Saturday, December 1, 2012

Self-Help Salvation

self-help books

You can buy happiness
For the low price of $19.95 you’ll get the self-help set
…and if you call now we’ll throw in the faith-healing cassette.
You won’t regret it, got a problem? You’ll soon forget it,
learn all of the secrets of living,
learn the art and science of forgiving,
win friends and influence people,
so effective, it’s barely legal
get anyone to do anything,
because how you do anything is how you do everything,
and everything is going to be OK!
co-dependence no more,
it’s a time to soar,
success galore,
because Redbull gives you wings!
the wings to be free,
to flee the monotony,
but honestly, what is the fee to all this happiness and glee?
what is the cost of a Redbull salvation,
when does independence become isolation,
self-help solutions for a collective ill,
use your ‘freewill’, jump on a treadmill,
pay the bill, try to run but you’re standing still,
take a pill, supercharge your will,
but ‘will’ falls short when we export our support,
to the shelves of a book store.
Learn 4 simple steps to build rapport,
fix it yourself, what are you, weak?
You just need to follow the sleek technique,
don’t become obsolete
take an omega 3, heart healthy treat
But the heart does so much more than just beat,
we don’t just work to eat,
we don’t just eat to excrete,
to become the excrement of wall-street,
one day when your fuel depletes, and you’re forced to retreat,
you’ll find you’re still incomplete,
when your self-help salvation leaves you empty,
but your bank statement says you have plenty,
let’s just hope our capacity to love
has not been washed away by the flood-waters of success

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What if Money didn't matter

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Ivan_Ilych_paintingR400The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy is a profoundly moving novella that takes the reader through the existential struggles of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia. Living a well regarded life in the public eye, he takes pleasure in his work and finds great success. When he is struck with a terminal illness, he begins to grow intensly bitter toward everyone he encounters, except his care-taker, a peasant named Gerasim – the only person who showed Ivan Ilych any sort of tenderness.

His wife, the doctors, and his co-workers, were too preoccupied with their own success to deeply care for him during his final days. His wife saw him as a means to an income (particularly the government money she hopes to receive after his death), The doctors related to him as a mere broken object, and his co-workers were preoccupied with who would get promoted when he vacates his position.

Ultimately, surrounded by these superficial relations on his deathbed, Ivan Illych comes to question the whole of his own life. Had he not been merely one of them all along? Now, facing his death, he came to realize that all the while he thought he was moving forward (toward greater success), but he was actually moving backward (toward lesser fulfillment).

This is a story about selling one’s soul to buy success. In the society depicted, success comes at a human-cost – the cost of meaningful human relations. This ultimately comes down to the sacrifice of a meaningful life worth living. As stated by Psychologist Mark Freeman in his 1997 publication in Cambridge Journal’s Ageing & Society:

Tolstoy's book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one's life.[1]

This psychological “connection to one’s life,” I argue, is necessarily a social connection to others. In a society devoid of loving human relations, all that is left is a disconnected individualism characterized by instrumental relations oriented toward personal success. See my post on personal-development for more on the problems with the personal-development genre.

Though ironically, it was the personal-development genre that brought me to read The Death of Ivan Ilych in the first place. After hearing a piece by Wayne Dyer (below), I was driven to promptly read Tolstoy’s book. Unexpectedly, after reading this book, I came to realize that Wayne Dyer severely cuts the book short by leaving out the most profoundly moving lessons. Rather than looking at the loveless social context or the hollow social definition of ‘success’, he blames Ivan Illych for his dying misery. Here is the clip (enjoy the shot of the intense cameraman lol):


Do Not Die With Your Music Still Inside You from Adrian Gilpin on Vimeo.

Was he merely obeying his wife, or was his definition of ‘success’ instilled in him by larger social forces? Can we blame any single actor in this web of superficial class ideals? Perhaps we cannot. Ivan Illych appeared to be living with his “music” all along, only to realize it was a sour tune when directly confronted with his mortality.

So how do we know that our sweet melody is not a sour discord? Perhaps we can only go forward with the awareness of Ivan Illych in his final hours. Contrary to what Wayne Dyer claims, Ivan Ilych’s last words are actually “What joy!”. He exclaims this statement when he overcomes his fear of death, his pain ceases, and he recognizes that instead of death, there is light.

After two more hours of apparent agony witnessed by those surrounding him, Ivan Ilych says to himself, “death is finished… it is no more!” He then draws his last breath, stretches out, and dies.

Living in a society devoid of loving relations – like Ivan Ilych’s – is itself death. This loveless society is ultimately a society devoid of deeply meaningful communal ties. A society devoid of communion is a society devoid of life.

In the last supper, Jesus ordained the bread and wine as symbols of his everlasting life. This became known as the Christian ritual of ‘communion’. To commune means to come together, giving ones life to a greater whole. The crucifixion is not the moment Jesus gave his life for us, as the story goes; he gave his life every single day, advocating for a cause outside himself: the cause of love in communion. I understand ‘love’, in the Christian sense (agape), as selfless offering of oneself, and ‘communion’ as common exchange. This “love in communion” may also be in line with Karl Marx’s vision of ideal human relations…. but this idea will be revisited in another post.

