“Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it will believe itself stupid for the rest of its life” – Albert Einstein
The foundation of the entire self-help/personal development movement that began back in the 1980s was a major step forward in human psychology and emotional health. Before then, the possibility that someone could overcome difficulties, limitations, and tragic life events, was the stuff of heroes, movies, and myths. Not exactly for the everyday person like you and me.
Something shifted during this time and the idea of overcoming our limitations became a widespread, accepted possibility. It brought with it a great promise of personal growth and a clear step-by-step process for achieving wealth, happiness, success, and all the goodies of life.
It quickly exploded from a couple of books on a shelf in the back corner of the bookstore to a multi-billion dollar industry of books, programs, courses, audios, videos, coaches, schools and, eventually, entire radio and video channels.
In all this enthusiasm, however, there was a major issue that was overlooked. We were all quite naive about the depth and tenacity of our personal and cultural conditioning. And so, while we all took on the task of improving ourselves, some rather old and nasty assumptions still lingered deep in our unconscious minds. Despite our noble attempts to heal, we failed to realize even a fraction of the promise because our deep-seated beliefs began to resurface.
Guilt, self-blame, judgment, discouragement, and self-punishment reappeared with a vengeance.
Where did it come from in the first place?
When we were children, vulnerable and dependent, we took in and embodied everything our parents taught us, both directly and energetically. For the most part, we were all taught that there were things wrong with us that had to be fixed. We accepted this as truth and strove to meet those standards set before us. We did not have the capacity to discern whether or not our supposed flaws were simply what our parents, and the culture at large, found unacceptable. But the message was clear: we were fundamentally lacking and we needed to be improved.
Fast forward to our adult life, and doesn’t that sound a whole lot like the mantra of self-help?
This leads us to a question that begs to be answered. What if there was never anything wrong with us? What if those around us simply found us unacceptable? As Albert said in the opening quote, “Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it will believe itself stupid for the rest of its life.” What if he was onto something big? What if the standards by which we are judged are the problem?
So, let me say that again. What if there wasn’t then, and isn’t now, anything wrong with us? Can self-help fix something that isn’t broken? We could quite literally spend our entire lives looking for solutions to the flaws in us and never succeed, simply because there aren’t any.
When we try to fix the wrong problem, we can actually do more harm than good. In a study at Harvard a few years back, they tested the efficacy of positive affirmations. It turned out that if an individual already had high self-esteem, the affirmations gave them even more. But, if they did not have a healthy level of self-confidence, they were left feeling worse about themselves.
What, then, should we be doing to return ourselves to a state of wholeness? We should try the spiritual path. It takes a completely different approach because it starts from the assumption that there is nothing wrong with us. We are NOT broken. And it sets us on the path to discover who was there before all the conditioning and mistaken assumptions ever happened.
This is the journey within, the spiritual journey. Its premise is very simple: that we are quite alright just the way we are. Accepting that belief after a lifetime of hearing otherwise is a challenge. Nonetheless, that is exactly the challenge I am inviting you to do.