When I first started writing a book about the self-help industry, I was skeptical but willing to be open-minded about the idea that people could...
When I first started writing a book about the self-help industry, I was skeptical but willing to be open-minded about the idea that people could heal themselves in ways that I had personally never found useful. The last thing I wanted was to just stand back and mock them. The plan was to go to a bunch of seminars and retreats and take an honest stab at fixing everything that has ever been wrong with me.
The most helpful was a place called the Hoffman Process in Napa Valley, where I got to spend eight days beating couch cushions with a bat while pretending I was killing my parents (you had to be there). The least helpful was a place in Virginia that kicked me out halfway through.
At this point, my biggest problem is my unfinished book. It never seems to end because self-help never seems to end. I see it everywhere. On the lids of coconut water (“Happiness in a bottle”). In President Obama’s press conferences (Malia and Sasha don’t wait until the night before to do their homework; why should Congress?). On a rerun of My So-Called Life (Rayanne’s mom reads tarot cards). And the more self-help I’m surrounded with, the less it seems to work. It’s not that I’m dismissive, just tired. Achieving inner peace is boring. And a lot of the industry misses what I find most appealing: The reason people are drawn to these places and philosophies is because they’re feeling vulnerable and lost, and there’s something lovely about their willingness to admit it.
Here is a glimpse of what it’s like to be inside my head as I navigate the world, dodging motivational potholes at every turn.
It’s late and I’m procrastinating online, mostly on Twitter. Malia and Sasha would never do this. They would never type in the name of a person they no longer talk to and try to gauge whether he’s happy based on whom he’s following.
I notice a tweet from Judd Apatow: “I start shooting my next film tomorrow. Will sleep come?”
Jennifer Grey tweets back: “Good luck today! I listen to hypnosis when I have the gotta get to sleep insomnia that always comes with work. Carolyn Conger.”
I’ve never heard of Carolyn Conger. According to her website, she “conducts seminars in psychological growth, healing, dream work, intuition, creativity and spirituality” and has “lived with tribal societies through- out the world.”
I find an audio clip of her narrating a visualization exercise called the Sacred Pool and listen to it for a bit. It starts off with some pretty standard stuff, a king wander- ing around in a secret tunnel underneath his castle. He walks down and down, to deeper and deeper levels. Then Carolyn throws a curveball and tells us about a magician “who had given [the king] the tools and knowledge to transform his body any way he wished. From male to female and then back again. From tall to short, or vice versa. From light complexion to dark, into animal to mythic form, into fluid or sound or light. Anything. Nothing was too difficult. The king was excited because he knew it was true.”
The clip is scored by a man named Michael Stearns. His website has the kind of New Agey artwork that self-helpers love, a diamond containing stock photos of tree branches and the words “Rythm”[sic], “Polarity,” “Unity,” and “Measure” at each of the four points. I scroll down and see that his music has been used in the kind of laser-light shows that my friends and I used to go to in high school and which I have spent a significant portion of my adult life trying to pretend didn’t happen. This memory certainly doesn’t help me relax. I try and turn the laser-light show into something less embarrass- ing, like math club, but the memory’s unwieldy. It keeps morphing into something else, but that’s only because it’s a laser-light show and that’s what they do. The magician tells me he thinks laser-light shows are cool. He would.
This exercise doesn’t give me the slightest insight into my own psyche, but I do feel like I understand Jennifer Grey a lot better now. I visualize her lying in bed at night, visualizing that she is the king and that she can reverse the nose job that ruined her acting career. Nothing is too difficult.
I’m temporarily living in Los Angeles and staying in an apartment of a friend who’s in New York, working on a show for Oprah’s cable network, OWN, called Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes. I have all sorts of questions for him but don’t ask because I worry that once I start I won’t be able to stop.
Instead, I troll the O Magazine site. It’s overwhelming, and so I gravitate toward the simplest thing I can find, a quiz called “Could therapy help you?” Even when I try to trick it and answer “no” to the most depressing questions (“Do you feel as though you’re living life behind an invisible screen, unable to truly connect with anyone or anything? Yes or no?”), it still tells me, “You could benefit from seeing a good therapist.”
That’s all the guidance it gives. Just one sentence, sandwiched by ads for Princess Fergie’s new reality show (“Watch as Sarah journeys to the mystical deserts of Arizona with a shaman”) and links to articles suggesting other self-help strategies. All I have to do is de-sad my day, allow myself to be good enough, exercise, detox from my inbox, sign up for life-changing advice delivered to my inbox, make a new adult friend, break up with an old friend who’s dragging me down, change my patterns, find meaning in my actions, find balance between my left and right brains, create my own moral authority, have a kid show me a magic trick, go to the deepest place within, find metaphors in string-cheese wrappers, follow my life’s guidance, fill 20 to 30 note cards with my life’s guidance, and learn how to can jam.
* * *
I wander up to a store window to check out the dresses. (A lot of times, dresses that seem cute from across the street are actually cheap and stretchy up close.) There’s a family—a mom, a dad, and their grown son—sitting on a bench outside the restaurant next door.
The dad is upset because the son showed up late. The dad’s voice is raised and the mom is trying to get him to lower it. If she’s worried about people staring, she shouldn’t be. I’m listening as hard as I possibly can but my eyes are on the dresses (even though they are, in fact, the stretchy kind).
“You’re going to miss out on life,” I hear the dad tell the son. “You need to establish a value system.”
“Fuck your value system,” says the son.
