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Self-Love & Suicide In The Urban Village

t"Love yourself first and everything else falls into line."

Phrases like that were once part of my stock-in-trade. I was the co-founder of a successful retreat company in Sedona, Arizona, and each morning I would repeat my affirmations of self-love and abundance in the mirror, then drive to the office where I would instruct my clients --- all of whom were in some sort of personal crisis and wealthy enough to seek the solution in a place like Sedona --- to do the same.

Like almost everyone else in the New Age mecca of America, I saw self-love as a panacea for virtually every modern ill from depression and domestic violence to suicide, and felt certain I was on very solid ground to do so. After all, self-love is a staple of the $10 billion self-help industry in the United States; it's been touted by psychologists and educators as essential to personal well-being and professional success for more than 100 years; and my own life in Sedona seemed to confirm it. 

​Clients regularly wrote glowing reviews about how they had been working on their issues for years, and this retreat had finally been the big breakthrough they had always hoped for. But despite the reviews, quite a few of those clients came back two or three times over the years, sometimes in worse shape emotionally than they had been in the first time around. The grand insights we had given them about self-love turned out not to slay their dragons after all.

Is It New Age Or Old School?
Everyone knows the story of Narcissus, the handsome hunter from Greek mythology, who saw his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it, only to commit suicide when he realized this love could never be reciprocated. It was from this legend that Paul Näche coined the term narcissism in 1899, which the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ​(aka DSM-5, the primary reference source used by the American Psychiatric Association) now defines as a potential personality disorder, one of many that’s currently on the rise.

It turns out Sedona is certainly no stranger to suicide. After a string of highly publicized suicides in Oak Creek Canyon, authorities erected a high fence across Midgley Bridge in 2016 to stem the tide of jumpers. It was the suicides that got first got my attention, then experience of isolation during a period of bereavement, that caused me finally ask, if psychologists are promoting self-love as the ultimate path to wellness, while simultaneously labeling it as a mental disorder, what's really going on?

​The debate between those who think self-love is primary and those who think love is an outward emotion by definition, has actually been going on for a very long time. If there's anything new about our time it's that self-love seems to be winning on a global scale. Proponents insist this is because it's a superior philosophy. Critics suggest it's simply the mantra of Western capitalism, an modern "religion" that's devouring the planet with materialism as 7.5 billion people strive individually to be all they can be
Interestingly, the ascendancy of self-love in the modern era actually does coincide with the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). It was during this period that Franz Mesmer (1784-1815) was doing his early work in France with what was then called being mesmerized, but is now known as hypnosis; Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) provided North Americans with an eloquent literary tradition through popular essays like ''On Self-Reliance''; the "New Thought" movement developed around the teachings of Phineas Quimby (1802–66); and Helena Blavatski (1831-91) kicked off the New Age with a book titled The Secret Doctrine.
The basic tenets of “New Thought” were that  God is everywhere, whatever is real exists in spirit form, human selfhood is divine, divine mind is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind and can therefore be healed by the mind. Sound familiar?

The Rise of Self-Help.
By the 1920's the phrase ''Day by day in every way I am getting better and better,'' was proposed by French psychologist Émile Coué, and became a popular method of attempting to program the brain to think positively. Of course, it was only a matter of time before people started promoting other phrases as better and more effective.

Whether it was self-love or just self-absorption, it seems to have taken the lead for good right after World War II. Throughout the 50's and 60's psychologists like Eric Fromm and Abraham Maslow proposed a re-evaluation of self-love in a positive light, arguing that it can be seen as different from being vain or narcissistic, meaning instead to care about oneself and take responsibility for oneself.
We had just been though the horrors of war and invented the atomic bomb; now we were leaving the farms ruined by the Dust Bowl and moving into cities; and we were feeling a little stressed by it all. We were well on our way to becoming the modern consumers that we are today, and what the nation really wanted was a good self-help book.

Through the 70's and 80's the push was mostly become unique, self-actualized and enlightened. In the 90's the Internet exploded, and in the virtual world of selfies and social media that emerged, self-love was truly free to bloom with few restrictions. Gordon Gekko told us greed is good in the 1987 film Wall Street, and Rhonda Bryne gave us The Secret to manifesting anything we want in 2006.

