Thursday, July 19, 2012

Personal Growth Cat Fight

So maybe it's not really a hissing, screeching cat fight.  Self-improvement gurus rarely bare their claws... in public, anyway.  But there do seem to be two very different approaches to the whole "how best to live life" question.

Can you pursue both at once? I'll be curious what other folks think.

In one corner, we have the Clever Achievers.  These folks will teach you how to have More of everything you want.  They can hack Life, finding the easiest route to success, wealth, popularity, weight loss, persuasiveness, self-confidence, functional relationships, happiness, productivity, a strong healthy sexy body, the coolest gadgets, the most awesome adventures. Plus, plenty of spare time to enjoy it because you're so gosh darn efficient!

Backing them up in their corner, handing them fresh towels and cold water, there are usually Scientific Studies and CEO/athlete/bazillionaire success stories.  Plus lots of easily digestible "Quick Tips" and "Best" lists with nifty bullet points.

Who do we have in the other corner? Let's call them the Mindful Spiritualists.  They don't play the same game at all.

They'll teach you how to be happy with Less, at least less of everything you thought you always wanted.  Instead of chasing after success and achievements and love and Things,  you learn to let go... of suffering, of craving, of ego, of thinking all the time, of separateness.  You embrace compassion and gratitude and stillness. And, that's not all! With this package you also get better health and personal relationships, more peace, joy and a meaningful connection with everything else in the whole damn Universe and the eternity of time and space.  That's pretty impressive, right?

In their corner, the Mindful Spiritualists are backed up with centuries and centuries of collected wisdom, scientific studies (although for them that's not the point), and, the moral/spiritual high ground.

Fair Fight?

As someone who has never read much self-help stuff (I got most of my theorizing from psychology classes and never ventured much further), I find aspects of both these paths tempting.

Does it Have to be a Fight?

Can I be in both corners?

There certainly seems to be some overlap, and many of my favorite resources try to straddle both approaches.

For example, everyone seems to agree that the following are excellent ideas:
  • not getting distracted by petty worries;
  • taking time for conscious relaxation and deep breathing;
  • practicing compassion and generosity;
  • eating healthy food;
  • renouncing addictions;
  • engaging in physical activity;
  • training the mind to focus;
  • and gratitude.  Lots and lots and lots of freakin' gratitude.

But beyond that, trying to follow both camps gets awkward.  It's sort of like going on a diet and trying to be both Vegan and Paleo at the same time.  Once you get past kale and cashews and coconuts, everything you try seems to be wrong in someone's book.

Tough Calls

It's hard to spend energy simultaneously trying to buckle down and work hard to achieve long-term goals that involve financial success, hard-core fitness, popularity, pleasurable rewards, influence... at the same time you are letting go of attachment, craving, constant thinking, and ego gratification.

If you reach the point where you don't care what anyone else thinks of you because you're not ego-driven, and you can be equally happy seeking shelter in a grimy bus station or a Five Star Spa/Resort in Tahiti... are you really going to toil into the midnight hours finishing up that report due tomorrow, or making sure everyone on Linked In knows what a great addition you'd make to any attractive workplace offering high-paying jobs?

Two Diverging Paths

I'm wondering if there may be a fork in the road at some point that prevents most people from fully committing to travel both routes to their ultimate destinations. If so, I suspect you hit it somewhere in that messy intersection where Material meets Spiritual; where Self/Ego/Individuality intersect with being One with the Rest of the Universe, and where Pursuing Pleasure runs smack into Letting Go.

And sure, you hear of successful mega-billionaires who spend months at Zen retreats, but are they really able to disengage from ego and the craving for achievement and superficial success? And if so, are they still actively running their empires or just living off them?

On the bright side... I've got a long enough way to go in this whole "personal growth" journey that I don't have to choose yet. I'm curious about the benefits of the whole mindful egoless "one universe" thing, but not exactly miserable pursuing goals geared towards pleasure, ego gratification, and material success. These are, at this point in my life, rewarding enough to make the pursuit mostly enjoyable. More unassisted pull-us? More cake? More clients? More blog hits?  Yes, please!

