Friday, December 22, 2006

The real mystery is why anyone listens. Or buys.

Today we have another headline self-help feature from AOL that just cracks me up. It's called "How to Live in the Now," and it comes to us courtesy of the online community's "wellness coach," Loretta LaRoche. If you click through* to the actual feature, the main text reads, "Don't give the past power over your present. And don't let the future steal this moment from you. Every moment is 'the' moment." LaRoche reinforces that sentiment in a video presentation, which consumed a couple of my precious minutes.

I understand the motivation here. We all do. You're not supposed to let yourself "get stuck," paralyzed by regret, anxiety, and fear. But can you imagine if everyone literally took LaRoche at her word? If we all lived in this moment only, as if there were no preexisting obligations or future consequences to consider? You'd have chaos. The apocalypse would be upon us in a matter of a very few such "moments."

This is as good an example as I've seen of what I've been saying all along about self-help and its fundamental pointlessness. I'm sure that Ms. LaRoche would argue, "Well, of course you have to weigh things. I didn't mean you shouldn't consider any other circumstances." But see, as soon as you begin weighing things, the utility of the original advice breaks down. Completely. You're no longer "living in the moment"; you're living in the overall context of the moment. Which is just what she was trying to wean you off in the first place. So the whole thing is circular; a paradox. In self-help, the message must be extreme ("Live for the moment!"), or it loses its appeal as a rallying cry (and marketing hook). But you can't actually apply that message to life in its raw form; you must qualify it, append it with constraints and caveats. So it's functionally useless. It's no more a "program for daily living" than my saying "now go out today and be happy!" What does that mean in practice? Take drugs? ("Well, I didn't mean that kind of happy.") Kill that neighbor who's been annoying you? ("Come on now, your happiness shouldn't entail hurting others.") OK, so let's say I realize that I want a divorce. In order to be happier. Won't that hurt others? ("Well now, that's a different story...")

See what I mean?

LaRoche wraps up her short blather-fest with the following bit of whimsy, which I've heard dozens of times: "And try to remember: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That's why they call it the present!"

No, Loretta. That's why some of us call people like you simplistic buffoons.

* Some folks are reporting trouble with the link. My apologies. I guess this is such special content that you have to be a member to avail yourself of it. By the way, AOL membership is now free to anyone with an existing broadband connection. All you have to do is sign up. (Dial-up members pay some nominal fee for the connection service.)


RevRon's Rants said...

I think you really miss the point here, Steve. I can't see advising anyone to wipe their memory clean of any past events, or to act without regard for the future, but rather to base one's present perspective (and emotional state) upon what is going on at the moment, and not pollute today with yesterday's or tomorrow's frustrations, fears, or even hopes.

There's an old Buddhist story about a monk who, while being chased by a hungry tiger, runs off a cliff. As he plummets toward the rocks below, he spies a lone strawberry growing on the sheer wall. As he falls, he snatches the strawberry, eats it, and proclaims, "How delicious!"

His past was a certain death, as was his future. Yet, faced with these, he takes the moment to savor the taste of the delectable fruit, rather than bemoan either of the two fates which he faced or question the decision he had made. An exaggerated example, certainly, but no less pertinent for its exaggeration, and obviously, the most logical response.

Cosmic Connie said...

I couldn't follow the link you gave, so I'll just speculate that Loretta the Wellness Coach is riding the current of the Eckhart Tolle craze. Eckahart, author of the steady bestseller, "The Power of Now," is the darling of spiritual seekers everywhere.

There's a lot to be said for savoring the present moment, and I believe the Rev has just composed a much more eloquent response than I can manage in my own present moment.

In a literal sense, it is true that all we have is "now." I guess the trick is to take advantage of "now" without becoming so engulfed in it that we are unable to take action when needed.

I agree, however, that the Wellness Coach and others have a tendency to make even the most worthy ideas sound ludicrous.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, if I didn't know better, sometimes I'd swear you're a spy or subversive sent over from The Dark Side. :) You really seem to have it in for me lately. But that's OK. This blog is for all comers (except those whose online handles end in "--fessor").

