The larger point is this: God knows we all need more help, but possibly we need less self. That has long been the political response to the self-help movement, and it is also, in a different sense, what Buddhists believe. Curiously, Buddhism is simultaneously a burgeoning influence on the Western self-help movement and entirely at odds with it: anti-self, and anti-help. It is anti-help insofar as it emphasizes radical self-acceptance and also insofar as it emphasizes remaining in the present. (Improvement, needless to say, requires you to focus on the future.) It is anti-self in that it treats thoughts as passing ephemera rather than as the valuable products of a distinct and consistent mind. The journalist Josh Rothman once wrote a lovely description of what a cloud really is: not an entity, as we perceive it, but just a region of space that’s cooler than the regions around it, so that water vapor entering it condenses from the cold, then evaporates again as it drifts back out. A cloud is no more a thing, Rothman concluded, than “the pool of light a flashlight makes as you shine it around a dark room.” And the self, the Buddhists would say, is no more a thing than a region of air with thoughts passing through.
This reminds me of something from one of Steve Hagen’s books:
“Everybody’s got problems,” said the Buddha. “In fact, we’ve all got eighty-three problems, each one of us. Eighty-three problems, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it — but if you do, another one will pop right into its place. For example, you’re going to lose your loved ones eventually. And you’re going to die some day. Now there’s a problem, and there’s nothing you, or I, or anyone else can do about it.”
The man became furious. “I thought you were a great teacher!” he shouted. “I thought you could help me! What good is your teaching, then?”
The Buddha said, “Well, maybe it will help you with the eighty-fourth problem.”
“The eighty-fourth problem?” said the man. “What’s the eighty-fourth problem?”
Said the Buddha, “You want to not have any problems.”