Joel Osteen, the self-help guru of the largest church in America wrote a book entitled Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day.
The 7 keys are:
Keep Pressing Forward
Be Positive Towards Yourself
Develop Better Relationships
Form Better Habits
Embrace the Place Where You Are
Develop Your Inner Life
Stay Passionate About Life
Now as much as Osteen rightly gets mocked for his super white teeth and his gimmicky persona, actually that's a pretty decent list. That said, the title is all wrong. A person who takes up these seven practices will not become a better person. As the subtitle correctly points out, a person who develops these habits will improve their life. What I want to say in this article is that improving our lives does not make us better people. And this conceit is the central illusion of the entire self-help industry.
As the title of this piece says: "Self Development Does Not Make You a Better Person." Emphasis on better person.
Here's a representative but not an exhaustive list of various self-development processes:
Stephen Covey taught us that there are seven habits to highly effective people. It's a good list. He also added an eighth practice to bring about greatness. Thing is, highly effective people, even great people are not better people. They are more effective people. Effective is good. Highly effective is really good. Great is great. But they are not better as people.
Let's say you are a person who has really poor time management and you read a book or take a course and develop some systems to keep you on time. That's great. Good on ya. But you're not a better person. You're now a person who has a good sense of time management and shows up on time to things. To be somewhat facetious about it--even Mussolini got the trains to run on time.
Imagine I'm a person who is emotionally illiterate and I study and follow practices from those who work in that field--say Daniel Goleman--and then I become emotionally literate, this is very good stuff. But I'm not a better person, I'm simply now a more emotionally literate or sensitive one.
Consider Mike. Mike is really poor with money, so he works on this dimension of his life, follows sound advice from knowledgeable people and lo and behold after some time his finances are in much better shape. Spectacular. Mike is not now a better person. He is a more financially intelligent person.
Or Nicole. Nicole is out of shape. She eats healthier and starts exercising regularly and gets in shape. She most likely feels better but she is not as such a better person. She's a healthier person.
Think about the practice of shadow work. Through shadow work, we learn to come into contact with disowned parts of ourselves, re-connect with repressed elements of our personality, and hopefully begin to heal them and re-integrate into our being. Wonderful. From such a practice, we become more integrated, cleaner people. We are not though better people, just more conscious (or at least less unconscious).
For someone else they may notice they lack facility in the realm of breath, energy, and bodily movement so they take up something like Tai Chi and become more fluid in their being. Again, this is fantastic. But they are not better people.
For another it might be becoming socially and politically aware ("conscientizied").
There are great teachings for learning to overcome our immunity to change, fostering self-esteem, how to be a more accomplished lover, how to parent without creating sibling rivalries, there's even a super awesome system for responding well to mountains of email (this one has seriously changed my life). Once again, all stupendous, all helpful practices and teachings, but they do not make anyone better people.
I bring this up because I think there is a great deal of confusion around this whole topic of self-development, particularly how it relates to the question of spiritual development. Are personal and spiritual development in opposition to one another? Are they two totally separate things that really have no relationship to each other? Or is there perhaps a way to connect the two in a meaningful way?
I ask because unless we are going to live in a monastery, anyone who claims they are interested in leading a spiritual life needs to take up many of these kinds of practices (or similar ones). The monastic traditions include vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience to an authority figure so they don't have a great deal to teach spiritual practicioners who lead worldly lives. Money, sex, relationships, emotions, shadow, career, public affairs, breath & energy, physical health these are where a lot of our lives actually reside, spiritual or otherwise.
The ancient description of the Christian mystical path from St. Dionysius (5th/6th century) is: purification, illumination, and union. This is similar to the description of the Buddhist path as sila (discipline), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (awakening). In those two schemas, I want to focus on the first terms: purification and discipline. This emphasis on the necessity of beginning the path with purification is radically missing in our day and age. People want to skip discipline and go straight to all the spiritual highs from subtle forms of meditation or directly take up an inquiry practice and dive into the nature of The Self and so on. In so doing, however, spiritual seekers too often become deeply dysfunctional in many other areas of life.
For our day, purification exists with the ability to be functional and, dare I use the word, normal--to be, as Br. Juma says, "straight with the straight world." And by the straight world, he doesn't mean the heterosexual world, he means the conventional world.
This extensive world of self-development in all kinds of facets could be of potentially great use to us in our spiritual paths. But they will only delude us if we buy into the marketing and philosophical outlook of the books themselves--that they will make us better people. It's a lie. They do not make us better people, but they can make us more functional, healthier people.
Even meditation or other forms of spiritual practice do not make us better people. They make us more mindful or more compassionate or centered but more mindful, compassionate, and/or centered people are not better people. They are simply that--more mindful, compassionate, and centered people. Even enlightenment itself does not make anyone a better person--just someone with access to enlightened (or enlightening) awareness.
