A Different Approach to Self-improvement

(By M.Fethullah GULEN...)

In our contemporary world, our self and our ego have become unbridled, insolent arrogant and inflated, as if the ego knows everything. This becomes apparent when we look at such phrases as "self-respect" and "I did." Developing one's personality, character, and abilites is necessary. However, if the achievement of such a goal involves the spoiling of the self, throwing an individual into the turbulence of ego, it is better to avoid such exercises, for adding this to the limited possibilities and abilities of one's self, when added to one's weak will-power, makes everything more difficult . Those who say "I" in everything they do put their ego at the center and take it as their essence. Thus, all accomplishments and good works only feed the ego. If such ego-centered and self-trusting people stumble and slip, they lose their hope and can find nothing on which they can hold, and so cannot stand up again.

Actually, without falling into such an abyss, individuals can be very productive. First of all, they have to trust the One Who created them. They just need to use the abilities that the Creator has given them, and then ascribe the resulting accomplishments not to themselves, but to the Owner of those abilities. They strongly believe that success comes from the Creator's, the most powerful, hand. They take this faith with them when they are walking toward the target, and after every accomplishment and bounty give thanks to the real Owner of Everything. Acting in such a way is like an invitation for their Creator to send other bounties.

When compared with those individuals who trust in their egos, those who trust in the Creator are more motivated and encounter less stress when accomplishing great tasks. Believers have the power, which comes from their inner faith and trust in the Source's power; they have the wealth, knowing that they are fed from the Creator's treasure of mercy and love; and they have the courage to challenge the whole world, yet remain devoted to the truth of "faith is the light and power, and the person who obtains real faith can challenge the whole world" and "there is no power except the power of the Creator." Both of these truths are the source of their power.

Certainly, if people place their trust in the One Who is Trustworthy and then strive to better themselves, acquire wisdom, fulfill their duties, and turn accomplishments into opportunities to give thanks to their Creator, they will achieve a very high level of performance and reach goals that those who trust only in themselves have never and can never reach. Every achievement causes such ego-less people to enter a new realm of thanksgiving and protects them from falling into the morass of the ego. They follow the same path as many others, but walk upon it without falling, or pursue the middle way of accepting the ego's defeat.

Reflections on Self-Improvement

(By Fatih Ferda...)

Introduction

Self-improvement is a mysterious expression, one that sounds impressive, like "human resources". It is both fashionable and modern. Many people are asking: "What is the aim of self-improvement: improving your self, starting a personal quest for peace, or adhering to the Qur'an's teachings and taking refuge in God?"

People do not try to improve themselves for the sake of improvement alone; improvement should be purposeful and in accord with our character. Given that there are many characters, there are many ways of improvement and perfection. Maybe the ways to the truth are as many as the heartbeats of creatures, a different recipe for everyone. One of them, at least for Muslims, is Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur collection.

Not everybody has been enchanted by self-improvement. In fact, some people are completely against it, for self-improvement has a deceptive side. For example, it gives you the feeling that you can do everything. It flatters the ego and makes you say: "Actually, if I tried a little harder, I would become an Einstein." Many people have become addicted to such books in order to improve themselves, such as the overweight couch potatoes who fall asleep with "Wake up the Giant in You" on their laps. We must beware of the addictive side of this prevalent understanding and self-improvement concept. Obviously, an understanding of improvement that is not all-embracing does not have much to offer.

Take Einstein, Edison, or any other successful person. Which one of them used a self-improvement book for success? Except for one or two, the only success that such writers have obtained is that of writing about success. Self-improvement, now so fashionable, also has a considerable commercial side. There is self-improvement in the essence of religion, but not as we currently understand it. Each member of humanity, who was created in "the best of shapes," strives to live on the levels of the heart and soul, away from the prison of the human ego. They try to improve their heart and mind within life and without excluding it. Our understanding of self-improvement is that people work to improve their material and spiritual sides in accordance and in balance with their characters.

Self-improvement is not always benign

Capitalism is successful because it assimilates and makes its opponents adapt, keeping them within the system. Nobody tells Muslims not to pray, but they are offered thousands of other choices. Muslims think that they will have no time for praying with other things to do. The West's strategies of control and assimilation do not depend upon oppression and deprivation, but upon making people believe that they are free or at liberty to transgress the limits set by God. In other words, westerners are trying to assimilate Muslims into western cultures - a "westernization of Muslims". At this point, we come across an incorrect understanding of Islam that is redefined into a dual worldview. This process results in Muslims becoming westernized, but also in the West becoming Islamized. If we Muslims remain ignorant of the dangers inherent in this process, and do not take due precautions or adhere to our faith clearly and properly, we face the danger of westernization.

