A Healthy Perspective on Personal Development

First of all, Seasons Blessings and Happy New Year to everyone!

To finish off 2008, this post is a collection of thoughts on spirituality based personal growth itself. It revolves around being a healthy critic of this field, and is a semi-rant. On the practical side, it hopefully serves as a guide when you explore personal work in the upcoming year, and also as a disclaimer for my own writings.

A Long Winded Introduction

I’ve spent some time recently reading blogs and forums which criticise the spirituality movement. Some of them revolve around cults, frauds, and scams; others lump those in with the genuine material and decry the whole movement. Then a friend of mine contacted me, and said that she was confused about certain spiritual principles. There were so many different perspectives on each one, and it just confused her, and actually had the opposite effect (they made her upset) when she tried seeing and applying them in her own life. The discussions touched on an issue I have thought about many times with regards to this very blog.

And that was the birth of this post. Allow me to try and tie all these things together in one post, although it might take a while to get to the main point.

A Little Personal Writing

I’ve been lucky that in my life, I’ve never been physically beaten, raped, molested, or anything of the sort. The events that have caused me distress are of the everyday variety – romantic, social and financial betrayals and loss, humiliation, things like that. It is from this perspective that I write this blog from.

I never expected my personal blog, which is more of a journal of my own explorations, to be seen as a mental health resource. It is a tremendous honour but a bit anxiety provoking to see people discussing and recommending me on mental health forums and websites. Many readers come from backgrounds I am not intimately familiar with – for instance, many suffer from relatively serious mental disorders and /or are survivors of traumatic events, such as childhood and sexual abuse.

This caused me some discomfort (Im not blaming anyone, like I said it is a big honour). But the “monk” name was initially decided upon in a sense of fun; I’m not really a monk, in case you haven’t found out yet. I am studying to be a psychologist, but I am not one yet, nor do I have any clinical experience.

I write about processes and meditations that have worked for me, and probably people who deal with everyday stressors – but do they apply in the same way to, say, a war veteran who suffers from post traumatic stress? The feedback I have gotten have all been overwhelmingly positive, but what of those who never contacted me? In my years of visiting spiritual discussion boards, one thing is obvious: misunderstandings and misapplications are extremely common. I was there before – I know exactly what it is like to look through an emotionally fogged perspective.

And so this disclaimer: my writing is not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any disorders of any sort. They are food for thought, and I am not yet a licensed professional. Even if I was, the same disclaimer would still apply. Please take everyone’s material, including my own, with a healthily critical eye.

Personal Growth is Personal

What about personal development in and of itself? Personal growth is, well, personal. Everyone has to find their own path and go at their own pace. Comparing yourself to another is just a waste of time and if you think they are more advanced than you, or progressing faster, you are just beating yourself up unnecessarily. And if you think they are slower or lower, then you are just setting yourself up for spiritual pride.

Below is a collection of random thoughts, something to keep in mind whenever you are reading personal growth material:

When Personal Work Might Not Be Appropriate

Recently I’ve been exploring Schema Therapy, which focuses more on distressing personality traits. These are more subtle and pervasive, as opposed to overt and acute disorders like depression. There is a section in the book that gives a list of indications that a patient might not be suitable for such work. And since they are working on smaller issues, it generalises across perfectly to most forms of personal growth, including the blog you are currently on. Most material you can find in popular books or on the internet might not be a good idea (even if the principles are sound) if:

  1. One is in a major crisis in some life area.
  2. One is psychotic.
  3. One has an acute, relatively severe, Axis 1 disorder requiring immediate attention (Axis 1 disorders generally refer to what we think of as psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and so on).
  4. One is currently abusing substances at a moderate to severe level.

In general, if you fall into this list, reading alone might not make much difference. Professional assistance with a qualified person is always a good idea. Sometimes with luck (finding the right material at the right time) and determination, things can improve with self-help. But in other cases, without a qualified guide, a reader just becomes more confused or distressed. More on this below.

Blogs Are Just Opinions

The above point is especially vital when you consider that most of what is available out on blogs are just opinions. Anyone can start one, without qualifications, or peer reviews, or anything of the sort. The material might be inappropriate or inaccurate. Others might be overtly or unintentionally biased.

In working with my schemas, for instance, I’ve seen how some of my deeply ingrained worldviews have crept into my writings, even though I’ve done my best to keep things impersonal, putting in my personal stories only as examples.