But I'm guessing that the aging process and facing mortality will drive me more in the direction of seeking contentment from being a humble and grateful part of the whole, rather than a special and unique Self. Especially when that special unique Self needs someone to push her wheelchair and change her Depends and remind her that bras are generally worn on the Inside, not the Outside, of one's sweater.

And, truth be told, thanks to discovering Rick Hanson, I've been hanging out over at Sounds True lately, brainwashing myself with a bunch of Deepak Chopra and Pema Chodron and Eckart Tolle and whatever I can download for free.  So my firmly established skepticism about anything the least bit spiritual is starting to feel a little wobbly.  I still can't mediate worth a crap, but I do get fleeting glimpses of something... it's kinda blissful and mysterious and glorious, though it rarely happens when I'm attempting formal mediation.  Much more likely to happen when I'm out wondering around in nature.

Is this fleeting euphoria just a product of excessive caffeine and wishful thinking?  Or is there more to life and being in the world than I've been accustomed to imagining?

So here's my question: Is it cheating to try use random spiritual advice to let got of painful ego-assaults, be more tranquil and compassionate, and get more comfortable with the idea of mortality, while simultaneously wallowing in pleasurable overindulgence and ego gratification?

The Mindful Spiritualists keep insisting that it's a zero sum game and that every pleasure comes with an accompanying pain or disappointment. But I'm not finding that to be the case at this point in my life. Chasing after pleasure and praise and stuff tends to get me... more pleasure and praise and stuff. Which I like!

So, for right now, the current plan is to continue to pursue both paths:  To chase after success, ego gratification, and pleasure and seek ways to do that more efficiently.  But also, I'd like to keep experimenting with this spiritual stuff, attempting to lay the groundwork for more mindfulness, compassion, and the ability to let go of that stubborn sense of ego. In other words, try to have my cake and eat it too.  With ice cream and champagne, if possible!

And now, having written three rambling posts on this blog trying to explain what I'm trying to do, it's time to start sharing (and hopefully learning) more about the specifics of what might be helpful.  In future posts, I'm hoping to collect tips and resources and ideas.  And I'm going to try to keep an open mind about any approach that yields more peace and happiness, however goofy it may sound.

So which are you more drawn to, "More" or "Less?" Think you can pursue both at once?


  1. Less is more.

    That said, yes, you can have it both ways. It's matter of learning to be content with what you have, and, using this as your base, pursue other things. This way, if you don't get any more than you already have, then you're still happy.

    1. Excellent advice--Get the feeling you have mastered this yourself! And hey, thanks for stopping by!!!

    2. When I tried this last night, I realized it was raining too hard for me to have an internet connection. Then the power went out for six hours. All I wanted to say was that Leah said it better than I was going to!

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  2. I'm all for less stuff, more money. Nothing brings more peace than having an uncluttered home and a full bank account.

  3. "The Mindful Spiritualists keep insisting that it's a zero sum game and that every pleasure comes with an accompanying pain or disappointment."

    Only Dualistic Mindful Spiritualists would say that. The rest of us would say "It's never that simple...."

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Ooh, cool, Mary Anne--sounds like you may have found some spiritual loopholes for me to exploit! (She said optimistically...)

  4. Ya know - them clever achiever types... you know whats they get? Stalkers.

    I find it is best to fly under the achievement radar. At least that is what I tell myself.

    OK semi serious - a while back hubs and I retired. Are we rich and do we live amazingly extravagant lives of caviar and tricked out poodles? No. But we sat down together and decided then and there what was important and what we could do to make it happen - and (the sometimes harder part) decide what we could live without to have it. I think that is where and when the zen kicks in. When you get that mind shift. Zeroing in on what matters and letting the other stuff fall away.

