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Ups And Downs Of Self-Help Books


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by Alyce Barry

There have traditionally been two approaches in self-help books: what in Shadow Work® we call the "uphill" and "downhill" approaches.

The uphill approach judges success by an external standard. It tells the reader, "Follow these rules that I offer, and you will succeed." Success is a golden ideal written, as it were, in the sky. In order to reach the ideal, you, the reader, must ignore the resistance that rises inside you. If that becomes difficult, the uphill approach urges, "Just push through! Just don't think about that! Just use will-power!" What keeps you going through the inevitable trials is your dream of doing it perfectly.

The downhill approach, on the other hand, judges success by an internal standard. It tells you, "Look within for your true self, and learn to live it." Success consists in becoming self-aware. In order to succeed, you must sometimes ignore what others think as you put your own truth first. If that becomes difficult, the downhill approach urges, "Listen to yourself, and follow your own path, wherever it may lead." What keeps you going through the inevitable trials is your belief in fulfilling your mission to grow, however imperfectly.

ALL IN A CYCLE

Neither approach is better. In fact, a mature growth process is a cycle that incorporates both approaches, beginning with an uphill phase.

Since I'm in the process of writing a self-help book (about Shadow Work®, as a matter of fact), I'll use that as an example.

To publish a book, a writer must aim for the standard of what qualifies as a publishable book. The writer must get words on paper and structure the book in a way that appeals to publishers and readers. The writer must be motivated by a belief that the book's concept can be realized in an ideal form. The writer must resist fear, impreciseness, avoidance, and other impediments to writing.

When the writer becomes aware of the manuscript's inevitable imperfections, there is an opportunity to shift to the downhill phase.

With that shift to downhill, the writer views those imperfections with understanding and compassion, recognizing that they make perfect sense given the writer's talents and perspective. The writer searches within his or her own heart to discover where the real passion lies. A new perspective emerges that reveals how better to capture that passion on paper. The writer views the first draft as a necessary learning experience, not as a mistake or a waste of time, because only by writing that first draft could the writer have reached the new perspective. The writer now has a new goal, and the cycle begins again.

STUCK IN UPHILL

What happens more often, however, is that the writer concludes that there was a right and a wrong way to do it, and this time it was done wrong. Thinking that there is a right and a wrong way is characteristic of the uphill phase. The writer decides that if the rules had only been followed better, the manuscript would have been a success — a decision that reflects the uphill phase instead of a shift to the downhill phase.

Many writers remain stuck in the uphill phase of the process, trying again and again for the same goal and believing there's something wrong with themselves for failing, rather than accepting a truth about themselves and then basing a new manuscript on that truth.

TWO COSMOLOGIES

This difference between uphill and downhill approaches also says a lot about the differences between Jungian psychology and mainstream culture. Jungian psychology is based on a fundamentally different cosmology.

Uphill cosmology, as held by mainstream culture, believes that human beings are subject to good and evil influences that struggle to dominate our will and actions.

Good influences include God, Scripture, angels, good spirits, and so on. Evil influences include the temptations of Satan, the Devil, evil spirits, etc.

Based on uphill cosmology, the task of human beings in this life is to block out the evil influences and allow only the good influences, so that our actions will be good.

Downhill cosmology, as held by Jungian psychology (as well as by some Native cultures), believes that human beings are alive because the Creator has given us the life energy. Life energy is not inherently good or evil, it simply is. How we use that energy determines whether our actions will be good or evil. This in turn depends on our psychological health, or wholeness.

When I act out of my wholeness, that is, acting consciously from what I like to call "my best self," my actions will tend to be good. When I act out of my shadow, that is, acting unconsciously from my woundedness, my actions will tend to be evil.

According to downhill cosmology, then, my task in this life is to heal the wounds inside me, so that I am acting out of my best self as much of the time as possible, and acting out of my shadow or woundedness as little of the time as possible.

THE FLAME AND THE GLASS

My favorite image for illustrating how we use our life energy to act in the world is the image of a flame burning inside a lamp.

The flame is what makes us alive and akin to every other being with a flame inside. The flame remains pure and perfect regardless of what happens to us during our lives.

The flame shines out through the glass of the lamp. That glass can and does take a beating as we go through life. The glass can be smudged, smeared, scratched, chipped, cracked, even shattered, by life events.

If you've ever looked at a flame through a cracked piece of glass, you will see that the crack appears dark. In the same way, the perfection of our inner flame may look like darkness to the world when our actions reflect the crack and not the flame itself.

Healing work like Shadow Work® can clean the glass, polish it, patch it, even melt it down and recast it, so that the flame can shine out in a way that reveals its Divinely-given beauty.

 
Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach, and a writer, in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in September 2006. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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