The Rise and Folly of Selfism
by David Truman
A longer, more in-depth version is also
available for those who are interested.
• The New Religion: Self
• Crown Jewels of Selfism: Separation, Power, Purpose, Protection
• Tributaries of Selfism
• Enter Spirituality, Stage East
• Have-It-Your-Way Spirituality
• Overthrowing the Tyranny of Self
Look around. Can there be any doubt that selfishness has conquered this world and most of its people? Individualism has undermined cooperation, devastated intimacy, and corrupted spirituality. (Spiritual methods to gain wealth and power, anyone?) Any honest person can see the problems, even in their own life. Yet selfishness is going strong.
All through the day
I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All through the night
I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Now they're frightened of leaving it
Everyone's weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time,
All through the day
I me mine.
-- George Harrison
The New Religion: Self
• The keystone of modern selfism: the psychological theory of individuation
• Artificial maturity
• Egoism is to blame
Devotion to self-interest has virtually become the universal religion: "selfism" (the worship of self). Entire generations of children have grown up believing that self comes first. "You have to live for yourself." "You must love yourself before you can love anyone else." We hold these ideas as absolute truth. We sell products with selfishness: "It's all about you" (Daytimer); "Get your own box" (Cheez-Its crackers). Even when selfism ruins our lives, undermines our relationships, and obsoletes our highest ideals, we still bow down to the idol of self.
Though the tyranny of selfism is well entrenched, any person can rebel at any time. So the question is: Will you rise up, or will you live and die a slave to self and selfist ideology?
To understand your choices clearly, come along on a brief historic overview of this trend, and witness the way it has transformed spirituality in particular.
[NOTE: In reviewing recent fads of thought, I don't mean to suggest that selfism is NEW. Selfism must be as old as mankind. Nonetheless, because selfishness is weak and problematical, it is always failing, and always needing to be re-invented. Consequently, each era creates its own form of selfism.]
The keystone of modern selfism: the psychological theory of individuation
Modern selfism derives much of its momentum from a psychological theory called individuation. According to that theory, the child differentiates from its mother as a crucial step of human development. Until "boundaries" of self become established, the child is not a fully-formed individual.
Psychologists often diagnose their adult patients as suffering from incomplete individuation. For example, people who feel they care too much about the opinions of others, or about pleasing others -- even a devoted wife or husband -- may be told that they need to further individuate. Such people are encouraged to become extremely clear -- and assertive -- about where their boundaries are, what they like and don't like, who they are and are not, and so forth.
It is important to recognize that individuation as it is conventionally taught is only an imitation of the real thing. It bears no resemblance to what Erich Fromm ("The Art of Loving") describes as the rare achievement of true emotional maturity. The recommended behaviors -- defensiveness, self-assertion, limit-setting, self-expression -- are, in reality, little more than ways to compensate for underlying insecurity. Those adaptations result from wrong ideas about the vulnerability of self and the need to protect oneself from "assaults" by external forces -- especially, other people.
Clearly, people who depend on these techniques are far from healthy. And in many ways, they were better off before -- when they were more accepting, more flexible; when they cared about what other people thought, and how they affected others. Now, they are more paranoid, rigid, and subservient in blindly conforming to the dogma of pseudo-individuation. That is not progress, and they know it. "I don't like the person I'm becoming," people say.
Egoism is to blame
But this is not a tale of an innocent public led astray by the psychological community and self-help professionals. As always, the public selects the leaders we want, voting with our time and our wallets. We vote by buying this book rather than that book, taking one type of therapy instead of another, attending only certain classes, etc. The populace wanted leadership that would support egoism, and we literally got what we paid for.
In response to popular demand, psychology and modern culture have simply done what ego always does: it twists any idea, any principle, any practice into destructive forms. Ego-minded psychologists and ego-minded clients, together, have taken the notion of individuation and run with the ball far in a destructive direction.
