The best advice you can ever receive
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
So wrote Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall.”
There’s some primal urge in nature and mankind to tear down the barriers between us that keep us isolated and disconnected.
I’ll add to this adage with one of my own. It, too, expresses a primal yearning in the heart of man — though not a healthy one: Something there is that craves a master.
Remember the story of the Israelites who suffered under the tyranny of the Pharaohs in Egypt for generations?
They longed to be free. But shortly after they were freed by Moses, they learned the harsh lesson that freedom comes with responsibility.
Tired of wandering and starving in the wilderness, they griped to Moses,
“Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
“…nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom…
“No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’“
Make us secure and comfortable. Relieve us of all stress and frustration. Make our problems and pain disappear.
For this will we trade the most precious thing of all: freedom. Give us your mess of pottage; you can have our royal birthright.
John Adams put it plainly:
“The numbers of men in all ages have preferred ease, slumber, and good cheer to liberty, when they have been in competition. We must not then depend alone upon the love of liberty in the soul of man for its preservation.”
The masters who give us the illusion of freedom
I’m not talking about political freedom. I’m talking about the guru culture endemic to the personal development industry.
I’m talking about our hard-wired tendency to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars sitting at the feet of sages on the stage, the ones who seem to have life figured out, as evidenced by their personal power, persuasiveness, money, and accomplishments.
The ones who tell us, “You, too, can have what I have if you just do what I’ve done.”
The ones who promise us shortcuts to the secrets of a life of uninterrupted, limitless fulfillment and abundance.
I know what you’re thinking: Ironic coming from a person who doles out advice every week and puts out his shingle as a coach.
And it certainly can be. But hear me out.
Good mentors are vital to a purpose-driven life. I owe so much to my own. But not all of them are good.
A poor, self-serving mentor points us to his or her own answers for us. A wise and good mentor points us to the answers in our own heart.
A poor mentor makes us dependent on him or her. A good mentor makes us more empowered and free.
A poor mentor says, “Look at me and what I’ve accomplished. Don’t you want to be like me?” A good mentor says, “Look at you and how amazing you are. Are you ready to find and live as your best self?”
When with a poor mentor you think, “Wow, s/he is so amazing!” When with a good mentor you think, “Wow, I’m so amazing!”
A poor mentor is self-aggrandizing and is trying to “be somebody.” A good mentor is self-effacing and serves you.
But we’re so drawn to the larger-than-life personalities. We’re so swayed by material success, so impressed with money, so persuaded by power.
Strangely, we love the ones who preach down to us and point out our flaws and failings. We love the charismatic ones who create “tribes” of insiders who look down on outsiders, if only subconsciously. We love the sense of belonging and feeling of transmitted power.
Any why? Because something there is in our darkest, most fearful parts that craves a master.
All too often, we love personal development gurus because they tell us exactly how to think and what to do. They seem to give us the answers we crave. They save us the discomfort of thinking and acting for ourselves.
We’re drawn to personal development guru culture because it gives us the security of a master who tells us how to live our lives, while maintaining the illusion of freedom.
The best advice to find true freedom
I know this phenomenon very well, believe me. From painful experience I’ve learned this lesson:
The best advice any of us can ever receive is this: Stop listening to advice from other people and start listening to yourself.
Trust yourself. Go inside yourself. Analyze your motivations. Explore your longings and needs. Probe into your repeated shortcomings.
Walk into the darkness of your deepest fears and see what you find. Wade into the garbage of your most vile tendencies and see what diamonds of insight you can extract.
You have inside you all the answers you seek. As spiritual teacher Adyashanti says,
“The truth is that you already are what you are seeking.”
The body: where to start looking for answers
Finding answers inside ourselves is the point and promise of mindfulness. And the first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body and five senses.
Our body is constantly sending us messages. It tells us when we’re violating our values. It warns us when something seems off. It gives us “gut feelings” of paths to pursue. Tuning into our body is the first place to begin looking for answers within ourselves.
“Through connecting with our senses, we can truly begin to see into every aspect of our experience: our body, mind, emotions, behaviors, habits and relationships. And once we can perceive our habits and thoughts objectively we are no longer ruled by them; we no longer blindly follow or believe them. This new insight enables us to manage them and our behavior.”
The practice of mindful meditation trains us to see messages from our senses and to recognize what they’re telling us. It is the “how” of self-discovery and self-awareness.
Kill the Buddha, follow your own light
If we spend our lives bouncing from one charismatic guru to another, one personal development seminar to another without ever going inside ourselves, we will forever be alienated from ourselves.
Like a man grasping for an illusion in a dream, the true answers we seek will forever elude us. Like a well-fed slave, the true freedom, which we know is our heritage, will forever haunt us.
Anything anyone can teach us is what has worked for them. It’s wise to learn from as many people as possible. But ultimately, we have to find what works for us. At some point we have to stop listening to anyone else and go inside ourselves.
As the Buddha said, “Be a lamp unto yourself.”
Speaking of the Buddha. Frustrated with people looking for truth outside of themselves, the old Zen monk Rinzai sermonized:
“If on your way you meet the Buddha, kill him…O disciples of the truth, make an effort to free yourselves from every object…O you, with eyes of moles! I say to you: No Buddha, no teaching, no discipline! What are you ceaselessly looking for in your neighbor’s house? Don’t you understand that you are putting a head higher than your own? What then is lacking to you in yourselves? That which you have at this moment does not differ from that of which the Buddha is made.”
Personal development techniques and methods can be useful. Personal development gurus can be learned from.
But if we want to be truly free, the only method is to go inside ourselves. And the best guru with the most enlightened answers is ourselves.
You may be thinking, “The best guru is God, not ourselves.” Final thought: Connecting with our truest self is how we connect with God, and vice versa. It’s precisely by going inside ourselves that we find our true nature and our True Source.