I have a literal closet of self-help.
The beauty of a new house is the insane amount of storage – closets you don’t even know what to do with. There is a hall closet outside my bedroom that is filled with books devoted to self improvement.
When I say “filled,” I mean it. The books on the top shelf the books used to stand neatly as they would on a regular bookshelf. But then the rows beneath got messier. Now when I find more and more boxes of self-help books in the basement, I just shove them in the closet and shut it really quick.
I cover a range of topics: marriage, meditation, finding your inner Buddha while simultaneously healing your gut with fermented foods. My favorites are highlighted and dog-eared, chock full of sticky notes with scribbled messages: “YES!” or “Huh?” or “I understand the what and the why, but I don’t understand the HOW.”
The thing is, you would think with all this study and guidance, that I would be a zen master. Or at least less of a neurotic, high strung head case. But no. I am still me.
Every time I walk by the closet I say to myself: I need to organize that closet. I bet there is even a book in there on how exactly to organize your closets. But I don’t want to go into the closet. There is a deep resistance, a little girl inside me who stamps her feet and says: “NO! I don’t want to do the closet!”
Because the closet makes me feel bad. The sight of all the books stacked and shoved in there produces an instant tightness in my chest, a heaviness. All the books I started and never finished, or bought and never looked at again. No wonder I am still a mess, I think. I haven’t worked hard enough. Is there a self-help book on people who buy self-help books but then resist reading them? I am tempted to Google it.
About 10 years ago I went on a yoga training in the Catskills with a famous yoga master. At one point the teacher called me up to the front of the group to engage in a discussion. I can’t remember what he asked me, but I said something like: “But this book says this, and that book says that.” He studied me in silence for what felt like an eternity and then said: “I think you need to burn your books.”
To which I replied: “Even your book?” He laughed at that. “Maybe just put mine away for a while,” he said.
I understood why he said this. I have read the books that tell you to stop reading the books. That the answer is within. That you are the one you are seeking. That what you are searching for is already inside you. This applies, I decided, to everyone but me. There’s no way there are any answers in there! I’ve looked!
About a month ago, when I was shoving yet another box into the Closet of
Shame Self Help, I noticed a random business sized envelope sitting on top of “Keeping the Love You Find.” The envelope was addressed to me, but in my own handwriting.
Ohhhhhhh. I remember what this is, I thought. A few years ago, on another writing/yoga retreat, the facilitator asked that we write a letter to ourselves, and then she would send it to us at a later date. I cringed at this exercise, just as I cringe when a yoga teacher makes me audio-record myself teaching, as the sound of my own voice makes me want to jump out of my own skin. In fact, I am pretty sure when the letter came in the mail years ago, I opened it, glanced at it, and then shoved it back in the envelope.
But it’s not often that you find a letter from yourself to yourself, so I sat down in the hallway and read it. This is what jumped out at me:
“….the missing ingredient for you, the shit that makes the pizza dough rise that you forget to include in your self-help recipe is COMPASSION. And love. For you. Because whether you choose to believe it or not, there is a lot to love.”
And then this:
“The thing is, do it for you. Phil will benefit, the girls will benefit, but you need to do it for you. Because you are a good person. Let me say that again and maybe it will sink in: You. Are. A. Good. Person. You deserve to feel good. And when you start to consistently allow yourself to feel good, the times you feel sad won’t feel as scary. I’m not sure how I know this, but I do. You won’t feel like you are dying or being consumed.”
At this point I am sitting in the hallway next to the Closet of Self Help and I am BAWLING.
I have never cried like that reading a self-help book.
I am not bashing the books. I read my first self help book at age 11 (it was called “I’m OK, You’re Ok”) and don’t plant on stopping anytime soon. I’ve even come out of the closet enough to read them in public, as evidenced by yesterday’s pre-swimming lesson text to my friend Steph:
But the older I get the more I realize the books can only take you so far. Because thinking can only take you so far. You can read a whole book about potatoes – how to grow them, harvest them, boil them, mash them, bake them, and turn them into french fries….but if you have never actually eaten a potato, none of this information is going to truly land. You need to actually taste the potato to know the potato.
My letter to myself did not tell me everything I needed to know about the potato. It said: “You ARE the potato.”
My point is, while the books are great to have, what if this letter is all I will ever need?
What if I am my own guru?