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Self-Enlightenment & Self-Help: Why We Need Both

This is a whistlestop tour of self-enlightenment and self-help.

Too often the processes of transcending the self (enlightenment) and improving the self are viewed in opposition, in tension.

But these are two fundamental processes we ought to wholeheartedly participate in, and I’ve seen first-hand the perncious effects of prioritising one over the other.

How do we define each, and how can we integrate them rather than separating and splintering them?

Let’s begin by defining self-enlightenment, making clear what it is and isn’t.

What Self-Enlightenment Is Not

There are a hundred different interpretations of self-enlightenment, many of which have little to do with the core of the matter.

Let’s cover one faulty definition of self-enlightenment by looking at spirituality itself.

We tend to view spirituality as an artefact of the hippy era — good vibes, free love, dissolving divisive boundaries and coming together as one.

Indeed, the hippy slogan “everything is one” is often tied to spirituality, as though community, hugs and positive vibrations defined the spiritual path.

This is understandable. The language of the most advanced spiritual teachings — non-dual, oneness, selfless, egoless — sounds egalitarian, nice, flowery. They’re talking about social oneness, about getting together in groups and being nice, right?

Except they’re not. True spirituality — in the sense of a transformation of your identity, going from the personal self to the Original Face (a Zen term) and beyond — is primarily about inner awareness, not outer ritual and ceremony.

To be sure, community is a support for our spiritual transformation. There is a “We” component. Without the masters, we can’t get anywhere. Without structure and a path to follow, we’re left strewn in the dark. And what better than walking the path with other committed yogis.

And a spiritual connection does tend to bring improvement in how we show up in the world, especially if we deliberately encourage it through compassion practices.

With committed spiritual practice, you see the self is an illusion and can penetrate its flimsy, divisive boundaries with your attention, collapsing the distance that once existed between you and other.

And attention practices like mindfulness meditation help us shine a light on our inner gunk and then rework our personality such that we’re a better person.

First-Person Awareness, Not Community Bonding

Yet none of this means that spirituality equals feel-good community. Without the transformative component, we end up speaking lots about the deep truths and paying them lip service, all to encourage a kind of flowery communitarianism and nicey-nicey feelings, while never penetrating to the root of the matter.

My take on the path is that we must cultivate our private awareness of the deep territory. Without it, there’s no spiritual path. It’s the pillar.

How we choose to show up in the world given that knowledge is somewhat a separate issue, a new obstacle we face once we begin cultivating this awareness. And spiritual transformation can occur without participating in outward rituals and groups.

In short — be nice? Yes, when called for. Do community? Yes. Reduce spirituality to groups and feel-good vibes? Never.

What Self-Enlightenment Is

Now we’ve discussed what self-enlightenment is not, let’s begin unravelling what it is.

First, it’s important to note that enlightenment isn’t an on-off switch. It’s more like a spectrum with several levels or bands.

In fact, you can even see it as several growth spectra that are all interlinked but in which we reach different levels. But that’s for another day.

Whether we see it as a spectrum or spectra, the transpersonal component is the key variable. By this I mean consistent access to identities beyond the limited human self.

A good starting definition is what Buddhists call stream-entry enlightenment. This is the first major step into the transpersonal.

Stream-Entry and Self-Enlightenment

I’m always haunted by what my long-time meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, said in a talk. I’m paraphrasing: “With time, your sense of identity gets enfolded within the momentum of your mindfulness practice and is dissolved”.

Wow, that’s powerful. And it’s a unique way of describing stream entry. But what does it really mean? Let’s see if I can explain it real quick.

The Conventional Self

Our identity is usually bound up in our mind and body, which are a hive of activity. It seems that we are our thoughts, our sensations, our head, our worries, our plans, and our memories. All of this material congeals together to create the personality, the self that we call ourselves.

It feels that we are a solid thing, lodged behind the eyes somewhere. It’s almost unquestionable — nearly everyone is identified with this self.

Yet it’s a false self.

The Witness

After a certain amount of meditation practice, we begin to see all that material as fleeting and insubstantial, like ripples on a pond, and begin to disidentify from it.

