Questioner: Pranam Acharya Ji! I am working with home ministry, the government of India. My question is, there are hundreds of self-help books published every year telling us how to live in a better way. What makes Vedantic teachings distinct from those self-help books?
Acharya Prashant: Self-help books in general, want to help the self without investigating into what the self really is. So, in the name of self-help, what is usually advised is gratification of the self. The self is taken as a fundamental and unchangeable entity not to be questioned. And the entire purpose of the book then is to remove the obstacles in the path of gratification of that self that has been turned into a sacred entity.
So, the self has certain desires, and the book will tell you how to fulfill all your desires and dreams. And you'll say – “Yes, this is what I want and the book is telling me how to get that thing.” The book will never or rarely ask you – “What is it that you want? Where are your wants coming from? Are your desires even yours?” Now, these are tough questions; these are unsettling questions. People don't want to go into them because if you go into these questions, then your basic identity is challenged. Your very sense of existence is then interrogated. And we don't like that because it disturbs.
You see, our disposition is such that we would rather have false security than a true exploration of the Truth. Even if we know that we are living in false concepts, we would choose that falseness, because there is comfort in that. We are used to living in a false way for a long time. That central falseness itself is called as the ‘self’. Are you getting it? What else is ‘self’? In self-help, ‘self’ obviously cannot pertain to the Truth because the Truth does not require any help; ‘self’ surely pertains to the ‘Ego’. It is the ego that is always quite helpless and seeking support and help and stuff of all kinds.
So, this entity that you are seeking to help is actually not requiring help; it is in need of dissolution. Or you could say that the only way to help it is by calling out its falseness. Even if you want to help the Ego, you cannot help the Ego by furthering its desires or giving it hope that its dreamt way of life is indeed feasible and beneficial. That's not the way to help the Ego.
The way to help the Ego is to enable it to see the Truth, which practically means seeing its own falseness. That's a difficult thing to do and this thing pleases nobody. Since this approach pleases nobody or very few people, therefore, the self-help book won't really sell if it takes the right approach. But the author surely wants a bestseller, so, he would say those things that the people are, you know, more amenable to accept. And then, the book would be selling a million copies. Are you getting it?
Self-help is very-very far removed from all spirituality, obviously, including Vedanta. Vedanta explores the ‘I’ to dissolve it; whereas self-help in general extends and inflates the ‘I’ and tries to provide it a certain validation. You would have realized by now, that the process of self-help is fundamentally opposed to the spiritual process.
The spiritual process says – “What's the point in running after my desires if I do not know myself? If I do not know myself, then whose desires am I chasing? Are my desires even my own?” That's the approach of spirituality.
The approach of self-help, I'm repeating is – “I am sad because my desires have not met fulfillment. So, the way to help myself is to fulfill desires.” It's a dimensional difference.
Therefore, self-help pleases but not helps; it is not then self-help. That genre should be more correctly called ‘self-gratification’. And if you want self-gratification as we all do, then there are so many means and ways available – people entertain themselves; people drink; people move to narcotics; people go high on money, on power; people look for carnal pleasures. These are all ways in which we try to ‘help’ the self by fulfilling its desires. Unfortunately, these ways don't work.
So, self-help is attractive but not beneficial. It's great that you are juxtaposing Vedanta against self-help. Go to Vedanta. That's where you'll find rigorous self-inquiry. That's where you will find freedom from the sufferings of the self.