I’m a subscriber to an assortment of self-help Meetup groups. My favorite is a group called The Spiritual Path, run by a man named Don DiBenedetto, who lives in Pearl River, New York, where he seems to be the leader of a community of life coaches and drum-circle aficionados. He sends emails about new events once a week or so, and he’ll often supplement these notices with an inspirational quote or a “Daily Om” or the occasional deeply unfunny, scanned-in newspaper comic.
Don was on a real Louise Hay kick this summer. Louise Hay was at the forefront of the Law of Attraction movement, which says that if you can switch your negative thoughts to positive ones you can make good things happen. Change the way you think and you can change your life. (The Secret, an offspring of the movement, equates the universe to television and says our thoughtsare like frequencies.) Don played Hay’s movie, You Can Heal Your Life, one night at a local high school. Three weeks later he invited everyone to the park for an outdoor showing. It must have gone over well, because he then assembled a study group to come watch it at a health spa. (“Bring a notebook!!!”)
I didn’t make it to these screenings, but You Can Heal Your Life is available online, so I decide to watch it on my own. I bring a notebook (!!!) from my bedroom into the living room so it will feel like I am watching it with Don and all his friends.
I have to steel myself to watch self-help movies. They never have actual plots, and there’s always a doctor who renounces traditional medical practices and someone, usually a man, who describes an encounter he had with a Native American that he twists into some lesson that backs up the central premise of the film. In You Can Heal Your Life, a visionary scientist—that’s what the words say underneath him in the movie, so I am forced to call him that, too—tells the story of a Native friend who asks him if he wants to go to a place where “the skin between the worlds is really thin.”
Overall, the movie is bearable, though, because of how unexpectedly delightful Louise Hay is. In the ’80s, she was known for her Hay Rides, huge gatherings of gay men diagnosed with AIDS, and the footage is touching. The men look so scared, and you can understand why her no-nonsense approach would be comforting. “We’re going to work on dissolving resentment. We’re going to work on forgiveness and loving ourselves. And we are not going to play ‘ain’t it awful.’ We’re not going to talk about how awful it is.”
There’s also a storyline involving a cranky girl whose negative inner thoughts play on a loop in voice-over. One day on the streets of what appears to be New York she passes by a woman thinking positive thoughts—she can tell by how smiley she is (and the positive woman’s voice-over confirms it).
The positive woman drops a card covered in the same kind of artwork that’s on Laser-Light Show Michael’s website, and it says “I am willing to change.” This is when I understand that the movie doesn’t take place in a Working Girl type of New York but an antidepressant-commercial type of New York. This is also when I decide to stop taking notes and pause the movie and go into the bathroom and slather moisturizer all over my face and type more enemies’ names into the internet and then sit back down and force myself to keep watching.
Anyway, after finding the card, the girl sets off on her spiritual journey, which begins with her thinking “I can” while walking through a magic doorway into an “internal landscape of change.” It looks a lot like a wheat field. She grumbles along in her head until she finds another card with a forgiveness theme that finally fixes her. The barren landscape transforms into a lush seaside, and when a hunky dude appears from out of nowhere to ask for directions, the girl visualizes the two of them holding hands and then it happens. Also she has manifested out of a form-fitting gray pencil skirt into an unflattering pair of shorts.
A couple days after I watch You Can Heal Your Life, my friend Anna throws a birthday dinner party. Anna is from Olympia, Washington. This means if she were given a crystal for her birthday, she would say, “Oh my god, I love it!” and this would be the truth. Still we manage to get along because she’s good at trash-talking. The last people at the party are me and our friend Lindsay, and when I tell Lindsay and Anna about the movie, Anna says something shocking: She identifies more with the positive woman than the negative one.
“But what does that even mean?” I ask. “You just feel good all the time? Instead of bad?”
“Are you trying to say,” asks Lindsay, “that when you sit down to do something, you just do it? Instead of not doing it, because you suck?” Anna nods. I want to press my ear against hers and catch any loose positive thoughts that might be falling out. I ask her if she would mind keeping a log of her positive thoughts for a day. She agrees to text them to me as they occur to her.
11:55 a.m. A lot of songs in my brain. Right now Madonna I will always cherish you. Earlier, Wild Thang, the rap song.
11:58 a.m. My mind wandered to thinking about what I might do if for some reason my job ended. And I was visualizing myself as a PR person or a producer. But in a way that seemed achievable and real. I was watching a little movie of myself in my mind really doing it.
12:20 p.m. I just had a thought that the mute guy I see every week who works at whole foods and emphatically points things out for me when I ask him questions must have a crush on me. It’s a positive thought. Like I’m kind of getting something out of it. Maybe that’s more fucked up and disturbing than what you’re looking for.\n
I read these and automatically replace most of Anna’s positive thoughts with negative ones. The mute guy becomes the woman outside Starbucks who told me she liked my tights, which meant she must have thought she looked like me. This leads to a mental image of us sharing the tights, each getting a leg, as we limp around our Grey Gardens house together. I haven’t worn the tights since.
Then Anna texts me something practical that I can apply:
1:02 p.m. I’m also constantly clicking my teeth back and forth like a drum beat which I think keeps me from having thoughts at all.\n
For the rest of the day, I practice, chomping down extra hard on pieces of ice and dry cereal. As long as I have a steady supply of crunchiness, I could go years without having another negative thought. I visualize the world ending in a horrible way, but with a positive twist. While everyone else is grabbing bottles of water, I go straight for the bags of croutons and potato chips.