How do you find reliable signposts to guide a journey of personal development? How do you decide which ways of thinking, or which activities, are conducive to the goals you’re trying to reach?
If you believe in a particular religion, then there’s normally some sort of path set out, and priests/teachers to guide you along it. If you accept the basis of that guidance (the holy book or equivalent), it gives you some structure. And most religions do seem to teach (even if their followers don’t practice) good principles – like compassion and community. But so many organised religions stress obedience and conformity, not to mention faith rather than enquiry, which I don’t see as conducive to personal growth. Some people may find it beneficial, but it fundamentally wouldn’t work for me.
Frustration by the options offered by the formal religions leads lots of people to turn to new-age approaches. These tend to offer a much less conformist view, but they’re haphazard and tend to promote belief in all sorts of weird things. As I’ve said earlier, attractive as it would be to be able to believe some of these claims, I find the arguments made for them fundamentally lacking in real critical scrutiny and regard for truth. Some of the claims new-agers make may be valid, but the crazier claims make it really difficult to trust that there’s any reliable guidance to be found here.
Alternatively you have self-help books, which seem to have expanded to cover even more bookshelf space each time I visit my local bookshop! I’ve found some useful suggestions there, but a lot more that is anecdotal and often not based on any serious evidence. (I came across a great article on Self help – shattering the myths). On what authority do the authors give their advice? Who has followed this advice, and did it work out well for everyone? Why did they write this advice? Again, I’m very wary of trusting myself to these sources unless I have good answers to these questions.
Beyond self-help books, some people turn to personal development courses in search of greater peace of mind and personal growth. But these are subject to many of the failings of self help books, and can often be far worse because they are much more intense. I was very interested to come across Louise Samways’ fascinating and frightening text dangerous persuaders which suggests that some personal development courses share a worrying number of features with religious cults. And sadly my own experience and that of friends confirms the negative effect that personal development courses can have on people, and on their relationships with friends and partners. I plan to steer well clear of these.
What else is there? Psychological research is throwing up some fascinating findings which provide some very interesting food for thought. The research often very challenging to our conceptions of who we are and how we think. It’s dizzying to realise the extent to which the mind and senses that appear so infallible are playing all sorts of tricks on us. But while this makes the mind boggle, I often find myself looking for something that goes a bit further. A lot of psychology seems to focus on poor mental health and functioning normally within society. Of course this is important and valuable. But at the same time I’m sure there are ways of growing as a person – becoming more confident, more honest, more open.
As I said in an earlier post, I believe life itself can teach us a lot – particularly if we seek interesting people and situations, and try to be open to what we can learn from them. It’s a great way to live, and a great way to grow. It’s tempting to look for shortcuts – but many of the shortcuts on offer take us away from the world – onto courses or into convents, rather than just confronting the challenges of now.
Not just our own lives of course – I think there’s a huge amount to learn from the stories that allow us to tap into what other people have learnt and done with their lives. Some autobiographical, some fictional. Some realistic, some dealing with archetypes that seem to have a powerful resonance (like Women who run with the Wolves, which I’ve mentioned in a few posts).
I suppose that gives at least three useful sources of guidance – psychological research, personal experience, and stories of others. A lot of food for thought!
Perhaps too much? Of course having multiple sources means that you always have to do your own sifting. And there’s always a risk that you choose the advice that challenges you least. But at the end of the day I’m the one who has to choose how I live my life and what paths I follow in pursuit of personal growth. Not having a clear path laid out can be confusing, and sometimes (especially in difficult times) demoralising, but mostly I wouldn’t have it any other way!