Has It Worked?
Perhaps it’s time to ask what the result of all this self-love and positive thinking has been. Nowhere else on Earth is self-love promoted more vigorously than right here in the United States, yet when we're asked about our levels of happiness and satisfaction, the U.S. comes in at number 15 on the list of happiest countries.

Stepping from self-love into self-awareness, we find Donald Trump --- arguably a classic example of narcissistic personality disorder --- in the White House; news channels are selected to deliver whatever perspective we want; there's a nationwide opioid epidemic; the percentage of Americans using prescription anti-depressants has increased 100% and the suicide rate by 24% since the 1999; and mass shootings have become a common occurrence. The base emotional state in the dominant culture of North America seems to be anxiety.

Compare that to countries that made the top 10 happiest places, like Bhutan, Denmark, Sweden, France and Canada, where we find the highest levels of happiness and satisfaction in the world, and the cultural focus is more on loving and supporting each other rather than on self-actualization in a ruthlessly competitive free-market economy.

As I dug deeper into the question I was starting to wonder, what if self-love is like a heroin addiction --- it feels good in the beginning but leaves us more isolated in the end? What are the consequences if we've made happiness a social requirement? What if we’ve become a nation of self-help junkies addicted to love; and self-love has become so supreme it's the only love we can get?

The Airplane or the Raft?
Right about here proponents of self-love usually like to jump in with the airplane analogy. We all know that in the event of an emergency you have to place your own oxygen mask first before helping your child, which is often offered as an intellectual proof that we have to love ourselves first before helping others. I've even used the airplane analogy myself in the past.
But that analogy is about what's required to save both people, so it’s really a no-brainer. These days I think the true nature of love is better revealed by the life raft analogy: the Titanic just sank and there's one small piece of debris floating in the water. It's just large enough one person. Now what? Do you push your child up on to the raft, or save yourself?

Advocates of self-love typically complain this is an extreme scenario most people will never encounter, but I would suggest the life raft analogy is exactly where we are now as a species. The question before us at this moment in time seems to be this: are we willing to scale back on our quest for self-actualization, abundance and positive feelings in order make room for future generations, or do we push those children out into the darkness, climb on the raft and keep the party going?

The Definition of Love.
Dr. Sue Johnson, a leading expert on marriage and family relationships and author of the best-selling book "Hold Me Tight", has suggested the ability to bond by sacrificing our own self-interest (even to the point of death) has been so essential to our evolutionary development as a species, that we gave it a special word: LOVE.

From this perspective the real definition of love might be: an attribute humans appear to possess in greater measure than any other species, which is the ability to give the deepest part of ourselves to another in a completely selfless way for the purpose of mutual support and emotional bonding."

If that’s what it means to be human, then how many of us feel deeply bonded and fulfilled? Based on the annual sales revenue of the self-help industry and what I saw working with clients in Sedona, I’ve come to agree with Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise, A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, when he says, "We live in a human-centered world where almost everything has been wrought in our image, and yet there's never been a lonelier time to be alive."
In his book "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism," Buddhist philosopher Chögyam Trungpa notes: “This is the typical distortion of the Hinayana practice of self-contained meditation, self-enlightenment, and it is in some sense a form of aggression. There is no element of compassion and openness because one is so focused on one’s own experience."

It's true. I've seen it many times and experienced it myself. The strongest advocates for self-love will tend to be unavailable when a crisis hits. Why? Because they don't want anything to disturb their quest for inner peace, and therein lies the rub. At some point almost all of us are going to run headlong into an overwhelming crisis, and if everyone turns away at that moment, all the self-love in the world may not be enough. Our real village consists of the people who are there during the difficult times. The more we focus on self, the less resilient we are as a village. We must choose our friends wisely.
The new Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s bestselling novel from 2007, provides a powerful look into the consequences of isolation. Speaking in a voice from beyond the grave the central character, Hannah Baker, tells the story of her tormented life as a bullied and abused high school sophomore, a life that tragically ends in sexual assault, loneliness and suicide. What makes Hannah’s story so compelling is that it’s also the story of how badly self-absorbed people treat each other, and that makes it our story. Who killed Hannah Baker? I did. You did. We all did.

