By Nandini Murali
Self-help books can transform your life. for many, they take the place of a guru or a teacher
“In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of an individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the human world, ultimately springs as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals.” – Carl Jung
The 21st century, The Age of Aquarius, is an exciting time for seekers in search of personal growth through greater self-awareness, balance and harmony in their lives. If you want to discover The Seat of the Soul, journey down The Road Less Travelled, Awaken The Giant Within, discover The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, experience The Miracle of Mindfulness or The Power of Now, nothing is easier. These treasures of personal/spiritual growth and wisdom are only as far away as your nearest bookstore, or even better, just a mouse click away!
In contrast, when I was a teenager in the late ’70s, concepts such as personal growth and transformation were not yet part of mainstream thought and perspectives. Self-help literature was yet to assume the mass phenomenon it is today. Consequently, when I had read almost every title in fiction, and gravitated towards more meaningful reading, I had little choice in my neighbourhood library or even at bookshops.
I still recall that besides the popular titles by Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking series) and the still popular Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and its companion, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, other titles in the self-help genre were hard to come by. I remember, years later, as an adult, thumbing through my tattered and heavily underscored pages of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, at a time in my life when I most needed it. Certainly the perspectives it offered, in terms of being in charge of one’s life, to be a creator of circumstances, and not a creature of circumstances, seemed meaningful and anchored me to reality. One line from the book still clings to my memory: “Don’t saw mental sawdust.” Later I was disappointed to learn that the author of such well-known self-help classics committed suicide. I wondered why. Something seemed missing.
As a postgraduate student of psychology in the early ’80s, I recall that my decision to choose this discipline was met with sniggers, and at best, with scepticism. Would I be able to decipher what goes on in people’s minds… What would I do for a living… treat the mentally ill..? To a large extent, the prevailing medical model in psychology, and its preoccupation with the abnormal and psychopathology, may also have contributed to such popular mythologies.
Literature of possibility
By the late ’80s, however, a profusion of titles catapulted the self-help genre to one of the publishing successes of the 20th century. In retrospect, one of the reasons for this phenomenon could be the growing popularity of behavioural and social sciences, and an increasing awareness among people about their relevance to our everyday lives. The New York Times best-sellers’ list traditionally included two categories: fiction and non-fiction. Recently, however, it also started a third section ‘Advice’ that includes a diversity of self-help books. The advent of the Internet also opened the portals to unprecedented access to information and online ordering of books.
According to Tom Butler Bowdon, author of the inspirational quartet, 50 Self-help Classics, 50 Spiritual Classics, 50 Success Classics, and the latest, 50 Prosperity Classics, self-help is the ‘literature of possibility.’
“A conventional view of self-help is that it deals with problems, but most of the self-help classics are about possibilities. They can help reveal your unique course in life, form a bridge between fear and happiness, or simply inspire you to become a better person. A self-help book can be your best friend and champion, expressing a faith in your essential greatness and beauty that is sometimes hard to get from another person. Because of its emphasis on following your star and believing that your thoughts can remake your world, a better name for self-help writing might be the ‘literature of possibility.’ ”
Although self-help writing is a 20th century phenomenon, the self-help ethic is as old as human civilisation. The Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography are conventionally not regarded as self-help literature, but thought of as self-help classics for their timeless wisdom, and profundity of thoughts and reflections today.
According to Bowdon, self-help literature rests on two basic assumptions of human nature. One, it recognises the existence of an eternal changeless core inside ourselves variously described as the soul or higher self that guides and shapes our destinies. Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success and Wayne Dyer’s Manifest Your Destiny exemplify this perspective. The second premise is that the human self is a tabula rasa (blank slate) on which we imprint our biographies. (Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged). Bowdon, however, writes that “both the self-knowing and self-creating person, are, however, only abstractions; a person will be an interesting combination of the two.” Both viewpoints nevertheless contain the assumption that the self is independent and unitary (‘one’).
If you flip through Butler-Bowdon’s incisive and analytical synopsis and commentaries in 50 Self-Help Classics, you can glimpse the diversity of the genre: The Power of Thought (Premise: Change your thoughts, change your life), Following your Dream (premise: achievement and goal setting), Secrets of Happiness (doing what you love, doing what works), The Bigger Picture (keeping things in perspective), Soul and Mystery (appreciating your depth), and Making a Difference (transforming your self, transforming the world).
Chennai-based psychiatrist and relationship therapist, Dr Vijay Nagaswami, also the author of the popular title, Courtship and Marriage:
A Guide for Indian Couples, says that his book enabled several couples to address unresolved marital issues, and build a more satisfying relationship. But if a marriage is coming apart, or if one has experienced extraordinary stress, wouldn’t one be better off seeking professional intervention rather than reading a book?
“In an ideal world, yes. However, in India, there is a strong stigma attached to seeing psychiatrists or counsellors. As a nation we don’t find it easy to seek help, especially when it comes to something like marriage or stress management. We are presumed to be naturals at it. However, a book can be read in relative anonymity, and just as one finds it easier to open up to a stranger on a train, one might find it easier to establish an in-absentia therapeutic relationship with the author of a book. Compared to suffering in silence, reading a book seems to me, a pretty good option.”
He adds “If one reads a self-help book, it jumpstarts a process of seeking solutions. Rather than believe that nothing is possible, readers do feel empowered enough to seek solutions by talking, listening, and maybe even seeing a therapist. Reading a self-help book could be a vital first step in moving out of the victim mode that most of us fall into when faced with a crisis. In other words, the book is not going to change your life. But it can empower you to change your life.”