Not only do self-development manuals promise that we will become better "us-es", they promise that by following their advice we will be fulfilled. This too is a lie. And here the spiritual traditions could actually be of use to the self-development world, for it is the spiritual traditions that remind us that as long as there is a separate self there will be suffering. Self-development, from the absolute perspective of Awakening, is moving deck chairs on the Titantic of our souls. The problem is the ship of the self has already hit the iceberg and is going down to the ocean floor. The paradoxical wisdom of the spiritual traditions is to allow that sinking to occur, to accept that destruction. As the Sufis says, the key is to "to die before you die." A person who understands fundamentally that the separate self sense is the cause and activity of suffering will not fall for either of the twin lies of the self-development ideology: that we will be better people and we will be fulfilled.
In integral terms, we need to transcend and include. We need to transcend the illusion that any such self-development practices or experiences make us better people or bring us deepest fulfillment. Self-development only makes us more developed people not better or fulfilled ones. Self-development isn't wrong, in fact it's a good thing. It's just not a better-person making thing.
By transcending the illusion of self-development as self-betterment, serious spiritual aspirants can make use of the wisdom in such books and systems.
What then is the solution to the problem of how to include these types of development without their false sense of personal fulfillment? What is the right way to approach these subjects while on the spiritual path?
I believe the proper perspective is that all these domains of life--emotional, sexual, physical, energetic, relational, professional, financial--become disciplines. There is a discipline (or a yoga) of the emotional, of the financial, of the physical, the relational, and so on. Disciplines are about responsibility. It is about becoming responsible in these areas. That is what self-development means in a spiritual context. Responsibility is vitally important in life, spiritual or otherwise. Responsible people are not better people, they are more responsible people.
When we approach these matters from the standpoint of disciplined responsibility, it takes out all the psychodrama of needing to become a better you or feeling like you are inadequate as you are or conversely buying into the nonsense that you are perfect just as you are.
When I talk about Dionysius' use of the word purification (or worse purgation) in churches and spiritual classes, I get a lot of negative feedback. It sounds so negative they say. My view is that people have forgotten that purifying is healing. Sitting in a sweat lodge is purifying. It doesn't mean it's pleasant all the time, but overall it's a positive thing as it expunges negative diseased elements within us. This is similar, I think, to my position on embracing wise and compassionate judgment in our lives. That too is purifying.
Trungpa Rinpoche talked about how he often took Westerners seeking enlightenment and he would do things like teach the men how to wear a suit well. For him it was about dignity; this is the kind of attitude we need.
Approaching these domains of life as disciplines, as arenas for becoming responsible keeps us humble and able to laugh. We have a proper perspective on it all. The story about how if you follow these X number of simple steps you will have the best life ever and be the best you ever makes those who fail in such an attempt, for whatever sets of reasons, feel miserable and worthless. Meanwhile those who succeed in such practices, perhaps through some dumb luck, become convinced of their own superior nature. A person who becomes responsible in an area is simply that, someone who knows they are responsible in that area of life. They also gain awareness of areas of life where they are not so aware and can look to create relationships with people who are and who can help them in their weakness--perhaps then they can help those in turn in other areas.
In the humble position of discipline there's no need to put on airs or be someone other than who we are. Such persons are dignified without being arrogant.
A question you may have been asking throughout this piece is: how do I define better? I've purposefully been coy to help tease out the myriad ways in which we use the term better. The confusion I believe arrives when we apply the concept of better to people. If say you're a basketball player and you spend time practicing to learn to dribble with your off hand, you will be a better player. Again I don't think a better basketball player is a better human being qua human. As a simplistic example, our better basketball person could still be a cruel, vindictive person--just one with better dribbling skills.
Simplistic examples aside, the question remains: Can we ever be better people? And if so, does the qualification of us as better people come from being more effective at work, attentive in listening, smart with money, or more compassionate with ourselves?
Because on the one hand, from the perspective of Absolute Awakening, there are no better or worse people. All beings are infinitely valuable. In theological language, all are children of God. So in that sense, there is no way to become a better person (nor that matter a worse person).
And yet we would also rightly want to acknowledge people who have lived lives dedicated to goodness versus those who lives have been dedicated to evil. To use extreme examples, compare the lives of St. Francis of Assisi with Mao Zedong. We would be insane to not admit that Francis was a profoundly better human being and that all of us should model our lives on his actions rather than those of Mao.
So yes I do think we can talk about better people insofar as some lead better lives than others, lives given to acts of mercy, justice, reconciliation, peacefulness, love, and forgiveness rather than hatred, violence, and cruelty. They are not better in their Essence for all are equal in the eyes of God, but rather than are better or worse in their manifestation. Both perspectives are true and important, each one by itself is incomplete without the other.
But did Francis become that better person because of self-development? Do any of us really fundamentally become better persons because of self-development? That's the crux of the issue. I think the answer is no. I think those actions spring from a desire to give of oneself, from a light that shines out from a person. It is a light that is there by grace from birth. Self-development can help with making our lives more sane, less bewildering, and more functional. This healty ordering can certainly create an environment that makes it easier for us to allow that light to shine. But by itself self-development is not sufficient for it to occur.
So go ahead and develop yourself, become disciplined and responsible in areas where perhaps you are not as responsible yet. Just recall the words of the great philosophers Public Enemy: Don't Believe the Hype. Self-development does not make you a better person and yet it is still absolutely essential.