The "New Age" movement

The so-called New Age movement is the harvesting of ancient far eastern cultures. The main reason it is attractive is western civilization's quest for some kind of a spiritual life, which it has neglected, and its presentation in a consumable form ... not a philosophy or a worldview, but just a strategy or an object of consumption.

In its most comprehensive meaning, New Age is the totality of systems covering every kind of knowledge (e.g., astrology and tarot), belief (e.g., Buddhism and Sufism), art figures (e.g., totems), physical exercise (e.g., yoga), spiritual experience (e.g., astral projection and meditation), and music (e.g., world music and Sufi music) about life's spiritual/metaphysical side. Western culture, which already has exploited and consumed the Third World's natural resources, is now exploiting its spiritual/cultural resources without fully understanding them, and thereby distorting them and spreading misconceptions.

At this point, such openings are no more than a passing interest. That is why Sufism, rather than Islam, is popular in the West. Within the West's consumption perspective, ideas and beliefs are just products in the supermarket. Buy whichever one you fancy and as much as you want, and then consume it. The capitalist West is open to any type of experience, just as long as it does not affect anyone's comfort level. Whether it is Buddhism or Sufism does not matter. If these people feel sure that Islam will not disturb their comfort, they will have no problem with it.

There are some grains of truth in the New Age and the self-improvement movements, such as emphasizing the significance of one's spiritual side. However, those beliefs that have some authenticity in their roots are being made into models for the New Age. At this point, the beliefs of various cultures are blended together and the end product is a culture without a base. Some grains of truth found in this culture can dazzle us and cause our viewpoint to go astray. In fact, the New Age is simply imposing on us the mistaken idea that we do not need religion to find happiness and peace in this world. New Age culture, which leaves the spiritual/metaphysical dimension to a gutted mysticism, highlights the importance of self-improvement when it comes to the physical dimension. Here, if we present the relation clearly, the New Age movement is blending these cultures in a self-improvement understanding unique to itself. Thus, the understanding of self-improvement being formed within this culture threatens Muslims.

Two different ways

There are two paths and two different ways of looking at events: philosophy and Prophethood. The path of philosophy says that self-improvement is possible by existing on one's own and for one's self, thereby adopting a Pharaoh-like attitude. Its followers say: "I exist for myself and am the owner of myself." They adopt an unwarranted degree of pride, but are easily scared by such news as a comet passing by the Earth. In the path of Prophethood, however, perfection and improvement are possible through the realization of one's impotence and helplessness and, as a result, the choice of God as the only Supporter. Its followers know that they are overwhelmed by reality and thus are impotent and that their faith, which causes them to rely totally on God, enables them to challenge the universe. The Creator, the universe, humanity, and society all have different approaches to social life. The resulting behavior, systems, lifestyles, and thoughts generated by these differences are also completely different. One of them yields a Tuba tree (Heaven); the other yields a Zaqqum tree (Hell). Philosophy says: "The ultimate goal of a person's perfection is to adhere to the Creator's position," while the Prophethood says: "The Almighty is the true owner of everything." Followers are aware of their impotence and thus rely totally upon God.

Common points and deceptive aspects

Representatives of these two paths have some points in common in their thoughts and lifestyles, rights and wrongs. Yet for the most part their presence can be misleading for us. When we consider the Prophetic saying of "He whose two days are equal (He who makes no progress) is in loss," we see the Divine perspective that regards the human as the most honorable creature. It sees each person as a being who comes from the mother's womb, proceeds toward the resurrection, and bears the responsibility that even the mountains would not accept. Thus, it instills great significance into human beings, as well as into other creatures.

