The modern self-help industry is churning out impressive content. I too like reading trending books on self-improvement – especially the bestsellers. I also consume a lot of video content on the topic. And I deeply respect all the self-help gurus I have come across, because I have learned something from every one of them. But I am also convinced of their limitations, and rely on ancient Indian wisdom for any internal revolution. Some of my reasons I explain in this article, hoping that towards the end you too will be convinced enough to give the ancient Indian wisdom a fair try.
1. Ancient Indian wisdom is more novel
With the invention of photography, portraits became obsolete. But subjects in photographs continued to pose with the same grim expression as subjects in portraits. Posing with a smile had been an ordeal with portraits, because of the long hours it took to paint one. With photography, however, things had changed. Yet, smiling expressions took hold only after decades.
Not just in photography, but also in every field of life, we are so busy imitating others that we are often blinded to better options that may be easily available. No use turning to modern self-help gurus for better alternatives, because they too advise us to imitate success stories (but of course, they also spice up this simple advice with cleverly-crafted-narratives and research findings).
Interestingly, even the wisdom of the ancient Indians consists of stories and parables that essentially coax one to imitate. These narratives, however, point to outlandish role models – people who belonged to a generation so remote, who thought so differently, who lived so differently, who had different values. And because they were different, they expose us to world-views and life-views that are novel to us; they often uncover simple-yet-revolutionary ideas that we easily miss out – while busy imitating the role models of our own times. One such idea was discovered by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.
Jung visited India in the early 1900s when the traditional East and the modernized West were centuries apart; so in one sense, he traveled back in time and visited the ancient Indian wisdom. One thing that he observed and appreciated in India was the practice of adding meditation rooms to homes. When he returned to Switzerland he incorporated this idea by adding a private office to the two-story retreat house he had been building there. Carl Jung went on to become one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. And the deep work that Jung did in his meditation-room-like private office “certainly played a key role in his accomplishments”, according to Cal Newport, the author of the bestselling book Deep Work.
The concept of meditation (or a meditation room) has become mainstream in the western world today, but was unpopular – was perhaps considered unscientific – during the time of Jung. Nonetheless, he embraced the idea, because for him it made perfect sense. We too, following in his footsteps, should be open enough to explore unpopular or “unscientific” ideas from ancient Indian wisdom, and if they make sense, be bold enough to try them out.
2. Ancient Indian wisdom is more responsible
On 27 March 1964, The New York Times ran an article that read, “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman…Not one person telephoned the police during the assault…” This murder story of the 28-year-old Kitty Genovese of New York City became a staple of psychology textbooks for decades. Psychologists were intrigued by the cold behavior of the onlookers and dubbed it “bystander problem”; they subsequently conducted a series of studies to try to understand it. Through their experiments they found that when people are in a group, responsibility for acting is diffused; they assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem isn’t really a problem.
The self-improvement industry today is plagued by the same “bystander problem”. Every person on the planet is stalked by Mr. Death, who will eventually stab everybody, sooner or later; nobody will be spared. And yet, no modern self-help guru seems to be seriously concerned. Is the responsibility of addressing this problem getting diffused? Or are they assuming that because no one else is discussing, the apparent problem isn’t really a problem?
Ancient Indian wisdom prioritizes discussion on death. This strategy works wonders even if you are uninterested in the afterlife, and just interested in making the most out of this life. When we are always conscious that we are going to die one day – that one day everything and everyone will be taken away from us forever – we deal with life with more maturity. Success won’t make us arrogant, because we know everything that we have gained will be taken away at death; and failure won’t make us depressed, because we know everything will be taken away at death anyway. We will value the relationships we have, because we know death can – at any moment – break them; and we will carry on despite the relationships that break, because we know death would have broken them anyways.
We should try out ancient Indian wisdom even though they sound pessimistic; they are far better than those who sound optimistic, those bystanders who won’t come forth to help us effectively deal with the really big problems like old age and death.
