Saturday, 5 March 2016

There is hope in the madness- getting back to basics. In praise of self-help.

In seeking happiness or at least a happier life why do we need so many books and manuals and even this blog to remind/tell us to pay more attention to the basics?

By basics I mean; to be mindful and aware, grateful and kind, to live with more compassion to both ourselves and others, to judge less and accept more. Surely we don't need a book or article or a pinterest board to know these things? Yet if you look at the self-help shelves groaning with books on all aspects of well-being; spiritual, emotional, physical and mental there are thousands and counting. It would appear that there is a need- almost an epidemic!

After taking out the extreme ideologies, most 'life support' books say the same thing in as many variations as it is possible to imagine. Most use one subject as the catch-all and if the idea catches on it can be exploited for a bit before the next 'way in'.  No-one should care that self help can be exploitive or that money is being made from teaching which ideally should be passed from parent to child. Whatever the need, turning to a self-help book is an indication or awareness of a lack.  Whichever book or article turned to, people are at least looking to challenge or change their pattern of thinking.

If basic things like gratitude and kindness isn't taught at home thank goodness there is a plethora of 'basic' messages getting out at the moment.  Self-help books can be great and although they come in many varieties and cover many aspects of life, mostly they tell the same story; to wake up and take responsibility for ourselves and how we live! Whatever has or is happening to us we are the guardians of our souls and yes we do have souls.

The Dali Lama's message of a calm mind supported by compassionate living and a strong character is one of the many voices on happiness. His influence is immense but if the Chinese had not invaded and destroyed his country, Tibetan buddhism would have remained hidden in the closed society that was Tibet. The pain for Tibet was a force for good in the world. 

It is pain, depression and emptiness  that is the reason there is a mass waking up to the 'basics'. It is living sadly and badly that causes people to want to know how to live a little (or a lot) better and happier. There is hope in the madness.


The western culture, that focuses on the self, feels different pressures. The distance and separation we feel, is not from God so much as from an ideal we think we 'should' be in our own eyes. The greater the discrepancy between how we think our lives or ourself 'should be' compared to how our life 'is' or we 'are' is a measure of unhappiness. The greater the discrepancy, the more unhappy and depressed we are. 

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” Socrates


If we are lucky we might get unhappy enough to want to do something about it and although some ideas out there might be another road to hell the more people who are waking up and addressing the issue the more all the simple ideas get airtime and the rotten apples come to light. The rise of fundamental religious belief is part of the same need and it too may rise or fall as a consequence of how much misery or joy it brings.

History teaches us that 'ideal' instructions for living well, have constantly been re-learnt -  both individually and collectively. I am just glad that the 'basics' are back on the menu. 


The suffering of the Tibetan people or Nelson Mandela have given us examples of people who have risen from Job-like experiences, but seem out of reach to most of us. Individual and global suffering calls us to compassion and action, but often it is only through our own suffering that we are 're-minded' how fundamentally important are kindness, appreciation, gratitude and noticing the small joys.  

Perhaps we need to loose much of what we have come to think matters before we can wake up and remember the really big one, the hard idea that comes through acceptance, compassion and kindness - Forgiveness - starting with ourselves.


I wrote this some time ago but feel I want to post this after hearing Laurie Taylor on Radio 4 being very sniffy about self help, and the wellbeing 'industry'. I end where I began-  who cares if people are pedalling mindfulness, gratitude and meaningful living and getting it into government departments and the like. Something is amiss if we are not happy -and surely these ideas are better than some of the more fundamental religious ideas that also seek to fill the current void.

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