The Age of Aquarius
An interesting development in the trajectory of self-help literature is the emergence of another new dimension: spirituality or metaphysics. Historically believed to be the logical culmination of the New Age Movement that originated in the late ’60s and ’70s, this development also coincides with the Age of Aquarius regarded as a luminous period of spirituality. Astrologically, the earth transits a major zodiac once in 2000 years. The Age of Aquarius is believed to facilitate personal growth and transformation. It is characterised by increasing numbers of individuals engaged in a quest towards higher consciousness, and towards integration and unification with the Universal Energy through dissolution of dualities or polarities. When sufficient numbers of individuals progress to this stage, there is a critical mass that is a ‘tipping point’ for a major planetary transformation in all four levels: physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual.
Thus, it is no coincidence that the last 20 years has witnessed a renaissance in popular spiritual writing. Gary Zukav in his masterpiece, The Seat of the Soul, writes that humans are on an evolutionary path from being creatures of the five senses to a multi-sensory one with heightened awareness of many different levels of spiritual reality. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” writes Zukav. Etymologically, the word ‘spiritual’ traces its origin to the Latin word for breathing – our most natural and basic function. And it is common sense that there is nothing other worldly or esoteric about spirituality. In fact, spirituality is about the here and now. It is a truly defining human attribute.
“The paradox of personal development is that, taken to its logical end, it takes us beyond the self. Meaning is found outside the perimeter of our small concerns,” writes Tom Butler-Bowdon. Certainly, the development of personal consciousness seems to be the central concern of the times in which we live. I spoke to a few seekers on books that have influenced their quest.
Writer Maria Wirth says that while she finds it difficult to name any one book that changed her life, she concedes that becoming familiar with gurus and reading their books certainly changed her outlook on life.
“I met a number of gurus over the past 25 years and reading their books definitely changed my outlook on life. These include books by Swami Vivekananda, Shri Ramakrishna, Shri Aurobindo, Adi Shankara, Ramana Maharishi, the Upanishads, and the Brahma Sutras, life stories of ancient and modern saints, and much more. I felt it all was a great treasure, and it touched my soul. It made it so clear what is important in life – a question I had carried with me since my teenage years in Germany.
“The only worthwhile thing is to know (really know, not intellectually) what one truly is. To know that one is not limited to this body and mind. That one does not die when the body dies. That one never can fall out from that caring oneness that one essentially is. And that full trust in the Divine is the best option for living one’s life.”
Swati Chopra (author of Dharamsala Diaries) a writer, whose focus is on spirituality and religion in a contemporary context, says that she began reading even before she was ‘taught’ to do so in school.
“As a seeker, books have been guru, guide and spiritual friend at various points. I do remember one with particular fondness, which provided an important gateway into spiritual seeking at a time when I needed one. I was in college, and in the middle of an existential crisis. I was trying to read the Bhagavad Gita and Ashtavakra Gita with my mother, a long-time student of Advaita Vedanta. It was all quite fascinating, but the texts themselves and their commentaries felt archaic and removed from my immediate context. I wasn’t getting any experiential knowledge from them. Then, one day, my mother brought home a thick volume from her evening satsang, and handed it to me. It was a copy of I Am That, the spiritual classic compiled by Maurice Frydman out of question and answer sessions with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of Maharaj’s insights, and the homely and direct way in which he would explain the highest concepts of Advaita so that they became intimate and applicable in one’s daily life. It brought this radically different perspective of reality alive as a possible spiritual path and practice,” reflects Swati Chopra.
David Harshada Wagner, meditation teacher and writer based in New York, cites several books that have influenced his outlook. These include Be here Now by Ram Dass, and My Lord Loves a Pure Heart by Swami Chidvilasananda (Gurumayi).
“Over the years I have devoted my heart and soul to the path of yoga – I have lived in ashrams and travelled all over the world teaching about meditation and the inner life. Two years ago, I stumbled upon T Harv Eker’s book, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. Reading it opened up a new and important dimension on my life: my relationship to wealth and prosperity. I realised after reading his book that while I had developed my understanding about maya and yoga, and the path of selfless service, I had neglected the “Lakshmi” aspect of my life and being. Eker is a very wealthy businessman and brilliant teacher/trainer who has made it his mission to help people get over their hang-ups about money.
His philosophy is that “good people do good things with money” and therefore good people should have more. I have to say, his book and teachings have changed my life. Yes, I have increased my net worth and income more than five times, but more importantly, I have worked through a great deal of personal feelings of unworthiness and ridiculous false concepts about wealth. Eker himself is a veteran spiritual seeker and he infuses his teachings about money with wisdom about the mind – really the whole book is about your mind. I am really grateful for the Secrets of the Millionaire Mind,” says Harshada.
As humans explore and ascend into higher realms of consciousness, their quest in life involves a search that moves beyond material security to spiritual wholeness and integration both at the personal and universal levels. According to Ken Wilber, author of A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality, we do not inhabit a cosmos made of just space and matter, but dwell in a multi-layered existence that includes the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual realms. For humans to evolve truly, we need to direct our attention as much towards personal growth as to manipulation of matter and space.
Books have edified, transformed and catalysed my journey towards wholeness and personhood. While I do believe that the glory and grandeur of the moon cannot be fully appreciated by merely looking at its reflection in a lake, it has enabled me to redirect my gaze upwards at the moonlit sky in wonder and awe.
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