Our identity shifts from this imaginary self — the ripples — to a deeper, impersonal identity — the pond.

And we use our meditative skills to penetrate those surface impressions when they arise, then rest in that deeper, lucid identity that is free of the torture and tyranny of our separate human identity.

I’ve written many articles on meditation, but I think the most powerful for stepping into this blank territory is my article on The Original Face. If the title seems strange, bear with me.

I also recommend my article on Sayadaw’s Vipasanna meditation system, a deceptively simple set of techniques for gaining industrial-strength mindfulness skills.

So stream entry is consistent access to the awareness that precedes our identity and everything we experience. When we rest in that Original Face, that Witness, we See everything arise – the body, the mind, emotions, the sense of boundary – without Being it.

And though this is a life-changing feat and a good target for new meditators and yogis, it’s still only the beginning of the path, and is only a shift in the Transpersonal component of enlightenment. Awaiting you is a lifetime of work both to deepen that realisation and to develop in the other components of enlightenment.

Does Self-Enlightenment Render Self-Help Irrelevant?

This is a deep, nuanced topic that would require several articles to do justice. But the basic problem is this: many spiritual teachers turn their nose up at personal development and self-help.

The Problem

They justify spurning self-help with explanations like: “There is no self, how can you improve it?” They value enlightenment and enlightenment alone.

Yet they still have a personality, behaviour patterns, points of view, and all the stuff that defines their identity. They denigrate the need for self and for improving it, yet they’re adults who need a self to operate in the world.

Besides, the critics are often the ones with the most glaring holes in their character. I’ve had the misfortune of meeting several people like this.

True, behind this view is a deep spiritual truth, the truth of Enlightenment: we are not this mental and physical self that we’ve grown into and become attached to, and our unconscious engagement simply reaffirms this misinformed attachment.

But it’s a partial truth. And behind its claim of exclusivity is the assumption that the E word is the be-all-end-all: get enlightened, and all your worries will vanish. And this is downright delusion. It’s escapism, a tragic case of spiritual bypassing gone viral.

There is a balanced approach — we can bring these two pursuits together.

Think of it this way. The E word enlightens us as to who we really are; self-help helps us better be our selves, our personalities. And really, we can marry them together into a balanced approach.

Let’s take a closer look at this balanced approach.

Why We Need Both Self-Enlightenment and Self-Help

As I alluded to above, spiritual practice helps us discover our deeper nature above and beyond the skin and bone personality. Self-help helps us better navigate the world as a personality.

Too ofte we put the former on a pedestal. The name is grandiose, and our ideas about it are even more so.

Yet enlightenment is no guarantee of anything. And what’s the use of being enlightened, in touch with your deepest existential self, yet neurotic, obnoxious, miserable, overweight, unfit, weak, disempowered, and passionless?

However much we may rest in enlightened awareness and deny the importance of these areas, the harsh reality is that we’ll continue going about our normal lives, no matter how deep our realisation goes. Live it dysfunctionally, and our love for life will shrivel and die. And our enlightenment will be partial, blunted and warped.

I like thinking developmentally. We can see self-help as helping us meet needs from the first five or six levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Transpersonal work takes us beyond them, but the prior levels support and buttress the transpersonal. We need them. Take them away, and we’re left in semi-heaven.

Viewed as a hierarchy, it’s obvious that the two pursuits aren’t separated and splintered. Take care of the mundane, and the divine becomes more accessible. Get enlightened, and we enlighten the everyday.

So how do we skillfully tackle both the E word and personal change?

Skillfully Integrating Self-Enlightenment and Self-Help

First, we must practice spirituality with determination and persistence. Most people only get serious insight after years of real meditation or yogic practice.

At the same time, avoid the trap of the spiritual ego. This when you create an identity around your spiritual knowledge, a new arrogant ego that identifies itself with self-enlightenment. Collapse that self with the penetrative awareness that brought your psychological death in the first place.

By bypassing the spiritual ego trap, we avoid using our new knowledge to justify obnoxiousness and dysfunction. Keeps the feedback loops open, as my long-time meditation teacher Shinzen Young says.

