Deep reflections on oneself and self-improvement…
Even a quick glance at the self-help shelf in any bookstore will quickly reveal that the industry is booming and most of us seem to have a secret desire to ‘be a better person’. We look for that magic formula that enlightens us, hopefully the sooner the better. But is enlightenment, as we understand it, really attainable? If we had a better life, what would it be like? Would it be very different from our present life? Even more, what if we discovered that this ‘me’, which we are so hell-bent on improving, turned out not to really exist, to be a myth, an unreliable creation of our own brain? Can modern neuroscience shed any light on this topic, and if so, do you have to be an expert to understand it? If you’re confused, prepare to have many of your ideas challenged by Chris Niebauer’s thought-provoking book. The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left Brain Plays Endless Games of Self-Improvement.
Many self-help books are written from a New Age/Eastern mysticism perspective and, in a way, Niebauer’s book fits into this category. Niebauer is heavily influenced by both mid-20th century author Alan Watts and contemporary writer Eckhart Tolle. Watts wrote on a variety of Eastern religions, including Zen, Hinduism, and Taoism, and Tolle is heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, to describe the book as purely of this type would be highly misleading. Also, to describe The Neurotic’s Guide simply as a self-help book, it would be equally misleading. Certainly there are mental exercises and meditation techniques included that the reader may find to help them achieve a new state of mind and give them a new approach to life, but this is very much a theory/philosophy book that focuses on in challenging our standard ideas about ourselves and our lives. Niebauer is in fact “a university professor specializing in cognitive neuropsychology” (Preface) and the book has a strong neuroscience content. In essence, Niebauer is attempting to give Eastern mysticism a neuroscience framework, taking it from the world of pure ideas and giving it a solid scientific foundation.
As the reader may already be guessing, this is not really a book for beginners. Some understanding of both Eastern mysticism and psychology would be helpful. Niebauer’s ideas are unorthodox and very challenging, and require considerable thought. The first chapter, for example, can be difficult to understand, but Niebauer’s ideas become easier to appreciate if you stay with the book and read on. In the end, you may not agree with everything Niebauer says, but you have surely been forced to rethink much of what you believe about yourself and the world.
Despite the emphasis on theory, the book does not use technical terms or provide lengthy and in-depth scientific discussions. There are illustrative real-life examples of Niebauer and his family. These examples help make the text more personal and relatable to the average reader.
As the subtitle suggests, much of this book has to do with the left side of the brain. This is the hemisphere that is dominant, that is, it is more prominent in our thinking. Look for patterns and see the world in terms of categories. It divides the world into nouns, that is, stable ‘things’. This is all fine, except that much of the world is a process, meaning that things change, in fact they are often in considerable flux. Therefore, we tend to think of ourselves as a permanent “image”. We tell stories from our history that illustrate ‘who we are’, when in reality we are a changing entity. This idea is very much in agreement with narrative psychology (Dan P. McAdams. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self:__ New York: The Guilford Press, c1993). To take another example, we tend to see enlightenment as an achievable ‘thing’, a permanent state where our old self ends and a new one arrives. That is, we see enlightenment as the cessation of one stable thing and the beginning of another. As Niebauer points out, our left brain will never stop working, even if we become much more aware of our right brain, expanded and process-oriented awareness, therefore enlightenment is a continuous process of change, of seeing the world in a different way. new way.
Much of the book focuses on the discovery that, in the absence of hard data, the left brain confabulates, that is, concocts perfectly reasonable-sounding, yet false, explanations for why the world appears the way it does. That’s when we have little information, we see ‘patterns’ that don’t exist, at least not in the way we think they exist. This discovery comes from split-brain patients. These are people who, usually due to extreme epilepsy, have had their corpus callosum cut. The corpus callosum allows the left and right hemispheres to communicate. It doesn’t take much to recall a time when we have ‘jumped to conclusions’. At that moment we are sure of our ideas, but then we come to doubt because we find information in another way or because we see that we do not really have proof. The bottom line of these findings is, of course, that we should be much less sure of ourselves. This is an idea that Alan W. Watts proposed in his book The wisdom of insecurity (New York: Vintage Books, c1951).
Niebauer offers two main solutions to our problems in life. The first is that we are aware of life, observing ourselves and the things that happen to us, from a distance. This allows us to truly observe, instead of jumping to conclusions. It also allows us to distance ourselves from the emotional drama of our lives. We observe “I am upset,” but by the act of prolonged observation we are one step away from our uneasiness. This, of course, is what is known in Buddhism as mindfulness. Niebauer’s second solution is to approach life with a playful attitude. less seriously and we do not know for sure that our left brain wants to assure us that we have.
Of course, the preceding three paragraphs only touch on the topics discussed in Niebauer’s book, ranging from the specific and real about what can be done about anxiety, to the broader and more esoteric about what part of the self survives after anxiety. death. Although the book is not long, it contains a lot, and the reader may prefer to read only one chapter per day to give due consideration to the author.
One point of criticism is that all of Niebauer’s evidence comes from patients with brain damage and optical illusions. These are not circumstances in which the “normal” aspects of life apply. This leads us to ask ourselves to what extent these circumstances exist in ‘ordinary’ life. Not that we doubt what Niebauers says, but we do wonder how often the circumstances occur. How often, for example, do we jump to conclusions? Niebauer would say that we do this frequently, but it is so. A little more evidence on this point would be helpful. But even if we disagree with the frequency, Niebauer’s book is certainly a revelation.
The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment is certainly a book that will challenge most readers and give them much to think about. We all tend to be reasonably sure that we “know ourselves” and understand the world, but Chris Niebauer definitely makes us question how much we really do. Niebauer doubts that we can ever fully escape from ourselves and become ‘enlightened’ as we so desire, but he maintains that we can be more aware. If he is interested in Eastern philosophy, he will undoubtedly find this book different from most on the subject that he owns. If he is interested in learning more about how the brain works, he too will be intrigued by this volume. I am happy to rate this book four stars out of five.
McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self:__ New York, New York: The Guilford Press, c1993.
Niebauer, Chris. The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left Brain Plays Endless Games of Self-Improvement:__ Denver, CO: Outskiris Press, c2014.
Watts, Alan W. The wisdom of insecurity:__ New York, New York: Vintage Books, c1951.