Spirituality, therapy, and self-help: Is it crack candy or the real thing?

Most people would never guess that I was a bible teacher in my 20s. Then, after discovering Buddhism in my 30s, I taught a class called Buddha and the Bible that explored the similarities between Jesus’ and Buddha’s teachings. I loved it; I’m wired for teaching and have felt connected to something bigger since I was a very young girl.

After I moved to San Francisco, I walked away from it all. I was trying to move up in the world, and anything that reeked of spirituality simply wasn’t cool. I learned the scorn with which the intellectual elite looked upon those who might believe in something beyond what we can see.

Deep in my subconscious, I agreed with them on one thing: that spirituality can be used as a crutch. And that most people who were using it as a crutch — including me — were never aware of it. Spirituality and religion lure the lonely, depressed and lost with the crack candy of immediate gratification: instant belonging, salvation and abundance that’s all freely yours for the taking — if you have enough faith.

Oh, your life didn’t change overnight? You’re still praying fervently and your bills are still piling up? You’ve been meditating for 15 years and are still wrestling with the same demons? Clearly you don’t have enough faith. Or in the case of meditation, “solving your problems isn’t the point.” So like a junky, you keep going back to what feels good because it appears to be the only salve for your pain.

It’s not.

Spirituality is medicine for the soul, not the mind or even the heart. Used improperly, it’s a bit like taking sexual-dysfunction meds for chronic migraines: it’s fun, feels good and distracts you from the problem, but it’s not going to do anything to solve it.

Used improperly, spirituality is like taking sexual-dysfunction meds for chronic migraines: it’s fun, feels good and distracts you from the problem, but it’s not going to do anything to solve it.

In my last post I wrote about the three levels of joy….what we can experience if we’re living from our heads, our hearts or our souls. This post builds on my observation that we can’t skip Level 2 on our way to 3; we can also use this mental model to understand why a lot of talk-based therapy and self-help programs can also be ineffective.

Traditional therapy often keeps us in our heads, analyzing problems. I spent a few decades spinning my wheels at this; as a consultant, analyzing is my job and I’m really good at it. How well did it help me move up the ladder? Like crack-candy spirituality, it felt good… but this mental masturbation didn’t accomplish anything. While talk therapy has been shown to work, it doesn’t work as often as medical literature would have you believe.

And don’t even get me started on the self-help movement! I was sucked into that too, back in my late 20s. Just as addictive as religion, a lot of self-help or “success” programs keep people coming back for more without addressing (and often reinforcing) the underlying root causes of what’s keeping them stuck. I could give more details, but I’ll just refer you to a great post by Mark Manson for more.

Is it an addiction or the real thing?

I’m not saying that spirituality, therapy and self-help should all be thrown into the rubbish bin. I am simply saying that they need to be used in their proper context, and that quality matters.

  • Beneficial coaching and therapy gets us out of the safety of our heads and into (sometimes scary) emotional territory at Level 2. We learn to release the hold of negative emotions stored in our bodies… learn to listen to our inner wisdom instead of a noisy world’s opinions… and gain clarity about who we are as individuals. This self-definition provides a stable foundation and counterbalance for the “identity-less” experiences one can have at Level 3.
  • Beneficial spirituality helps us replace a small, separate, fear-based view of life with one that’s more expansive, unified and love-based. It cannot solve problems like depression and anxiety; organized religion can even make them worse by encouraging self-denial and conformity.

Just like any other addictive substance, a personal-growth addiction can only be seen in its absence. If you have to shut yourself up in a monastery and pray constantly, lest you find yourself slipping back into fear, insecurity, old patterns, or turning to other addictive behaviors, then you skipped Level 2. If you can only accomplish things by psyching yourself into it, constantly plugged into the rah-rah, short-term, goal-oriented machine that is the popular self-help movement, then you’re still operating at a dopamine-fueled Level 1. I speak from personal experience on both of these counts!

Like a sugar high, crack-candy benefits are temporary. Doing the hard work, level by level, results in dependable emotional and spiritual health.

The answers you’re seeking lie within you. Look with skepticism on any program that gives a temporary high or a way to shortcut the process. Step back from “solutions” that don’t support development of a steady, grounded, peaceful existence in any life circumstance. There are no easy outs, no simple salvation, no magic elevator to take you to the top floor, no linear step-by-step program to achieve your goals if you don’t yet have clarity on why you are on this earth.

There are no shortcuts to joy.

The joy of the heart is earned by the courage to listen to your inner wisdom and define your own identity, even when the world would beat you into conformity. It’s earned by the courage to set aside logic and sight, and dive deeply into the murky waters of emotion to release the barriers that would hold you stuck. It’s the willingness to unclench your hands and discard baggage so you can climb higher.

The Joy of the soul is earned when one has done the hard work of stripping away everything that is not your Essence: to stand naked in spirit, in the unflinching knowledge that you love who you are, and bringing that self-love into the greater Love of the whole.

The layers work together and balance each other out: Individuality within Unity. Tangible within the intangible. Both/and, not either/or.

Dear reader, does this resonate with you? Are you relying on temporary dopamine-fueled uppers, or are you working towards an ever-present foundation of peace?

Image by drromie from Pixabay

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