Personal Growth and the Mystery of the Self

James Hollis on meaning and the self.

Posted Jan 16, 2018

The Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, has a poem rendered into English as “Disbelief in Yourself is Indispensable.” The poem inveighs against pride and respectability, extolling artistic expression and an attitude of humility above all else. Yevtushenko worries that self-satisfaction will blunt the edge of free expression, leading to truisms instead of truths, verse that is palliative instead of abrasive. “It takes real talent not to dread being terrified / by your own agonizing lack of talent,” he closes the first stanza. A real artist, it seems, would rather starve than create works that put a false sheen on reality: “hungry and cold--but free / from degrading belief in himself.”

sangoiri / Deposit Photos
Source: sangoiri / Deposit Photos

Is Yevtushenko correct to say that belief in oneself is degrading? These are odd words coming from a globe-trotting, highly successful poet, who did not burn all of his verse to keep warm by the fire. Perhaps Yevtushenko alludes to a certain dissatisfaction with the status quo, the longing for true excellence that drives artists closer to perfection. He seems wary that artists will paint pretty but ultimately unchallenging works, that spiritual struggle will be undermined by pat answers. The poet who believes in himself will be unable to grapple with the insignificance of any one human life.

I have recently been reading depth psychologist, James Hollis’ Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. It makes me feel incredibly old to be reading a book about middle age, but Hollis has wise insights about how to become more ourselves during this transition. To simplify, aging is inescapable, according to Hollis, but authenticity happens on purpose. At the same time, he rails against popular culture, especially the “soap salesmen” of religion and self-help, here quoting from Jung:

Once metaphysical ideas have lost their capacity to recall and evoke the original experience they have not only become useless but prove to be actual impediments on the road to wider development...The end result is...a false spirit of arrogance, hysteria, wooly-mindedness, criminal amorality, and doctrinaire fanaticism, a purveyor of shoddy spiritual goods, spurious art, philosophical stutterings, and Utopian humbug, fit only to be fed wholesale to the mass men of today.

I completely take the point that much popular thinking about self-development is exactly as shallow and self-serving as Jung believes, but it seems to me that one cannot simultaneously reject both traditional religions and philosophies and their New Age counterparts. We don’t create authentic selves out of whole cloth. All of us borrow from here and there, as bricoleurs in the Levi-Strauss sense. We make collages out of the materials that we have on hand, sometimes borrowing from childhood religious experiences, sometimes taking from a magazine article or some experience gained from travel or education. It seems to me that the authentic self, the psyche that Hollis seeks, doesn’t much care about whether it borrows from high culture or pop culture. It seeks a kind of freedom, irrespective of its source. 

We cannot absolutely separate the Jungian “mass men,” or what Heidegger called the “They self,” from the true or authentic psyche or soul. In real life, there is no complete separation of the interior life from the social self. It is all well and good to rail against pop culture, but we also have to provide viable alternatives. Hollis does a lot of that: he stresses the importance of paying attention to our dreams, of uncovering our true desires as distinct from the lingering projects that we inherited from our parents. He believes we must pay very careful attention to the projections that we impose onto the people in our lives, recognizing that reality is not necessarily what the ego wants us to believe. I see a lot of affinities in this book between Hollis’ Jungian approach and various branches of Indian philosophy, from Buddhism to Advaita Vedanta to Tantra. My only quibble is that it is much easier to criticize pop culture than it is to change it.

The real difficulty for spiritual practitioners, whether they are practicing depth psychology or mindfulness meditation, is to differentiate between the various different selves that inhabit each person. We all have assorted, sometimes conflicting impulses and drives: the hard part is determining what we really want as opposed to what stems from our cultural conditioning. That line will never be fully drawn, will always be written on water. Something that might seem shallow and facile could be every bit as valuable to the true Self (or Buddha nature, psyche, or whatever you want to call it) as some lofty piece of philosophy. We can be more or less intellectual, more or less introspective, more or less hard-working, but none of these simple differentiations will provide ready-made solutions. We need actual insight, and I think that depth psychology can be one such path to attaining it.

Above all, and I think Hollis would agree, we need to acknowledge that the work of growth is never done. What was satisfying and meaningful ten years ago will not necessarily be satisfying and meaningful today. Each one of us is a work in progress, an evolving, unfolding Self in search of its home. We can never really be done with our growth as human beings because our world is always changing. At the same time, we are always changing, finding new interests and enthusiasms, strengthening some priorities and weakening others. We have to continually do the hard work of introspection and self-observation so that we keep up-to-date with the changes occurring within. When we get out of sync with ourselves, clinging to outdated and misguided notions, we run into problems. 

I think that the other important thing to stress is that there is no such thing as something for nothing. This is where pop culture most often goes astray. The fact is that five-minute solutions rarely work: we have to be willing to put in the effort to see the changes that we want in our lives. At the same time, the five-minute solutions do sometimes successfully sneak past the censorship regime that the ego has in place. Sometimes, if I tell myself I am going to meditate for five minutes or write for five minutes, it actually ends up being much longer. If take the pop cultural solutions as starting points and not destinations, everything will be fine. These quick solutions can prime the pump for larger, more sustained efforts, so I wouldn’t want to discard them entirely.

By keeping an eye on the inner monologue and sorting overly critical and harsh voices from the good and helpful thoughts, we can better develop self-compassion while moving more steadily in the direction of our dreams. But we also have to keep dreaming new dreams and know when to let those childhood dreams go. We need to give ourselves permission to grow into the wisdom that we already have, somewhere deep inside. The task of perpetual growth is difficult and troubling, but it beats the alternative of the “unexamined life,” which leads to slavish devotion to habits and motivations we don’t even know we have. Even if we fail at the task of self-analysis, even if our drives remain largely unconscious, we can still become better people for having tried to lead more conscious lives.