Amongthe hubbub of office workers rushing around in theirlunch break in Melbourne's CBD the other day, a manwith a message wove his way through the crowd: "We'vegot Howard's sedition laws - next it'll be the thoughtlaws," he shouted, tapping his temples forcefully toget our attention. Having just seen the film Good Nightand Good Luck starring George Clooney about McCarthy-erajournalist Ed Morrow and the constraints placed on freedomof thought and speech at that time, it made me shudder.
Leaving political debate aside, the man's lunchtimerant and fear of the State taking Orwellian controlof our thought processes made me appreciate just whata wonderful gift we are blessed with in the power ofthought. Thankfully, no one can penetrate the depthsof our minds and we have a wonderful resource at ourdisposal, 24 hours a day, to think, to create, to learn,to dream, to visualise, to plan and to manifest whatwe want.
And yet how easy it is to sabotage our thinking andswitch our inner voice to the negative, focusing onour limitations, both perceived and real, on what wecan't do, what we haven't achieved, what we haven'tgot, on a poor self image and on futile comparisonswith others. Forget Big Brother, we need to police ourown thoughts and steer them back on course away fromsuch untruths!
I have found self help books (and by self help I meaneverything from popular psychology to the more esotericand New Age titles) to be a particularly valuable resourcein helping me not only to understand myself, but tonegotiate life's ups and downs and twists and turns.This kind of literature tends to stimulate enquiry andencourage us to question our values, thinking and behaviour,our speech patterns and even our postural habits. I wonder how many people have been inspired by a bookto change their life and embark on a journey of selfdiscovery?
We are all familiar with the incredible power and energyof positive affirmations, but sometimes we need to worka bit harder if we are to tackle that persistent innercritic and prosecutor - the part of us that sabotagesour efforts to change, to break habits, to build ourself belief. Reading the right book at the right timecan help us to see the truth about ourselves and oursituation, giving us insight into any destructive patternswe may be stuck in. Power plays and emotional dramasare held up to us like a mirror and we begin to seewhy we have invested in them and what we are doing bothto create and perpetuate them.
On a visit to the UK last year, I was disappointed anda little cross to read an article in The Times slatingself help books, belittling those who read them as gullible,lost individuals seduced by marketing hype and falsepromises. The author claimed that the very fact thata "self helper" reads not just one but several of thesebooks and keeps on reading them, shows they don't work. The same criticism is, of course, not meted out to areader of cookery books, thrillers or romantic novels! I would hazard a guess that the author has never reada popular psychology or self improvement title and isdeeply resistant to change. Maybe I should havesent him a gift of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway! Facingthe truth about ourselves can be painful and quite confrontingand often we choose not to acknowledge it, preferringto sort everyone else out instead. "Auntie Jeanshould get this book - she's a classic victim type,"we say leafing through The Celestine Prophecy in thebookshop and putting it firmly back on the shelf.
My first encounter with a self help book was back inthe '80s and it was my grandmother's copy of The Powerof Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale - "Youare not what you think you are, but what you think,you are." A great believer in prayer and positive talk,I thought of my grandmother when I bought my first book,You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. Driven by theneed to understand and treat digestive problems holistically,Louise Hay's book presented me with a whole new wayof thinking about the inter-connectedness of mind, bodyand spirit. It all made such sense! The realisationthat I had contributed to my health problems throughthe thoughts, actions and choices I had made up to thatpoint provided ample food for thought and stomach, thestomach of course being the seat of emotion.
From there I went on to read many, many more inspiringbooks, not because I was being exploited by marketinghype, but because I began to peel off layers and todiscover self truths. I began to be more open to ideas,to manifesting what I wanted, to energy work, to otherlike-minded people and I started to value experiences,both good and bad, as learning opportunities.
Quite effortlessly, and via the synchronisticgrapevine, I then started to be lent, given or directedto the book I most needed when I was ready for it. NowI not only had access to a wonderful Pandora's Box ofwisdom, but I began to share it with others and stilldo. I dread to think where I would be emotionally, physicallyand spiritually had I never got beyond Page One! PerhapsI would be blaming everyone and everything, clingingon to bad habits, getting bogged down in negative selftalk, saying "I can't, I won't, I ought, I should,I must - if only.............." I'd certainly neverhave jumped off my familiar and safe merry-go-roundand moved from the UK to Australia in a spirit of experimentationand adventure. "Life's a bitch," I might besaying, and worst of all, believing it to be true.
I am not for a minute claiming thatreading inspirational books is a cure-all for our problemsand challenges, but it can be an integral part of thejourney to truth, self-awareness and healing alongsideother therapies and treatments. I have created my ownjournal, a comforting place of emotional refuge, whereI stick in or copy down inspirational thoughts, sentencesand sayings. One such sentence comes from Women whoRun with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.She looks at the female soul through ancient myths,legends and fairy tales and inspires us all (male readerstoo!) to rediscover our wild, creative side in a modernworld that values sticking to rational facts and thesystem over emotional truth and intelligence. The sentenceis: "A career grows out of who we are; who we aredoes not grow out of a career." It may seem obviousto some of us now, but try telling that to someone whois pushing hard to get good exam grades and secure afoot on the first rung of the corporate ladder or stressingand striving their way up to managerial heights.
