I’ve been thinking about the subject of self-development. I think being in a state of steady growth tends to give rise to that feeling we call ‘happiness’, in some form, because happiness is a direction, and not a static state.
That’s the reason no single self-help book can ever provide an answer to one’s problems. And yet, there are so many self-help books and New Age practices out there because we are seduced by quick fixes. It is painful to address the real problems in our lives, and most people would rather not leave the safety of the Waterstones book shelf.
But the niggling feeling persists.
The reason that no self-help book ever makes you happy is because happiness is determined by rate of personal growth and therefore you can never achieve it. It is always a work in progress.
Despite the proliferation of books on the subject, most people remain blissfully unaware of the issue of self-development, despite the universal desire to be happy.
It seems to belong to the realm of the psychoanalyst’s chair and most people consider themselves to be already “made”, finished, perfect. Any self-critique is shamefully labelled as insecurity.
I think this is wrong.
The New Age “self”
A big problem in that all-important struggle for happiness is the lack of tools and language that we can use to achieve and maintain this elusive state.
In common usage, there is no appropriate definition or spectrum of words to describe the notion of having a self, along with the way to develop that self. In general, all we have are words that approximate aspects of this area of knowledge. They are at best piecemeal, at worst woefully inadequate.
The only word we really have to use to describe this self that I am referring to is “spirit”, but since it sounds religious and ethereal, this makes many people switch off when it’s brought up.
Even the term “holistic” health – which refers to mind, body and “spirit” – is ironically deficient because it is so overused. Words lose meaning as soon as they are used mindlessly and habitually.
Clarity of expression
The problem is that many people interested in alternative practices don’t express themselves clearly or convincingly. This is either because they don’t know how to or lack an interest in doing so, usually because they are only interested in preaching to the choir, to the converted.
There are a lot of things wrong with the New Age community, including a lack of interest in providing evidence for bold claims, but an attempt to develop and transcend the self is still commendable.
Sometimes we don’t have words for things because their existence is so implicit that we don’t think of naming them, but I think we can achieve our goals a lot more efficiently if we learn the appropriate language.
What is the self? What are its characteristics? How can we define it?
I really don’t know, but I know it has to be independent of the environment. Perhaps it’s your values, your memories, that core sense of being based on continued existence. I don’t think many people know but it’s worth exploring.
Some existing systems and languages can help us explore the self.
How to achieve happiness
Psychoanalysis goes some way to addressing the problems of self, but as with many systems, it seems to mainly focus on the sick, without concerning itself with the general maintenance and growth of basically functional individuals.
Enneagram is the best system I have found so far that addresses the self and it’s multi-faceted issues, all the while honouring the variety of experience among the vast numbers of individuals in existence. Enneagram theorists call the self “the ego”, echoing the psychoanalytic tradition.
Enneagram definitely looks off-putting to the uninitiated, because it uses unfamiliar words and concepts that most people reject because of a lack of understanding.
It seems self-indulgent and fluffy to be concerned with the development of the self because there are better things to be doing, like getting drunk, having sex, earning money, going on holiday, finding a partner, settling down, having kids.
None of these things makes us happy in the long run. We often fall for the illusion that they can, but happiness can only be achieved by cultivating an attitude of open-minded growth. Then, whatever happens, you know it’s for an ultimate good.
But how can you maintain a mindset of quiet curiosity and equanimity in the face of so many distractions, and general life?
Generally I think this covetable mindset can only be born from existential agony, after you’ve faced things that you thought were beyond you and you nearly gave up, but you didn’t, and eventually you came out the other side.
The purpose of self-knowledge
Achieving self-knowledge is hard, and it hurts.
People are afraid to stray from the beaten track because they know that others may laugh at them, or reject them, and I think this is a shame because it’s a roadblock to true knowledge and insight into the self.
We can be happy without self-knowledge, but only for a while. Soon, you reach the limits of your happiness because it life appears to be governed by the laws of growth, expansion, and going beyond limits. Oblivious contentment cannot exist for long in such a universe without some serious effort.
I’m probably just describing maturity and taking responsibility for yourself. You also realise you can’t make this journey alone, and that helping others (plus letting them help you) is the natural next step. This keeps you open and changing, because you can’t choose the demands that others will make of you.
Catherine Julianne is a writer and digital communications professional obsessed with the field of personality systems theory. She also likes drawing, yoga, meditation and being in nature.