    Let me tell you - your friends who are pursuing "clever achiever" will not like your changes and may even mock you and may even ditch you. When you do not play by society's rules the herd notices and may abandon you and if your ego cannot take that, if you do not see that MAYBE it is because they see what you are doing and they cannot do it and THAT realization hurts ye ego - well life altering for zen may get a tad bumpy.

    Get your head and heart going in the same direction, believe in your decisions because you made them with head and heart united and all of a sudden bagging happiness gets a whole lot easier.

    I shall take my soapbox and trot home now (however humble home may be!).

    1. Love this! Sounds like you have an awesome sense of priorities.

      We too have made choices to step off the conventional "achievement" treadmill in order to enjoy a lifestyle others would find just plain weird. Fortunately most of our friends are weird in similar ways so we haven't faced the mocking thing (at least not to our faces).

      But I do still struggle with the "achievement" issue in whatever endeavor I take up, and can't quite get to an ego-less Zen place even when head and heart are fairly well aligned. But making progress. So please don't get off the soap box, I can use the inspiration!

  5. I mainly came over here to say I love that kitten picture, but...I think everyone is different. Some people are achievers, and they can go-go-go all the time and be happy. Good for them. I don't have the energy for that.

    I've never been a planner. I always think that's not good. But I think it's more that my wants are fairly simple. I have a great husband & family, a comfortable home, and a good job. I want free time to putter in my garden, and pursue things that interest me - like learning piano and photography. Once in a while I'd like to be able to take a trip some place I've never been. But most of the time I like to be at home. I get a sense of achievement from doing my job well, from seeing my garden grow, from learning to take a beautiful photograph. I don't care if I'm ever a VP at a company (or rather, I would prefer not - I like to work my 40 hours and go home), or if I ever amass millions of dollars (I do make contributions to a retirement plan, I'm not irresponsible). I just want to enjoy my quiet little life.

    I don't really see it as a path. I just see it as knowing what I want/need in order to be happy.

    1. Sure sounds like you've figured out the purrrfect balance! (Sorry!)

      Seriously, it really does seem as though you've found a really peaceful content place in life and value the really important things. Congrats and thanks for the inspiration!

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  7. In response to "Is it cheating to try use random spiritual advice to let got of painful ego-assaults, be more tranquil and compassionate, and get more comfortable with the idea of mortality, while simultaneously wallowing in pleasurable overindulgence and ego gratification?"... that seems to imply that there is a "right" way to go about cultivating a healthy, happy life for oneself. Just as with advice regarding fitness, I do not think there is necessrily a one-size-fits-all approach to this - the question is not a binary (Yes or No, "More" or "Less") one.

    There seem to be some consistent truths, though - learning to focus on what -actually- makes you happy as opposed to what one -thinks- should make them content seems to be key. Material possessions do make some people content, but for most it seems to be more of a fleeting, hollower feeling than they expect. But it seems as if many people are desensitized to what they truly want and crave in life. (Apologies for the rambling.)

    To answer your personal query, for me it's a moderate amount of both - I pursue many things at once with fervor, but really need quiet down time to recharge my batteries, and frankly am a minimalist in regards to owning things (aside from books and tea). My passions are languages, adventures/travelling, flight, using my body in fun athletic ways, and making an effort to contribute to the community. I think that if something is truly, wondrously important to you, one should do it with all of their might - but the less you give a damn about it the less effort one should put into it. (There are, of course, things one must do when they don't want to - taxes, planning for retirement, etc - but I'm counting those as "necessities", not things we choose whether or not to put passionate effort into.)

    I think realizing that having less of certain things (possessions, ego, etc) can give one more of the positive things which they want (time to devote to what they , money, tranquility)

    1. Hey thanks so much for the articulate and thoughtful response Zoe!

      Sounds like your passions are all very healthy life-affirming ones. Some of mine are but others tend towards the hedonistic or ego-driven, and I don't seem to have any strong desire to move past 'em. Yet. But who knows?

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