On the other hand, many self-improvement books tell you to "grind the axe," an expression meaning that you should renew yourself. This expression seems to be quite parallel with your beliefs, and so you read the rest of the book eagerly, falling for that expression. You savor the pleasure of having your beliefs confirmed, of looking at life through a new paradigm. Meanwhile, a process of which you are unaware begins. As you read the book, incorrect ideas, along with a bit of truth, enter your mind, for it is wide open. More importantly, despite having something in common with what you already believe, that pleasant expression is based upon a different basis: that of philosophy, which says: "I am my own master; the world exists on its own." Thus it guides you to a one-sided, perhaps a capitalist, kind of improvement. Even if the principle set forth is the same, the examples, behaviors, and attitudes are totally different.

People should try to renew themselves. However, renewal has an ambigious meaning; it can be understood as a person's physical renewal of his or her image, or as the making of daily spiritual discoveries. When renewal is mentioned, one understanding is rediscovering beings and events every day, reading, setting sail to new horizons, and describing it accordingly. The other understanding is status, money, and reaching knowledge (but only knowledge that can be transformed into money), and is described accordingly. Those in the first category try to reach the target by using the power granted to them in return for their awareness of their impotence; those in the second category try to reach the target for themselves and by believing in themselves. Therefore, there are great differences between seemingly similar approaches.

If your ideas are not based upon a firm infrastructure, what you learn will be unsound and therefore damaging to your heart and soul. For example, both Buddhism and Islam talk about love and tolerance. But as they are fed from very different sources, they counsel tolerance for different reasons and so take you to different destinations. As we see: "There can be some grains of truth in every false cause." The presence of a minor truth should not make us believe so navely. Hence, we must know the difference between the path of philosophy and that of the Prophethood. If we have a proper understanding of the Creator and the universe, humanity and society, we will recognize the possible damage by filtering what we read and perceive. However, if we have not discovered ourselves and the true meaning of existence, we will be prone to the damaging influences of both eastern and western philosophy.

Holistic improvement and the perfect person

Our perspective is to take humanity as a whole and offer a balanced line of improvement. The worldview underlying this path is that the body and soul, matter and spirit, the physical world and the metaphysical world are so closely integrated that they cannot be separated from each other. We see the physical and metaphysical worlds not as mutually exclusive, but as two different faces of the same world. Thus, far from being irrelevant to each other, they have a mutual relationship. The West's dualistic Cartesian understanding divides the world into two and claims that each one has it own set of rules. Islam, however, proclaims that these two worlds (e.g., physics and metaphysics, body and soul, matter and spirit) are not separate; rather, they are closely integrated with each other. Thus, since there is no conflict between the rules of this world and the metaphysical world, for they complete each other, perfecting the human being means improving the individual's material and metaphysical aspects.

If you take the position that "matter and metaphysics are separate" as a starting point and educate people accordingly, certain problems inevitably arise, for the material and spiritual worlds are not separate. Rather, they are like two sides of the same coin. If we take them separately, as is the case in the West, we would conclude that "Divine books appeal to spirituality, but this world has different rules." Even if we do not say so openly, our behavior will reflect this. Unfortunately, we are slaves of Cartesian logic, of dualism. We face excesses, deficiencies, and false notions in our lives, for we make this discrimination without being aware of it.

The current understanding of self-perfection focuses only on the spiritual side of life, thereby undermining the material side. On the other hand, some self-improvement approaches consider only the material side. Focusing on only one aspect of a person's life means that such techniques are deficient; being based upon far-eastern religions and philosophies means that they are of no use to Muslims, for they are not rooted in Islam. Unfortunately, most of the time we fluctuate between excess and deficiency, thereby showing just how alienated we are from our values.

The Path of Truth

Islam is a religion for all humanity, its Prophet is the last Prophet, and the Qur'an is the final Divinely Revealed Book. Therefore, the Islamic perspective embraces all of humanity and considers all human faculties. Such a path teaches us the necessity of reviving our self-discipline, the spiritual soundness of the Sufi lodges and knowledge of the Islamic academy, as well as the necessity in recognizing the individual's mental, physical, and emotional dimensions. We must practice a balanced self-improvement, based upon the material and spiritual worlds, self-perfection, and our own values, for both worlds are related to each other, as are self-improvement and individual progress. Each of these two paths affects and completes the other and reflects each other's beauties.

Saving ourselves from dualism depends upon correcting our perspectives. We should pay attention to the relationship of the Creator-human-universe. Our principle should not be to abandon it; rather, it should be a principle like the staff of Moses, bringing out water from every rock that we strike. We must be active in every aspect of life in order to reveal our differences.

