How Self Help Is A Dead End (A Buddhist View)

If there is no-self, how do you help it?

A roadside shrine near Kandy town. The Buddha said not to worship his image, but we do

Buddhism is full of contradictions. The Buddhist monk leaves in order to be present. They close their eyes to wake up. They sit alone to be with everyone. None of this makes sense in words, but who said the universe had to fit into ape vocalizations? Maybe life just doesn't make sense like that. I mean, does it makes sense to you?

We have a deep sense that experience must be understandable through words, but what if that's just not possible? If a picture paints a thousand words, how much more is a human life? At some point the words just trip over themselves, causing more confusion than they relieve.

So here's a thousand words on the subject lol:


One Buddhist contradiction is the idea of no-self. How are you supposed to figure this out? By 'working on your self'. This is like working on your car to figure out that your car doesn't exist. Does this make sense? No, but why should it? How would you even understand something you don't understand yet?

In this way the Buddhist idea of self-help is very different from the popular, western one. The western idea is 'becoming your best self'. The Buddhist idea is becoming no-self at all. The Buddha would say this 'best-self' doesn't exist, not as a place you can comfortably dwell. As he said:

I have run through a round of many births, searching for the house-maker but finding him not; painful is birth again and again.

House-maker! thou art seen; no more shalt thou make a house; all thy rafters are broken and the house-top is destroyed. Thought has gone into dissolution and has attained the extinction of desires.

Hence the Buddhist path is not getting what you desire, but the extinction of desire itself. The Buddhist path to self-help is abandoning housing, money, and even relationships, everything western self-help is trying to secure.

The Buddha of course did the opposite. He became a homeless beggar, try putting that on a self-help book. The Buddha left his family, his wealth, and seemingly his senses. He put on the cloth used to wrap the dead, lived off offerings, and had no possessions or home. Even today, my cousin's brother-in-law wanted to be a monk and his family resisted because it meant literally losing a son. In the end he also had to run away from home.

Hence you get the paradox of corporations having mindfulness workshops. When the Buddha started doing 'mindfulness workshops', his entire family came, they became monks, and then no one was left to run the kingdom. This is obviously not what corporations want. They want to have their mindfulness cake and eat it too.

The actual Buddhist path is abandoning the self, which isn't just vibes. It changes everything else, and you have to give a lot up. If you tell people ultimate self-improvement is actually destruction of the self they'll be like no, not like that. We want our desires satisfied, we don't want them obliterated. But who said what you need is what you want? Within Buddhism, wanting itself is the problem.


In this Buddhist sense, self-help is a contradiction in terms. Wanting to improve the suffering self is just another form of suffering. Self-help is like talking about cancer-help. You're making subtle improvements to the problem. As the Buddha said:

Though one conquers in battle a thousand times thousand men, they are best among conquerors who conquer their own self.

and yet the Buddha also said:

Irrigators lead the water; fletchers mend the arrow; carpenters bend the wood; good people fashion themselves.

So we return to another Buddhist contradiction. In order to get rid of the self you do need to make subtle improvements to it, which I just said was absurd. How does this make sense? I don't know. Maybe it just doesn't. How do you put the wordless into words? As the Buddha said:

To whom there are no accumulations, who feed on what is comprehended and whose range is emancipation—the void and the signless–their way is hard to trace as the way of the birds in the sky.

Thus the way of the arahat cannot be communicated in words. What signs can you make of the signless? How do you paint the void? The master's tools will not dismantle the masters house. How can language dismantle the house of language?

The trouble is that certain concepts (like self) are so deep in our language that changing them causes numerous compile errors in reality. It's like saying that 1=0 and 0=1. Changing the concept of ones and zeros would make the digital world fall apart. In the same way the concept of self=no-self breaks human language. Suddenly nothing computes at all. Who is even writing this? Who is reading? WTF is going on?

Faced with this contradiction, the modern mindfulness industry just ignores it. It tells you how to walk along a path but never tells you where the path is going. This will only take you so far, but who cares? Most people don't get that far anyways.

Honestly, this is like how people use any religion. Every religion says to give up everything, and we're all like "yeah, but about this exam next week..." That's why Sri Lankan Buddhists keep Hindu gods in every temple. If you tell the Buddha about some important business problem he'll be like "have you considered not existing?" Lord Ganesh will actually remove obstacles.

Mindfulness thus gives the people what they want. Absolution without the absolute. The absolute is both not helpful and terrifying.

The Impossibility Of Self-Help

And yet you can see the fundamental contradiction within a contradiction. You are using a process meant to obliterate the self to optimize it, usually for doing more of the stuff that makes you miserable in the first place. Like polishing a diamond with a diamond this works, but you've missed the point of not being attached to rocks at all.

Most religions promise life-everlasting, but Buddhism promises the opposite. The Buddhist concept of life after death is that you don't want it. It's the anti-immortality. Our prophet promises not eternal life but for it to finally be done. This is another contradiction for people that most fear losing our lives, but the Buddha's way is to just lose the fear. That's how the battle is lost but the war is won.

As the Buddha said,

Who looks upon the world as one who views a bubble and as one who views a mirage, them the king of death does not see.

Jesus put it his own way as well, saying "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." Every prophet tells us the truth, that we need to just give this life up to have it, but we keep saying, no, not like that.

And so we keep trying to help ourselves, even though it's a literal dead end. Every path ends in death, no matter what we do. The truth is that we can't help ourselves when our attachment to self is the problem. Instead we just keep scratching that itch until we die. We scratch it with self-help books, we scratch it with drugs, we even scratch it with the books telling us to stop scratching.

This isn't self-help, it's self-soothing. It's not especially helpful, but it is soothing, so that's what we do. We desperately want the universe to make sense on our terms, and call all evidence to the contrary contradiction. But who said the universe had to fit inside a monkey mind? How would it even?

In truth, we are the contradiction. Every absurdity is proof that we are absurd, not that the universe is. Each human self is a little knot in the universe, and if the universe is telling us anything it's to just go away. We somehow take offense at this and struggle all the way down, but the truth is this. Our attachment to life is the cause of suffering, not the death we fear so far away.