At some point, even the most stubborn of us will have to stop and think about the way we are living our lives. For some the stoppage comes due to personal development steps, but most of us feel this need via a life crisis. Irrespectively of cultural background, the age-of-reflection seems to be 42. Yes, that famous 42 from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
For simplicity, we basically we have three main options to choose from:
- Trust Main Stream (do what most people do)
- Trust Specialists (do what gurus say)
- Trust Yourself (do what you want, trial & error)
I’d personally recommend a combination of last two, trusting specialists and trusting yourself and even risking dropping off from main stream -train completely. I believe to have arguments sufficiently elsewhere against generic main stream -solutions, therefore I’m focusing on the gurus this time and leave the “yourself” part to later posts.
Although we are in post-modern, post-guru era, still many young (20-45) people follow modern self-help gurus and take their advice to heart. So, in that sense, not much has changed in the way self-help is being consumed in the last 30 years – some people still now, as before, seem to have an aura of “knowing” around them. Whether that aura is based on competence or marketing, is another story.
Even though we have more media-outlets and self-help sub-genres available, there still are those select few gurus who are on the top of the self-help pyramid. I assume people in the 1950s might have read authors like James Allen, C.S. Lewis, Manly P. Hall, Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill and Rudolf Steiner. I grew up in the 80s-90s with Joseph Murphy, Deepak Chopra, Peter Russell, Eckhardt Tolle, Kahlil Gibran, Paulo Coelho, and Dalai Lama. Perhaps the modern people are now growing up with Tim Ferriss, Tony Robbins, Jocko Willink, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Daniel Kahneman and Russell Brand. To be honest, I think all them are worth reading and studying, but I definitely think the old ones are deeper.
The content and teachings of self-help gurus, however, have changed dramatically. The real old ones, from 100 years back, seemed to focus on moral uprightness, proper thinking and spiritual journey. In the 80s it was mostly about getting rid of self-imposed limitations, adjusting thinking and finding presence. Today’s self-help material is more focused on preparing for optimal performance, high-performance, working less (while earning more), wealth and secularism.
Of course the eras and author’s texts overlap so making this distinction is not exact science. For example Napoleon Hill wrote about meticulous planning over 100 years ago. Categorically, old authors were “alchemists” deeply concerned about experience, the new ones seem to be “technicians” concerned about efficiency and material skill-perfecting.
What I find interesting, is that the core of modern teaching are high-performance and extreme physicality, for example with cryo tanks, cold showers, parachute jumping, crossfit, gym, yoga or mixed martial arts. Especially Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins fall into this trap quite often, where success gets pre-defined as material wealth or something extraordinary.
Tony goes to great lengths telling about how body chemistry dictates our mood, hence our “success”. I completely disagree with this premise, since not all success is dependent on high-performance. Let me ask this; what happens when we don’t have cryo tanks at our disposal, or when we are too sick or old to train hard? Obviously, physicality-driven approach is usable by young- and middle aged-people only, so it simply cannot be an universal truth.
There’s nothing wrong in high-performance, or working less but somehow the whole landscape seems to be polarised in the extremes – as if normal performance was not accepted anymore. Although there are exceptions, we can say that the modern teachings revolve (roughly) around goal setting, ToDo-lists, and meticulously (almost mindlessly) executing on those goals.
The promise of modern gurus is same as modern technology: freedom. Ironically, both create a synthetic frame around us, creating a false sense of freedom.
This “following a program” -movement is perhaps most clearly visible in Jocko Willink’s teachings. He creates a false sense of freedom by saying “Discipline equals Freedom”. He’s an ex/Navy Seal, and since I’ve gone thru a Naval Officer training, I can relate to what he’s saying in military context – but I surely don’t agree that discipline works in every context. Taking a honest look at what discipline and freedom are, it’s not difficult to see that they have very little to do with each other.
To give one piece of credit to the “new breed”; one thing I like about today’s teachings is the undercurrent of becoming honest about ourselves and independent of old structures. I think it’s a needed development.
One huge downside of the modern gurus is something I’d call a programmed life. In this pattern, we are meticulously following a regimen, typical health or wealth-related, to the extent where our days are filled with “exercises”. It seems to me, that if I haven’t drank a butter-coffee, worked out in the gym, meditated, read book, summarised it, and reviewed my business plans – all before sunrise – then I’m somehow a lesser being.
I’ve seen quite a few people live a programmed life, mostly people under 40, however. Their lives revolve around themselves due to never-ending need to control their training, nutrition or schedule – for me that seems a bit egoistic way to live. Surprisingly some of these “robots” even gosh when they meet other robots deeper in the rabbit hole. All routines, even the ones that offer some relief in the beginning, will, over time, turn into invisible prison cells.
We have a tendency to self-restrict ourselves thru routines.
