There Is No Such Thing as "Personal Development"
America’s collapse and headlong drift into right-wing extremism cannot just be blamed on Donald Trump and his mob base of one-third of Americans. Even the ‘personal development’ industry that’s emerged in recent years is complicit. This painful truth was brought home to me last week during communications with a retreat center founder and director in upstate New York. After we had what I felt was a fine talk, I wrote with what I feel is the most important and urgent question of our time: Can the revolution in consciousness essential to change the disastrous course of man ignite at this juncture? In reply, the lady recommended five prominent men in New York. Though I felt it was probably a fob-off, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. When I replied, in good humor, that without a balance of women our dialogue wasn’t going to go anywhere, she took umbrage: “The women I know are more interested in helping others and personal development than grappling with big ideas.” Her retort left me rather stunned, but the exchange gave insight into how and why the personal development industry has made no difference in the treacherous socio-political moldering and smoldering of America. Indeed, it raises the question: Have all these meditation and yoga retreats even made a difference in the lives of the legions of retreatants? And why are so many people willing to torture themselves with silent retreats lasting a week or more? As far as the yoga craze, I did yoga exercises long before yoga became a fad, but viewed it as it is — stretching exercises that go with strengthening and aerobics - not the path to enlightenment. That graft from the Eastern tradition, even if it had some validity a thousand years ago in India, could never have grown into a healthy branch on the core-dead American trunk, much less given new life to the tree. Even so, why hasn’t this latter-day quasi-spiritual movement of meditation, yoga and retreats slowed the decay of American culture, but rather added to it? Some attribute America’s decline to laissez-faire or neo-liberal capitalism. Others to human nature and greed. (Though idiotically, just today the New York Times has an article entitled, “Greed Might Be the Thing That Saves Us”). Others feel the cumulative darkness of America’s foreign policy evils over decades have created a chickens-come-home-to-roost scenario. For 16 years (30 if you count “we won the Cold War” triumphalism), we kept telling ourselves, despite invading Iraq for no reason and throwing the region into chaos, “we’re a good people and a great nation.” Now the USA is turning its back on Afghanistan after our ignominious defeat and departure, freezing Afghan finances are threatening millions of people with freezing and starving to death this winter. When the racist Trump was elected, the pundits and politicians said, “This isn’t who we are.” Biden ran and won on that self-deception. What will they say if Trump is re-elected in 2024 after losing in 2020, stealing the election by setting the groundwork with the hideously projective “Stop the Steal” propaganda? So what does the plethora of meditation teachers and retreat centers have to do with any of this? Nothing, and that’s just the point. The idea that all we need to do is focus on our “Higher Selves,” and that will bring about a transformation in society, has been shown to be nothing but solipsism. There is something sadly human sitting with others in a room for days without a speaking a word. It’s the worst of both worlds — one is neither truly alone, nor beneficially with others. Group meditation is an existential oxymoron, especially when it’s done online during the Covid pandemic for a fee. We are creatures of language. If we truly want to go beyond words, then we need to begin by being deeply alone, both physically and psychologically. We can’t have it both ways - being alone and being a social animal at the same time. Is there another way in the face of the nihilistic and authoritarian drift in the United States and around the world? ‘Personal development’ certainly is no alternative. In truth, it flows from the same self-centered source and contributes to the same rotten culture that it purports to escape and transform. We have to end both the delusion of civilizational progress, and the delusion I can silently retreat into ‘my true self.’ There is no such thing. Meditation means gathering undirected attention sufficient to quiet thought, end time, and empty psychological memory. Don’t pay a dollar for it, but learn the art by being your own teacher. Can meditation, which is inherently solitary, and meditative inquiry, which is the social equivalent, bring about a new culture? Yes, but it has nothing to do with personal development.
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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