge and guide the way. Each person that scales the face will set an example for others to follow and be there to hand down their own skills and experience. Eventually, the crowds heading towards the mountain face will outnumber those taking the flat path.
The stubborn elephant
The work isn’t done when we see the mountain. We can study the face in all its detail from the ground but you only reach the top by climbing and that’s where the second difficulty lies. We can all read the literature and take in the details but translating theory into practice is not simple. We’re up against a set of ingrained instincts, evolved over millions of years, that strive to preserve the status quo, drawing us to skewed conclusions about ourselves and others. Making change demands dismantling the existing machine but our instincts have a way of preserving it.
This most likely accounts for our tendency to go out and buy self-help literature that builds — encouraging confidence, daring and strength to chart a path to a traditional view of ’success’, riches and social status. It’s easy to read that the world is against you and that all you have to do is beat it into submission to WIN WIN WIN, it’s exciting and rewarding. But it’s rewarding on an animal level, our nature leads us toward this kind of encouraging, confidence boosting propaganda and the draw of social status connects to something so deeply intrinsic that it’s hard to resist the lure. It can be much harder to look inward and question our own make-up, our motivations, habits and compulsions. And it’s even harder, especially with the ever growing presence of social pressures, to shift our gaze from social status, wealth and ’success’ towards a different view of what it is to live a meaningful life. But perseverance pays for those who put in the work.
Climbing mountains is difficult and dangerous but the more you do it, the better you get at it. A text book is no substitute for experience and practice in the mountains. You have to work and overcome difficulty, constantly evaluating your decisions and actions and learning from your ever growing experience. The same goes for perfecting the mind. It’s not enough to digest all the worlds philosophical literature or develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of how the brain works if you can’t access the knowledge in the most stressful, challenging and emotional situations.
“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us”
Putting the theory into practice means trying and failing, noticing your indiscretions and owning them. Wisdom is more skill than knowledge — we have to learn how rather than what. Staying mindful and self aware takes regular practice, meditation, and reflection and no one else can do that on our behalf. But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek help and help one another.
Like climbers in the mountains, we can and should support one another. Look to friends, mentors, speakers and writers for help, support and inspiration and offer your support to them. Open yourself to honest and good-faith feedback and make yourself available to offer it in return. Take what others can offer to improve your own practice but remember to take your own steps and swing your own tools for they can’t do it for you. If we all make the effort to climb the mountain and help others do the same I’m confident that we can collectively reawaken ourselves to the philosophy of living consciously and shape a more virtuous and contented society.