How The Self-Help Industry Is Built Around A Lie

Early Buddhists avoided depicted the Buddha’s self at all, showing instead symbols or his feet, but that faded away quickly. (Via the Buddhist heritage of Pakistan)

In what the late Mark Fisher called ‘the privatization of stress’, entire industries of mental health, wellness, and self-help have been built around the concept of self. This is really because our illusory ‘selves’ have equally illusory bank accounts, not because the self exists per se.

Western science and philosophy cannot find or define this self, and every other philosophy and religion outright decries it. Focusing on your self instead of the gods, the community, the family, and the very planet is viewed as the surest way into suffering, not a way out. Islam calls to submit to Allah, Jesus called to love your neighbor, Hinduism says follow your duty, and Buddhism says that the self doesn’t exist like that at all.

The truth is we’re getting the wrong answers about ‘mental health’ because we’re asking the wrong questions. It’s like going to the podiatrist with dengue (break-bone fever). Yes, dengue may make your toe hurt, but that’s hardly the root cause. In the same way what we call mental health certainly has personal manifestations, but its roots are in the family, the community, the species, the planet, and the realms of the devas and dead. Yet we’re told to ignore all this as superstition and unrelated politics and just take these pills or pay this person to try and fool yourself that it’s all OK. But it’s not all OK. And it’s not all your problem. Just cause you have a paycheck doesn’t give you control over all of your feelings. That’s just what people trying to get your paycheck say.

We’re used to asking people what’s wrong with you, but the more relevant question is where does it hurt? And the ‘where’ is much bigger than the confines of your humble ape avatar. The pain can be in your mind, your body, your family, your community, your species, or all off the above. The idea of mental health subsumes all of this as a personal problem, but this is a failure in philosophy which fails the individual it claims to elevate most of all.

When I say a failure of philosophy, I mean that the whole self-help industry is founded around the concept of the self, which is completely unfounded. I have studied western philosophy and there is no coherent definition of the self in there, just a bunch of thought experiments that all fail. I’ve studied neuroscience and you can’t see it. You can look at the self with microscopes or MRIs or books or any which way. However you look at it, there’s no there there. It’s like the border between India and Pakistan. Definitely something to fight and die over, but if you walk right up to it and look it’s just the same old trees and plants and a bunch of apes acting agitated about nothing. It’s just an idea and, given all the fighting and dying, not an especially good one.

For an alternate philosophy of self look, well, anywhere. It’s only the false enlightenment which centered the self this way. The actual enlightenment was centered around the concept of An-atman. Or not-self. Note that this isn’t the same as no self. Anatman doesn’t deny that there’s some useful label in the self (ie, we use it to identify the Buddha). It’s just that it’s not useful for escaping suffering, which was the Buddha’s point.

If you get rid of the idea of a canonical self—or at least the idea that whatever we’re talking about is not just that—then you can start to think on different scales. That is, not what’s wrong with me?, but where does it hurt? Which is the more helpful question. Let me give you an example from my life, which is hard won, and which I never wanted to know at all.

Today I feel miserable but it’s not a personal problem. There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with my mental health. It’s our uncle’s birthday, and our uncle was assassinated four months ago. His character assassination is still ongoing. The whole family is miserable and what I’m feeling just a subset of that pain. Could I take a pill? Sure, do you have any? But that wouldn’t address the root of my pain anymore than a podiatrist treats dengueu. My pain is out of my body and in the greater body of my family and community. That’s where.

The pain is there, in the Borella Cemetery, and it follows me home every day. The pain is there in my wife’s voice and her grandmother’s eyes and yet I feel it in my own body all the same. Did I love him? Do I feel my own unique pain? Absolutely. Again, the point is not no self but that the self is not all. Not at all. My own pain is a subset of my family’s pain, and of my country’s pain, and of the general pain of love and loss which is the human condition. Are the tools of modern mental health part of treating this? Absolutely. But are they adequate? Absolutely not.

I fear you must know this yourself. Death comes for us all, after taking away so much that we love. Death is the one great truth that all perception is organized around, and it is the greatest and most brutal teacher you’ll ever know. Death really brings home the impersonality of feelings. How they’re really not contained in your skull at all. When someone dies, you can suddenly feel pain in their body. That person cannot feel anymore but you feel for them just the same. You weep as if your own limb has been cut off, even though there’s no physical connection to sever. Death really shows us that our feelings are not our own, that we are part of a living network, and that when a connection is severed, we feel it as a physical pain. We feel pain in other peoples bodies. That’s the truth of our connectedness and it is separateness that’s the illusion.

That’s why we gather together at funerals, to try and desperately stitch the network together, around a wound that will never heal. Funerals are the scar tissue of the social animal; the higher consciousness of the group losing a part of its body and crying out in pain. I feel my own personal grief, but it’s obviously part of something bigger than me. That’s why we gather in national grief, or international, wherever you choose to draw the border. The borders are all illusory, like sticking name tags on the roiling ocean. In the sea of tears, what does it matter whose are whose?

And yet an entire industry of self-help has been built on this fundamentally liquid concept of self. Of course it’s not stable. You can float for a bit on this illusion, but it’s not land. Land is family, land is community, land is what we call a planet, and the extended living family that literally terraformed it. What does is matter if you get your head right while your body suffers? What does it matter if you reach peak fitness while your brother starves? What does it matter if you family prospers while your country falls? And what does any of this matter while our sister species and mother Earth are butchered and burnt? Being more than the sum of our parts, having neurons outside of our bodies, we are capable of feeling all of this. You can forget this briefly in the indulgence of self, but this doesn’t make the other planes of existence disappear. It still feels like always being on the edge drowning, because you are.

We are told to self-help out of this problem, to focus on our mental health, and to of course pay for this service, to commodify our suffering for the greater cause of capitalism. Nevermind reaching a helping hand to our brother or even our parents, just let the invisible hand and impersonal science sort it out.

But what if this entire concept is false? What if it’s not about the self at all? Indeed, what if selfishness just leads to more suffering? What if the focus on mental health distracts from the social, species, and planetary health which actually affects our well-being in more powerful ways? What if the individual self merely intersects with these things without being the driver of our fate? This is the trouble with the focus on mental health and the self-help industry in general. It’s a category error. Self-help is part of the lie that it’s all about yourself, which is what makes us so unhappy in the first place. This is the attachment that the Buddha said leads to suffering. If there is not-self then what are you helping? Are you helping at all? This is the lie.