Self has become an obsession of the psychological community and its clients. And though psychology admits that excessive egoism is unhealthy, most of psychology's goals directly support and exacerbate egoism. In fact, psychology has become the leading preacher of the gospel according to ego. Such is selfism.
Crown Jewels of Selfism:
Separation Power, Purpose, Protection
Let's take a moment to look at the four highest values in the "gospel according to ego." Keeping them in mind puts the rest of the historical events into perspective.
Separation. The quintessence of individuation is an emphasis on, and an enthusiasm for, separation. That's why interpersonal blending -- being influenced, taking on the characteristics of another, etc. -- is deeply disturbing to egocentric people. "I'm losing my self, my center!" Horsefeathers! Great blending happens in lovemaking and between close friends. Is either party obliterated in that process? Of course not! Blending does not compromise true individuation or individual identity.
Power. Personal power is another fundamental keystone of selfism. Power means:
1. To have your "own" power: self-power, personal power
2. To wield that power.
3. To not be overwhelmed by other people's power.
Personal power is great, but selfism carries it too far. Most people are quite terrified of anything that they think could rob them of power and control -- and they think virtually anything could rob them (including their spouse, their date, their boss, their lover, their own compassionate impulses . . .). People are terrified of any Divine power that moves through them. Terrified of love. Relationship. Commitment. Loyalty. Devotion. Orgasm. They are terrified because, thanks to selfist dogma, all those things seem likely to compromise self-separation, self-power, self-purpose.
Purpose. Another foundation stone of selfism is personal purpose. Selfism assumes -- again wrongly -- that being an individual means being wedded to your own exclusive purposes. And it's crucial, not just to have one's own personal purpose, but also to "get one's own way." To allow one's personal plan or purpose to be derailed or changed is a cardinal sin in the religion of selfism.
The jewels need a watchdog: self-protection. Separation, power, and purpose, a dick and two balls -- those are the crown jewels, the family jewels, of selfism. What's the best way to guard the selfist's most cherished goals? A spirit of self-protection -- the final essential of selfism -- does that dirty job.
The cutting edges of selfism
This completes our description of the cutting edges of selfism: self-separation, self-power, self-purpose, and self-protection. With those well-sharpened blades, revolving around ego, the selfist cuts his or her way through life.
"No one messes with me. I'm doing things
my way, and that's how it's gonna be."
If you want to keep your head, keep a respectful distance.
Tributaries of Selfism
• Selfist trailblazers
• The self-improvement, personal power movement
Now, back to our original mission: to trace the course of selfism from its headwaters. There is a benefit in reviewing selfism's sources -- the popular teachings, and the people who created them. It will help you see how their influence permeates everyday life. The selfist pioneers taught many people, who then shared their ideas with us. Now, even if we've never heard of the originators, we're practically their disciples, because we're unconsciously following their teachings in the way we think and behave.
A handful of trailblazers contributed to the development of selfism as an entrenched, powerful global philosophy. These influences started in America and, along with many American cultural values, spread across the world.
Gestalt. One of these influences was Gestalt, developed by a man named Fritz Perls. His famous "Gestalt prayer" artfully summarizes selfist sentiments:
"I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, then it is beautiful. If not, it can't be helped."
Motivational philosophies. Several influential authors wrote of the power of mind for realizing personal dreams -- in other words, self-purposes. These are classics of the genre: "As a Man Thinketh," by James Allen. "Think and Grow Rich," by Napoleon Hill. "How to Win Friends and Influence People," by Dale Carnegie. "The Power of Positive Thinking," by Norman Vincent Peale.
Feminism. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem won many converts to selfism. Steinem taught not just that women should be equal to men, but also that they should be individualistic. Women are not rugged individuals by nature (and neither, in fact, are men). But Steinem convinced many women that their personal power depended on living individualistically, often with rabid self-dedication. As fate would have it, social and economic changes in America gave both feminism and selfism a tremendous boost, when they forced women to compete with men for jobs.