If one does not have this viewpoint, one of the two aspects is ignored. The person either develops only partially or in an undesirable way. We, the Prophet's community, are the real inheritors of Earth, for he said: "He whose two days are equal is in loss." Therefore we must improve ourselves. However, our understanding of self-improvement differs markedly from the one that is prevalent today. We do not accept today's understanding of self-improvement, for it ignores human nature and is based upon the Darwinian theory of "the survival of the fittest."

We understand improvement to mean educating ourselves in life and striving for individual perfection by working on our heart (and soul). We must become successful business people, scientists, teachers, and parents who possess an inner depth in their personal lives. The improvement of our material world and the perfection of our spiritual world must support one another. Improvement should lean on spiritual perfection, so that a positive transformation will take place. Our perspective is based upon improving our spiritual and material faculties by employing the principles of absolute impotence, absolute ardor, and absolute thanksgiving before the Lord. If we do not build up this understanding, we lean toward abuse and misguidance.

Conclusion

Given all of the above, different approaches must be seriously considered, and personal instead of generalized strategies must be devised. Hundreds of self-improvement books are available, but they deal only with one dimension of human life. Thus, those who are attracted to them have certain characters. If the individual is not considered as a whole, he or she will be condemned to remaining a half-person who will raise more half-people and work with other half-people.

The Pitfalls of Self-Improvement

(By Ahmet Ertugrul...)

NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), also known as brain-learning programming, is a very common self-improvement field. Self-improvement activities have become more widespread in recent years, and have resulted in an explosion of courses, seminars, and certificate programs for those who are interested. However, the whole arena of self-improvement contains information that only confuses and misinforms some people

.

NLP actually means neuro-language programming. This method, invented by Richard Bandler and John Grinder and based upon the principles of psychotherapy and rhetoric, has been developed further by experts in psychotherapy, psychology, anthropology, and the like.

Joseph Connor and Ian Mc Dermott, both NLP experts, provide the following information in their The Principles of NLP: "The word neuro is related to the mind and how we regulate our mental life. The word linguistic is about how we use language and how language affects us, and programming explains repeated patterns of behavior and the motives of our actions. In this respect, NLP studies relations; in other words, it is about our thoughts, conversations, and behavior, which connect us to other people, the world, and the spiritual dimension." (1)

Self-improvement techniques

According to NLP's principles, human behavior is purposeful. A person's body acts in accordance with his or her mind. NLP experts emphasize the importance of belief in our behavior and seek answers to various questions, most of which can be answered directly by religion. Even in NLP books, which contain useful and positive advice, the source of information is confined to philosophical or personal comments. Such subjects as anxiety, suspicion, fear, success, problem-solving, attitude, and behavior are evaluated subjectively. It could be said that people's wishes, demands, and objectives are, in a way, abused. The methods used to obtain success, as well as the basic principles laid out, sometimes can conflict with religious principles or even misguide or deceive people. Such expressions as "Your mind is a source of unlimited power" and "There is an unlimited source of power inside you" can be counted among these.

In addition, these books give advice on such subjects as "the power of praying" or "the benefits of belief in health" without any religious content or reference.(2) Actual religious belief or prayer is not part of these activities, for NLP is only a path to partial self-improvement. Self-improvement covers a wide range of activities, from the art of meeting people to living healthily, from nutrition to studying, and from happiness to the effective use of time. In self-improvement books, authors tell us about how they used to be failures without talent or success, and then how they obtained happiness with the help of these books. They quote those who attended the seminars. Such books as The Legend of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which traces Colonel Harlan Sanders' story, and those about Abraham Lincoln and other famous people, analyze their life stories.

In self-improvement books, experts make up their own numerical or symbolical theories, such as the rule of the 7As, the rule of the 5Ds, the rule of the 3 principles, the rule of the 8 abilities, the 5 keys to success, and so on. We do not claim that all of these books are completely futile, harmful, or devoid of any scientific value. A few good points can be found in any book. Like everything else, what really matters is the nature of these books as a whole. Furthermore, we also should mention that such practices as narrating fictional processes as real, correlating these processes with irrelevant issues, personalizing and nationalizing problems that emerged in different arenas and different circumstances, are in no way correct.

Another point to consider is that such books shift and direct the reader to another domain.

