Self Development? Bugger that for a lark!

hero-personal-growthOK – another Gonzo post, because I just want to get this off my chest. Hopefully my memory and writing skill will produce a lovely, cogent argument 🙂

A recent innovation that has crept into Paganism, esotericism and even the Anglican Church is the concept of ‘self-development’. This is nearly always meant in a personal sense, developing and improving our personal self and attributes and wot-not. This irks me. A lot.

The concept of self-development is modern – coming out of certain schools of psychology in the early-mid 20th century, like those developed by Adler, Jung and Maslow (from memory). Its proponents sometimes harken back to traditional methods of fasting, prayers, and exercise undertaken in various cultures for millennia. However, the linking is completely invalid as it ignores the key focus and purpose of the ancient exercises – religion, which is by-and-large considered as irrelevant, taboo, superstition or primitive psychology by personal development gurus.

Naturally I think they’re wrong. Regardless, the religious context and purpose means there is no link between these ancient methods and today’s modern culture of improving the self. This means it is a modern innovation and thus partakes of all the problems of modernity and contemporary western culture – it can be shallow, appealing to the negative self-image inculcated within us, commercially based and available only to the richer folk of the society, etc. Strike one.

The inclusion of self or personal development within religious and esoteric systems makes little sense to me at all, because a central truth of all religions (except the daft ones) is that we are all going to die. This means our ‘self’. And no matter how much ‘development’ that self has done, no matter how many EST courses we’ve taken, that self will still die.

Even those traditions that maintain a mysterious post-mortem resurrection of the personality focus on the ‘mysterious’. They do not attempt to discern what the resurrected ‘self’ will be. We cannot know if it will be our 3 month old ‘self’, our 18 year old ‘self’, our 45 year old ‘self’ (graduate of many PD courses) or our 75 year old ‘self’ with dementia or some other ‘self’.

We all come to naught in the end and, with or without self-development.


Of course the bleedin’ obvious counter to the truth above is that, “It’s about life NOW not after death”. Ho hum.

The trouble with this argument is the simple fact, from sheer common sense (and some studies I forget) that largely self-development DOES NOT WORK. Strike two.

I think I remember reading that 80% of self-development folk go back for more courses etc, even if they personally felt the first course did not work for them.

Think about it. The number of folk in the west who have participated in ‘self-development’ since the 1970s must be staggering by now. Has the overall enjoyment of life and the socio-economic improvements of life matched the growth of self-development in the west? No.

Of course, we cannot explain this to those who seem enamoured or addicted to this concept. Why? Because, well … I’m going to cut and paste from myself a few posts ago and change a few words:

imagesAll self-development systems are worthless in themselves. They lock us, often unconsciously, into a system of practice that feels good but ultimately produces no transformation. Most self-development systems are predicated on a two value premise and a ‘promise’ to move between the two: ourselves now, ourselves later (developed, healed, more in tune etc.) and the practices/adjustments or courses that move us between the two.

The danger in such a view is that it can become a closed loop. The person I ‘am’ now can never be the person I foresee at the ‘end’ of the process, since my definitions have already separated the ‘I’ now and ‘I’ desired. The gap between the two, while impossible for ‘me’ to bridge, is “self-development” and while I engage in that I have the sense of moving forward. Of course ‘I’ can never actually reach the goal, but simply having this mental structure and doing some practice I will experience the sense of moving ahead.

This is because of this eternal truth: the self cannot transform the self.


The Tree of LifeA key esoteric principle is that the full transformation of any aspect of the psyche or being requires the intervention and inclusion of a force or presence superior to that aspect. Think about your body. Left to its own devices, the body will simply go on until it dies, subject to the changes forced upon it by environment (diet etc). It will not change itself; develop a six-pack or a terrific bum for the beach. It takes our consciousness, our intervention to direct and change it.

It is the same with ‘the self’, and here I will mention a little Qabalah. Most of us function as bodies (Malkuth), Reactions (Yesod), Thoughts (Hod) and Feelings (Netzach), all directed by a mostly underdeveloped sense of self in Tiphareth – when we even think about who we ‘are’ at all.

If we have a reaction (Yesod) to Aboriginal folk (hey we’re in a racist society), that cannot really change unless we direct the reaction by thought (Hod), stemming its hold or explore it with emotional truth (Netzach). Even then it’s still likely to ‘pop up’ at some point.

And so to the other areas of ‘the self’ – our thoughts and methods of thought and our emotional apprehension can only be transformed by the consciousness of Tiphareth, our ‘self’. The ‘self’ itself however cannot be changed by self-reflecting. We need something ‘higher’ than the self to transform it.