Even worse, the personal and anonymous nature of the Internet sometimes means that blogs are just outlets for venting negative emotions and saying things one wouldn’t normally say. It might sound silly, but many people believe that there has to be some truth in it, if it is on the Internet!

Published books might be more credible than blogs but they are not immune to this. Even in scientific journals, published research can be false or misleading, but the chances are rather low because of peer review procedures and so on. Such controls and safety nets don’t always apply to other types of publications, no matter how professional they appear.

I bought a book on trauma recovery recently. It looked good when I flipped through it in the bookshop, but when I took it home, some chapters set off some major alarm bells. What they recommended could be very dangerous. I went online to do some research, and then I realised, with some shock, that the authors were not therapists, or even trained to be. And this is a book targeted at severe mental health issues. What about the books that are aimed at the typical person?

Using your critical thinking skills and common sense is doubly important for the field of spirituality. Unlike experts in psychology, for instance, where credentials can be verified and frauds quickly exposed, spirituality is filled with charlatans and false gurus. Who can verify their credentials, and how?

Popularity is not a measure of how legit someone is. Some popular teachers and authors are the real deal; others might have gotten where they are because of sheer force of personality, or because they offer the quick fix that many are desperately searching for.

Even more intriguing is the idea of the fallen guru. I came upon a discussion of spiritual teachers who were legit at the beginning of their careers, and thus rightfully gathered a large following and a good reputation, only to be seduced by fame and wealth once they had “made it big”. As such, their later teachings have been subtly contaminated. Whether they are aware of this is unknown, but as they say, caveat emptor – especially since some of the teachers discussed are currently alive and active.

Different Teachings for Different Levels

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, sometimes the material or technique is legit, but still might not be appropriate. This is similar to the first point, above. The techniques are the real deal, but they might not be appropriate for certain stages of growth.

As a mundane example, I once took an inventory of all the things I hated about myself and my past. It was about a year ago, and I had intended to process it with my new-found psychological and meditation techniques. The list started out small, but quickly grew into seven pages. I didn’t end up doing any meditation on it, for I dropped down a spiral of self-loathing that lasted weeks (sounds funny now, I know!). Recently, I attempted the exercise again, but this time I actually managed to do a lot of work on them. I was a lot stronger than I was then, and able to see things in a different light.

When it comes to spirituality, things get even trickier. For instance, some sages see reality in a different way than most of us do. They might say that the world is love and nothing else, or that only you can hurt yourself, no one else can. While such radical statements might be their experience and their reality – and might just be what certain seekers need to hear – it is not the experience of others who are at different levels of growth.

As a result, misunderstandings begin to take over. The typical result would be disillusionment, criticising, or simply abandoning the teaching. It would also be easy to imagine what would happen if someone who suffered from certain mental disorders began to believe in radical statements like “no one can ever hurt another”!

(Edit: Ariel Bravy over at You Are Truly Loved wrote a fantastic response to this issue, although it might require prior knowledge of some spiritual principles like the nature of awareness – please have a look: Can You Truly Never Be Hurt?)

Personal Growth is Personal

And so, the main point of this post: Personal Growth is Personal. What works for one might not work for another. What works for one might be detrimental to another. In addition, there are a lot of misunderstandings, frauds, cults, dangerous teachings, strange philosophies, and harmful techniques out there. Please use your common sense and critical thinking skills when exploring anything, including this very website.

Thank you for listening to this little rant, I hope there is some helpful information hidden somewhere in there.

Belated Christmas Present

As a present to you all, Leo Babauta from Zen Habits has given a free eBook called Thriving on Less. Simplifying in a Tough Economy is what it is all about. It’s a companion book to his soon to be released book, The Power of Less. You can find out more at his website.

Blog Update

Some have been wondering if I’m disappearing again, since I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been working my way up a ladder of emotions and positions, starting from the bottom, which includes things like digging up and healing Shame, Guilt, and Hate, amongst other fun emotions. I was going to post them, and then realised it was the festive season, and therefore not entirely appropriate. So I’m saving them for 2009 – I didn’t have time to write replacements during the Xmas season. Plus for all the reasons above, I’m going over my posts again and again to weed out anything that might be potentially misunderstood, heh heh!

And on that note, a fond goodbye to 2008 Thank you all for sticking by me.