Ear magnets and therapy 

How self-improvement becomes a trap

"If you throw out your neurosis, you throw out your wisdom."

-- Pema Chodron

My friend Jeff showed up last week with tiny magnets taped to his ears.

He'd been to an acupuncturist. After she'd turned him into a porcupine for a bit, she attached the magnets, which are supposed to curb his craving for sweets.

"I want one of those desserts," he told me over brunch at Watershed last Sunday. Then his fingers flew to the magnets. "Never mind. I don't really. I'll have the cinnamon toast. I think these things are working ... sort of."

A few weeks earlier, Jeff -- who goes to yoga classes four times a week -- had "detoxified" himself by fasting and consuming olive oil and cream or something. Jeff recently reduced his visits to his psychotherapist from twice to once a week.

He is a new friend, so I'm not sure what else he might be doing. He did tell me about some treatment where you are injected with herbs -- like the Colonel's chicken -- to melt away fat. But I'm not sure if he's actually tried that yet.

Jeff is witty, smart, successful, attractive ... and powerless over the culture of self-improvement. He's going on vacation in Provincetown, Mass., for three weeks. I told him he needs a vacation from all the self-help he does.

Don't get me wrong. I believe people should be free to do whatever they want to make themselves feel better. But the multibillion-dollar self-improvement industry seems to have turned our bodies and minds into capitalist projects. If you've seen Todd Haynes' masterful film Safe, you've seen a demonstration of the way preoccupation with self-improvement can end up making us less, not more, content with ourselves. The more we improve, the more improvement we want -- to the extent that we can end up isolating ourselves.

I undertook a theoretically oriented Ph.D. in psychology, after getting a clinically oriented master's degree, in part because I wanted to understand why the compulsion for self-improvement has become ubiquitous. Therapy, contrary to the intention of its founders like Freud and Jung, has ended up accommodating the notion that a person's happiness depends on making fundamental personality changes. Then, after years (or weeks) of therapy, when the client finds he hasn't changed so much, he becomes disillusioned, often moving onto a new therapist or self-help gig.

I was a bit worried when I suggested that Jeff take the initial workshop at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta last weekend. My fear was that he would approach it as another means of self-improvement. I've been meditating with sporadic regularity since the late 1980s and have long considered the Shambhala program one of the best things I've ever done for myself. But the value has not been to improve myself.

The goal of meditation is to "wake up" to one's true nature, and part of that is fully accepting who we are, as we are. You only have to sit a few moments on a meditation cushion to realize your mind is continually chattering and, as you gain enough skill to watch your own thoughts and feelings dispassionately, you come to realize that it's not your basic nature that causes problems. The problem is the ego's attachment to patterned narratives of thought. That's why the harder you try in therapy to overcome the past -- and the more you view yourself as a victim of that narrative -- the more you tend to adhere to it. You can't detach from a narrative you're intentionally and continuously ruminating.

Of course, it is no easy task and no brief one -- through meditation or therapy -- to accept ourselves as we are. Most people prefer nurturing the fantasy of a fundamental personality change that will happen if they just do enough self-improvement work. That is more appealing than befriending ourselves as we are. The reason is that behind the wish to change is fear of facing what really is problematic in our character, of what a negative or unwholesome nature may be given with our personal being.

Buddhism, thousands of years old, is light-years ahead of hundred-year-old psychology in addressing the need for self-acceptance of what we dislike about ourselves. Indeed, the Shambhala tradition has a lineage of masters who manifested what is called "crazy wisdom." Milarepa, who's among the most famous, was a murderer who attained "enlightenment." The founder of Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa, was an irascible, brilliant teacher who drank too much.

The most famous of Trungpa's students, Pema Chodron, always makes the point that our neuroses are inevitably connected to our wisdom. My own mentor, James Hillman, puts it this way: "The wound is the eye." When a psychotherapist does take the approach that a person must accept and take responsibility for what is genuinely problematic in his character -- his "shadow," in Jungian terms -- that is precisely the moment many clients exit therapy, often accusing the therapist of a lack of empathy. But they also deprive themselves of seeing the wisdom inside their craziness.

And, most of all, they deny themselves an astonishing paradox. By accepting what seems unhelpful in our character, we eventually liberate ourselves from its spell -- and the need for ear magnets.

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