Jaded by going through the motionsof a marketing job a few years ago, a friend insistedit was time (she had been recommending it for a while)that I bought myself a copy of The Artist's Way by JuliaCameron. Julia guides you through a 12 week spiritualjourney to rediscover your creativity and deals withall the issues that get in the way such as guilt, selfsabotage, judgement, anger, money, risk taking, rejection,time and lack of it. Exhorting readers to leap becausethe net will surely appear, she encourages you to connectwith your natural God-given creativity. I found it arichly rewarding process and shortly afterwards wenton to read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.Natalie describes writing as "a place that youcan come to wild and unbridled, mixig the dream of yourgrandmother's soup with the astounding clouds outsideyour window." What wonderful words - how couldI resist picking up my pen and starting on my firstnovel!
Preparing to leave the UK and moveto Australia was the biggest leap of faith I have evertaken and it was not one taken without fear. Once again,guidance came in the form of a borrowed book. The TibetanBook of the Living and the Dying is one of those seminalworks that you can dip into again and again and learnsomething new.
I found the passages on the passingof time, accepting change andletting go of the pastincredibly helpful as I prepared to say goodbye to away of life and to separate myself geographically fromfriends and relatives.
One of the criticisms often levelledat self help literature is that it is a poor modernday substitute for those with a spiritual quest, fillingthe vacuum left by the decline in conventional religion.I have found the opposite to be true as some of thesebooks have reconnected me to the sacred and re-awakeneda sense of awe at the wondrousness of life and the naturalworld. In The Anatomy of the Spirit, Carolyn Myss, intuitivemedic, looks at the body's energy system in relationto the ancient wisdom of three spiritual traditions- the Hindu chakras, the Christian sacraments and theKabbalah's Tree of Life. Many other self help booksdraw on wisdom and parables from the Bible. What couldring truer than "Love thy neighbour as thy self?"
If we cannot accept and love ourselvesas we are and if we end up giving credence to falseperceptions, we run the risk of running round in circlesof illness, depression, angst and general discontent.When I find myself in a tail-chasing, stressy, striving,self critical, swimming against the tide kind of phaseI remind myself of another Clara Pinkola Estésgem: "All that you are seeking is also seekingyou. And if you lie, sit still, it will find you."At such times, I also find it reassuring to know thatI am not alone, that getting it "wrong" ispart of the learning process and part of being human.Sarah Ban Breathnach tells us in Simple
Abundance, to be kinder to ourselves,more forgiving. Like unwrapping a square of the mostexquisite chocolate and savouring it, I find her book,set out with a mini-essay for each day of the year,wonderfully nourishing and reassuring with its mix ofspiritual, domestic and seasonal wisdom. It's a bookthat inspires gratitude for simply being alive.
My older brother, Charlie, who livesin Devon and is babysitting my well-thumbed copy, proudlytold me he had read it in one sitting. Sorry, but Ididn't award him a gold star or medal for effort!
Instead, I recommended that he sloweddown and pondered over the entry for each day. Likemastering any new skill, reading and learning essentialtruths about ourselves and about the vast complexitiesof life and death takes time, and it needs to be a gradual,measured and selective process. It's tempting to wantto learn it all overnight, fix it and get it right.
Perhaps that pile of self help bookson your bedside table stares accusingly at you as youignore it in favour of doing the chores, watching televisionor endlessly being busy. It can beyet another thingto fit in and juggle in our busy lives.
But the truth is that we have a lifetimeto learn our lessons - Barbara Sher's book, I CouldDo Anything If Only I Knew What It Was sets an interestingtimeline as an exercise. You plot out what you've doneso far in your life and then, based on living a longand healthy life, what you would like to do in the future.It opens up huge opportunities and possibilities andhelps you to appreciate how much time you have to doit all.
For example, you may decide to focuson yoga this year, perhaps Pilates next year, you mightdecide to do that road trip in five years' time, maybegospel singing and photography when you're 55, SouthAmerica when you're 60 or even 70! In themeantime, aimto live in the moment and to thine own self be true!
Suggested Reading List:
The Power of Positive Thinking byNorman Vincent Peale - Simon & Schuster
You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay - Hay House
Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers - VermillionBooks (Random House)
Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés- Rider Books
The Tibetan Book of the Living and the Dying by SogyalRinpoche - Rider Books
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron - Pan Books
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg - Shambhala
Simple Abundance by Saran Ban Breathnach - Hodder
I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was by BarbaraSher - Hodder
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield - Bantam Publishers