The propoganda of eastern beliefs through self-

improvement

Some self-improvement books present completely personal, philosophical, or subjective sources of information, along with a new danger as well. There are people who try to manipulate such books to their best advantage, as well as publishers, whose names recall Indian, Chinese, or other eastern cultures and who have used belief systems associated with Taoism, Buddhism, or Hinduism to do just that. In many western countries, especially America, meditation sessions are held in luxurious hotels. Proclamations are made that exercise relieves not only the body but also the soul, and therefore the seminar leaders recommend such sitting positions known in Buddhist teachings as sukhasana, siddhasana, or padmasaya.(3) Buddhist-based views are scattered throughout the presentation or disguised so as not to alert anybody, and then are offered as novel ideas and concepts to be heard for the first time. For instance, some books refer to common sense as buddhi and introduce suffering within the meaning of dukka. Even in an innocent-looking book which discusses "the power of now," a Buddhist doctrine correlating happiness to suffering, is imposed.(4)

Another important point to be made here is that Sufism, which offers the true secret of humanity's real peace and happiness, is identified with Buddhism and Hinduism, whereas Buddhist or Hindu attitudes and philosophies are presented as prescriptions. Some groups introduce the Dalai Lama of Tibet as the world's greatest spiritual leader and claim that Buddhist meditation is the only path to happiness. Many self-improvement books, which are widespread in this society, approach such basic concepts as soul, self, love, beauty, and eternity from Buddhist, Manichaean, Hindu, Taoist, and even Shamanist points of view. Such an approach confuses people who do not have a solid religious background.

Usually, ideas and superstitions that contradict Islam and other monotheistic religions appear in books containing Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist teachings, as well as those of the Dalai Lama, all of which are written to spread eastern belief systems. It is a pity that these works confuse people when it comes to God, the Prophets, angels, the Hereafter, death, and similar concepts. Some people think that these books emphasize spirituality as opposed to materialism, just as some movies do, based in the Christian mysticism of Europe's Middle Ages, with magic and myths, for these have points in common and parallel purposes with Asian creeds. Those who attend meditation sessions in fancy hotels attribute divinity to a man by prostrating before him, and fall for such non-monotheistic beliefs as reincarnation.

First, people were deprived of their spiritual needs, and then were deceived into believing that science and scientific concepts could satisfy all of their wants, in an attempt to replace these needs.

When all of this turned out to be a delusion, they were offered other delusions in the name of satisfying their souls and spiritual feelings. At all costs, they are kept away from Islam, which stands before all humanity as the sole alternative. The underlying purposes of such publications and activities, along with their desires and plans, is an attempt to take advantage of the deficiencies brought about by spiritual isolation. However, those beliefs or ideas that separate people from their Creator or deny the reality of their absolute dependence upon Him directly contradict human nature. Worldviews that burden people with loads that they are not meant to bear and cannot bear, by assuming that they can achieve everything, only deepen their unhappiness. By placing more demands and requirements upon them, they can never become truly happy. As in the past, such a function was given to science and people were deceived into believing that science would solve every problem. We face a similar phenomenon, one with the same purpose, today.

Conclusion

The unhappy people of today, while searching for the sources that will make them happy, pursue everything that is presented as a solution. On the other hand, some groups take advantage of the individuals' ignorance of the subject and expose those people who are looking for correct information to a flood of misinformation. Those who impose superstitious views and rituals, which claim to have everything that a person needs, reject all religious beliefs and presumptions. They keep on confusing "the lonely person" with ever-increasing greed.

Above all, the most important thing to do is to supply people with those moral and spiritual values that they so desperately need within the basic Islamic framework. Developing such studies and presenting them as an alternative search, and taking its logic and schematic structure from the right basics, will reinforce the people's self-confidence. Spending time with phony and misleading spiritual "treasures," instead of the real treasure within the base of our own house, gains us nothing.

Footnotes

1 Joseph O'Connor and Ian McDermott, The Principles of NLP, trans. Demet Uyar Ezerler

(Istanbul: Sistem Publ., 2001), xiii.

2 Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, trans. Sahin Cuceloglu (Istanbul: Sistem Publ., 1998).

3 Henry Brunel, La mathode du chat, trans. Birsel Uzam (Istanbul: Civiyazilari Publ., 2001), 105.

4 Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, trans. Semra Ayanba (Istanbul: Akasa Publ., 2001).

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