I've heard your Buddhist parable before, and though of course I get the point, I've always thought that it presents a false lesson, and one that--again, in a way--goes to MY point about how you can't simply slice-and-dice these things to extrapolate ONLY the part of the story that serves your aims. So: Question: Is the type of person who would savor the strawberry--while he's in the clutches of the dilemma you describe--far more likely to BE in such a dilemma? In other words, if he weren't the kind of individual who's head is so much in the moment that he can divorce himself from the reality of his imminent death...would he have been more likely to plan ahead so that he didn't find himself facing imminent death in the first place? It's a valid question. Maybe a different kind of guy--who spent more time obsessing over all the risks in life--would've already exterminated all the tigers (and would be raking in a fortune from the ski lodges he built on all those cliffs). Then he could sit around and eat strawberries at his leisure, all day long.

RevRon's Rants said...

I wonder at the kind of life such an obsessive might lead, and whether it would be joyous, or merely "secure."

It is, in my opinion, pure conjecture to wonder whether the monk might have avoided the tiger and cliff, had he been more obsessive. Perhaps he would have never walked anywhere in the tiger's domain - subsequently denying himself the aesthetic rewards of time spent in the wild. Perhaps he would have avoided any area with high cliffs - subsequently missing out on some breathtaking vistas.

In the final analysis, we might as well ask ourselves, 'If grasshoppers carried .45s, would mockingbirds mess with them?" :-)

Just to reassure you, Steve, I don't "have it in for you" in any way. I resent the liberties taken by many of the hucksters in the self-help movement as much as - perhaps more than - you do. My anger arises from the damage that their playing fast & loose with common sense can do, by turning a lot of people off to some very real growth potential. For that reason, I have great respect for your efforts. What I do take exception to is what I perceive as your occasional tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water. I can understand that, given the preponderance of bad behavior on the "other side," it is tempting to paint one's dismissal with very broad strokes. I just think that it would serve you better to attempt to look past the hype and the hustler before dismissing the concepts they are pushing (even when they are pushing beyond the limits of common sense). Who knows... You might even find something hidden therein which you can feel good about!

Steve Salerno said...

Me? Feel good about something? God, that would be unbearable!

Anonymous said...

Eckhart Tolle's point is not to live "for the moment"--the carpe diem philosophy that you rightly note would plunge us all in chaos--but to live IN the moment--as Ram Dass put it for an earlier generation, to "be here now." Which is, in fact, all any of us can actually be!

Steve Salerno said...

Point taken. But I stand by my observation about RevRon's story, above. I'm not sure it's possible to truly live IN the moment without--at least to some degree--living FOR the moment. I am willing to entertain alternate viewpoints, of course.

RevRon's Rants said...

Try visualization... Imagine your most reviled hustledork widely exposed for the snake-oil salesman he/she is (or caught in flagrante delicto with an underage farm animal). Replay the scene from "Oh, God," where God tells the televangelist he'd be better qualified as a shoe salesman. Or even better... See yourself on a Larry King Show episode, laying waste to the inanities of the Secretrons. See... You're smiling already! :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

"I'm not sure it's possible to truly live IN the moment without--at least to some degree--living FOR the moment."

The monk did both, by focusing completely upon savoring the fruit.

But in response to your interpretation, are you sure that it's impossible? Or at least sure enough to dismiss the possibility that anyone else can do so? I've known people whose idea of "entertaining" other viewpoints meant paying them rudimentary lip service, rather than actively considering whether they might contain some validity, but I don't see you doing that. You just enjoy a friendly argument as much as I! :-)

Trish Ryan said...

I just had a conversation with a friend of mine who backs up your point perfectly, Steve. He was raised in a spiritual tradition that was all about this "live in the moment" stuff. Now he's 33 and realizes that he has no vision for his life, no goals, no professional or relational aspirations. He was always taught it was bad to live in the future, so he never dreamed or even thought about what he hoped his life might look like. As he said, it's kind of hard to build professional success without saying, at some point, "THIS is what I'd like to do someday."

Our hopes don't always pollute the present. Sometimes they shape it into some pretty helpful and exciting action.

Trish Ryan said...

As for the tiger/cliff/strawberry example - as I often find with Buddhist stories, that's not very inspiring, or even helpful. Put a different way, it's the same as the "last meal" served to convicts on death row. Do they enjoy the meal? Who knows. But most of us expend the effort not to commit capital crimes to avoid having to make the most of that last strawberry, and think it's effort well spent.