The self-improvement, personal power movement
And don't forget the self-improvement (or human potential) game, which became the bread and butter of pop-psychology. Self-improvement focused primarily on personal power, and secondarily, on personal purpose. "Have the life you want to have. Become the person you want to be."
Jose Silva, Werner Erhardt, L. Ron Hubbard, Fernando Flores -- these men comprise a power elite whose ideas influenced the world tremendously. As of 1994, one of every 364 Americans had received est's personal power training. Silva Mind Training, Scientology, and other popular carriers of the personal power lineage all helped create and shape the culture of selfism.
Enter Spirituality, Stage East
• An unholy alliance: selfism and spirituality
• Casualties of selfist spirituality
In the fifties and sixties, Eastern philosophy captured the American mind. Beatnik poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder turned to the East as a primary influence. Harvard professor Richard Alpert dropped out, went to India, and returned as Baba Ram Dass, a powerful mystic-social leader. These trendsetters helped spread the gospel of the East: "Go within, and find the truth."
Around that time, meditation was popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, based on claims that it would increase your clarity and capacity to do well at work. By 2003, 1.5 million people practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) daily.
An unholy alliance: selfism and spirituality
Although important, the influx of Eastern spirituality did not change the direction of popular thought that much. Instead, the two married and produced a monster child -- selfist spirituality, a blend of traditional spiritual goals and purely egotistical purposes. And selfism was quick to exploit it.
1. Spirituality for personal power and fulfillment of personal purposes
The Secret, the Law of Attraction, Christian doctrines of abundance, Nicheren Shoshu Buddhism's ritual of chanting for whatever you want all use "spiritual" methods to enhance personal power and pursue material abundance.
2. Spirituality for personal separateness and self-protection
Enlightenment seems to imply the achievement of perfect wholeness -- absolute self-sufficiency. How much that appealed to the selfist-separatist mind! Soon, the time-honored goal of unity was replaced by the egoistic goal of PERFECT SEPARATENESS -- being whole and complete in yourself. Suddenly, there was money to be made in the business of perfecting separation. Energy shields and other aura-protection methods became staple offerings of new age organizations.
Casualties of selfist spirituality
Outrageous promises for the fulfillment of virtually any selfish dream by spiritual (or pseudo-spiritual) means were made. Not surprisingly, these neo-spiritual offerings became overnight successes, while the heavenly traditions were nearly forgotten. The fact was, traditional goals like self-transcendence, generosity of spirit, and compassion had become passé (indeed, counter-cultural). Who wanted the old teachings now that their purposes were obsolete?
Spiritual teachers and spiritual communities also became endangered species. These days, if you offer to teach a man anything, or say he has something to learn from anyone, he's likely to be insulted, incensed! As he sees it, he must be independent, and invent the wheel. His reaction is even worse if you ask if he wants to join a spiritual community.
The anti-teacher, non-joining mentality was greatly bolstered by Jimmy Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson, Rajneesh -- everything that looked like a teacher gone bad or a spiritual group gone bad. Those terrifying headlines, coming in quick succession, nailed the coffin shut on both communities and teachers. It was finally both fashionable and necessary for spiritual aspirants to not have a teacher, not be in a community. Another triumph for selfism.
• Spiritual truth vending
• Have-it-ego's-way spirituality
• The "I-don't-do-surrender" society
As we've seen, the three crown jewels of selfism demand protection at almost any cost. And the cost is sky high. Protecting those "jewels" costs love, intimacy, and true friendship. It costs the option of community involvement. It means living alone, being alone. And it costs having a real teacher.
That's how the whole idea of cash-on-the-barrelhead spiritual truth vending came of age.
Spiritual truth vending
The spiritual vacation. Committed selfists can't have a teacher -- not in a personal, deep-in sense. But you could fly halfway around the world for a blessing, a retreat, an "empowerment" now and then, time and money permitting. You could globe-trot to sacred places. You could even have your butt kicked, like you would at a fat farm or fitness spa. Take it, then leave it!