If other people regularly call you out for nasty behaviour, chances are you’re messing up. Listen to this feedback and use it to inform your change.

Also question why you want to escape from the reality of being human. Enlightened or not, all of us are so predictably human. Don’t float up and away — embrace your earthly nature and dance between finity and infinity. Be the Bodhisattva.

You Are Clear Light

And finally, see yourself as this clear light that is learning how to love fully. That’s the ultimate purpose of human existence.

We are no more than God incarnate in flesh. In manifesting as the Many, including humans, God is literally teaching itself how to love itself through the Many.

The many forms and levels of existence, from atoms, to stones and dust, to basic cells, to insects, to reptiles, to mammals, to humans, are all artefacts of God’s consciousness project.

At the current leading edge of this project, humans have the potential to consciously be God — walk God, speak God, eat God, love God. We are billions of acorns strewn across the earth, tasked with embodying unconditional love, heart-shaking joy, transcendence, earthliness, and deliberately advancing this consciousness project.

As such, self-enlightenment and self-refinement are utterly complimentary in the ultimate instance. To truly be vehicles of God, to fully polish the mirror, we need serious spiritual work AND serious personal-growth work. Otherwise, we slumber along with the stones, leaves and reptiles.

When Self-Help Goes Transpersonal

A simplistic reading of the self-help journey leads to the conclusion that growing ourselves is a selfish pursuit. It’s all me, me, me, more, more, more. I want more health, more happiness, more wealth, more passion, more sex, more skills.

We could extrapolate on this trend to the extreme and conclude that this process leads to a kind of self-absorbed monster that’s obsessed with growth and betterment and neglectful of friends and family.

But that’s not the kind of personal development I promote at Deep Psychology. In fact, I believe that proper self-help eventually becomes a transpersonal, benevolent act. Here’s why.

Self-Help: The Beginning

Okay, it’s true that when we start working on ourselves, we tend to be in a position of deficiency. We usually start out at the crude levels of self-help, desiring more money, more sex, or more self-confidence.

This isn’t frivolous or selfish. When we have a weak ego, we ought to bolster it. And we can’t equate a weak, damaged ego with a benevolent, transpersonal one. If it’s weak, strengthen it.

We need to take care of these more mundane issues before we can reliably live at higher levels. And once we do, the door opens to further growth.

The Turning Point

On the journey of self-help, eventually we come to realise that we’re our own worst enemy. From our surface-level habits and behaviours to the kernel of our human operating system, we trip ourselves up with limiting patterns, beliefs and habits — and we make others suffer too.

As we dig down into the problem of selfhood, we eventually shine a light on the phenomenon of being a self, of having an identity. It has to be this way: as Buddhists and other spirtual adepts have known for millennia, our self-obsession is precisely what causes us suffering in life.

As such, an earnest exploration of suffering will inevitably lead us to digging under the hood of our own identity as this thing, this mental and corporal construct that we call ourselves.

Living Beyond Self

After enough probing into our little self, we come to witness the death of our identity. We realise that we have bigger, transpersonal selves

What we thought was an all-important, solid, personal entity now appears to be no more than an optical illusion concocted by the physical body and the mind. It turns from murky and dense to lucid and transparent. We die into a new, vast, open, empty self.

The image of the butterfly emerging from the cocoon is a wonderful metaphor for this process. The cocoon is our self-obsession that drags us down mentally, emotionally, and physically, and the butterfly is the higher, free, empty self that leaves behind its old shell.

The paradoxical beauty of our transpersonal self is that it is by nature selfless and benevolent. When we live from it, we desire to serve others and convert ourselves into fountains of giving.

This is still self-improvement, but it’s based on an entirely new paradigm: I refine myself not only for my own happiness, but for that of others. It’s not personal growth for the sake of earning millions, gaining status, or filling up the empty hole inside.

We ask what we are creating with our hands, what we are transmitting with our voice, and what realities we are concocting in our mind. And all the poison and selfish intention is drained away. We turn outwards with a kind, open heart.