Steve Salerno said...

Trish, your two comments, taken together, perfectly illustrate my point--and bear in mind, I'm not contending that RevRon and the Buddhist types he invokes are "wrong"; I'm just saying it ain't that simple. Which, again, is my gripe with self-help's easy aphorisms as a class. There are way too many variables in life to reduce "enlightened living" to a handful of parables (or "12 steps," or "7 keys," or whatever). There's almost nothing in life--no event, no belief, no behavior--that you can look at in isolation. Everything has a (so-called) butterfly effect, where it either is a byproduct of something else, and/or will have a direct impact on something else, if you change that variable. This in turn will change the entire system--maybe in subtle ways, maybe in substantial ways, but always in meaningful ways. Hence my point about the monk and the strawberry, and yours, Trish, about the death-row inmate and his last meal. You can't start your analysis AT THAT FATEFUL MOMENT. You have to look at all the factors that led up to it, and the factors set in motion by it, and then reassess.

RevRon's Rants said...

Alternatively, one could just live the moment, and dissect it and all pertinent variables at their leisure somewhere down the road (if so inclined).

And it really is that simple, once you get past the need to make it complex.

RevRon's Rants said...

Trish, your friend is a good example of what I've been trying to convey - a need for balance. I never advocated a life spent without direction, but a life that is wholly guided by one's past experiences or future hopes/fears is not truly lived. And it's a pretty big stretch to equate the "presence" of a monk to the last meal of a criminal, don't you think?

Our hopes can and should help shape our future. My comments were directed at those whose hopes/fears literally fill their present, leaving little room for actually experiencing what that present has to offer.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, just so you know, I agree wholeheartedly with your oft-made point about balance. Which is why I'm so hard on self-help as an organized movement. Balance is a term that confounds definition, except in the most generic sense ("a little of this, a little of that, not too much of anything"). I defy anyone to make a mass-market self-help program--an actual, actionable PROGRAM--out of that. A program that is capable of communicating and implementing a notion of balance that is individually relevant to all comers.

RevRon's Rants said...

Self-help, like any other organized religion, can provide an individual with a baseline upon which to build an unique belief system / pattern of living. Some people need that baseline for guidance throughout their lives, while others find an underlying spirituality / wisdom with which to guide them in future decisions.

Also, like any other organized religion, there are those who view the "machine" as little more than a profit center, and encourage their followers' chronic dependence (moneychangers, in Christian parlance) in order to enrich themselves. Unfortunately, there will probably always be people who need to live their entire lives at the spiritual/emotional tit, and as long as there are such people, there will be hucksters who offer it, long after the milk has run dry (if their particular vessel was ever even full). The real challenge is to eliminate the money-changers without altogether eliminating the support system their customers crave. And that will be difficult to do, until common sense becomes an universally held quality.

Cosmic Connie said...

Actually, I don't often find parables inspiring or terribly useful, whether they're Buddhist or Christian or New Age. But I see the point Ron was trying to make, although I also think the monk was behaving kind of like a stoned person. (Recreational drugs can be a way of being "in the moment," though not a way I'd normally recommend.)

I think that most of us -- Buddhists, Christians, agnostics, cynics, or even Eckhart Tolle fans -- find it a challenge to truly "live in the moment" unless (1) our survival is at stake; or (2) our senses are pleasurably engaged in some way (e.g., good sex or a good meal). To put it in simplistic terms, I'm sure that has something to do with the way our brains are wired. (acd, weigh in here.)

In everyday life, we're very often on auto-pilot -- like Adam Sandler's character in the movie "Click" -- thinking about the past or the future but not necessarily appreciating or using the present moment to its fullest. I think we miss a lot that way, like Sandler’s character, who, thanks to a magical remote control, "clicked" away entire years of his life.

One of the presumed advantages of having a big brain is that we are able to think about the consequences of our actions, to plan for the future, and, theoretically anyway, to learn from our past screw-ups. Unfortunately, many of us expend way too much brain power worrying about the future or fretting about the past, while not doing anything about it. And that does "pollute" the present.

At any rate, I don’t think that the ability to "live in the now" in everyday life is necessarily contradictory to wise planning for the future. But damned if I've been able to find that balance so far.