Ivan Ilych’s last encounter with his wife on his deathbed depicts failed communion. When she insists that he take the sacrament of communion from a priest – “since healthy people often do it” – he complies without seeing the purpose. Interacting with the priest, he begins to feel a slight warmth, and this restores a slight sense of hope in Ivan Ilych. But this hope is quickly extinguished when his wife returns to congratulate him after his communion. He recognizes that her concern is a veneer of falsehood, covering up the realities of both life and death.

Communion had lost its core reality: coming together. When love is absent, care becomes mere instrumentality – the rational manipulation of objects.

Perhaps living through a sweet melody means coming together with others and giving yourself to the music. This is not giving your life like the mere sense of Jesus’ crucifixion, but rather, in the life-affirming sense of the last supper. And since I’m particularly Catholic, let me take my version of a “literal interpretation” here. When we come together in communion, we are not individuals sharing mere food-substances for the sake of utility; we are offering our flesh and blood – the substances of life – and in this spirit, we build a life of meaning, together.


1.  MARK FREEMAN (1997). Death, Narrative Integrity, and the Radical Challenge of Self-Understanding: a Reading of Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych. Ageing and Society, 17, pp 373-398

Personal Development Beyond the ‘Personal’

CommunityThe personal development industry has enjoyed astounding growth throughout the 20th century.Fitness-trainers, motivational-speakers, spiritual gurus, and life-coaches have been popping up everywhere.

In the midst of this growing personal-development industry, I think we would do a profound disservice to ourselves if we neglect problems beyond the ‘personal’. In order to facilitate optimal ‘personal’ growth, we need to consider the ‘interpersonal’ realm. This means calling into question the values at the heart of the industry.

As a fitness trainer and academic social theorist, I stand with a foot on either side of the debate on whether one should invest in the American dream (attaining personal success through hard work), or whether one should remain critical of this capitalist industry that profits off of oppressive class, race, and gender ideals.

Preaching the ideals of both the fitness industry and critical sociology, I have struggled to make sense of how I am able to remain passionate about both, without betraying either one. I have only recently discovered what it is about personal development I have a problem with. Class, race, and gender ideals aside, I am deeply concerned with the high value the personal development genre places on individualism. I see this as a problem that can actually reverse ones ‘development’, creating a sense of disconnect and alienation from others. 

Meaningful relationships with others and a sense of community are a large part of personal development that should not be neglected. If taking your own success as a goal in itself is preventing you from having quality relationships with others, you should reconsider your focus.

This is largely why I found so much fulfillment teaching group-fitness classes – particularly aqua-fitness. This sense of contributing to a community of regular attendees motivated me to constantly strive to improve my ability to provide the best experience possible in my classes. My focus on improving the lives of others acted as a fuel for rapidly improvement of my own abilities. I can now say the same is drive fuels my teaching in social theory.

If your personal success is your goal, you are mistaking the means for end in itself. What this means is that your personal development should be a means to an end outside of yourself; for example, working every day to sharpen your individual skills so that you can contribute to a larger cause.

Although I see a narcissistic tendency in a great deal of personal development literature, I think the literature has a great deal to offer if it is approached with the awareness that deep fulfillment is only found when you seek your own improvement for the sake of the improvement of others. To forget this, you may find yourself at the top, but what is that position worth if you find yourself there alone? That is why I advocate for a view of ‘personal’ success that does not stop at the ‘personal’.

This is an introduction to future posts where I will explore this concept of ‘development’ further.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The “Secret” behind The Secret

clip_image001Recent motivational books like The Secret use obscure mystical concepts to explain common-sense advice. Here, I break down the main message of The Secret to reveal its practical message and explain why it shouldn’t be considered a spiritual text.

First off, the secret is that there is no secret. The main focus of the book, “law of attraction”, is simply the idea that giving attention to a goal will help you attain that goal. I don’t have a problem with its advice for personal success; what I have a problem with is calling it “spiritual”.

Personal success manuals should not be confused with spiritual texts. The former teaches you how to effectively get what you want (whatever it may be), while the latter teaches you how to live a life of deep fulfillment in relation to others, based on a concept of the common good.  

If you think this book is the absolute most profound book you’ve ever read, you should consider getting your dose of spiritual insight from a less narcissistic source. If you have a solid understanding of your ethical relations to others, or are already following a spiritual path of some sort, these ideas on personal development can help you maintain an effective outlook in your pursuits.

Here is the practical advice this book offers:

1) Intent – The ‘believe in order to achieve’ element in The Secret points to the importance of having a clear goal. Having a clear goal consists of visualizing exactly what you want to achieve.

