Personal development: introduction

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’ – Oscar Wilde.

What is personal development?

This topic is inward-looking, concerning our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual (although labelling and defining this one is difficult) health and well-being. However, these things influence, and are influenced by external factors such as environment, information, community and work.

To be able to live low-impact lives, we have to be able to reach a certain level of personal development that’s very difficult in modern society. Is personal development subjective, or are there universal indicators, regardless of cultural background, age, ethnicity, gender, physical condition etc.? And can we really look at personal development just as individuals, separate from the effect of, and our effect on, nature, our community and other people? Let’s look at the four areas mentioned above:

Walking in nature is an all-rounder, helping to boost physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Physical

Physical development is about our bodies, but also the physical world and our interaction with it. Individual development is a bit pointless if our species is destroying the ecosystem of our home planet. So it’s about maximising physical health, but not the quantity of physical, material things we possess. We reject personal development as a means to make more money so that you can buy more or bigger things. This isn’t ‘development’, just materialism. However, for many in the world, personal development involves a struggle to obtain adequate food, water, shelter etc.

Mental

Mental development represents intellectual growth – the truth-seeking of philosophy, not just knowledge acquisition or training. Philosophy also encompasses ethics and critical thinking, tapping into a bank of human experience that includes socialisation and moral teachings.

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein (maybe)

Emotional

Human emotional well-being depends on co-operation with others in communities. We, along with all primates, are social animals – it’s not possible to develop as an island – only together with your fellow humans. It takes a ‘village’ to raise a child, but also to maintain emotionally-balanced adults.

Spiritual

Spiritual development will mean different things to different people, and isn’t really measurable. Life is ‘just a ride’, as the late Bill Hicks used to say, and apart from the fact that spirituality is the opposite of materialism, perhaps the best we can do is to come to peace with the fact that as humans, we can recognise it when we feel it, without being able to define it precisely or to ascertain any deeper purpose in life.

Maslow

It’s difficult to leave out Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) from an introduction to personal development. His famous ‘hierarchy of needs’ is shown here, with physical needs at the bottom and self-actualisation at the top. It’s not possible to achieve the higher levels without having secured the levels beneath.

Religion

The core messages of the main religions are not contradictory (although this isn’t necessarily reflected in the official organs of those religions). The Vedic Scriptures spoke of the Oneness of everything (which cutting-edge science appears to support), and the need to let go of ego to reunite with the Oneness. The major religious prophets focused on ways to do this – Taoism stressing harmony, balance with nature and the rest of existence; Buddhism, enlightenment; Christianity, love; and Islam, submission. Similarly, Quakers stress simplicity, truth, equality (of opportunity, rather than of unique talents) and peace.

All these teachings appear self-evidently beneficial (with the possible exception of ‘submission’ – but of course we all have to submit to death; we’re all going back to nature, to the Oneness), but the system that we live under negates these core religious messages and instead promotes the domination of nature, hedonism, competition and materialism.

What are the benefits of personal development?

Physical

The benefits of physical development are health (and therefore less stress on health services), resilience, greater capacity for physical work and for survival in case of disaster. Plus living with physical simplicity means a lower impact on nature.

Mental

Mental development means more critical thinking – crucial in identifying and dealing with the problems that are heading our way in a world in which nature is degrading so rapidly. It means an increased capacity for problem-solving, for onesself, one’s community and for humanity.

The ancient Vedic Sanskrit symbol for Brahman, the indefinable Oneness of the whole of existence.

Emotional

Emotional development can mean greater personal resilience in the face of stress, grief or suffering, and stronger bonds in community, with better relationships that can make conflict resolution easier, resulting in more peaceful communities, and ultimately, reducing the risk of war.

Spiritual

However you define it, spiritual development can promote non-materialism and inner and outer peace.

In combination, overall personal development can mean less depression and anxiety, more respect for ourselves and for each other, greater autonomy, more creativity, more cohesive communities and more diverse ecosystems. We can all contribute to an upward trajectory in which we can develop people, society and our species, so that we can move towards evolution rather than extinction or stagnation.

What can I do?

The basis of a low-impact humanity is individuals. It’s ultimately down to each of us to develop ourselves, in an ongoing process that lasts a lifetime. First, love yourself. This may be difficult if your self-esteem was damaged by childhood experiences. Therapy might help (in fact, it really can’t hurt – for anyone), including nature therapy.