I remember one doctor – whose days always begin at 5 AM with running, squats, yoga, meditation, morning pages, visualisation and breakfast (a two-hour routine, always same order) – telling me about a female patient who began doing sit-ups during a medical examination because apparently the patient had forgotten her abs that day. So, interestingly the doctor saw other person’s routine-captivity, but not her own. I found that quite intriguing, akin to “dream within a dream”-sequence in the film “Inception”.
For writing this piece, I listed from memory over 150 individual tips I’ve gathered from books and life-coaches along the years. I’ll spare you the whole list, but to give a taste, here are some morning-behaviours and beliefs I’ve seen gurus recommends and some people fanatically follow:
Begin your day at 04:30 (otherwise you are a pussy)
Begin your day by making your bed (to feel day’s first accomplishment)
Begin your day with a hard workout (otherwise you are weak)
Begin your day in a Cryo-tank or cold shower (otherwise you are not high-energy)
Begin your day by skipping breakfast (otherwise you are low energy)
Begin your day by a hearty breakfast (otherwise you are low energy)
Begin your day with water, salt-water or lemon-water (otherwise low energy)
Begin your day with a bullet coffee (otherwise you are low energy)
Begin your day with an enema (otherwise you can’t detox properly)
Begin your day with Hot-Yoga (otherwise you won’t stay nimble)
Begin your day with an Inversion (otherwise your blood won’t circulate properly)
Begin your day by repeating your affirmations (otherwise you won’t reach your goals)
Begin your day with a morning meditation (otherwise you won’t improve)
Begin your day with morning pages (otherwise you don’t know who you are)
Begin your day with visualisation (otherwise you won’t reach your goals)
Begin your day with a random poem, book chapter (otherwise your intuition suffocates)
Those were just different ways to begin your day with! The other 100+ things to be done during the day are things like: Adaptogens, Visualisation Boards, Eye-staring- and Extreme Honesty Groups, Mirror Staring, Murph challenge (a mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 pushups, and 300 squats), Ayahuasca-rituals, Career Planning, Extreme Ownership, Wim Hof breathing, Binaural Beats, Power Reading, Pomodoro Studying, Feynman Technique, Pilates, German Power-Yoga, Fascia Stretching, HIIT-training circuits etc. Do that, stretch that, meditate that… the list of techniques and methods is exhausting to even look at!
Most of those 150 things I’ve actually tried and some I even recommend trying. The thing is, I don’t object pushing oneself to better performance, but I don’t recommend a way of life where I should run after goals and experiences. We have so many options to try from these days that it’s overwhelming. To try out everything out there would be a full time job for ten years.
A tell-tale sign of this programmed life-pattern are calendar entries for everything (in a fancy todo-app, of course) as if we were ok only if we remembered to meditate or do 100 push-ups in between otherwise hectic rituals! We easily end up running from an self-help event to another, without realising that the journey has taken us captive and that our behaviour has become robotic, a technical performance of life.
The underlying belief of life-programs is: “this is finally THE routine that will make me rich, happy and healthy”. Sorry, it won’t. What I can guarantee though, is that any program might help for a while, but eventually will become yet another constraint in your life that keeps you somewhat content as long as you commit to it. True freedom does not come thru programs.
What’s the alternative?
Interestingly, self-help gurus very seldom recommend simple and effective solutions, like attending therapy. I suspect because therapy is not sexy, and it’s hard to profit from as a self-help coach. Finding a good therapist and therapy form is an art to itself, and can take some time. I’m still convinced that a well-placed therapy (eg. Schema-Therapy, Codependency Therapy, Gestalt-Therapy) are enormously more effective as visualisation boards, spartan bootcamps, Ayahuasca-rituals, Cryo-tanks or HIIT-training circuits combined.
My running hypothesis is, that the best way to live our life is to first deprogram our lives, and then commit to personal and spiritual development. The trick is to do the development part in a soft and non-demanding way, listening to yourself.
Practically deprogramming is about letting go of all routines, all “walking sticks” and begin from a clean slate. Leave the DOING part and experience the BEING part of human existence. We can add some amount of routine, because routine brings structure and safety – or adapt existing ones until they feel right.
Listening yourself is the highest criteria. This would mean that you can wake up anytime you want (maybe even 04:30 AM), or meditate every morning, but not because a guru-program so tells you. Have goals if they help you, but don’t for heaven’s sake think that your worth is depending on you reaching some goals. There’s a difference being on a journey and being present, and both can be combined.
(Image from powerofchange.com.au)
Don’t worry, nothing is under control.
I’d say we must be careful that we don’t let programs overtake our soul. Systematically, it would mean listening to conventional wisdom, utilising community support, trusting own experiences and running experiments. And hey, it’s ok to just be and watch the world whiz by.
This is what I believe in.