This visualization is more than mere wishful thinking, since you must also be taking small daily actions toward achieving your goal. Developing a clear intent on what it is you want to achieve is absolutely necessary so that you do not get in the scattered habit of floundering between abstract goals.

Getting clear intent through imagining specific goals will put you ahead of the majority of people who are striving toward an abstract notion of ‘success’, without considering what the attainment of their success will look like.

“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything”
Napoleon Hill

2) Optimism – This element points to the importance of focusing on the positive. Being optimistic invokes the power of two mechanisms: the ‘reticular activation system’ (defined below), and the power of ‘hope’ (elaborated on below).

First off, lets consider this definition of “Optimism”:

Being optimistic is not ‘blind optimism’ which refuses to recognize anything negative. Optimism recognizes the negative/ risks, but primarily focuses on the positive elements/ expects success. Being optimistic can be defined as “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome (

Notice the two mechanisms in the above definition:

1) “…tendency to look on the more favorable side…”

This is the ‘reticular activation system’:

The ‘reticular activation system’ can be defined as a brain-mechanism responsible for selective attention. Have you ever bought a new car, just to realize you’re now seeing that same car everywhere? In the case of optimism, if your attention is on the positive, you will see more positive. This will increase your awareness of opportunities, allowing you to take positive steps forward, rather than getting stuck dwelling on the negatives.

2) “…expect the most favorable outcome…”

This is the power of hope:

A strong belief that you will achieve your goal, while remaining well-aware of the risks and difficulties, will provide the fuel to your endeavor.

Psychological studies on ‘learned helplessness’ state that without ‘hope’, both humans and animals are likely to give up and accept the afflictions of an adverse stimulus (see the work of Martin Seligman)

As Zig Ziglar says, “If there is hope in the future, there is power in the present.”

Intent and hope create an increased state of ‘resilience’ in an individual.
This ‘psychological resilience’ is the (not so) secret mystical power of The Secret.

In Conclusion, The Secret may offer important practical advice in terms of personal development, but should not be understood as a spiritual text.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Richard Dawkins on Christmas Traditions

article-1100842-02DBD4C4000005DC-5_233x423As tensions surrounding ‘Christmas’ rise (see Santa Monica’s Atheist Protests for an example), I would like to remind protesting Atheists that although the protests are valid and reasonable, we should rethink the importance of Christmas, rather than attempting to erase it.

One can maintain a strong stance against religious fundamentalism while engaging in the practice of local cultural traditions that originate from religious ritual; these two positions are supplementary rather than opposing.

Here is a classic news article on Richard Dawkins’ view of Christmas traditions. Rather then rejecting Christmas completely, I believe it is perfectly reasonable for atheists to engage in the practice of Christmas traditions.  Liz Todd writes the following in “Why I celebrate Christmas, by the world's most famous atheist”:


Scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins has admitted he does celebrate Christmas - and enjoys singing traditional Christmas carols each festive season.

The writer and evolutionary biologist told singer Jarvis Cocker that he happily wishes everyone a Merry Christmas - and used to have a tree when his daughter was younger.

Dawkins, one of the most famous atheists in the world, was interviewed by Sheffield born Cocker when he stepped in as a Christmas guest editor on Radio Four's Today programme.

'I am perfectly happy on Christmas day to say Merry Christmas to everybody,' Dawkins said. 'I might sing Christmas carols - once I was privileged to be invited to Kings College, Cambridge, for their Christmas carols and loved it.

'I actually love most of the genuine Christmas carols. I can't bear Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and you might think from that that I was religious, that I can't bear the ones that make no mention of religion. But I just think they are dreadful tunes and even more dreadful words. I like the traditional Christmas carols.'

Cocker, the former frontman for Britpop band Pulp, said he was also a fan of Christmas traditions.

'I am the same in a way,' he told Dawkins. 'I really like the kind of peripheral things about Christmas. I like the smell of tangerines and the smell of the tree and to pull crackers.'

Dawkins said his family had a typical Christmas celebration each year like so many others.

'We are not kill joys, we are not scrooges,' he said. 'We give each other presents and when my daughter was a bit younger we would have a tree. We don't now.

'We go to my sister's house for Christmas lunch which is a lovely big family occasion. Everybody thoroughly enjoys it. No church of course.

Dawkins, who pulled a cracker with Cocker on Tuesday's Today programme, said he drew the line at dressing up as Father Christmas.

And he said even as a child his questioning mind made him unpopular with other parents.

'My very first Christmas, maybe my second Christmas, there was a man called Sam who apparently dressed up as Father Christmas,' he said. 'All the children loved it, all completely fooled by Father Christmas being there.

'Eventually he said: 'Ho ho ho, it's time for me to go,' back to Greenland or wherever he comes from, so he left. Then I, the youngest of all of them, said: 'Sam's gone' and completely gave the game away to all the other children.'

Read more:


Also see my post titled: Stop Being Offended by Holidays!
As well as: Merry Christmas Atheists
And: Christmas is for Everyone