We Must Choose Our Teachers Wisely.
"You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection". This quote has been widely circulated on the Internet and attributed to Buddha, though Buddhist scholars have refuted that he ever said it, pointing out that Buddhism emphasizes loving kindness towards others, not towards self. In fact, virtually all of the world's major religions have made accommodations to self-love in the modern era, but it doesn't appear to have been part of them originally.

Christianity - Using "Love thy neighbor as thyself" requires us to ignore dozens of other verses that are far less ambiguous. In it's origins Christianity is all about loving others and self-sacrifice.

Buddhism - Asserts that self doesn't even exist (the concept of "Anatman" or no-self).

Hinduism - Asserts that the self does exist (the concept of "Atman") but the suffering that results for egotistical endeavors (samsara "wandering") can be overcome with sufficient lifetimes and perpetual bliss (nirvana "extinguished" or "blown out") may be attained.

Indigenous - Traditionally tribal people are all about the village and the group, and this is exactly what they have struggled to preserve in the modern era, with varying degrees of success.

It's completely accurate to say that self-love has become a catch all term for self-respect, self-awareness, self-discipline, self-care and self-acceptance. Those are all good things. There are no limits on how much self-awareness you should have. Going a little farther down the path of self-awareness every day always produces positive results. When advocates of self-love have to qualify their statements by adding "but not in a self-centered or narcissistic way", it's an explicit acknowledgement that there are very strict limits to how far down this path one should go.

When the hyphenated versions of self that have no limits are relabeled as self-love, and that message is then proclaimed everywhere in modern America from Wall Street to Rodeo Drive, something vital seems to get lost in the translation. Love of self American-style usually just says "I'm totally amazing by virtue of the fact that I exist, and I deserve anything I want."

The best teachers I've ever met tend to talk about the unlimited versions of self instead, and their language is riddled with unpopular words like consequence, humility, responsibility and sacrifice:

Self-respect says "I have as much right to be here as anyone else, and as much right to have my basic needs met. I can walk with my head up and I will not allow others to abuse me. If I cannot defend myself in the present, I will not remain silent about whatever abuses I suffer. I have a voice and deserve to be heard. My existence alone is proof these rights."

Self-awareness says, "I'm really good at this, not very good at that, and these are my core values. I use my body and my emotions as a truth detector, and I'm in touch enough with it to know when things are in alignment and when something is wrong."  Self-appraisal usually doesn't feel very good because it involves being honest with ourselves about our weaknesses, as well as how well we're living up to what we believe, but it definitely produces fruit!

Self-acceptance says, "It's OK if I'm not very good at that, unless it's something that I think is critically important, in which case I want to work on it." It also says it's OK for to feel all our feelings because that's part of what it means to be human. All emotions are necessary. Some feel good and some are painful, but none are negative.

Self-care says, "I respect my mind and body. As a human being I have physical and emotional needs that are universal among my species. I make an effort to make sure these physical and emotional needs are met in a healthy way by eating good food, exercising my body, being in balance with my habits and staying socially connected."

Self-discipline says, "I have the strength and courage to work on my weaknesses, and to live in harmony with my core values." It takes a certain amount of discomfort to induce change.  It's knowing our weaknesses, and the places in our life where we fall short, that causes us to develop the strength and courage to change. In this sense suffering is useful because it teaches us where we are out of balance.

One thing Buddha definitely did say is that the middle path is the best way. What does that look like when it comes to love? I think Gandhi got it right when he was asked by a friend if his reason for living in a village and serving the people there was purely humanitarian. Gandhi responded, "I am here to serve no one else but myself, to find my own self-realization through the service to these village folks." That's a sentiment in that's perfectly in line with indigenous perspectives on social obligation, and echoed in our time by the Dalai Lama himself. "Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life."

#selflove #lovingyourself #sedona #newagespirituality #psychologyofselflove #acourseinmiracles #acim #christianityandselflove #buddhismandselflove

This post first appeared on The Good Grief, please read the originial post: here

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Self-Love & Suicide In The Urban Village


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