It is a fallacy to think that self-help and real spirituality can be equated with each other. However, for a layman, they can appear very similar. This is largely because the core of spirituality has been diluted and circulated among the masses, and all kinds of self-help methods and concepts have been derived out of these teachings. Even in modern psychology, you can find concepts that have been originally spiritual utilised in a contemporary mental health setting.
While on the surface self-help and spirituality seem to have a lot in common, their fundamentals are mirror images of each other. Both approaches admit that there is a self, and that the self is in need of help. The difference lies in the way ‘self’ and ‘help’ are defined.
Acharya Prashant elucidates the problems around self-help and gives practical solutions on the subject.
Self-help admits that there is a self and it has problems, and then self-help provides methods for the self to overcome these problems. It is about helping the self become a better self; it is about maintaining the deepest layer status quo and building things upon that foundation, thus aiming at a polished version of the self. While even fundamental notions and ways of operating of the self can be challenged to achieve this, the self itself is left untouched. Only the outermost layers, the superficial parts of the self are dealt with.
Your very definition of your 'self' is not touched because that would threaten your entire existence.
The approach of self-help is: “I am sad because my desires have not met fulfilment, so the way to help myself is to fulfil desires. I am sad because of certain adverse conditions, so I must change those conditions to be happy. I am not alright, and I know why I’m not alright. Give me tools to get rid of that which I deem to be the problem. I will not look into myself deeply; I will not go where my fundamental security is threatened; I will not look at what all my self-definitions are built upon and where they come from.”
There is nobody who suffers and does not decide to be his own helper. Go to anybody who is suffering and ask, “What’s wrong?” and he will be able to describe. Ask him, “What would relieve your suffering?” That too he’ll be able to describe.
The question is: If you know so much about your suffering and also the solution to your suffering, why are you still suffering? That’s what the suffering is: you think you know.
If one claims to know oneself and the reasons to his suffering, why does the suffering linger? And if all kinds of self-help materials are available, why is the state of the world what it is? Shouldn’t we be living in a utopia?
The one who feels the need to be helped unfortunately decides to become his own helper, and that is the tragedy of all self-help methods. The greatest arrogance of the ego lies in claiming that it can be of help to itself.
The self which you assume yourself to be is always in need of help, and, unfortunately, it itself becomes the helper.
Spirituality begins the moment you realize that self-help is not possible, that the one who will help you is beyond 'you'. You can never be your own helper because you do not know yourself. That is the beginning and the end of spirituality.
Spirituality says, “Before talking about helping the self, one must know what the self really is. If you do not know yourself, all movement in this fundamental ignorance will give you a better version of ignorance at best.”
The worst part is that most self-help methods actually succeed in bringing about a better version of the ignorant self. People think that they have helped themselves; people think that they have overcome their problems and suffering, while actually their victory is one bought with self-deceit, numbness, and total obliviousness towards the fact of their state.
They have found a way to be well-adjusted as their fundamentally sick selves, and having lost the sensitivity to the constant unease and suffering inherent in their condition, they start thinking that they have succeeded—and thus they are trapped.
The spiritual process says, “What’s the point in helping myself if I do not know myself? What’s the point in running after my desires if I do not know myself? If I do not know myself, then whose desires am I chasing? Are my desires even my own?” That’s the approach of spirituality.
The false self that you are trying to help is not you. It is a fundamentally incomplete, partial, and restless entity that is an aggregation of all the biological, social, and cultural inputs you have been fed with since the birth of the body. And the biological conditioning stretches back millions of years.
The ego is the I-sense that associates itself with the limited, and thus makes itself de facto partial, incomplete. What is more disturbing is that people spend their whole lives without realizing this; they have internalised the outside and taken it as the inside. They will never come to know that their whole life is dictated and driven by agencies outside of themselves. They live and die as slaves without even knowing it.
You can never reach fulfilment or completeness as long as you take yourself as that which you identify as. You cannot reach fulfilment even by changing the object of your identification because all you can ever identify with is limited, destructible, and time-bound. When you identify with any thing, you make yourself mortal and limited.
This is why the only help the self can have is dissolution, disappearance. Self help is the best help only when one helps the self come to an end. Self love is about seeing that the suffering inherent in one’s conditions as the ego is foolish and unnecessary, and one needs self awareness for that—self awareness meaning the constant realization of that which one takes as internal as actually external.
Our identity is unstable because it is based on that which is in constant change. Every thing changes all the time. Self-help as we know it is just about solidifying oneself to this unstable equation. You can never have self confidence as long as you take yourself as the ego. Everything you base your confidence on is prone to disappearance and change.
Spirituality offers the only real solution if one has the courage and the intelligence to see that the situation is hopeless, and that a better life is possible. Spirituality shows that freedom from the little self is possible, and in fact, the only real way to live fearlessly and in joy.
Be true to yourself and opt for the only real solution. Be yourself by leaving yourself. To be true to yourself is to leave that which anyway is not you.
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Acharya Prashant is an emerging champion of socio-spiritual awakening in the world today. An alumnus of IIT-Delhi and IIM-Ahmedabad, and a former Civil Services officer, Acharya Prashant is an acclaimed Speaker, Vedanta Teacher and author of over 50 books. Apart from that he wears various hats: a veganism promoter, an environmental activist, a science activist, a campaigner against superstition, and a champion of essential human freedom. Know More