Reflections on finding our spiritual path, and why we need an answer beyond just rejecting manic self improvement or embracing the basic tenets of Stoicism
Earlier this week I read Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann (affiliate link). A friend recommended it to a friend and I ended up reading a borrowed copy in a day.
What was most illuminating to me was the way this author helped me see how I disagree with how he would solve the problem he was discussing. But perhaps equally helpful was how he looked at the personal growth and development movement from an outside perspective.
He critiqued what he saw as a religion of the self, and talked about how the push to constantly improve yourself has permeated every part of our culture.
As someone with an internal drive to constantly improve, his message did not immediately resonate with me, but I found myself open to seeing what he was seeing, knowing that this is part of my quest to understand both the broader discussion and the experience and the reactions that people are having today. The success of his book and his resulting demand as a speaker is evidence that his message resonates with people.
I continued reading, wanting to understand why, and to see what I can learn from him, how he might give me some wisdom to round out my own pursuit of knowledge.
So I kept going, reading chapters about saying no, thinking about the negative, and not working with a coach. I see how he is pointing out an obnoxious tendency in society that he is probably right needs correcting. I see how there are excesses in the modern ‘positive-thinking, say-yes, personal growth, find-the-answer-inside-yourself’ movement. But I think there is so much good and actual advancement represented here that instead of rejecting it we should look at how it can be corrected and given better guidance and direction.
His solution, which he wishes to point the reader to without fully explaining it himself, is the tradition of Stoicism with its emphasis on acceptance, steadiness, goodness and self-discipline. He focuses on exhorting the reader in the practice of standing firm, and occasionally resisting forward motion and the command of society to be ever flexible, always changing.
I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him at the same time. He helped me see something I was too close to the issue to see, how the emphasis on self improvement has perhaps become pervasive and destructive in certain ways. But I would argue that instead of simply rejecting or resisting it, as one would stand in a river and brace against the current, that we need to restore what should be at the heart of this positive, empowering movement.
What I see here, as in so many other places, is that the heart, the compass, the guiding light is missing. I see in the personal growth, self-help movement, so much hunger and desire for change and for good. Good people who once felt stuck are cultivating hope that they can be better and that they can make the world better. We need this.
I would argue that the correct approach to the problem that he sees is not to swing the other direction but to seek to add spiritual truth to the conversation around personal growth and development.
Brinkmann helped me see the role of Stoicism in a new light as well. I’m truly grateful for that as I’ve been navigating these different ideologies and trying to get a sense of what each one is, where it fits, and how it relates to the problems at hand.
I’ve recently become a fan of Ryan Holiday, partly because of his peripheral content aimed at helping budding writers. But his core content has been all about bringing the ideas of Stoicism to personal development. Stoicism sounds smart and wise, and certainly has value in its response and contrast to the whims and trends that currently rise and fall in our culture. It would be good to see a return to a greater sense of duty, honor, and discipline.
However, I think that to embrace Stoicism and look no further would be to settle for good rather than seeking great. Or perhaps that is not saying it strongly enough.
I’m coming to see how many personal development frameworks put out today by various authors seem incredibly smart, novel and effective – an attractive combination for Americans with our penchant for the new and novel, the useful and effective – but lack a sustained power in and of themselves to truly transform, at least not without a lot of grit and self-discipline, and a low conversion rate of those who are able to simply follow the formula and get the same results.
But that low success rate means many who have flocked to these ideas are still stuck in their circumstances, sometimes also financially or emotionally drained, or both, from applying the required effort and resources.
But this does not mean that we should encourage them to stop dreaming, stop reaching higher; the last thing I want to see is an improved ability instead to simply stay where we are and get better at accepting it and being grateful for all we have.
Yes, gratitude is key, but so is growth. It is both a moral imperative and our birthright, for all who desire it to spend their lives continually growing and improving and striving for something greater than they have today. This is not embracing a power or money-seeking mindset but rather the same beautiful spirit found in nature. All of creation is constantly growing and expanding and we have that same nature in us.
We are meant to spend our lives growing into the truest sense and expression of ourselves, bearing the fruit of love, service and joy in contribution to the greater good of the rest of humanity and nature as well.
So how do we pursue this healthy, divinely sponsored growth, without pursuing the excess of a ‘religion of self’ which Brinkmann rightly critiques, or solely embracing Stoicism, which Holiday has so ably reintroduced as a useful tool?
I believe we need to embrace our divine calling to a spiritual path and a spiritually-enhanced understanding of our lives. I do not yet by any means have all or even most of the answers. But I believe with my entire being that our future lies down this path.
We are spiritual beings just as much as we are physical beings. In our progress, our history, and the evolution of our understanding, we have recently been through a long phase of history where science and reason was emphasized and prioritized above emotion, art, love, and faith, everything related to spirit, spirituality, and that which is sacred or holy, not completely understood with the mind, or examinable with the scientific method.
We are now in a new season of human history where we correcting back toward the middle. This is why you hear so many great men and women talking now about bridging faith and science and pursuing an ecumenical approach to social, economic and religious issues.
I think Rob Bell is onto something when he talks about holism. I think Marianne Williamson is onto something when she talks about the politics of love and recovering the soul of America. I recently did some research on the most influential spiritual leaders alive today and found recurring themes in their work around ecumenism, healing, love and the bridging of faith and science.
Simply reading a list of quotes from Deepak Chopra freed me to realize that I can begin sharing and perhaps teaching when I am still seeking and learning myself. He said to learn from those who are also seeking and be wary of anyone who has all the answers. That was so freeing because while I’m so excited about everything I’ve learned and am continuing to learn, I still feel like there is so much I don’t know. I feel as if I am just getting started. I feel my whole life has led up to this point, of finally finding the right path for me, the path I must take. And that I am only now heading down the path, having finally found it.
We need to re-embrace a sense of mystery, and to hold in tension the quest for spiritual truth with an acceptance that the journey will take a lifetime and that some of the best spiritual truths exist primarily in paradox form.
We are spiritual beings.
We are spiritual beings who unfortunately have forgotten who we are, we have lost our birthright, we have misplaced our sense of certainty, of destiny, of awe.
We are spiritual beings who unfortunately in today’s world too often have mental, emotional or spiritual wounds around words and concepts such as God, sin, salvation, and surrender.
But that reflects more on the imperfect human messengers, teachers, leaders, who have come before us, than on the nature of the divine, on the character of God.
I believe the most dangerous tendency in our world today is the inclination and habit of rejecting a spiritual nature, understanding or explanation for anything. And I believe our greatest cause for hope is the growing tide of awareness and desire for depth, meaning and spiritual truth.
When I look back at everything I have learned in my journey so far, the most meaningful and powerful parts of my journey were where I had a fresh revelation around the deep, present nature of spirituality constantly surrounding us.
It is time for us to press in to our own spiritual journeys, to a fresh knowledge and revelation of the divine, our divine nature, our beautiful world, and our place in it. To pursue a true sense of holism, a marriage of the sacred and mundane, and an understanding, to quote Rob Bell, that “everything is spiritual.”