The problem with personal development

Consider this scenario: John and Jane are both on the same personal development course. They’re both buying into all the good stuff that says that they could fulfill more of their potential, that they deserve success, that nobody can make them feel mad, bad or sad, that limiting beliefs sometimes hold them back, that they could set more exciting goals, that some powerful affirmations could boost their self-esteem… in short that they are pretty darned amazingIMG_2771

At the end, does John turn to Jane and say: “You are truly amazing?” Unlikely. He’s too busy saying affirmations into the mirror such as: “I am truly marvellous.” (And good for him, because it’s true.) Of course Jane is just as amazing, in her own unique Jane-like way; why wouldn’t she be? But John would make a more valuable contribution to society if he realised it. And vice-versa.

Meanwhile it could be argued that Christianity emphasises putting other people ahead of oneself – through the spirit of charity and sacrifice and of obedience to an external power. But as Christianity slowly loses its influence on Western minds, the pendulum has now swung too far the other way – too many personal development teachings and far too many Life Coaches constantly emphasise the self and a sense of ‘entitlement’ to personal happiness; but with just a cursory glance at how your achievements may affect other people. Others are usually an afterthought and selfishness is both acceptable and inevitable.

Nichiren Buddhism sits squarely in the middle of these polar extremes, by teaching that true individual happiness is only achieved when you are both developing yourself and fighting for the happiness of others. Buddhists chant for all of Life to be fulfilled, this indestructible energy that flows through you and through me. Through the people we love, the people we don’t yet know and yes – though we don’t always like it – through people we hate. In short, the chanting of the mantra Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a ‘we’ prayer not just a ‘me’ prayer.

As the Lotus Sutra taught: “Buddhas wish to open the door of Buddha wisdom to all living beings… That is why they appear in the world. They wish to cause living beings to awaken to the Buddha wisdom, and therefore they appear in the world.”

[Photo by Tiffany Wright]

4 Replies to “The problem with personal development”

  1. Andy Leigh says:

    Speaking as a life coach – that’s a valuable lesson, David. Thank you. I’ve believed for a long time that an important component of fulfillment is generosity (of spirit – so having regard and respect for others, celebrating the achievement of others, appreciating and enjoying others, etc.) But it’s easy to forget when times are tough, and maybe in my coaching practice it’s something I should bring into the conversation more often than I do.

    1. Hi Andy
      Thank you for your comment and I am glad you found this post valuable. Sometimes I find that my clients can become happier not by getting more of what they think they want but by appreciating more of what they already have, for example by keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ for 21 days. all best, David

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