In Qabalah this centralising state of consciousness, Tiphareth, looks ‘down’ towards the personal and ‘up’ towards the transpersonal. This shows the interrelation of the two, while recognising that the correct ‘upward’ view – the motivation and awareness of the individual – is required to embrace what is beyond us. That is, and here is the fucking rub:

The self cannot change itself for self-based reasons.

As soon as we want to change our selves for personal reasons we, by definition are working in the personal sphere. We therefore cannot access the transpersonal sphere required to change the self. This is not just me being cranky towards the New Age wankers out there; it is a description of the way things are. Self-change for self-based reasons can at best move the Lego-blocks around but cannot actually produce transformation. Strike three.


While it would be great to have functioning folk, moral folk, conscious folk within the esoteric, Pagan and magical communities, I do not feel ‘self-development’ is the way forward at all. It does not and cannot, work and can easily distract us from what we are really about and what really causes transformation – the mysteries (for want of a better word). Let’s have a look at this, since it is all there in traditional religious and esoteric methods.

Once upon a time, the esoteric or deeper aspects of a tradition were not normally bandied around for anyone to see and engage in. People had to be vetted or assessed in some way, and if their moral motivation was not of ‘the right view’ – see this post – they would not be invited in. These days things are a little different…

Of course, any decent religion or spiritual path recognises that we are all broken, that we all are motivated by ego and petty interior forces. To counter this brokenness and the ego-focus of ‘the natural man’ as St Paul would say, many spiritual systems teach us to adhere to moral codes and conduct based on how we would act if we were NOT subject to these petty interior forces. Traditionally these moral codes were often supported and enforced by the community. The classic and most wonderful example of this occurs at each Western church service:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Which when we think about it, blows our minds – loving our neighbour as fully as we love ourselves is like loving God!

Anyway, we of course FAIL at this all the time, every day. Every hour. No matter how many times we look in the mirror and repeat ‘every day in every way, I am getting better and better’, we will still fail at this one. Which is why the Service continues with an act of communal ‘confession’ where we acknowledge our own failings and generate a desire to go beyond them. This is also the function of solitary Confession within the Christian traditions, and a range of similar processes in Tibetan Buddhism. I am not sure of any equivalent within the Wicca or GD.

Symeon the New Theologian

This openness to our weaknesses, our real state of being is crucial because it allows the transpersonal blessings we encounter through participation within the mysteries to enter all of our beings, even the most unlovable and ‘evil’ aspects.

“…everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light”.

So it is the presence of the transpersonal, the divine forces, which enter us, even our secret places, that will cause actual transformation, as they/Him/it chooses and wishes, not as we, our ‘self’ chooses. And this the fundamental point: we are actually changed and transformed by that which is outside and ‘above’ unto service. Not because ‘we’ want to change or ‘we’ want anything.

And of course all the authentic traditions provide ongoing opportunities for the divine to enter us. We meditate and we pray.

The stakes are high for real prayer: You must gamble your self and be willing to lose. ~ Sufi Poet Mahmud Shabistari

As Christians we partake of the mystery of the body and blood of Christ – He enters us. In Tibetan Vajrayana we realise we are non-different to the deities and the realised guru. In Wicca we receive blessings from and can touch the Goddess as flesh and blood and enter the sweep of cycles beyond human ken. It is these moments that produce the real transformation in our lives.

Of course the transformation instigated and produced by our Sacred One(s) still has to be grounded and activated in our selves. Real life will give us plenty of scope for that; moments when we will be called upon to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. Change does not occur in church or in circle but in life; even ‘self-development’ teachers will say this. What they do not say, what they cannot say, is the actual cause and power for transformation of the self is beyond the self. THANKS 🙂



  1. Nick Farrell · January 7, 2015

    I developered a system of confession for a some types of ritual based on Crowley’s confession. You insert which ever godform you are working with. Some of it is pure Crowley but it is one of the things that I have got from him. In it you admit all the flaws of your personality but place them all under the shadow of the wings of the godform (in this case Helios)

    Kneel before the godform of Helios and say:
    I am a liar & a sorcerer
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am so fickle that I scorn the bridle.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am unchaste, voluptuous and idle.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a bully & a tyrant crass,
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am as dull & as stubborn as an ass;
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am untrusty, cruel & insane,
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a fool & frivolous & vain.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a weakling & a coward; I cringe,
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a glutton, a besotted wight;
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a satyr & a sodomite.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am as changeful & selfish as the Sea.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a thing of vice & vanity.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am violent & I vacillate,
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a blind man & esmasculate.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a raging fire of wrath no wiser!
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am a blackguard, spendthrift & a miser.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am obscene & devious & null.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am ungenerous & base & dull.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios
    I am not marked with the white Flame of Breath.
    I am under the shadow of the Wings of Helios.