3. Ancient Indian wisdom is more authentic
In 2016, following the death of Kitty Genovese’s murderer, The New York Times ran another article. Referring back to the article of 1964 it said,“ While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety… two people did call the police.” The newspaper had finally admitted its mistake, in the wake of mounting evidence from recent investigations that questioned the claims made in the 1964 article.
(The “bystander problem” continues to be a valid concept in psychology. Though, ironically, its discovery was inspired by a sensationalized and flawed story.)
But why hadn’t The New York Times, a responsible newspaper, reproduced the events that led to the murder exactly as they had transpired? In 1964, when the murder story was published, a police reporter had discovered many inconsistencies in it. He asked its writer, New York Times journalist Martin Gansberg, why his article failed to reveal the details that were inconsistent. “It would have ruined the story,” Gansberg had replied.
Gansberg’s answer should worry us if we are sincere students of self-improvement. Because, sensationalism is the staple of not just newspapers, but also of today’s self-help industry. In both domains, it’s often the quality of the narrative – more than the authenticity of the content – that determines how many people it reaches. When the most reputed newspaper on the planet can trade truth for market gain, how can we be sure that self-help gurus of today – even the most reputed ones – won’t make such compromises?
Ancient Indian wisdom is above suspicion – for the most part – because the ancient Indians never commercialized wisdom. Gurus in those days shared knowledge for free, and for their maintenance they relied upon whatever charity their students gave them out of gratitude. Anything in excess if they received, they gave it away to the needy. They took vows of simple living, to make sure they never overindulged at the expense of their students. Even gurus of the royal order lived a simple life. An example of such an ideal guru was Chanakya, who lived in the 4th century BC.
Chanakya was the guru of the emperor Chandragupta Maurya. One late evening as Chanakya pored over the Vedas, a visitor – supposedly Chinese – arrived at his humble cottage. Before he began conversing with the guest Chanakya put off the oil lamp he had been using and lit another. “Why did you do that?” asked the guest. “The lamp that I turned off is lovingly given by the emperor to help me with my service as a teacher. I don’t use that facility for any other purpose,” replied Chanakya. “The lamp I turned on I have received in charity for my personal needs.”
The wisdom that comes from people of such stately character, there can be little doubt about its authenticity. We should definitely try out such wisdom, even if it’s sometimes packaged within a boring narrative.
4. Ancient Indian wisdom is more concise and precise
Before the invention of photography was the era of portraits. Portraits were rare even back then because a lot of skill and toil went behind painting them; even the rich usually could manage to have their images painted on just a few canvasses. And because portraits were rare, people posed with care, investing a lot of thought and attention into what they wore and how they looked. When the era of photography came, people grew less mindful and more carefree about their pose. They knew they could always take a second photograph if they didn’t like their looks in the first; producing a photograph was relatively cheaper and much easier. And with the advent of digital photography, people are now mindless and careless. They know they can effortlessly take a thousand more pics at no extra cost if they don’t like their looks in the first thousand.
This devolution from careful to carefree to careless can be seen not just in how people pose, but also in how people compose.
Before the invention of the printing press, writers were careful and paid full thought and attention to every piece they wrote, because putting across each word was laborious and time-consuming. In India, back then, gurus wrote on tree barks and palm leaves. Preparing this kind of “paper” was itself hard work, and then they had to etch each word out using a sharp “pen”. Obviously, they couldn’t spare time and energy to write any fluff. When the era of printing came in, writing and printing got easy, so writers got carefree, and fluff started pouring into the literary world. And now in the digital age, when self-help gurus sometimes dash-off as many as 20,000 words each day, more fluff than substance is occupying bookshelves and more so the internet. If we wage an internal revolution relying on information from modern self-help, decades of our life may go in just filtering out the right content.
Ancient wisdom is clearly the better option. Each word they say, they know what they are saying; they are concise and precise. And those that are still accessible have obviously survived the test of time, which proves all the more that they are invaluable. So it’s really worth trying them out.