Although yoga is often seen as physical exercise in the West (which it is), in its birthplace in India, as well as physical and mental (meditative) development, its principal aim is to help the human spirit to unite with the Oneness, the divine (the root of the word is the same as ‘yoke’ – to unite, to tie together).
Image: Dave Rosenblum, CC BY 2.0

By opposing the norms / rules of the current economic system, we can try to:

  • live in harmony with nature (when the norm is to consume as much as possible);
  • seek enlightenment / think philosophically (when education is becoming more vocational);
  • love and co-operate (when the norm is to compete, as individuals and nations);
  • explore spirituality (when the norm is to make money and be materialistic).

We’ll be healthiest if we live the kind of life that evolution prepared us for – with physical exercise, healthy food, plenty of rest, strong community, work that’s creative, useful and appreciated by our peers and connection to the natural world. We still have prehistoric bodies, minds and emotions, but we have to use them in a space-age society that they’re unprepared for.

Here are some things we might do in an attempt to develop physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, although of course all these aspects of personal development are intimately connected.

‘It’s just a ride.’

Physical

For the body, this means:

  • exercise: mix cardio, resistance and stretching for stamina, strength and suppleness;
  • diet: Michael Pollan’s advice is ‘eat food, not too much, mainly plants’; and if you make sure it’s fresh and mainly unprocessed, you’ll find it difficult not to get enough protein, fats, carbohydrates and vitamins (avoiding the need for expensive supplements);
  • fresh air, sleep and avoiding toxins in both food and surrounding environment;
  • some obvious ‘don’ts’ – smoking, drinking too much etc.

Your brain is part of your body, and looking after yourself physically benefits your mind (and your emotions) too.

It’s also about our effect on the physical world. We can live more simply by downshifting and living in harmony with nature. A very important part of personal development is bringing our individual ecological footprint to one planet or less.

Mental

Mental health is reliant on physical health, caring relationships and meaningful work. Mental development involves philosophy – reading, talking, thinking, learning – not just education to slot into the economic system. Studying political philosophy will help you understand the nature of democracy in the modern world.

Humans are social animals that need the myriad everyday social interactions that occur in a well-funcitioning community, for mental and emotional well-being.

Emotional

Here are some ideas for emotional development:

  • embed yourself in a community – emotional well-being is all about relationships, so deal with others with compassion and integrity;
  • reduce your exposure to media (including soc media) that invites you to compare yourself negatively to other people;
  • be compassionate with yourself, not angry – no self-flagellation for not doing well enough, which leads to depression and shame;
  • go for a walk in nature;
  • think of all the people who’ve loved you, liked you, respected you, helped you;
  • don’t accept any form of domination, and don’t try to dominate.

Spiritual

If you accept that life is ‘just a ride’ and that we have to submit in the end, there’s an argument that true spiritual development is about preparing for death – memento mori. When we look back, what will we think of our contribution? Does our work benefit our community and other people; is it in harmony with nature, or does it contribute to social and environmental damage? If so, the time to change is now. Don’t be afraid of failure – see it as a learning experience. You only live once (maybe).

Memento mori: many works of art contain reminders of our impending death, many of them hidden in plain sight, so that the sudden recognition shocks the viewer into understanding that we’re all going to die, so we should stop to consider our contribution to the world, whether we’re ordinary people, or vested with power like the subjects of this painting, Holbein’s the Ambassadors. You may notice a blurred shape in the foreground. If you approach the painting from the top right or bottom left (if it’s hung in a stairwell, for example), you see the image below.

System change

It can be argued (and we are arguing) that modern consumer capitalism has a negative effect on nature, on philosophy, on community and on spirituality. Nature is being eaten by our economy; philosophy has been superseded by economics; corporate branches suck wealth out of commmunities; and materialism is encouraged over spirituality. Every type of meaningful personal development is made more difficult by the current system.

Human well-being depends on system change. Psychiatrists ‘fix’ people damaged by the stress, alienation, bullying and lack of community caused by the economic system, only to throw them right back into the same system. Healers of all kinds perhaps have a duty to at least comment on our socio-economic system. It’s not enough just to ‘cope’ with it – to thrive, we’re going to need to change it. We think that ‘personal development’ should first focus on helping to create a sustainable world where everyone has access to the basics of life, before providing affluent people with expensive books and course programmes for professional development without challenging the status quo.


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