    The effect of confessing things that you have not done is similar to invoking the 42 assessors, and remember you have committed many sins in your mind. But ultimately you are placing yourself under a higher power. You are releasing the darker sides of your personality so they can be worked with by higher godforms. From this you realise that even your flaws have a power and an important part of the process. They may never go away, but they are under the shadow of the wings of Helios.

  2. Michael Howard · January 7, 2015

    While agreeing that many forms of commercial ‘self development’ are promoted and designed today for people with ‘First World problems’ (e.g. the supermarket has run out of sun dried tomatoes and goat cheese again) but surely some form of SD has always been an important aspect of the esoteric path? Not to get a ‘six pack,’ (although we should do our best to have a healthy body and healthy mind where possible), but to improve character and personality and how we relate to others. Of course we are going to die eventually, but I was taught by my first occult teacher that incarnation on Earth was the ‘school of life’ where we learn lessons that help us attain spiritual maturity.. As a believer in reincarnation this makes sense to me. Therefore I would probably talk instead about ‘spiritual self development’ and how it is an important aspect of the Path leading to enlightenment.

  3. der Morgenstern · January 8, 2015

    Great post, that cleared a lot of things up for me.

    So my question then is, why the Golden Dawn? Why not straight-up religion?

    I think a system that has such a complicated technique, and grades, and regalia and whatnot is going to attract people who want to turn themselves into something fancy, not dissolve into God’s grace or act as his instrument while in service to the world. When something is the slightest bit intellectually challenging, it seems as if Americans who learn it act like they’re smarter than other people (our educational system is bad – the bar for “challenging” is consequently low) and therefore superior. If they also get some siddhis, it’s an ego clusterbleep.

    I tried to self-initiate into the rest of the GD system after I got demitted from temple, and I had a messiah complex for about a year. That was after I started getting into Enochian. Actually *using* the Calls (after starting to lose it while making all the furniture) finally got my head right I think – after I went through them a few times I realized some things. The scary part was that I could not see what I was turning into at the time at all.

    Intellectual vanity is the second-worst vice in the general ceremonialist scene behind trying to sleep with all the famous members (and no doubt tying short, curly hairs into a knotted cord for souvenir purposes). It’s very competitive in both cases. Magic in general also seems to open the door to a certain paranoid malevolence, since competitive people aren’t above throwing a psychic banana peel under the feet of a rival; you have to watch where you step and control your own impulses. If that’s the case, then what does the GD system offer that makes the risk worth it – something which plain religion lacks? Not saying I don’t love it, it just seems like trying to get to the opera by driving through the high-crime district.

  4. Cosette · January 8, 2015

    This is very considered. I’ve been thinking about this for some time. I’ve also noticed the trend of self-development in Paganism. Also, in the female blogosphere, I’ve noticed an increase in “heart-centered” or “soul-centered” business approaches and the use of esoteric tools such as tarot for personal development and business advancement and it’s all divorced from any sense of religion/spirituality; it’s all about the self. I go from being annoyed by it to shrugging it off as inevitable and harmless. I need to spend some time processing this further and may write about it on my blog ( at a later time.

  5. Peregrin · January 8, 2015

    HI Nick – thanks for this 🙂 I am sure the reincarnation of Uncle Al (all 100 of them!) spluttered in his tea when you released this 🙂

  6. Peregrin · January 8, 2015

    Hi Mike, thanks for the wise words 🙂 Just a quick question if I may. You write, “Therefore I would probably talk instead about ‘spiritual self development’ and how it is an important aspect of the Path leading to enlightenment.”

    Do traditional Witches have a concept of ‘enlightenment’? Is this similar to the Eastern (and now modern western) concept? Id traditional Witchcraft concerned with developing the Witch towards ‘enlightenment’? Very interesting … thanks 😉

  7. Peregrin · January 8, 2015

    Thanks, Cosette for your comments and link to your blog. I look forward to any posts on the matter 🙂

  8. Celtic Fire · January 11, 2015

    Nice posting. “The self cannot change itself for self-based reasons.” Great little mantram for future consideration. Thanks! I’m reminded of DF’s claim, “This is the Age of the Aquarian Grail, the highest spiritual teaching of which this Age is capable. It is the age of the Coming of the Cosmic Christ, not to any special Group or Church, but to the individual Spirit of man when he shall have attained to worthiness of it.” She was clearly not talking about the raft of self development pap available in her time, or indeed nowadays. From her wider writings and legacy I’d posit that she was referring to an altogether different thing from what passes as self development. She was referring to a level of spiritual regeneration – and one which comes about from hard work, service and persistent action over a period of time – rather than the outcomes from a couple of weekend workshops and some gentle New Age muzak.

  9. Pingback: Advice On Life Coaching | PABEARD

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