Anymore, acceptable means of spiritual growth must allow you to exploit them and still be a rugged individualist. So, impersonal, highly efficient spiritual teaching machines cranked out thousands of retreats, intensives, trainings. And they produced thousands of cookie-cutter "masters" of various kinds. Any person, for a reasonable outlay of time and money, could earn the title of master of a hodgepodge of "spiritual" selfist arts: auric protection, healing, mind power; etc.
Design-your-own-retreat. Nowadays, spiritual service providers know they must accommodate egoic whims and preferences to stay in business. So, more and more often, the commitment required is minimal, and the nature of involvement is entirely customizable.
For the selfist, it's great that you can "have it your way" -- just as you can order a custom burger at some hamburger joints. Many retreat centers offer a long list of delightful options: "You can participate in group activities, or not. You can choose an intensive format, or a relaxed schedule. We have mentors available, but that's entirely optional. You can have your own room or shared accommodations." Etc., etc. Two hundred and fifty-six possible ways to tailor your spiritual life to your personal requirements.
That's what's called spirituality in the age of selfism. But you see, that isn't what spirituality is. Spirituality is God's way, not your way. If you're really serious about your smile, God's way is the only way. And that's not going to happen in a self-styled, preference-based "spiritual life." The new way of spiritual life offers way too much rope for the ego to hang us with.
Consider this: A child comes back from summer camp much stronger, more wholesome, and less neurotic than when he went. Why? Mainly because while he was there he didn't have time to think. If you go to the mountain to meditate, think, and contemplate your navel, most likely you'll come back worse than when you left. You're way better off just keeping busy and not thinking, than you are "meditating" (if meditation, to you, means thinking about things).
Whenever spirituality becomes a fascinating indulgence, we've lost the beneficial quality of truly self-transcending work. In that case, the ordinary disciplines of everyday life, like having a job, are far more effective for spiritual evolution than what is called spirituality. Your boss will tell you what to do, and you'll have to do it. That's the closest thing to self-transcending work many people will ever see.
The "I-don't-do-surrender" society
Another part of ordinary life that naturally requires self-transcendence is relationship. But relationship -- at least deep, implicating relationship -- has been severed by the cutting blades of selfism.
Too bad! When you're in relationship with somebody whose well-being, preferences, and comfort matter to you, you get to dance. Dancing is a graceful give and take that keeps you from getting set in your ways, crystallized. But: will you dance well and right? Or will you do it wrong, and ruin it?
Ruining something is a way to get out of it. A man systematically misfiled papers, because he didn't want to do filing anymore. Similarly, if you mess up surrender, you are making sure -- consciously or subconsciously -- that nobody asks you to surrender again.
When will we learn how important surrender is, how valuable, how liberating? And when, on the basis of that recognition, will we surrender in the only way that works -- sincerely. For surrender to represent a real alternative to your usual ego junk, you need two things: a true desire to surrender in relationship, and the willingness to be sufficiently surrendered, and consistently surrendered -- so you don't ruin it.
Overthrowing the Tyranny of Self
Now you know where selfism came from, how it's grown, and why. You understand, clearly, how powerfully selfist principles are driving people, and where to. That gives you a tremendous advantage: When you realize that the cutting blades of selfism are destroying nearly everything, you suddenly appreciate the merit of doing it God's way.
There's value to self-transcending living, instead of running after personal plans and purposes. There's value to relying on Divine power -- not personal power, creature power. It's good to be unified, not separate. And it's safer, really, to give up the self-destructive concept of self-protection.
So, friends, the smart money is on renunciation:
• DO renounce the "selfist" life and lifestyle, and overthrow the tyranny of self in your own life.
• DON'T live for separation, for self-power, self-purpose. Don't live to protect such garbage.
• Live to love. Live to serve. That's the ONLY way to be happy.
And you don't need to think, "What does this mean to me?" Instead, think, "What does this mean to everyone?" Then adjust what you do, say, and think accordingly -- for the happiness of all. This is God's way -- the way God intended humanity to live, and the way your own heart wants you to live. Isn't it?
by David Truman
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